Finding Your Authentic Writer’s Voice…

Have you ever paused as you were writing or revising to look at what’s on your page and found yourself thinking “Oh, man, that is just the right word!”? Somehow it just feels right, but how did you come up with it? and how do you find the right word, when you begin groping through a thesaurus?

Well, “just the right word” (or phrase) simply means you’ve found the right—

  • meaning,
  • sound,
  • subtext,
  • emotion, and
  • historical usage

Meaning:

The right meaning is fairly obvious.  The dictionary definition of the word fits what you’re trying to say. Good!

Sound:

The “sound” of the right word is a longer discussion.  (Check out my free e-Course, 8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to Your Writing, for an in-depth lesson on the “sound on the page.”)

Basically, it’s how the sound of the word aids the meaning of the word. There’s a reason we “moan” when we’re hurt, and why we “screech” when we’re furiously angry or frightened. It has to do with the frequency of the sound. Lower-pitched sounds (like “moan”) have an ominous vibration, while higher-pitched sounds (like screech) sound angry and frightened. Higher-pitched sounds are more likely to gain someone’s attention, yes? And from farther away!

Subtext:

Subtext is the “what else” that comes along with the word—its shades of meaning. For example, look at the words, “kill,” “murder,” and “assassinate.”  When do you use one versus the other?

Typically, “kill” is an unemotional word. Its one syllable starts with a hard sound (the “k”), and it’s over quickly.  It sounds cold-blooded and quick.

“Murder,” on the other hand, has two syllables. The first syllable starts with the softer “m,” and both syllable repeat the “errr” sound. As opposed to the short, concise sound of the one syllable for “kill,” the word “murder” has a longer sound, and it sounds as if time were taken to PLAN it.  “Murder” conveys the subtext that it was not a spur-of-the-moment act.

Extending that argument, look at “assassinate.” It conveys the idea of conspiracy: twice as many syllables as “murder,” and with the repeated hiss of the “s” sound. No wonder we kill an idea, “murder our little darlin’s,” and assassinate political figures.

In a nutshell, that’s the subtext of the word.

Emotion:

Emotion is part of the subtext of a word, but it runs on the tracks of our culture. A modern example, from RationalWiki“: “‘Liberal’, for instance, may be (and often is) used among Conservatives in the United States as an insult, implying that the person so-labeled disregards normal moral standards. The true meaning of such a term often becomes obscured due to the prevalence of the coded meaning.”

Your readers invest their emotions in your words, so you need to be aware of the probable and various reactions to your words and phrases.  I mean, what would be your readers’ reaction to the phrase, “gay marriage?” Is it a human right? or a perversion of a religious ceremony? What might be the reaction to those words in other cultures of the world, either present or past?

There are many emotionally laden words—suicide bomber, abortion, Wall Street, military funeral, to name but a sparse few. Although these words are laden with emotion, their primary emotion comes from how you use them in the story. However, to be sure you’re using “just the right word,” you must take into consideration the emotional baggage that comes with it.

Historical Usage:

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, the history of any word you use is significant.  Let’s look at an example (though this particular example is becoming less valid as time passes).

Until these last what? ten years or so? a tattoo was a symbol of gangs and violence. During the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, it conveyed a sense of violence and fear and dread, and yet during those same years, a tattoo in the Hawaiian culture conveyed a warm sense of family. So if you were writing about a tattoo in the ’60s and ’70s, you had to be aware of the connotation of that word, that is, the nuances it conveyed along with its precise dictionary definition. If the warm, familial sense were your intended sense of the word, you had to ensure that the reader was on track with the warm, familial connotation, so they didn’t drag along the gang-violence related connotation as they read your work.

Let me leave you with this:

One of the things that makes English such a fun language to write is that it’s a “cobbled together” language. We begged, borrowed, and wholesale snatched words from German, Dutch, Old Norman, Scandinavian, ancient Greek and Latin, with roots going back to India as well. The result is an enormously disparate—and rich—vocabulary with many nuances. When you add the history of any word’s usage to its meanings, you get an enormous vocabulary.  A rich playground for you, yes?

