A Thousand Words or One Picture: My Back Yard

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I have tried many times to capture the view from my seat on the back porch. Don’t ask me why a writer uses a camera and then complains when she doesn’t like the picture. Let me try to capture this beautiful view with words. Let me paint a mental image with words like green, buzz, twitter, soft breeze, warm sun, tree, twigs, and others.

From where I sit, early in the morning, the backyard is dappled with light and shadow. The sun rises above the privacy fence. It breaks apart into a million dancing filaments as it’s capture in the leaves of the large oak and young pecan that grace the yard. The sun stripes the rich green of the grass inviting me to lay in nature’s carpet with hands clasped behind my head and eyes on the sky.

Plants in pots awaken. My elephant ears perk up welcoming the sun with leaves the size of my two-year-old niece. Vines and flowers stretch and awaken as the light edges their leaves.

All around me, if I sit still enough, are the sounds of life. Traffic on the road makes up the monotonous background which my ears tone out. I’m far more interested in the faint call of the chickadees in the neighbors pine, the arguments of the sparrows in the martin house, the skittering of small bugs busy about their morning. If I sit very still the wrens that nest in our yard will come and hop about. The lizard who claims the back porch will step from hiding into the sun and we will share in the beauty of the morning.

A picture may be worth a thousand words but a thousand words will tell you of wind and birds and the color green. My seat on the back porch is my favorite place to be for there I’m surrounded by God’s creation, by flowers, trees, plants, sky, sun, leaves, birds, and bugs.

When I raise my eyes from the page to gaze away for a moment, maybe trying to think of a name for someone or deciding what they would say, the first thing I see is my leaning lamp-post trapped in the shad between the pecan and the oak. It whispers of Narnia and a way to the land of a Lion and brave beavers.

Beside it sits my birdbath with its cement mushrooms. It always makes me smile. The mushrooms bring to mind little folk both Hobbit and Fairy. Beyond the tree’s shadows, ever dancing in the Texas breeze, rest the rusted out swing-set. In my mind, it will someday be the bearer of flowers and vines, but first things first and second things never. It must wait its turn. For now it’s my piece of post-apocalyptic ‘art’, which makes people scratch their heads and wonder about mine. But like everything else, it conjures memories. They may be morbid scenes from action flicks where we’ve lost control of technology, but even those are happy memories of late nights with Dad. Beyond sci-fi memories dwells the idea of magical secrets. Under the veins will be an old swing set. Beyond the ivy will be a lost bike. Through the trees you’ll see a dirty gazing a ball and under the bush an old sundial. Creating my own secret garden is a lifelong endeavor, but knowing that frees me to one-thing-at-a-time, here and there, no need to rush.

Beyond the dreams of one day stands my neighbors fence. Beyond that sentinel of privacy climbs the tops of trees. Just enough trees to sooth the eye with their greenery, but not enough to hide the all-encompassing big blue sky. Nothing in Texas is as amazing as the sky that goes on and on and on. This alone will keep me tied here and when I get to Heaven, I hope my ‘mansion’ is built in a place with wide-open skies and lots of trees.

Now, I hope you understand why a picture just won’t do.

(In case you’re wondering, this article isn’t even a thousand words. It’s just about 700. Again, I think my gift is more writing and less picture-taking.)

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Making Ever Paragraph Count, Part 2

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

Last time we introduced the idea of Making Every Word Count.  Now let’s get more specific.

Make every paragraph count.  Make every scene and description count.  Ask yourself, as you edit, if this event is important.  What am I learning about the situation and the characters?  Every word counts.  Your book is your baby.  Your reader wants to enjoy it, but in the end, it’s another book on their shelf.  Even if they adore it, they can’t spend their life studying it.  Appreciate and respect this fact by making every paragraph count.

What does this look like for the writer?  Emotion.

Sometimes rough drafts can be quiet dry.  They have all the plot points and all the action but little of the emotion.  (Sometimes they’re the other way around: all emotion and no plot. But that’s a different problem.)  This is especially true of new or young writers.  Never fear.  It’s all part of the process.  What you have to do, after you’ve written those two great words, THE END, is go back and add in the emotion.  You have to go back and make every paragraph, every word count.

