THE METAPHOR OF THE THING (or, getting my Cormac McCarthy on)


Today I will be in a car heading to the Olde City New Blood convention in St. Augustine, Fl so I apologize in advance that I will not be getting back here to any comments until later in the day, possibly in the late evening.

That being said, let’s get into the heart of today’s musing.

I’ve been a descriptive writer from the get. I will tell you exactly what a thing looks like and every moment of its existence as it relates to my story. I’ve always prided myself on it and I work to improve what is already one of my best abilities. I seek out new words, looking to boldly go where no writer has gone before.

I use words like eldritch, corpulent, and etheric. I pair words with things and actions that create a jarring feel to them like oilsheen crackle and I use: “A musty, dry smell of shed skin and tainted venom.” to describe the smell of vampires.

Again, I thought I did a damn fine job of describing things.

Then I read THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy and learned that I was a child when it comes to description.

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.”

Cormac McCarthy- THE ROAD

Read that again. I mean damn. That’s how you get to the heart of what a thing is.

I don’t even know what kind of creature this is. In my mind I see a stag, a once great and glorious lord of the forest brought low by an unnameable apocalypse only surviving through the depth and breadth of its own decimated vitality.

But Cormac told me none of that.

So now I consciously try to write like Cormac McCarthy. It would be easy to ape the words, to do a shabby mimicry of them, to pull words and phrases out of his work and rearrange them like a 3-card monte con run by a guy with Parkinson’s disease. I could do that and it would improve my writing.

But I want MORE. I can do better and so can you.

What it is that makes McCarthy’s work resonate so deeply in my soul? What is the magic behind the madness, the word-elixir that I slap my veins for?

It’s metaphor.

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t just tell you what something looks like. In fact, he does that very little. Instead he delves deeper into the object and describes its very nature, using the English language like a sculptor’s hands to carve out the thing’s substance.

He doesn’t tell you what a thing appears to be, he tells you what it is.

By doing this, using metaphor to speak of the nature of things, it tricks the brain of the reader. Because the descriptions move out of the bare physical realm it makes the mind squeeze more from them. It opens pathways in the thought patterns and the reader walks away feeling more connected to the story, feeling like they were a part of it.

He also uses juxtaposition to really give impact to the meaty descriptions. They lay side by side with plain-spoken, nearly simple dialog that he strips down to its barest form. I believe this is why he forgoes speechtags and punctuation. He’s making a clean plate on which to serve us the meal of metaphor.

So how do we get this magic in our own writing?

I can only tell you what I’m doing. It’s working for me but your mileage may vary and, be warned, this will require homework.

I’m concentrating a portion of my personal reading on things that use the language I want to use. Shakespere, The King James Bible, and great works of classic literature. In reading them I am specifically looking for phrases and words that are evocative, that spark my imagination.

I am dedicating another portion to reading poetry. Good poetry from the classic to the modern. I picked up some Poe, Yeats, T. S. Eliot along with selections from Taylor Mali and a book called INTIMATE KISSES which covers the gamut from first attraction to consummated passion in verse. I stumbled upon it at the bookstore and flipped it open to find some really great poetry (and some not so great, admittedly). If nothing else I got the word skinsong out of it and it worked excellently in my WIP (a horror-edged urban fantasy based in the Lovecraft Mythos).

And the last thing I’m doing is really studying the works of descriptive writers. The two main ones are 1) Cormac McCarthy and 2) Robert E. Howard.

Yes, he is the same REH who made Conan. Howard was a helluva writer and he could describe the essense of a thing in a way that you couldn’t ignore. He was indeed a world-class yarn-spinner with a poet’s soul.

I’m not going to the point of diagraming sentences, but I am putting their descriptions under the microscope.

Has it worked?

Hopefully. Here’s a recent sample of something I wrote since beginning this journey.

Alabaster watched the sackcloth sun fall behind the teeth of Wormwood Ridge, slinking through the radioactive borealis it wore like a shawl. Perfect dark spilled into the gray void, a heavy ink tipped into the pure water she remembered from before the world had broken, water that used to come from bottles and pour free from subterranean pipes of copper. Soon the moon would rise, blood red and angry in the night, shedding moonlight like arterial spray, but the in-between time would be void and empty. Dark time for dark deeds. It wouldn’t last long, but it would last long enough.

Her right hand tightened on the pearl handle of her six-gun.”

COUNTERFIET (available in the HOOKERPUNK anthology from Kerlak later this year)

Y’all have a great weekend!





16 comments to THE METAPHOR OF THE THING (or, getting my Cormac McCarthy on)

  • Thanks for sharing that beautiful passage, James. I’m addicted to comparisons. For me, the greatest writer of simile is Peter S. Beagle in “The Last Unicorn”.
    As for the King James Version, well, I’m a Christian anyway and I adore the KJV. “And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain” 2 Samuel 23:4. And my personal favourite, of course – “Hast thou given the horse his strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” (Job 39:19).

