Most writers know that procrastination is one of the biggest issues to stare down. Somehow, especially if you write directly on your laptop, Twitter always beckons with its enticing maze of opinions, arguments and random thoughts. Pinterest can soak up hours of time. You know if you just give it five minutes, you can beat your high score on Tetris. Well, maybe one more time… one more time… Much as I hate domesticity, I have even been known to defrost the freezer or wash the windows when an empty page yawns in front of me.
I’d love to make suggestions on how to beat this, but I still haven’t got it cracked myself. Even when I set limits on my social media fixes, like ‘Write 500 words, then 5 minutes checking notifications’ or ‘No social media until after the sun is over the yardarm’ (I know, it’s meant to be for gin, but it works!) – I can still be diligently typing away and a bus will rumble by on the road beyond our neighbour’s place. I might not hear it, but I will feel the tremor beneath my feet, because this area is soft peat and relays every vibration.
So I pause, figuring out if it is just a bus or a heavy truck, or if I might any moment see the light fittings sway and hear the house timbers creak, and need to make a dash for a doorway and hold on tight while the whole house rocks and rolls to the beat of the shifting earth beneath. Most times, it’s a bus and I can get back to work. But by then, my mind has strayed to the tectonic plates and the different motions earthquakes cause, and how to capture the exact, vertiginous sensation of the aftermath.
I still count this as writing, because I’m still engaged with putting concepts into words, but it doesn’t help progress the current project.
So I’m not going to write about dealing with procrastination – though if you have any suggestions for me, please comment below! Instead, this is a continuation of my post Channelling Chekhov, looking at more ways of using language to invigorate your writing and achieve that glint of moonlight on broken glass.
This is the act of giving human characteristics to inanimate things, non-human creatures, or abstract concepts. It is imagery using human emotions (love, sadness, pleasure etc.) and human actions (laughing, crying, shouting etc.) to describe things like toy kites, wind, climate change. It makes writing more powerful and emotive. This then engages readers at a deeper level as it helps bring concepts to life using familiar experiences and ideas.
Personification makes for a neat writing exercise. Try writing a story from the point of view, say, of a fork or a raindrop. Or describing a number of objects with human qualities, such as whispering wind, or blank stares of concrete. It also gives a relatable touch to big concepts and creates a vivid visual picture, such as in this short poem I wrote about coastal erosion where I live.
Note: anthropomorphism is often confused with personification. They are similar, as both involve assigning human qualities to non-humans. But there is a difference. Personification describes a nonhuman with a human trait, whereas anthropomorphism describes something nonhuman as if it is human.
Metonymy and Synechdoche
These are figures of speech where one thing represents another thing.
- Metonymy involves an idea being represented by an associated idea e.g. London hosted the 2012 Olympic Games. London here represents all the people involved in arranging the event, but saying London hosted is a cleaner, more simplified form of expression. An easy ride to describe a gentle horse safe for children. Again, it is simplified, but encapsulates the overall meaning.
- Synechdoche involves using a small part of a thing to represent the whole thing e.g. telling someone keep your nose clean to mean stay out of trouble, or safe pair of hands to mean a reliable, helpful person.
This excerpt from a poem about choosing a pet uses synechdoche:
Reptilian scales, or cautious shells, feather,
hair or lemon-sharp spines? I wonder whether
fish and fowl can live and play together.
There are many examples of both these figures of speech in common usage, so be careful when including them in your writing. A well-crafted figure of speech injects a richness and originality into writing, but regurgitating a cliché can make writing dull and lifeless.
Synesthesia uses the five senses in writing but combines them in unexpected ways, such as using touch to describe a visual thing, or sound to describe a scent. The rasping blare of sun uses both touch (rasp) and sound (blare) to suggest heat and conjures the sensation of a very hot day at a deep level of understanding just saying it was a very hot day cannot achieve.
Using figures of speech like this allow you to craft precise descriptions that show the reader what you want them to see or feel. They allow you to convey to the reader an experience they may never have had. It was a very hot day will be interpreted the way the reader perceives heat, whereas a specific figure of speech describing how hot the day is helps a reader imagine desert heat, Nordic heat, humid heat, inferno heat etc.
The art of exaggeration for dramatic effect.
My twin is bold, a clamour of noonday sun,
red spice, and crackling fire. She spits out dragon
flame, fights with demon claw. I’m the quiet one.
It was cold enough to freeze the nose hairs off a polar bear.
Again, if you think about it, there are probably millions of examples of hyperbole (see what I did there?) in our day to day conversations. I’m starving, when it’s more than three hours since you last ate. They’ll kill me, when you are worried someone will be angry with you. There are millions… when you mean a large quantity. All of those are clichés, and best avoided.
Words that sound like their meanings. Slap, tick, buzz, zip etc. Find ways of using them in an original way e.g ‘I’ve had enough,’ he says, his voice a slap in the air. The dialogue suggests the speaker is angry or fed up, and slap shows a sharp, hard tone of voice. The writer has not stated he is angry, but the reader understands it.
A last comment on cliches…
Clichés detract from your writing – unless there is good reason to use them, such as in dialogue, or reported speech. People often use cliched phrases when talking so an occasional cliché in dialogue helps make written conversations seem more real and natural.
But what is a cliché? It’s a phrase that, newly-minted, was clever and original but becomes over-used. How do you know if a phrase is a cliché? An easy guide is if you have heard, or seen, repeated use of the phrase by more than two or three different people, it’s probably a cliché. You might also have to research common sayings by area.
It’s always possible It was cold enough to freeze the nose hairs off a polar bear is a cliché, if you live in Alaska or Finland, or anywhere else where snow and minus temperatures are a regular feature of the climate. Or maybe if you just share your homeland with polar bears. I know I hadn’t come across it before when I saw a friend use it, and I thought it was a lovely phrase, but sometimes a cliché depends on your audience. If you are writing a book set in England, then phrases like time for a nice cuppa and mustn’t grumble are clichés, never mind being weird and dated stereotypes. But a phrase I’d never heard before I moved here, mad as a meataxe (which I love, it’s so surreal!) is common in New Zealand.
good writing takes practice and crafting, and a judicious use of figurative devices. We don’t need synesthesia in every sentence, or personification in every paragraph. But learning to use all these devices well, and sprinkle them through your writing at intervals, especially where you want to emphasise a particular idea, will definitely make your writing shine.