Monday, April 28, 2014

Unity in Imagery

“. . . the unity of effect or impression is a point of greatest importance. . . . without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about.”—Edgar Alan Poe.*

Obviously you want to maintain tone in your writing to establish atmosphere. You don't write a somber scene in which your leading character's thoughts “scamper” through their head when they hear the “cheerful” ring of the telephone. You could make a case for cheerful because it juxtaposes with the mood of the scene, but only if it appeared without the other misstep. Scamper is the real offender here. There is something light and playful about the word that nudges the reader off course emotionally. Just think of how totally you would be thrown out of the scene if the character scampered over to the phone. The difference is a matter of degrees.

Your imagery should support the scene as well. However clever or accurate you may think a given simile, if it distracts from the intent of the scene, it probably has to go. But it's also a good idea for your images to support each other. This is to eliminate clutter.

Developing writers have a tendency to jump around with their imagery. He exhaled smoke like exhaust from a rusted Buick. It was the color of sour milk. The crowd moved like a school of fish. Things like that. Those images could well fit the atmosphere of the scene, but not one of them ties into the other. They're disjointed. The reader is jerked along from one to the next and doesn't know how they add up.

When you write concurrent images, it helps make a scene feel solid. As an example, I wrote a scene set in a jazz club that has an entrance like a cave. The music inside ripples, builds into a wave and comes crashing down on everyone. Later, a musician cups a hand like a great shell to his ear to catch what his bandmates are saying. A thread of water related imagery runs through the scene, cementing the sense of place. I stumbled on the idea because I happened to have named the club The Blue Room. You should look to your scene when possible to suggest a direction for your imagery. Use every part of the writing buffalo.

It's actually easier to work this way than a helter-skelter approach, because once you have your first image you've given yourself something to build on. Now you'll know whereabouts to reach for the next one instead of having to start from scratch each time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ways to Show: Association and Atmosphere

 “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”—Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Showing is a difficult technique because what is often most important to you as the writer, that which you want understood about a moment or a character, is left unsaid. You leave it up to your readers to put the pieces together. Done successfully, this pulls them into the story because whatever they do put together is theirs, it belongs to them. Unfortunately this can feel a bit like jumping out of a plane with a chute you made yourself, often the night before, in the dark, but know it's worth it.

Also know showing may be a bit too broad to call it a technique. It's more of a method or an approach. There are a lot of ways to show. Characters pulling faces at one another is probably the most fundamental, but it only conveys so much. Sometimes you may want to evoke something more nuanced than a frown, or write something a bit more fun—and what if you're writing a somber character who already frowns all the time? What then?

It's not always how your character looks, but what they're looking at that can offer a reader insight. 

When you write, you focus the reader's attention. There is an implicit agreement between you and the reader that you won't waste their time, which means the things you're writing about are understood to be important. You don't write optional chapters. So when a character is sitting in a bar after a break up, for instance, what they focus on can reflect what's going on internally. It's a great way to fill out a scene. Maybe they see another poor shlub sitting at the end of the bar, or a couple talking together affectionately. Maybe you go for something more subtle: the stool they're in wobbles because the legs are uneven, so they can't get comfortable, or a waitress carrying an overloaded tray of dirty dishes trips over a chair and all the dishes come smashing down. We're talking about metaphors here.

Experiencing details through a character suggests an association with that character, but because it's the reader's attention that really matters, it isn't necessary for the juxtaposition to work. Proximity will also do the trick because atmosphere contextualizes story elements, and I don't mean bad weather. When you stack up enough concurrent actions and images, the effect becomes undeniable, especially if the reader knows what the character has been through. In both cases, whether through direct association or the context of atmosphere, you're inviting your reader to feel a certain way, thereby allowing them to connect with your character. The trick is to be patient.  Also, try not to be too heavy handed. I struggle with that myself.

Try it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Show AND Tell

“If I wanted you to know, I'd have told you.”—Robert Frost*

Trying to show everything in your writing can be exhausting, and can lead to painfully obtuse prose. Maybe you don't want every scene to be a riddle, and every character's emotions to be a mystery. You're not wrong in this. It is often the case that if you want your reader to know something, you have to tell them. Don't avoid this because of that tired mantra, “show, don't tell.” Showing is a technique, not writing dogma.

