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Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Telling lies for fun and profit

Sometimes writing comes easy, sometimes it's like a self-administered appendectomy.

John Scalzi has a post about writing Fiction vs. Non-fiction. He links over to a post by Marissa Lingen that talks about a lot of things in writing fiction (but only briefly).

There's a bunch of things going on in both posts.

But I'll agree with John here that the most important line of Mrissa's post is "If you haven't written a lot of fiction, you probably can't write good fiction right off the bat." This is what's known at the "Million Words of Crap" theory (aka, practice makes perfect - actually, practice makes permanent, critique and improvement give you the continuous improvement process toward perfect). And we only have to scroll down to the sixth response in John's post before we get the inevitable, "But, not for (insert tale of wondrous freak of nature who published their very first novel attempt at the ripe age of 12 for a six-figure advance)" (okay, well, not really in this case, but you know what I mean).

Mrissa also talks about what detail you put into the story to make it work. As a visual artist (that day thing I keep yammering about), I do have a minor in Illustration (which is different than "pretty picture making"). So I have a bit of experience here with what details should be added, what you can shorthand, and what you can leave out that people will fill in automatically (hint, if you want to make people look sinister, draw their teeth with detail). Here is an example about how to imply scale and it doesn't mean throwing in as much detail as you can (grokked from Jay Lake). In fact, it's all about what detail you include, and all the detail you leave out. Writing a scene is very similar. You have to choose which details to show and ignore all the other details that aren't necessary. Those details you show must concrete the image in the readers head and give them the flavor of the place (in a Synethesia kind of way).

And because all of that is a bit heavy, for contrast we offer Jeff VanderMeer's Top 10 Little-Known Freelance Writer Survival Tip and a Basic Instructions - How to Tell a Riveting Story (again, grokked from Jay Lake).

4 comments:

Jarrett said...

I am wondering how your visual training has helped or hurt your writing.

It looks like there has been some of the visual training that you have been able to crib for use.

Steve Buchheit said...

Jarrett, it's done both, helped and hurt. With illustration you need to focus on the pertinent objects that will "tell the story" (that's a very big concept in advertising and illustration). Don't draw the unimportant, or at least don't give them details (see, and here's a bad example but it's the first one that came up) Boris Vallejo's drawings. If the monster ain't on the mount where the characters are (and most of his illustrations I can pull up in memory, the main focus characters are positioned as if on a pedestal) it tends to be smoky and shadowy. It's only if our hero is grappling (or being grappled by) the monster that you get it's details. Because the monster is not the point of the drawing, (and here I'm going to stereotypify his vast body of work) it's the chick in the chain-mail bikini.

This helps with characterization. While the monsters have shape and mass, and intent, they don't have much detail. You don't need to describe all the foaminess of the wave about to crash over the character, but you need to let the reader know that OMG! is it big. And heavy.

And thinking of Boris, if you look at the landscapes, or dungeons, there's not a lot of detail in those as well. There's enough that you get the general gist of it, but not enough that your eye continues to play where he doesn't want you to. Or, in other illustrations of, let's say, castles. You typically don't get a brick by stone level of detail. Sure, one part shows the outlines (usually a corner) of whatever it's made up out of, but the rest is implied by color and shadow. Depending on the importance of the castle in the drawing you have either more or less bricks individually drawn out.

That's important to place setting. Stephen King gives a great example of this in "On Writing." You give enough details for the reader to wink and say, "Gotcha!" But not more detail that drowns them more than that earlier wave. So, thinking of that wave, I can tell you the water was "perfect translucent blue" or "green flecked with white foam" or "steely grey" and you get a whole panoply of details (where are we at, what's the temperature, what's the condition of the sea, what the surrounding weather is like) that I, as the author, don't have to put into the book. You come pre-installed as the reader (and if not, either the details don't matter, or you won't think it was much of a story).

In my story "A History of Lightning" I describe a cloud as a "death-head cumulous." Now I do talk about the skull in the cloud, but I don't say if it has an anvil top, or it's puffy and white. The reader should see it as towering over the character, lightning racing up the face, exposing the skull like features in bluish light, a heavy omen in the skies. I don't describe it lumpy clump by lumpy clump.

That's just one example. And, yes (running out of time) you should bring all your experience to bear in writing. I can make several parallels between illustrating and visual design and writing. And again, don't get me talking about type and ink on a page, I'll bore you to death with it.

Jarrett said...

Wow. Wasn't expecting that length of response, but it was very interesting.

Thanks for getting so in depth. If you were to want to work up some longer blog posts about this I'd definitely read and recommend them to others.

I found that fascinating and definitely applicable to this crazy thing we do.

Steve Buchheit said...

No worries Jarrett. I've started listing topics on a notepad. I have at least four good ones so far.

And like I said, don't get me talking about 1) Typography or 2) Ink on paper. I could talk a blue streak about them.