This gives you a trove of words from which to write your stories (“thesaurus” means treasury), but from time to time, it probably gives you some nasty headaches. Is the best word this one or that one? Poets, you know whereof I speak.

At this point you know this and that word don’t necessarily mean the same thing, even if they show up together in a thesaurus.

There’s an urban legend that English is the only language that has a thesaurus. It’s not, but it is one of the largest: Roget’s Revised & Updated Sixth Edition has over 330,000 words and phrases in 1,075 categories.  (By the way, did you know there’s a difference between a thesaurus, which groups words into categories, and a synonym dictionary, which is a simple alphabetical list of words with their attendant synonyms? I much prefer a thesaurus—but I’ll leave that rant for a future post.)

Webster's 1935 Unabridged Dictionary
Webster’s 1935 Unabridged Dictionary

One of my treasured books — one I keep close at hand — is my 1935 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition. It was the last time Webster included nearly every English word there was at the time: more than 600,000. Generously scattered throughout are glossy pages of illustrations, some of which are mesmerizing and generate stories just from their name. “The Order of the Golden Fleece, Austria.” (Third one from the left, top row.)  Hmmm, I can just feel a story in that one. Anyway, before I get too distracted, this very large, very old dictionary is eminently useful for more than knowing the use of a word from the mid-1930s. It’s eminently useful for finding the original meanings as well as the historical and emotional history of words.

Remember, for your non-writer readers,  “just the right word” may be invisible, but its effects are inescapable.

Words carry more than their definition; they carry sound, emotion, and cultural and historical usage. Even when reading silently, readers “hear” the words—so much so that Ben Yagoda published a craft-of-writing text called “The Sound on the Page.”

And of course, there’s Milan Kundera, who averred:

I reject the very notion of synonym; each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.

…or as Mark Twain said, in his October 15, 1888 letter to George Bainton

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

 

I wish you JOY in writing!

mckenna 3 trans

 

Sunday Exercise: Just a paragraph, but oh, what a paragraph!

Have you ever read a passage of a story and just stopped to enjoy what the writer did? How the writer shared their world view in such an economical way? or how they created a world without using fancy terms?

Happens all the time, yes?

great short stories of the mastersWell, I keep this book on my desk, which I browse at will — and sometimes all I’m seeking is a brief connection with another writer’s style. (Sometimes, I don’t even finish the full short story, though I probably shouldn’t admit it. Yes, I know: bad McKenna, go stand in the corner and read the full story.)

But I wanted to share this opening paragraph from a James Joyce short story, called “Araby.” I was so taken by the beauty of what he did, that I stopped reading the story just to enjoy the passage.  Which is when I decided to do an imitation of it  (click here for my explanation of what imitation is — and is not).

Just look at what he did:

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown, imperturbable faces.

Take a moment to re-read his passage before continuing on here.  Now read my rewrite, which was written to MEAN the same.

North Richmond was a blind street, quiet except at the hour when the Christian Brother’s School let out. An empty house of two storeys stood at the blind end, separate from its neighbours in a square lot. The other houses of the street contained decent lives within them, and they sat opposite each other.

What do you notice about the difference in the feel of the first passage v. the second passage?

Don’t they both paint the same image?  What is it that Joyce does that my rewritten passage does not?

Go ahead … leave a comment!

I’m going to imitate the passage, and I’ll post my imitation in the comments.

 

Sunday Exercise: So Many Writing Exercises! Which Is The Best?

There are writing exercises galore for storytelling, such as story or “first-line” plotting prompts. However, there are only a rare few that focus on the quality of your writing.

It’s the quality of your writing that sells your stories.

So which is the best writing exercise for improving the quality of your writing?

