Black as Ink

A phrase in the book I’m reading slapped me in the face. It wasn’t a literal slap, of course, but the phrase was so incongruous that it took me out of the story as surely as a slap would have done. What was this brutal simile? It wasn’t anything special, to be honest. In fact, it’s so common as to seem almost invisible, but I noticed it.

As black as ink.

That’s it. Not a big deal, right? And yet, when was the last time you saw pure black ink? For me, it was decades ago, when I bought some calligraphy supplies with the thought of learning how to do fancy lettering. That ink truly was black, totally opaque, without a hint of light or any other color. Even back then, black wasn’t the only ink available for calligraphic needs, or any needs. My mother used a fountain pen for many years, and that ink was blue. When I was in school, perhaps middle-school age, cartridge pens were all the rage, and I used the peacock ink. Such a gorgeous color! And not black.

Nowadays any ink we see is generally in ballpoint pens, and although black used to be the prevalent color, blue now seems to be preferred for official documents, which is odd to me. Doesn’t blue tend to fade into the “blue nowhere” of computer screens? And yet, any bank document or other official paper I’ve had to sign recently required a blue signature.

I once had a multitude of pens with bright non-black colors. I just checked my ballpoint pen stash, and I have a red ink pen as well as a green one, though the green is dried up. So, since I tossed it out, I guess I can’t count green among ink colors. Nor can I count purple, though once I had a ballpoint pen with that color ink that I used up.

There are still a lot of pens around with black ink, though none of those inks are truly black. Some are charcoal, some are rather translucent with a tinge of blue or red, others are a muddy black, and some are licorice color (which is a very, very dark brown unless one is talking about red licorice).

Some printers do use ink instead of toner, and again, there are more colors available — and necessary — than black. My printer uses cyan, magenta, and yellow, which along with the black, can create just about any shade or hue of any color.

If the book had kept my interest, this rather inoffensive though clichéd simile would have passed unnoticed, so that’s two strikes against the author — ill-chosen words and a less than compelling story.

I’m just glad that people who read my books are kinder than I am, and refrain from pointing out my own literary faux pas. I do try to remove anything I would not like to see in a book, but some phrases are so common as to be invisible — such as “black as ink” — so who knows what cringeworthy phrases are buried in all my rhetoric.


What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God

Have You Ever Seen a Goose Do Anything Silly?

Why is a goose silly? The ancient hieroglyphic for foolish fellow is a goose, so obviously this disparagement of geese goes back to the origins of language. I’ve met a few geese recently, and I have yet to see one do anything silly. They look arrogant (as you can see from the photo I took today). They seem very goal-oriented (when food is in the offing, they hasten to get their share). And they are a bit intolerant of other species of fowl who might also be after that food. But silly? No. In fact, they are very smart and loyal. They fly in a V-formation, which is the most efficient way to travel. The lead geese do the hard work, breaking wind resistance so the geese trailing behind get a bit of rest, and they rotate positions, so none get too tired or too lazy. They also mate for life, which is more than you can say for a lot of humans. So why silly as a goose? Why not silly as a seal? Or silly as a dolphin? Or silly as an otter? All of those creatures are subject to antics, though of course, that might be our human perspective rather than the truth.

Why is an owl wise? Though portraying an owl as wise may be complimentary, it’s every bit as inane as calling a goose silly. What does an owl ever do to make humans perceive it as wise? Perhaps because, except for a few ambiguous hoots, an owl keeps his beak shut. Humans who don’t talk much are often considered wiser than they are, and perhaps they really are wiser than the rest of us. At least they are wise enough to keep their yaps shut so they can’t stick their feet in their mouths. (While we are on the subject — have you ever stuck your foot in your mouth? Perhaps tripped on a faux pas and landed in that awkward position? Not me, but then, I’m not very bendy.)

Why is a dog sick? They aren’t particularly sick now, not when they eat specially formulated foods and are given specially formed treats to keep them satisfied. It used to be that dogs ate what humans didn’t, ate whatever they could scrounge, and such scroungings often made them sick. Hence the expression, which oddly, we still use today though it has no more meaning than silly as a goose or wise as an owl.

