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<   No. 3304   2013-11-03   >

Comic #3304

1 {photo of a table full of second hand books}
1 Caption: A bite of imagery

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33/365 Steamy Fiction
These books are not literally emitting hot water vapour.
This will be a brief one today, because I have a very busy week ahead of me as I start writing. This time of year is always ridiculously busy for me, because of the annual cycle of projects at my work. I'm currently in the middle of writing a patent, a conference paper, and annual project reports, as well as administrative documents setting up projects for next year.

Which is a lot of writing. Now while I enjoy writing, I enjoy it more when it's about whatever I want to write about and at my leisure rather than dictated by circumstance and to a strict deadline. Which brings me to the annual event known as NaNoWriMo. Short for National Novel Writing Month (although its scope quickly expanded to international, the name was kept for the sake of keeping the abbreviation), this occurs in November every year. The goal is for participants to write a novel during the month of November. As in start November with nothing written, and end it with a novel.

This is a great event and a cool goal, and I would love to give it a try some day. But unfortunately, November is exactly the worst possible month of the year for me to have to pony up to an extra 50,000 words of writing output. So I've never been involved in NaNoWriMo. Some day I should set up my own personal challenge, otherwise identical, but in April or something.

I came to an enjoyment of the English language late, too late for it to help me much at school, for instance. I studied English because it was compulsory and it was always my worst subject. But, as is often the case, in the fullness of adulthood I look back and realise I should have appreciated it more at the time, and tried a little harder.

I think my first real breakthrough, while still at school, was understanding aspects of imagery. It was pushed as a big thing, or at least I remember it that way, perhaps because it was something that I "got" at the time. Metaphor, simile, and the various other tricks of the writer's craft used to, in effect, paint a picture in words.

I remember distinctly the first time I scored a really good mark in a creative writing assignment. The task was to tell the story of a dream. I took this to heart and created a rambling stream of consciousness, throwing as much vivid imagery in as I could manage. I also gratuitously threw in the word "fusillade" to describe the hammering of a rainstorm, because I remembered it as an unusual word from a novel we'd studied previously. There were more such unusual words sprinkled throughout, though I can't recall any others now. The narrative was disjointed and dreamlike, leaping from scene to scene, each painted in words as vividly as my immature writing skills would allow. It was probably a clumsy effort, realistically speaking, but it seemed to be a step above what my classmates managed. I suspect I got the top mark because I'd abandoned any sense of restraint and thrown myself wholeheartedly at this newfangled "imagery" thing we'd been learning.

Naturally I tried it again in later creative writing assignments, but to lesser successes. Probably because it started to become purple prose.

Barrels of fun
Fun is not actually to be found inside barrels here. (This is the entrance to the children's section of my local public library. I always wonder if it scares some of the kids...)
It's interesting... I just realised now, thinking that I didn't have very much more to say on this topic, that I'd assumed I didn't need to explain what similes and metaphors are, because they are something everyone should already know as part of a basic understanding of how to speak and read English. (And if English is not your native language, you should know the same concepts in your native language.) Yet I spend a lot of time here explaining plenty of other things that people should know as part of a basic all-round education, but which can easily be missed along the way or forgotten after leaving school. This is not to judge anyone - it's easy to miss picking up these pieces of knowledge along the way. My point is that that I'm happy to explain science stuff, but it didn't even occur to me until a minute ago that I could also perhaps usefully explain English language stuff. It's a comment about my own mental processes and assumptions.

Anyway, a simile is a figure of speech in which you describe something as having similar properties to some other thing (remember: "simile" = "similar"). We do this all the time, even if you don't realise it. "It's like a sauna in here." "That's as red as a tomato." "He's like a breath of fresh air." Similes use the words "like" or "as" to indicate explicitly that the comparison is a figure of speech, rather than literal. It's not really a sauna in here, it's just very hot and humid. That's not actually a tomato, it's just the same colour as one. He is not literally a gust of air, he is just a refreshing change of personality or outlook to other people.

With a metaphor, the line gets more blurry. A metaphor is when you describe something by calling it something else with similar properties, even though it's not actually that thing. "He's a rock." "With all the staff changes, it's a revolving door here." "This sandwich is heaven." He is not literally a piece of siliceous mineral, he merely has strong emotional strength. The office is not really in a revolving door, it just has the property that people come and go frequently. The sandwich is not actually a spiritual plane of afterlife existence where virtuous souls go, it just tastes really good.

Similes and metaphors are two of the most basic forms of imagery. There are plenty of others, which I can only touch on briefly at the moment. Hyperbole is a form of exaggeration used for emphasis: "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!" Metonymy is using a word associated with another concept to describe the concept itself: "The suits in the office asked me to work back late." Irony is saying something that is not true in a literal sense, but which can be understood to mean the opposite: "Oh, you got promoted for doing nothing when I do all the work around here? I'm so happy for you." (At least that's one form of irony - there are other, related forms which are also classed as irony.)

You don't need to know the names and technical definitions of these figures of speech in order to use and understand them. Everyone does it all the time in everyday speech, and if you write much of anything you probably do it there too. Many of the cliches that we hear a lot and use ourselves are figures of speech, rather than literal statements. The trick is constructing figures of speech that are original and paint marvellous new pictures in the minds of listeners and readers. This is the craft of poets, songwriters, and authors.

Anyone can write, but not everyone can write well. To do that, you need to know the tools of the trade and how to use them. You need to understand different figures of speech. This learning starts at school in English classes, but it never stops. We get better at it the more we read and write.

Yet another excuse to read and write more!

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Last Modified: Sunday, 3 November 2013; 21:43:40 PST.
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