It is expedient to tell your reader things. Page time matters. Your writing focuses your reader's attention. You don't always want to distract them from the important part of a scene with a lot of page time spent on inconsequential details.

For instance, if you wanted to write a scene in an old bar, but the state of the place wasn't relevant to the story, you could spend a lot of time on peeling lacquer, creaking chairs, and cracked beams, or you could tell your reader “it was an old bar” and move on to the interesting stuff. What could be objectionable about that?

Similarly, maybe you want a character to sit comfortably in one of those old chairs. You could probably wrangle together a sentence or two about their position and expression, and maybe you could even make it sound natural enough, or you could tell your reader straight out and avoid the burden for both of you. Telling might especially be the right choice here if this detail is meant to imply something further about the character. Sure, you could show the comfort in an attempt to show whatever is behind it, but know that choice moves the desired detail further off the page and away from your reader. Is that where you want it?  Obscured?

Finally, maybe you want your reader to quickly know something beyond surface details. There is nothing wrong with readily supplying that information. For instance: “The old bar had been through a fire, and there were still scorch marks on some of the walls. Danny sat comfortably in one of the wooden chairs. Having grown up poor, she felt at home in the decrepit surroundings.”

Or how about something as direct as, “She was happy to see him, and it showed on her face.” It's not poetry maybe, but it doesn't have to be.

Of course, saying you can and should tell your reader things doesn't mean that you can tell them any old way. “Show, don't tell” has become an adage because it so often applies to mismanaged writing. Writers can want their readers to know something so badly, they beat it into the ground. This forces sentiments and steals the experience of the story from the reader. You have to maintain a balance. The nature of that balance is up to you. That's style.

See Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon (historical fantasy) for a good example of an author who tells often and well.

*note: The quote is Frost's response when asked what the “promises to keep” were in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Sometimes the audience doesn't get to know. Sometimes they are better left wondering.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


 “But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”—Robert Frost.

It doesn't have to be November for you to set concrete goals for your writing. NaNoWriMo is great and all, but if you only put pressure on yourself one month out of the year to get things done, you're missing out. Writing is hard work—learning to write is even harder—and it's always easier not to write instead, to put it off, to day dream about your characters a little more, to just watch something on the Internet. Even when you are working regularly, after struggling to get down 300 words in an hour or two, its always easier to wipe your brow and say, “enough for today,” than to keep going.

Is it enough? Or are you dragging your feet?

Try this: set a deadline for your project, and stick to it.

Get rid of the guess work and the excuses, hold your feet to the fire, and write. Don't set some psychotic deadline like writing a novel in a week. You'll kill yourself trying to reach it, you won't make it by half, and then you'll feel terrible. Plan an obtainable goal, and then strive for it. You'll write more than usual and you're writing will be better, because you'll have to cut down on distractions and focus when you're working or else you won't reach your deadline. You'll also feel better about the whole process when you do reach that deadline, because not only will you have a finished draft, but you'll have kept your promise to yourself. Even if you do go into overtime, if you've planned appropriately, it shouldn't be by much. Anyway, life happens. If you've been working hard to reach your goal, you'll know it, and it won't bother you.

But maybe you think that kind of pressure would stifle you. Deadline? The very word sounds like it kills creativity. No, not for you, you're an artist, a flower blooming in the moonlight, you need time to be inspired. Okay. Keep doing what you're doing if it's working for you. Is it working for you?

Set goals big and small. Make a deadline to write a poem by midnight every day this weekend, or a short story by Monday. If you have no idea how long it would take you to write a novel, or if you even could do such a thing, set a deadline for 50 pages. If you estimate you can write two pages a day, roughly 500 words double spaced, that's about a month of work to reach your goal. Keep track of your progress, and if in a month you find yourself woefully behind schedule, reassess. Have you worked earnestly enough? Have you gotten too bogged down in minute details? Maybe you should start with a smaller project. Or maybe a month is simply too little time right now.

Calibrate a new deadline and nail it to the wall over your desk. Be sure its a nail, though, that way the you who sits down to write later will get the point. I don't recommend escalating to writing the date in blood. Blood draws flies, and you'll have to paint over it each time. I recommend even less writing it in your own blood. Stick to the more working class intimidations of . . . you know what, never mind. I may be a little punch drunk since I recently met my own deadline of April 1st to finish rewriting a novel. Just Try it.