Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

Show & Tell

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.

It is good advice, on the whole.  It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.”  Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.

On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling.  It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).

To write, you must tell.  The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them.  It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write.  You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.

One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully.  There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this:  Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son.  Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son.  I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.

As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down.  Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event.  At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!

And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over.  You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg.  Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing!  You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story.  If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc.  Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.

Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often.  Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.

Research

Research is a constant writerly debate in my household.  My husband will go to incredible lengths to avoid doing research for his writing.  I love research, although I have an odd relationship with it.  I research heavily for fantasy, but I’m horribly intimidated by the idea of researching for any kind of mystery or historical fiction, which is why I don’t write either of those genres, although I read both (preferably combined!)

That contradiction aside, why the heck would I do research for fantasy?  To my husband, especially, this is incomprehensible – fantasy is the perfect setup, as far as he’s concerned, because he can just make everything up and not worry about how things work in the real world.  I understand that sentiment, since I write (and read) partly as escapism from reality.

But it’s so exciting to do research for fantasy novels and stories!  It’s not that I can’t come up with ideas and inspiration just off the top of my head for fantasy, but finding out things I don’t know about history, food, inventions, other cultures, religious rituals, animals, etc. gets me thinking about things I might otherwise overlook.  Sometimes I’ll come across an idea and reverse it entirely, but even that reversal wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t found the idea to contradict in the first place.

Some of the things I’ve learned more about while doing research, I would probably never have thought to read up on if it hadn’t related to my story, but I’m always glad to have found out new information.  As a writer, the more you know about anything, the richer, more varied, and more interesting your basis for stories and characters becomes.  It’s like you’re collecting resources that are then, literally, right at your fingertips.

Because of my writing, I read up on a lot of psychology theory – especially Carl Jung and William James, both of whom were also passionately interested in literature and philosophy.  Some of their writings on those subjects have, in turn, expanded my views on fiction, both as a reader and as a writer.  I’ve read up on the historical impact of technology on society, the history of various inventions, traditional foods and drinks of places I wanted to inspire my settings, mythology and legends that cross all over the globe – and now all of that information is at the back of my mind every time I sit down to write.  If you want to be inspired, keep your brain well-stocked with ideas it can put together, pull apart, reverse, or just plain use.

That’s my philosophy on research, anyway.  Oh, and I’ve also become addicted to olives thanks to research, but that’s a side effect you may have to watch out for if you’re reading up on the Mediterranean.  Hah!  That’s one reason to write what you love – if you’re interested in something to begin with, “research” is a great excuse to obsessively read about it, and if you’re researching a place’s cuisine, it’s a great excuse to eat a lot of tasty food (and drink coffee spiked with brandy, if your subject of study is Italy).

Haiku as an Exercise For Prose Writers

I am much more of a prose writer than a poet.  It’s pretty rare for me to write a poem these days, and historically my poetry has generally been more for myself than for an audience.  Still, I think it’s good for prose writers to dabble in poetry from time to time – it encourages precision in word choice, concise description, and, often, getting across a mood or emotion without ever directly stating what the mood or emotion is.  That’s excellent practise for a prose writer, because it’s so much more powerful and evocative to show something shifting within a character than to tell us it’s happened.  Everywhere you turn, you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” and, although I’ve seen instances where breaking that rule works beautifully, for the most part, it is excellent advice. 

With poetry, if you tell, the whole experience is over.  You might as well write down the words, “Trees are pretty and they make me happy,” and get on with doing something else, because you’re not writing poetry at that point.  Journaling, maybe, but not writing poetry.  Again, I’m not really a poet, so I won’t try to define what IS poetry, but I know what isn’t when I see it.  😉 

Occasionally requiring myself to use a limited number of words to try and paint a powerful mental image, preferably while also evoking some sense of mood or tone, is a great exercise for my prose writing muscles.  So, although sometimes I’ll write free verse just for self-expression, I turn to haiku when I want to challenge my brain to be more on the ball with making every word count. 

The rules for haiku are simple:  three lines long, the first line has five syllables (not words, syllables), the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables.  Traditionally, it’s supposed to describe a moment in nature, but I don’t always follow that rule with mine.  Sometimes I have titles for them, and sometimes I don’t. 

So there is a writing exercise for you – write some haiku.  See how much you can get across with such a small “word allowance”.  Here are a few of mine, with, I think, varying levels of success at doing more than just describing: 

Jungle Past  

Breathe–thick, wet, and green 

A smooth white twist of a tree 

Stretched in pagan prayer.

 

Slate-blue, the angry 

Sky opens and lets loose sheets 

Of silver bullets.

 

Window 

Broken feathers, blood; 

A small, still bird–believed there 

Were no barriers. 

Morning light through blinds
Paints me with stripes as I wake
Wrapped in potential. 

Green races to fill
The tips of the trees’ fingers,
Settles, and unfurls.