Monday, July 11, 2011

Roving Body Parts

Since my body parts are traveling today, and I recently read a blog with a very black and white view on how to deal with body parts, I thought I'd reprise this 2009 blog post. I don't have trouble with figures of speech, and if I'm reading that a character 'flew down the block to John's house' I don't see her mid-air. If someone writes "a lump of ice settled in her belly" I'm not seeing actual ice.

Do the eyes have it?

How do you react when you read things like this:

Their eyes met from across the room.

His eyes raked her body from head to toe.

There seem to be two schools of thought on this one. I'm on the side that doesn't mind. I understand that 'eye' can be used as a noun or a verb. "He eyed her" is acceptable. "He gave her the eye" is an idiom I have no trouble with. I don't see him extracting an eyeball and handing it to her. So if a characters eyes move, I don't get visions of eyeballs floating free.

Which side are you on? Would the following pull you out of the story?

Her blue eyes, enlarged by her wire-rimmed glasses, rambled from Colleen's head to her toes.

"What's wrong with my face?" Her fingers flew to her cheeks, and she pulled them away, studying them.

Yet there are those for whom those would be book-tossing offenses. Me, I see the eye movement in the first example, but the eyes remain firmly set in their sockets. In the second, my brain assumes the fingers are still attached to the hand, and I don't think about body parts floating in space.

If we took everything we read literally, a lot of the richness of the language would be lost. If his eyes are pools of molten chocolate, do we really think that he's got Godiva eyeballs? Or just deep brown eyes?

(That's a metaphor, I think – if his eyes look like pools of molten chocolate, that would be a simile, right?) I've never been good at remembering terminology. Metaphors, similes, idioms, hyperbole—they're things I use, but I don't worry about what they're called when I'm writing them.

At any rate, my editor said it's a house 'rule' to avoid using floating body parts. Apparently they want to avoid having books thrown across the room by readers in the 'I see eyeballs' group. I'm guessing they figure that those who don't mind won't notice. For me, however, substituting 'gaze' for 'eyes' in those situations gets tedious and repetitive. Which means I don't feel comfortable with a simple swap, and end up trying to rewrite the entire passage.

Chime in – what's your preference? Which group are you in?

Tomorrow, my guest is Cricket McRae who's talking about the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome. And I hope all my body parts will be home again.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

As long as the eyes stay put in the face, I have no problem with it! Floating around...bleh.

Jemi Fraser said...

It doesn't bother me either for the most part - although sometimes the phrasing can cause me to giggle. :)

Hart Johnson said...

I think it's nuts to object! Metaphor is one of the things that takes writing from textbook to fiction--it adds texture to the writing. I find it really interesting your publisher objects. I mean, I guess they must know their readership, but requiring everything to be literal seems to take it to a 6th grade reading level, in my opinion.

Terry Odell said...

Just a short while before I have to leave for the airport. Thanks for your comments. I agree that metaphors and hyperbole, and all those other writing terms I can't keep straight make for a richer read, but as I said, there are those who seem to see everything in either black or white, with no room for gray. Back when I was submitting manuscripts for contests, I had judges say "You can't do this."

Again, I think this is one of those personal preference things as long as you're not doing something like going bowling with eyeballs.

Maryann Miller said...

Ever since I had a writing instructor pretend to take his eye-balls out and roll them across the floor, I have avoided "rolling eyes" like mad. But I can see your point, Terry, about sometimes the phrasing is okay. I think what stops me in some of the books I read is narrative that is tedious and not all that fresh, so my mind starts being too literal and I imagine the body parts floating.

However, people do roll their eyes in exasperation. I think my writing instructor did that because we were having too many characters do that instead of coming up with other ways to show the reaction.

Kathryn Scannell said...

It doesn't bother me at all. I never noticed it in anything I read until one of my crit group partners started ranting about it. Then I noticed it promptly in a Terry Pratchett book. Of course being Terry Pratchett, it's always possible the body part was floating around independently, but after some deliberation I concluded it probably wasn't.

I'm avoiding it because it seems to be a current fashionable thing to rant about to prove you're a skilled writer and/or editor, and I prefer to save my arguments with editors for things I really care about.

Also I have one of those literal-minded comedians in my crit group, and if there's a way to misinterpret something I can count on him to find it, and propose including it in the official parody he threatens to write when I'm famous...

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm home again, and of course, seem to be further behind than a 5 day absence would warrant.

I've never taken "she rolled her eyes" literally, because it's a common enough expression. Likewise, I don't get transported to the ball field when someone "bats her eyes."

As with everything else, there shouldn't be blanket rules. It should be about the execution.

Jami Gold said...

There are some that get me (only now, after becoming a writer and having them pointed out) and some that I'm fine with. All those "her face fell" and "her eyes rolled" expressions are common in normal language, so they should be valid in our writing.

And if someone does something with their fingers, sometimes my POV character is going to think about the "person" doing it and sometimes they're going to think of the fingers doing it.

I think it's a mistake to be all literal, all the time.

Sonia Lal said...

It's doesn't bother me at all!