There are a two key places I regularly see this problem as an Alpha Reader, and as I edit my own work.

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Description:  You know the paragraphs where you spend several lines and a few hundred words talking about clouds, trees, grass, sand, snow, and wind?  Or maybe you invested some words in the description of a beautiful car, a surprisingly fast motorcycle, or the long limbs of a racehorse.  Descriptions shouldn’t be dry.  They are the playground of the writer and the soul of the story.  Descriptions are mood setters.  Wait!  What’s that?  They effect emotion?  Yes!  Descriptions pull the reader away from their world and into yours, be it the same one they inhabit or a fantastical one.  Adjectives and adverbs clue the reader in on who to love, who to hate, when to be nervous or at peace, to slow down or quicken their reading pace.  If you write an emotionless description, go back and look at your word choice.

Have you read Lord of the Rings?  If you haven’t, I highly suggest it.  If you have, think back and remember how you felt when the Hobbits entered the Old Forest.  Did you feel its twisted nature?  What about the feelings you experienced in Fangorn Forest, the Misty Marshes, Lothlorian, Rohan, or the Shire?  These places take on a life of their own because Tolkien harnessed the power of descriptions, and used them to set the emotional stages of the story.  They feel alive, almost separate from the people who live in them.  Emotion in descriptions is a powerful tool in your writing smithy.

How do you do this?  Easy.  Ask yourself how your character feels as they observe the world around them, or what you want your reader to feel as they look in on the world you’ve created.  Are the clouds overhead ominous or uplifting?  Is the car a deathtrap or a thing of beauty?  Does the dog’s hair stand on end while its lips curl back, or are his ears perked and his tail wagging?

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Plot:  You know the little in-between plot points were your character cleans the house, goes grocery shopping, travels from point A to point B, and does their laundry?  We all know they have to do these things.  Even if you’re writing a futuristic story, there’s always laundry to do.  Maybe you cover a few non-important days in their life by listing out all the mundane things that they did.  Or maybe you tell us how their friends were late to see a movie, or their car needed to a wash.  These scenes should be filled with emotion or cut.  Noting is more annoying to a read than a pointless list of events….especially if it looks a lot like their own To Do list.

If your character is doing laundry, how do they feel?  Happy, content, defeated, frustrated?  Maybe the laundry time is just an excuse for the character to think, giving us needed insight into their mind.  Don’t tell me they did the laundry, give me a point for the laundry that drives the story forward.  If you need to tell your reader several days had passed were nothing happened, then just tell them.  Don’t give them a list of all the mundane things done.

Back to Lord of the Rings, no one thinks that Aragon didn’t shower and wash his clothes ever.  We all know he did at one point in time or another, but Tolkien never tells us this.  Why?  Well, it wouldn’t fit in the story.  It wouldn’t drive the story forward.  It would bog us down.  He does tell us about making campfires and eating.  Now eating is pretty normal, but Tolkien uses food and pipes to show us the comfort of home, or the lack of comfort.  The lack of pipeweed on the journey to Mordor is used to show us how out of their element the Hobbits are, and how far from civilization they are.  Tolkien doesn’t give us a list of Sam’s backpack contents.  He uses those contents to drive the story forward or to help us look back at crucial moments.

How do you combat useless plot points, or lists?  Easy!  Ask yourself if the reader is learning anything about the character based upon what is going on.  Is this scene driving the plot forward?  If yes, than draw out the emotion of the scene.  Develop it.  If no, cut it!  If you aren’t sure, see if it can be used.  Ask yourself how your character feels as things slow down a bit and work that angle of the story.  Make sure there’s a point.

Waste nothing.  Every moment, breath, scene, paragraph, and word counts.  They’re all important.  Look for clues.  The longer you write, the more books or articles you get under your belt, the more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses you will become.  You will find words that clue you in that a scene needs to be developed.  It becomes your personal short hand.  When the words are flowing let them flow.  Then go back and add, develop, and cut, as you need.

And for goodness sake, if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, go do it!