Monthly Archives: September 2015

Creating Verisimilitude With Images

When I first began to practice the craft of writing (as opposed to just expressing myself in writing), I very deliberately planned my stories. I created character worksheets detailing the entire life histories of the main characters. I drew diagrams of my characters’ living quarters. I collected images to represent each character, and I put together files of pictures of furniture and objects in my scenes.

I may have gone overboard with this process, but I wasn’t off-base with my idea. Collecting images to represent your characters and settings is essential to successfully telling your story. Even if the character you’re writing about is based on your great-Aunt Hortense, with whom you spent every summer growing up and whose face you think you remember in every detail, you should still get several pictures of her to reference.

If the setting for your story is an imagined one—say, the surface of Mars—it is even more imperative that you collect images. You may say that you want to use your imagination, and you should, but there’s actually no better kickstart to the imagination than a jumping-off point.

By Тимур Зиев/Timur Ziev (http://www.photosight.ru/users/300922/) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsWhy is this important? Well, let’s talk about the concept of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude refers to the depiction of realistic details and can often make or break a story. For example, say your character is imprisoned in a crumbling, old tower. If you describe the story with relatively overused images—it’s dirty, the stones are old, it’s cold—your reader doesn’t really get a mental feel for your character’s plight. These details just aren’t specific enough.

Now, say you have several images of actual crumbling towers, or even better, are fortunate enough to live within driving distance of a few. When you look at or visit these, you can see the exact quality of the light when the setting sun slants through the openings in the castle and hits the stone floors. You can see the centuries of rust on the iron bars of the window and imagine the reddish residue on your protagonist’s fingers when he grips those bars. You can see the ivy snaking up the walls of the castle and imagine that the protagonist gets so hungry that he actually tries to eat that ivy.

With all of these images, you ground the scene firmly in specific, unexpected details. By doing so, you cause your readers to fully immerse themselves in your story. That’s what you want.

So, no matter how well you think you know your character’s face or the setting for your story, always, always get pictures. Pick out the details from those images—the surprising ones. Create verisimilitude, and you’ll create a masterpiece.

On Living Honestly

In your writing life, you might come to a point at which the magic stops. For some time, you’ve suspected it was going to happen. Maybe ideas don’t come to you as often, or getting them down has become harder. And now, suddenly, you can’t write at all. You might still be able to put words on paper, and they might even fool other people into thinking you’re producing good work, but you know the truth. You know the fountain has dried up.

If this happens, the problem might not lie in your writing abilities, nor in your ability to think of new material. The problem may be that you’re living a lie.

Let me explain. We’re all forced to do things in life that we don’t want to—jobs we hate, family get-togethers we’d rather avoid, that sort of thing. Few people have the freedom to do exactly what they want 100 percent of the time, and those who do are probably not very nice to be around.

But none of that really interferes with your ability to write. What does interfere with your ability to write is when you consistently, day in and day out, pretend to everyone that whatever it is you’re not wanting to do really is what you want to do—including to yourself.

I don’t mean that you should have a bad attitude about the distasteful things we all have to do to get along. Not at all. What I do mean is that if you are going so far as to not even acknowledge the truth to yourself, then you are definitely living a lie.

The fact is, if you’re so immersed in a daily lie that you are even pretending to yourself, then your creative voice is going to atrophy. Because art is about telling the truth—and if you can’t tell the truth even to yourself, then you surely can’t tell the truth about anything else.

I’m not suggesting you up and abandon everything in favor of homesteading in Alaska. No. But you do need to admit, to yourself, that this situation, whatever it is, is not actually what you want. Write it down. Write it all down. This will terrify you. Burn it, then, if you’re afraid of what you’ve just written down.

You’ve just finally been honest with yourself. And maybe the situation is such that it’s actually impossible to change for financial, familial, or health reasons. Okay. You’re not the first writer to have responsibilities.

What can you do? You can stake out a part of your life that is yours and that you can live honestly. If you secretly always wanted to be a homesteader, take canoeing and camping trips. If you always wanted to be a ballerina, and not an accountant, take some dance classes. If you can’t afford either one, save some seeds and plant a garden, or watch YouTube instructional videos.

Be like water, which always finds a way, even through rock. You might be surprised when the words return to you.

Relax–And Take Your Time With Your Writing

When I was 13, I made up a character I loved. I gave her an entire life history and figured out every detail about her. Then I tried to write her story. I tried writing it several times, from several angles. It never quite came out right.

Then, when I was 16–after a year or two of not thinking about her–I wrote her story with an angle I’d never thought of, but with all the details necessary for that angle. Finally, I knew I’d done her justice.