The one used by Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, Somerset Maugham, and Winston Churchill—men known for their great writing.

So which of the many writing exercises did they use?

Imitation.

No, not plagiarism, which is a totally different animal.

As humans, we learn through imitation. Children imitate the letter “a,” rounding it carefully, and then slowly and with careful attention, they practice their new skill by writing a whole row of “a’s.”  Children imitate the adults around them as a way to learn what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.

But we have to choose what we imitate carefully. I mean, how often do you really want to hear a two-year-old tell its playmate “Well, you really fucked up.”

Imitation is how we learn.

 

How Imitation Works

Let’s look at the simplest imitation possible.

Sentence:  He ran.

Imitation: She jumped.

The original sentence was subject + verb, yes? So the imitation should be subject (in this case, a pronoun) + verb, but it can be ANY subject + verb.  I could have imitated it by saying “They spoke,” or “it dropped.”  As long as I kept the subject as a pronoun and added one verb, it would work.

We’re imitating the STRUCTURE of the sentence, but not the sentence itself. If the structure of a sentence could be copyrighted, there’d be no way to write, because even the most complex structure would be owned by some writer or other. Imitation of structure is not plagiarism.

Let’s look at a harder imitation:

Sentence: Anne Snow’s slim hands gently rocked her brandy glass. (~ A Murder of Quality, by Le Carre)

Imitation: Jim Dandy’s huge feet clumsily kicked his shoddy football.

How to…

When you come across a passage that impresses you, write it down in a notebook. (More on this in a moment.)  When you’re ready to imitate it, take out a legal pad or paper — yes, you need to handwrite this exercise — and do the following:

  1. Write the sentence on the paper. (I triple and quadruple-space the passage, so there’s room in between lines for me to write my imitation.)
  2. Underline subjects; circle verbs; highlight adjectives.
  3. Draw arrows when something refers to something else in the passage.
  4. Then follow the syntax to create your own sentence.

I don’t want to get into a huge parsing of syntax here, other than to point out that you give yourself the best training when your imitation retains the original sentence structure: subject, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, punctuation, etc.

The first few times you do this, it’s awkward. Yes, sometimes very awkward. Just keep at it. It becomes easier, and you’ll notice your writing expanding in unexpected leaps and bounds.  Honest!

These exercises are valuable for embedding a strong command of sentence structure in our writing, whether we are handwriting or typing. The more closely we pay attention to beautiful passages as written by others, the greater strides we make in our own writing. 

Earlier in this post I mentioned writing beautiful passages into a notebook.  Not only do I mark “beautiful passages” as I read (you can tell when I’ve read a book, because it has post-it note flags, sometimes two to a page), but I also copy those passages into my Beautiful Passages Notebook, pictured here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the inside, one of many, many pages:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love browsing these pages, especially if some time has passed since I’ve read certain pages. I’m in awe of the beauty of our language. Some writers have such a feel for the music of language, the rhythm and cadence that draws the reader into the world of their stories.  I love putting my hands to the page to feel how they did it, and then to see how it fits within what *I* love to write.

What’s not to love about the phrase, “…he sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under winter ice.”  (Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, pg, 115).

If you wish to see a few more examples of imitations before you begin today’s exercise, you can find a sample of two different imitations HERE (it will open in a new window or tab, so you can more easily return here when you’re ready).

YOUR EXERCISE:

From John Le Carre, A Murder of Quality:

New sounds disturbed the moaning of the storm: the parched creak of a door, the mutter of a crumbling roof, the incessant sigh of wind upon a dying house.

Study the syntax carefully.  You have a sentence followed by a colon. After the colon you have three phrases that expand upon the subject “new sounds.”   If you look really closely, you’ll also see that each of the three phrases consists of a similar construction: the + adjective + noun + prepositional phrase (the exception being that the second phrase does not have an adjective before “mutter”).