  • Wow. James, this was lovely. The writer’s voyage is often a thing of glory. You are making of yours a thing of beauty.

    When I started out writing as Gary, it was with the narrative voice of the noir, battle, and brutality, a thing without loveliness. Then, as Gwen, I did exactly what you did. I kept some of my favorite, more poetic writers’ work on my bedside table and studied them each night before I went to bed. I took a college poetry course from a Gutenberg winner, and searched out, from language itself, a more delicate tongue. My writer’s voice changed and evolved. Now, as Faith, I’ve come full circle and moved back into the simple voice of the battle-scarred warrior. Yet, I can see in me, a future voice, one that combines the two, the poetic descriptiveness used by Gwen, and the harsher reality used by Faith, into a traditional fantasy work unlike any I’ve done before. You give me hope that such a time will really come.

  • I’m more of a newborn when it comes to description, which does not come easily to me. Like you I’ve been looking at other writers to learn from them. Your passage (and this post) make great additions to my description tutors.

    Faith’s comment also got me thinking about how my own descriptive writing has changed. Of course, I’m not a professional or even published writer, but when I look back at some short stories I wrote years and years ago, I’m amazed at them. Not because the stories are good (they aren’t), but because the descriptive writing is pretty good, certainly better than what I write now. I need to think about that difference in more detail.

  • This is a really interesting post. I love it; it makes me think of how I can improve my writing. I like to think I use good description in my work. I’ve always been a poet long before I thought I could ever write a novel but the novel I read that moved my senses was The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen. I’d never heard of magical realism before and I thought the way she morphed ordinary candy and snow in to something that surreal, and poetic. It changed the way I read novels. It made me look for those descriptors in other writings to see how they did it.
    It only takes one book to change everything.

  • Ken

    Hi there James,

    This was an interesting post for me. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had a real hard time reading McCarthy’s passage above. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but my guess is that I’m a VERY visual person and Cormac, there, simply overloaded me. My Knowledge Nut was in the middle of taking those words and developing a picture for me, and then it stumbles over another picture, and another, etc to the point where I know I’m not getting the full impact of what’s there.

    Everyone’s milage will vary, like you said, and it’s been discussed here before that tools like Metaphor and Similie are like spices and maybe this is a case where there was too much Habanero in the chili (Not that that’s even remotely possible :)) for me.


    You’ve kicked off a bit of an introspective learning experience for me. Is it simply that I haven’t had enough exposure to works like McCarthy’s to get “Used” to his voice? Faith’s post about her voice evolving made complete sense. Maybe a reader’s “Voice” can undergo a bit of evolution as well…

  • sagablessed

    James, I love the examples you have used. Very good and evocative.

    I have to admit, I sometimes get tagged by my writers’ group for being “too wordy”. I like the phrase “milage will vary”. I think use of metaphor and similie should be used, but sparingly or with gusto depends on the scene. Like any good dish, too much and it spoils the erest of the flavor. Not enough and the dish tastes flat. But it is a qustion of personal taste as to the degree one uses them.

  • Cindy

    I agree with Ken, the passage is overdone to my tastes. Yes, it is a beautiful passage, but I would not read an entire novel written this way. Readers do have different tastes and that is a good thing. Great post! It really made me think.

  • Wow, James. Strong stuff!

    I think, in the passage of “The Road” above, McCarthy does an excellent job of stressing the senses for the dream visions. The cave, the lake, the beast are all described in poetic term, evoking emotive response. In the earlier descriptions, as he wakes and reaches for the child, feels him breathing, looks out onto what his world has become, the words are more grounded, more real, but still carry a vestige of the dream.

    Faith’s comments about how her ‘voice’ changed from Gary to Gwen to Faith was really interesting, too. Was the evolution of voice because of the author, or rather what the genre and the character and the story needed?

  • I admit I’d have a very hard time reading a full book of that kind of writing. It’s very purple for me. Is it evocative? Yes. And there is a skill and beauty in it that I think is lovely, too. But I don’t want to write that way–mostly because, like I said, I don’t think I could read it without feeling bogged down and wishing something would happen. I am a fan of Hemmingway more than Faulkner. If you can make it fewer words, then do so. When I edit my own work, I’m usually cutting down, not adding to. But there are times when my sparseness is too much and the story in that moment needs more details and more of the passage above. So I’ll have to think about how I get there from here.