Why is a clam happy? Why not? No job. No bills. Sunny days on the beach. What more could a mollusk want? High tide, apparently. Clams can only be dug at low tide, so a clam is especially happy at high tide when they are free of human interference. Happy as a clam is a shortened version of the original simile “happy as a clam at high tide.” Never having seen a clam at either low or high tide, I can’t vouch for its state of mind, can’t even vouch that it has a mind, so I will have to take the clammers word for this.

Why is a berry brown? Chaucer was the first to use this simile, and he used it at least twice: “His palfrey (horse) was as broune as is a bery” and “Brown as a berry, short, and thickly made.” Authors today still use this term, most often to describe suntanned children for some inexplicable reason. Maybe Chaucer’s “bery” was a typo? (Or a quillo if he used a quill pen.) Maybe he meant brown as a bear. Or brown as a wheatberry. There are some brown berries, but were they ever so common as to prompt Chaucer to use the simile multiple times?

The true mystery of all these phrases is not their origin, but the mystery of why we are still mindlessly using these out-dated similes today.

A Two-Ton Ice Cream Cone

I am having an online discussion about description based on my article “An Image Fit Only For a Horror Movie.” We’ve been talking about simile and metaphor, and how to create vibrant images. As you know, I’m not fond of similes and metaphors, so I look for the significant detail, the one detail that will give the whole, such as crayon scribbles on a wall to show . . . well, whatever the reader thinks it shows.

Sometimes this significant detail transcends mere description and becomes a metaphor. One participant in the discussion is Bruce DeSilva,  the writing coach at The Associated Press in New York City, whose agent is shopping his first novel, a crime story set in Providence, R.I.  Bruce  told a wonderful story that immediately captured my attention. Bruce wrote: 

In my experience, the best images spring not from the imagination but from careful observation. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I went for a walk with a young reporter I was thinking of hiring. As we strolled through Times Square, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and said: “That’s amazing!”

What was? I didn’t see anything.

I watched as he whipped out his digital camera and started snapping pictures of a six-foot-tall, two-ton, concrete ice cream cone, painted up pretty, standing on the sidewalk in front of an ice cream parlor.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “What’s amazing about that?”

“Bruce,” he said, his tone indicating he was disappointed in me. “Look at it!”

“I’m looking,” I said, ” but I still don’t get it.”

“Bruce,” he said, “it’s chained to the wall. We live in a city where you have to chain a six-foot-tall, two-ton ice cream cone to a wall so no one will steal it.”

Well, yeah. That was amazing.

But how many millions of people, me included, had walked passed it without ever noticing the chain, or, more importantly, what the chain represented?

You don’t see the chain unless you are a careful observer, and it takes a poet’s sensibility to make the leap from the chain to what it represents.

We never did write a story that used the ice cream cone as a symbol of crime in our city — but we could have.

I hired the young man on the spot.

See? Significant detail and metaphor all rolled into one. If you are on Facebook and would like to participate in the discussion, feel free to stop by the Suspense/Thriller Writers group discussion.

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An Image Fit Only for a Horror Movie

My writing tends to be a little too matter-of-fact considering the complicated plots I prefer. I start out using plenty of similes and metaphors, but when I analyze them, they all sound trite or forced so I edit them out.

“The next minute the children were rolling around on the ground and pummeling each other like . . .” Like what? “Puppies” was too obvious, so I used “bear cubs” until I decided it sounded just as trite. But what else rolls around on the ground and pommels? Mud wrestlers? Thinking that’s not a proper image to use with children, I left off the simile.

Another time I tried to describe a character as one who seemed like a mental lightweight but had hidden depths. I didn’t want to use the trite “like an iceberg,” so I used “like the proverbial iceberg.” All that said is that I know I’m using a cliché, (wink, wink) but since I know it, it’s okay. It’s not okay, so I left it out and was left with another unadorned sentence.

But at least I don’t make mistakes like this one I found in a book by an author who should have known better. “Her eyes swept across the room like a broom.” Her gaze might sweep like a broom, but her eyes? Only in a horror movie, but still . . .ick! That’s almost as hideous an image as “their eyes locked.” How exactly do eyes lock? Like braces sometimes do when teenagers kiss?

Nor did I make this mistake: “The room was so crowded it was literally filled to the rafters.” Literally filled? Does he mean the people were stacked one on top of the other? Or standing on each other’s shoulders? Again, an image fit only for a horror movie.

In the end, I guess I’d rather have a prosaic writing style than one that gives people unintentional nightmares.