One of the very few downsides of being a writer is that you’re never entirely off-duty. You can’t really switch your brain off, the way you can switch your office computer off. If I go more than a day without writing, I tend to get fidgety and guilty, as if there’s someone following me around with purse-lipped disapproval, making notes of my laziness, like the writing equivalent of a self-appointed neighborhood watch chair, faced with a new resident who isn’t mowing their lawn the regulation three times per week.
When we came away on holiday, I decided to try a writing-lite approach, using pen and paper rather than a laptop, and only drafting things out, rather than attempting to edit or fine-tune.
This has been reasonably successful in that I haven’t spent too much time glaring at my screen/page, and I’ve got down the bare bones of a couple of short stories I’ve had kicking around in my head for ages. We won’t talk about the fact that my handwriting is so appalling that somewhere down the line I’m going to have to spend several hours trying to decipher a single line of text in which someone called Harry seems to be doing something with a medicine ball and a Ferrari, despite the main character being called Bob, and the story containing neither high performance cars nor traditional items of school sports equipment*
*No, I never did figure out what I was trying to say.
What I have been doing is a fair bit of thinking about how I write. The place where we are staying has various prime writing locations – a pergola, hammocks under the trees, a shady terrace – but the baby seems to have a sixth sense for when I might actually be attempting to do something that doesn’t involve him, and is catapulted straight from sleep into full-on rage, about two miliseconds after my buttock touches the fabric of the
hammock. I’ve therefore had a fair few short interludes to do a bit of scribbling, but most of my hammock/pergola/terrace time has taken place under the beady eye of a baby who seems entirely happy for me to do my own thing, as long as that doesn’t involve taking my loving gaze off him for more than half a second. We’ve spent quite a bit of time swinging in the hammock, looking up at the trees, and I’ve had a few thoughts that may or may not be helpful. One of the main ideas I’ve been mulling over is to do with filters.
I’ve just recently got to grips with Instagram. I realise that I am slightly late to the game, and the reason that everyone I know has lovely, artistic pictures peppering their social media, is that they discovered Instagram a long time ago, but I don’t care. I now have pretty pictures and it makes me happy.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing about with the various filters, and adjusting all the…not sure what you call them.
Things you can change to make things look nicer.
Whatever. I’m not entirely sure what they all do, but I’ve figured a few of them out. And it’s occurred to me that what we do as writers is very similar to what Instagram does to our pictures. Different filters highlight different aspects of a photo. Some filters just don’t work for some subjects. Some filters become favourites and get used over and over.
In writing, we choose how the reader will see the world, filtering the story and the setting through the sensibilities of our viewpoint character or characters. A very matter-of-fact, unobservant character might give the reader quite a flat, two-dimensional view of the world they inhabit, while a flamboyant character who fancies themselves as considerably more intelligent than those around him may provide a rich, possibly intrusively complex worldview.
Every writer has their own style, or voice, and it’s easy to fall into the same patterns and habits, particularly when starting a new project. But when we’re using Instagram to treat our pictures, we’re forced to think consciously about what impression we want to create. It’s difficult to balance your natural writing flow with a self-conscious decision like that, but it’s worth being aware of the possibilities of filtering the story through the sensibilities of your main character.
I’ve also been thinking about the structure picture-thingy. Again, I’m not one hundred percent sure what it does, but it seems to bring out the detail, or grain of the picture. Great for artistic nature shots, less good for close-ups of your own face, unless you happen to possess the kind of flawless perfection of an actor in an expensive face-cream advert.
During some of my hammock-and-baby time, it occurred to me that structure is something else to be aware of when writing. Take the aforementioned trees. They rustle. Everyone knows trees rustle. And if a particular piece of writing only contains trees to make it clear the main character is in the country rather than the city, rustling is probably as detailed as you need to go. But if the trees are important to your plot, or if the main character has a reason to think about them in any sort of detail (Withdrawing from the world? Trying to distract themselves from thinking about something else? Never seen a tree before?) you might want to think about upping the structure setting.
Lie there for long enough, and the rustling starts to break down, with different elements coming into focus. Different trees have different sounds. The wind affects individual trees in various different ways.
There’s a harsh, dry-sounding rustle from a tree that looks as though it could do with a good fall of rain. What does it sound like? Like paper blowing in the street? Is that a comparison your character would make?
One tall tree has a deeper, harder-sounding rustle. It sounds like canvas flapping. Maybe a flag, or a line of heavy bunting. Has your main character been to a fair or a celebration of any sort? Would they make that sort of connection?
A clump of trees on the edge of the thicket sound like a bonfire crackling into life, whenever a gust hits them. And a smaller tree, sheltered in the middle, sounds more like a shallow, slow-flowing stream.
Then there are the falling leaves – just occasional sharp, brittle noises as they snag against the branches on their way down.
How much to include is always a tricky decision. You can’t put every little detail in without overwhelming the reader. Less is almost always more, or so I’ve found. But every now and again it’s worth thinking about upping the structure setting to throw something into sharp relief. Sometimes we need to see every pore and imperfection, rather than the vague blur with which we notice the background to our lives.
When I think about memorable quotes from books I’ve read, the details that stand out are the ones that are entirely recognisable, but fresh and non-clichéd. Something familiar rendered in such a way as to make you wonder why you never thought about it that way before. You can’t fill a whole novel with moments like that, but every book needs a few passages or phrases where the writer has slid the structure dial up close to maximum and made the character go much deeper into a thought than in the surrounding paragraphs.
Another Instagram picture-thingy is tilt structure, which allows you to decide which part of a picture to bring into sharp focus, while blurring the background. Again, this is something we can do as writers. If a character is focusing single-mindedly on something (a car chase, their thirst for revenge, their wife spotted in a bar with another man, their long-lost lover stepping off the pavement right in front of them) then they need to be seeing that thing, whatever it is, in sharp, precise detail, while the background can be sketched in a with just a few brief sentences, or ignored altogether. One of the dangers of over-describing is that the key moments are lost in a sea of detail, meaning that several chapters down the line, the reader finished up franticly leafing back through the book, thinking hang on a minute, when did Bob put that medicine ball in the Ferrari, and why is Mary so angry about it? As writers, we have to decide what needs to come into focus, and adjust the balance of the language accordingly. And to make sure that we don’t inadvertently create a sense of importance about something minor.
Bob just noticed a medicine ball out of the window of his Ferrari! This is clearly a crucial plot point! The medicine ball will turn out to belong to his late father’s secret love-child and is a metaphor for the danger of family secrets.
Or something like that.
Anyway. Holidays. Thinking. Instagram. It may be useful. It may not.
*adjusts usefulness filters to throw blog post into a hazy, summery light reminiscent of those heady youthful days when everything was new and useful*