I have an odd relationship with metaphors. If someone asks me to come up with one on the spot, my mind freezes, becomes unresponsive. I see an endlessly flipping sand timer, and while I wait for my stupid fat head to reboot, I’m standing there open-mouthed with a text cursor blinking endlessly behind my eyes.
But then, if I’m actually trying to explain something – like my mind going blank – it’s pretty easy to convey that particular feeling with metaphor, in this case using the frustration we all encounter with an ageing PC.
Abstract thoughts can be expressed much more clearly with a metaphor, that’s why we use them. But overuse can be tedious – you don’t have to describe every thought, action and scene in some verbose simile. In fact you positively shouldn’t.
Really tight writing uses narrator-appropriate metaphors. Similarly, bad writing spoils the experience with narrator-inappropriate metaphors.
What do I mean by that?
As a writer, I’m constantly searching for moments in the day to actually write. It’s not easy; I’ve got a full-time job, I’m organising a wedding, I’ve got this bloody blog thing to write – there’s not enough time to go round!
For instance, I realised just this morning that since completing my plot outline, I’ve written one measly chapter. One! In a week! I have 88 to complete, which means at this glacial pace, the second draft won’t be complete until APRIL 2017.
This is clearly not good enough.
But wait, watch what happens when you cram more work in:
Two chapters a week – Finished by June 2016
Three chapters a week – Finished by February 2016
One a day – Finished by November 2015
One AN HOUR – Finished by THIS SATURDAY.
You see? At that rate I could be a bestseller by this time next week!
I’ve finally finished my plot outline! – No easy feat when you’ve been rambling into your computer for a decade, hoping a structured novel will spill out of your head like a Homeric poem, and all that came out was a meandering stream of consciousness that more resembled Lost than Paradise Lost.
The biggest step was breaking everything up into chapters. Previously, I didn’t know if I wanted the novel to be structured chronologically or to shift back and forth according to narrative perspective, so I just left everything in one document per character.
I have no idea why I didn’t change this earlier: it makes the process so much more palatable – as a writer and for the reader.
I mean that sincerely: use chapters, always.
A reader reclines, opens your book:
Harry kissed his kids goodbye at the breakfast table and rushed out the door, still pulling his jacket on as he stepped into the brisk morning air of leafy, peaceful Highgate. “See you later darling,” he called to his wife.
Another day to survive this lie.
His guilt tinted the world, made his shame sharper. The cigarette butt he’d discarded – smoking to obfuscate Patricia’s perfume – shone like a beacon in the grass. His car tyres twinkled with the white gravel of her Surrey driveway. Must get it cleaned.
As he unlocked the vehicle, his greatest fear rounded the street and confidently strode towards him: Patricia, out walking her Irish terrier, was in his fucking neighbourhood.
“Harry? But, what are you doing here? I thought you lived in Shoreditch?”
“I do, I was just, I left my car here, my friend, we had a poker game last night, here, I’m just picking up the car… what are you doing here?”
Sally came out of the house with the boys. His throat constricted. He couldn’t breathe. He desperately tugged the knot of his tie and…
Wait wait WAIT WAIT STOP
Finally, after two and a half years of failed attempts, the skies cleared, the winds calmed, and Mr Branson adjudged it safe to fly over the fields of Cambridgeshire.
It had been a Christmas present back in 2012. We had tried five times and been thwarted by mild weather conditions – such as “breezes” and “mist” – deemed too hazardous to risk a launch.
At 11pm the night before, we made the call to find out if the flight would go ahead. When it was confirmed, we finished our game of Scrabble – in a haze of excitement and disbelief – and went to bed; we’d have to be at the airfield by 5.30am in the morning.
We met 12 other bleary-eyed passengers at an empty airfield a few miles from Cambridge, and set about helping the pilot inflate the balloon. It took about an hour to get it all set up, inflated, heated and upright.
It’s 9pm on a Saturday and Swarana and I are once again in Cambridge passing the time before we give Richard Branson a tinkle.
We’ve been doing this every once in a while since 2013; driving up to Swarana’s Mum’s, playing a nice game of Scrabbs, eating dosa or bhel puri or tasty shaak, and nervously picking up the phone to dial the Virgin Dick.
You see, back in the Christmas of 2012, I lovingly bought Swarana two tickets on a hot air balloon from Virgin Balloon Flights. But every time we’ve come up to punch those tickets, the flight gets cancelled at the last minute.
My heart flitters, as though a moth flutters inside. Christ, was that a heart attack? Need to breathe – stay calm. Was that normal? I feel fine, but that wasn’t normal – was it normal?
Can’t eat. Can’t hold my fork! Just breathe through your nose.
Apologise to Sarah.
Well, go on! Do it!
Jesus, you sound like you’re having a stroke! Stop scaring her! Pull yourself together – keep breathing!
Fingers are clamping up – body’s tingling. Pins and needles all over. My mind’s a tornado. Got to keep calm.
“James? Are you ok?”
I’m losing it – I’m losing it.
I found The Last Family in England in a bookshop in Thailand and bought it for my girlfriend. She’d loved The Humans, also by Matt Haig, but had lost it in a hotel somewhere before finishing it, so I figured this would plug the gap until I bought another copy (yeah, you’re welcome, Haig, you’re welcome).
But, before she could glance at it, I thought I’d take a look.
I read it in two days.