When you set out to tell a story, you may find that you don’t tell it just right. You finish the piece, you sit back, and you frown. Something about it doesn’t jibe, but you don’t know what. You look through it: Well, I got that detail right. . . . I mentioned that. . . . Why isn’t it working?

Honestly, who knows? If the story is based on a real-life incident, maybe you hewed too closely to the truth at the expense of your imagination. Maybe you never quite lost yourself in the story while you were writing it. Maybe you don’t know enough about the story in your own mind to be able to tell it just yet.

When that happens, it’s okay. Really. That story’s time has just not come. But no piece of writing is ever a failure, because even when you tell it all wrong, at least you end up with the knowledge of how not to tell it.

I like to say that Mother Earth takes her time growing an oak tree; likewise, I give myself permission to take my time with my writing. So instead of obsessing over trying again, just set it aside. The parts of the work that you told right will stay with you. Be patient with the work: in the end, the story will ripen and be ready for the telling. You just have to be ready when it does.

Writing by Hand

One of the biggest problems inexperienced writers encounter is editing themselves as they write. You know how it is: you sit at the computer, deliberating over the next sentence. You write it, finally, and then you go back and you rewrite it. You write the next sentence or two, and then you back up and fix one or two sentences. And so on, and so forth.

I can’t stress enough how detrimental to the creative process it is to edit yourself as you write. When you sit down to write, you simply need to write. Do not edit, “fix,” massage, or otherwise interfere with what you’ve written.

I know, I know. You’re painfully aware that what you wrote on the last page wasn’t right, that you could have said such-and-such better, that you need to look up the capital of Suriname.

Maybe so. But when you pay that sort of hyper-alert attention to your writing during the actual writing process, you’ve giving an ear to your internal censor. Your internal censor, you know, really doesn’t think you should be writing at all. If you pay him the sort of attention that results in your rewording, redescribing, adding to, and Googling obscure details, then pretty soon he will convince you that you shouldn’t have even tried to write whatever it is that you’re writing, and you’ll trash the whole project.

Pen and paperSo how do you overcome the temptation to edit as you write? One simple way is to try an antiquated way of writing known as “writing by hand.” Yes, back in olden times, people actually did write their novels and short stories with pen and paper—and you should try it, too.

Why? Because when you’re writing by hand, you flat-out have less of an opportunity to rewrite. You can’t easily delete, rearrange, and reword much of anything. Whatever you write, well, it stays there.

This might absolutely horrify you. You might think your first efforts are always so terrible that you don’t want to have to look at them.

Again, maybe so. But by writing by hand, you can more easily discipline yourself to do what you should be doing: just writing.

So try it out. Not just for a few pages; stick with it long enough to get the hang of it. Stick with it until you start liking what you’re writing.

You might be surprised how quiet that censor gets.

On Being a Beginning Writer: Give Yourself a Break!

In the movie Amadeus, which centers on a rivalry between the composers Salieri and Mozart, the character of Salieri bemoans his perceived lack of talent when compared with Mozart. “Why,” he asks the priest who hears his confession, “did God implant the desire, but deny me the ability?”

As a writer, you might identify with Salieri. You might feel that you have the Great American Novel in your head but suspect that you lack the ability to write it. And so, you tell yourself, you’ll write it when you are good enough to write it. Then you spend the next twenty years bitterly resenting every book on the bestseller list. And you don’t write your novel.

Why don’t you write it? Because you think you have to be really, really good to write it.

Not so at all. One of my favorite novelists, Joyce Carol Oates, is widely considered a brilliant author and is inarguably prolific. But what many people don’t realize is that that when she was in college, she wrote, as she tells it, “novel after novel,” all of which she considered so terrible that they’ve never seen the light of day.

Why did she do this? To practice learning how to write.

The patron saint of mediocrity.Maybe they were terrible. But what would have happened if Oates, having written that first awful effort, decided, like Salieri, that she just didn’t have the talent to write and quit after the first one? Or the third? Or maybe even the tenth?

This is the secret to actually becoming a successful writer: You have to give yourself permission to be an awful beginner.

You might think great writers start out great. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Vonnegut ever writing anything mediocre. But no, most writers aren’t that spectacular when they first start writing.

When you sit down to write a piece, give yourself a break. Allow yourself to be a beginner. Allow yourself the freedom to write without telling yourself how bad it is. All you need to do is to tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Really, that’s all.

Maybe you won’t surpass Neil Gaiman this time out. That’s okay. Neil Gaiman didn’t surpass himself on his first time out, either.

The point, though, is to be kind to yourself and your creativity—let yourself bruise your knees, stumble, fall. It’s okay. You’re learning. Someday, you too will be running.