  • Hi Guys, with James out and about, doing writer-ly things, I’ll address the voice issue as I see it. Yes,my reader’s voice (meaning my reading preferences) has changed drastically over the years. I used to love reading the purple, evocative, rich prose of … well, lots of writers. There was a surge of books published in that style in 1971-1999-ish, a cultural shift into more wordy prose and also more shocking (for the time) subject matter. As I’ve said, I used to keep some of my favorite writers’ work on my bedside table. I used them to fill my mind with the creative style and word-smithing abilities of other writers. Not that I copied the styles. More that I aspired to the depth of the work and learned how they wrote by reading analytically. Gwen’s early work fell right into that more wordy style, though with tighter method of phrasing and a harsher rhythmical micro-pacing.

    Today, I pick up those books I used to read, and, while they are still lovely, they are so soooo slow. I won’t say that they bore me to tears. Not that. And I have to admit that I still like my own older work (but then they are my babies, right?). More that both my reading preferences and my narrative style have changed. I have been writing and reading the “less is more” style.

    Cultural and societal shifts happen all the time, and I expect that we’ll see a shift back to more poetic works and writing styles at some point. Soon, I expect. And my narrative voice will have to make a shift again.

    WHAT? you may say. Change your writing to fit what is current? Duh. Yes. I am am a commercial writer, one who wants people to read her work, and I am capable of writing in many styles. If I am capable of writing in one voice only, then I am destined to be formulaic and self-derivative. Always changing and always evolving keeps me fresh and current and, well, selling.

  • sagablessed

    Sometimes slow is better, Faith. I know it is not always commercially viable, but consider ‘Mists of Avalon’. Slow to be sure, but a classic. Yet ‘Steel Magic’ by Norton or LoTR would not be such a seller today. I make this point to show that sometimes a work can transcend ‘commercial’.
    Don’t get me wrong: if I achieve 1/10 of your ability, I will need new underwear. But sometimes slow can be amazing.

  • TwilightHero

    Hi James; intriguing post. Very interesting reading about another’s journey as a writer.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to have mixed feelings about the McCarthy passage. Like Ken, I’m a very visual person, and when I first started writing, a lot of what I wrote was like this: long sentences and detailed imagery. I have learned to cut down on the description, though like you, I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. Not this good, though. It’s a wonderfully evocative passage…though maybe just a little florid. Mileage may vary.

    What bothers me about it is the sentence structure. Someone on this site, I don’t remember who now (my apologies), once said that everyone subvocalizes on some level. This is very true for me. I make sure now to vary between short and long sentences, and break things up where necessary. The words can’t just look right; they have to sound right. I found the lack of punctuation jarring, the cadence too repetitive, and it was that that made it hard for me to read.

    Again, it’s a beautiful passage. But the style just isn’t for me.

  • Vyton

    James, a good and helpful post. I really like McCarthy. I recently re-read No Country for Old Men. Still a good read. I thought The Road was incredible. Thank you for the information and the sources. I think reading epic poetry such as Endymion by Keats is a good source, too. Thanks.

  • quillet

    Hi James, those are beautiful examples. Great post. Count me as another one who reads writing I really love, prose and poetry, for inspiration. And I see from the comments that not everyone has the same tastes — which is a good thing. This world would be a very boring place if we all felt exactly the same. Different people are allowed to like different things (a concept that is not respected in some corners of the Internet. Thank goodness for MW!).

  • Wow, thank you all so much for the comments here.
    I am terribly sorry about only just now getting back to this. I was out of town at the convention and there was NO wifi in my room at the hotel, none, nada, zip. I have been incommunicado all weekend (I do not have a smart phone! I have a completely dumbass phone.)

    My personal belief is that the lyrical, literary style isn’t purple so to speak, simply wordy. Purple for me is when the descriptions are over abundant but lack the metaphor. As I stated, your mileage may vary.

    And I agree, keep the words to the ones that are necessary, even if they are many syllabled and plentiful. I love the Cormac McCarthy, but I also love Ken Bruen who is so restrained that he is downright damn sparse.

    It’s a learning curve and whether you apply the amount of words that Cormac does or not, the underlying concept of using the nature of the thing to define it rather that boxing it in with a series of descriptors is good practice.
    And the juxtaposition is something I am truly working on.

  • wrybread

    Great post, I’m glad I went back a couple of pages to read it. That’s one of my favourite passages from The Road, one that sticks out in my mind from when I read the book six years ago. I definitely didn’t picture a stag; I pictured more of a giant cross between a cave insect and a dinosaur. Still a great description regardless. I will definitely be getting my hands on that book when it comes out, it’s sort of like reading a list of my favourite ingredients-horror-tinged urban fantasy, Lovecraftian setting, language partially inspired by Cormac McCarthy-and being told eventually they’ll be mixed into a stew. Brilliant. Plenty to think about for my own writing of course.