Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Painting on the Page

My critique partner Linda is in "polishing" stage of her W-I-P. Last night I re-read the first 138 pages of her manuscript.

On the last go-round, I thought she'd done a great job, but yesterday she blew me away by the subtle nuances she'd added with just a sentence here and a few words there.

I've talked before about my painter friend M. We had dinner together nearly two years ago and, after our meal, spent another hour drinking liqueur and talking about our respective processes. To my surprise, I found that we shared a number of things in common.

When M gets ready to do a landscape, she begins by blocking out the prominent features--like mountains and buildings--to insure that she gets the perspective right. Once she has the larger attributes distributed across the canvas, she goes back to begin filling in the detail. Her final step is to add the light and shade. She contends that it is this step that separates the amateurs from the professionals, and that lighting and shade can make or break a landscape.

I was interested because I essentially follow the same process in my writing; only I do it chapter by chapter. This is largely because I am a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. I get an idea for a story, sit down and begin writing without knowing much more than how the plot will begin and how it will end.

My usual process is to begin the story, but not to curb my natural tendency to wander off into backstory. I allow each of the characters to natter on as much as they like about their pasts. I don't try to stop them for two reasons: (1) It's how I warm up to a story, and (2) This is how I learn who the characters are.

Plus I know I'll lop all the backstory off when I get to that first moment of action. {smile}

Once I get to the moment of action, the real novel begins. I start the action in the old journalistic tradition: who, what, when, where and just a hint of why. I do this primarily through dialogue, which is probably my strongest skill as a writer.

When I have finished "blocking" out the prominent features of my chapter, I go back and begin filling in the detail. This usually means some narrative (often taken from that backstory--but only a line or two at a time) and some description. When I am writing that first run through above, I don't stop to describe the setting. During my second pass, I fill in a bit of detail to help anchor the reader to time and place.

In Linda's case, she does such a great job with descriptions that I've learned an enormous amount from her. She uses wonderful metaphors and odd word pairings to describe her settings and her characters.

My last pass on a chapter will be to fill in the emotional color. What are the characters thinking and feeling? This is the hardest part of the job for me. I do it mostly through internal dialogue to keep from drifting from "showing" into "telling." Without emotional color, your readers fail to connect to your characters. Too much and the story becomes soppy.

In reading Linda's pages last night, I was in awe of what a great job she did with feathering in emotional content. Her novel is a romantic suspense. Through previous drafts, she'd focussed on maintaining a tight pace. This go-round, she zeroed in on the romance. Despite the fact that I've read three previous drafts of her novel (and the fact that I was dog-tired), I found myself sliding into a pleasant gooey emotional mood as her hero and heroine drew ever so inevitabley toward each other. THAT'S great writing.

I've found that many newbie writers get so busy with their narrative and description of action and settings that they completely ignore the emotional side of the story. I always include both the hero and heroine's POV (in different scenes, of course). If you can get inside your characters' heads, you can listen to their reactions and express them on the page for your reader. Like my painter friend said about lighting and shading, emotional color can make or break your novel. Linda instinctively understands that.

During each of my passes over my works-in-progress, I re-read and clean up the language and grammar. The result is, when I reach the end of the novel, I have very little more to do in terms of editing. That is, of course, until my editor and copy editor get their hands on the manuscript.{grin}

Every writer needs to find his way through his story. But, as Linda reminded me last night, ignore action, dialogue, narrative or emotional color at your own risk.

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