Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned about the process of writing fiction is to learn how to paint. No, I’m not talking about painting with oils or acrylics–I’m referring to painting with lyrical brushstrokes.
Getting the story down is much like laying the foundation layers of a painting. It doesn’t matter if you do a detailed sketch or simply start by washing in the background with broad brush strokes. What matters is that in the initial layer, you get the main idea across. In writing, it means painting the story. If you are anything like me, conveying a story intelligently and simply is hard enough. Even with an outline, taking the story in your head and bringing it to life is hard. Refining the work into a piece akin to literature takes editing.
Now, I know writers and teachers advocate not editing until you’ve finished writing. Not only do I disagree, I think that’s the dumbest damned advice I could give you. Of course you should edit, every time you read it, until it’s done. It’s never done. I read the previous day’s work and edit as I go, ensuring the new work has the feel of the previous, and keeping the right smooth and even. Once the story’s skeleton is written, I can replace the stolid writing of my initial layer with something more like the jazz I hear in my head. Layers, layers, layers.
Here’s a piece I published before I recognized there were layers left to paint. I’ve started “finishing” the work today. Hopefully when I finish, the book will feel like a work of art instead of just … a book.
Here’s what I started with:
Charlie Patterson was dreaming with his best friend, Robin. Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie. His dreams were vivid, tactile, powerful, and emotional. In a word, they were real. Better than that, when Charlie dreamed of Robin, it was usually because she was right there, with him, in the dream.
They stumbled across the Stream, the limitless world of dreams and fantasy, during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they had found each other, and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would restore the balance of good and evil, of light and darkness in the Stream. One day. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to light.
It was twilight in the part of the Stream in which they found themselves. Charlie was seated in a long, narrow boat on a still lagoon. The landscape was serene, comprising forested lands that bordered the wide lake, with mountains that rose behind them. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. Low clouds hung in the air, close enough that the tops of the mountains were obscured. The sun had descended behind the mountain toward which they drifted, and its light painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake.
Away from the westward sky, the landscape had turned violet, with the thick fog drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the landscape bright and cheery, and half dark and ominous.
Fine, but a little dry, no? Okay, it kind of sucks.
Here’s how it reads now (so far):
Most teenage boys were limited to dreaming about beautiful girls, but not Charlie Patterson. His dreams were vivid, tactile, and emotional. More importantly, these forays into the chimeric world of reimagined pasts and dragon presents were as tangible as his morning rides to school. One wrong move, a bad twist, an unconquered fear and Charlie knew he wouldn’t be waking up again. It was glorious. Better still, in most of his dreams, he was accompanied by his best friend, Robin, the literal girl of his dreams.
They’d stumbled across the Stream—the limitless world of dreams and fantasy—during the summer prior to his twelfth birthday. In so doing, they found each other and created a bond that went beyond friendship. They were the One, a pair of dream travelers who, it was foretold, would one day restore the balance of light and darkness in the Stream. For now, however, they were just two kids playing around in a world where one’s brightest imagination or deepest fears could come to pass.
Charlie was seated in a long boat on a still lagoon, wishing Robin would sit still for once. The long shadows of trees stretched across the broad lake interspersed by bright stars of sunlight that danced through the wind-blown leaves. Beyond the lake in a long arc, snow-capped mountains scraped the underbellies of low-hanging clouds until the clouds surrendered, fell as fog, and began to obscure the mountains’ peaks. It was spring here too, Charlie noted, as the trees that dotted the mountainsides were populated with the bright lavender of new foliage. The air was thick and humid, though not unpleasant. It was nearing dusk and the waning sunlight painted the sky a muted pink that was reflected in the mirror-like lake. Away from the westward sky, the landscape had already changed to midnight purple with thick fog roiling down the mountains and drifting over the treetops. It gave the lagoon an odd duality, with half the countryside bright and cheery and half dark and ominous.
Still needs work, but at least I don’t need a glass of water to wash it down. Layer, layer, layer. Even better, with layering comes clarity. The first two paragraphs will almost certainly just be deleted. Start in the middle and make it sing; that’s the goal.