Do this exercise slowly, and I’d suggest you find a place in your work-in-progress that might have a list of three things that you might be able to rewrite using this structure. Post your exercise in the comments—don’t be shy!  I’ll be glad to look at, and probably admire, each of your imitations!

Write with JOY,

McKenna Donovan

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—What is Tone in Writing?

One of the more frequent writing questions I get is “What is tone in writing?” It’s rarely defined, never mind taught. However, as I mentioned before, Nancy Dean in her textbook, “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” created my absolutely favorite definition of tone in writing:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude towards his subject and audience….tone is the hallmark of the writer’s personality.”

For example, as a reader what do you perceive to be the implied attitude of a person who writes “Vibram shoes are phat” versus the person who writes “Vibram shoes are fat.”

Which of these narrators probably loves running?  Yeah, I agree: the phat narrator.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings as I was growing up was “It’s not WHAT you said, it’s HOW you said it.”  She was obviously trying to teach her very tone-deaf daughter that tone of voice makes a difference. In one tone of voice, something may be humorous; in another tone of voice, the same words become an insult.

In the movie, Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting’s psychiatrist (played by Robin Williams) tells him “Not your fault” — ten times!  A colleague pointed out to me that Robin Williams uses a slightly different tone—same words, different tone of voice—each of those ten times until it finally reached into Will Hunting’s psyche, and Will was able to release all the pent up anger about being abused as a foster child.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a great scene! (GRrrrrrr! I hate those commercials stuck on the front of YouTube clips!)

Tone in writing is your implied attitude.

So let’s look at your implied attitude towards the following photograph. The important part of this exercise is to NEVER SAY how you feel about it. Let your description carry your attitude. I’ll respond with “this is how you really feel about this subject.”  As a bonus, you should comment on the other writers’ exercises, about how you perceive their attitude about the same photo.

Create a better tone for your writing
What is your implied attitude?

 

(Click on the photo to get a larger size, if you wish to examine the details.  I mean, is that really a building perched on the ridge?)

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—When words desert you…

Have you ever seen that animated little stick guy on You Tube, where he’s pounding his fingers, then his head on a keyboard and does so until the blood starts to splay?  Warning: it’s a bit graphic, but it’s also very evocative of how hard it sometimes feels to “get it right” on the page.

Sometimes it’s easy to write a description; sometimes it’s next to impossible.

We can feel what we want to say, but we can’t just bloody say it.

If you’ve ever had one of those ‘stick-guy moments,’ maybe it’ll help to step back for a moment and look at your descriptions in a slightly different way.

Most of us try to write an image—a description of a person, place, or thing—as if it were a painting, a still life of parts making up a whole.  That’s not necessarily a problem, but always approaching an image as if it were a still life can make us short-sighted with what we write. As I wrote in an earlier Imagery Friday post, one way to look at the image is as a figurative description (rather than a literal one).

There is a third way, though. If the literal or figurative descriptions aren’t working for you for a specific instance, think of your image as movement that you wish to create. A reader’s eye might be going left-to-right, but their mind’s eye is following the tracks of your character.

As they read, readers’ minds are seeking movement.

For example, let’s say you mention snow-covered Alps.  The reader’s mind will form the image of jagged peaks, snow piled high in shades of grey and white, possibly with a meadow nestled in the midst. But it lacks movement. Their mind’s eye is jogging in place, waiting for you, the author, to provide them with something they can engage with.

Since they’re forming images, you can direct their attention along a specific part of the image—in other words, you can provide movement, even in a still landscape.  The best example of making a still landscape move can be found it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile,  jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.

Now lawns don’t really start, run, jump, and drift, but our eyes do.  As readers, we’re totally unaware that nothing is happening, because we’re following some intriguing movement.

So in this Imagery Friday exercise, look for movement in the photo featured below.  On purpose, the photo has few features. This isn’t about literal or figurative descriptions. In this exercise, your description should pinpoint how you want your reader’s eye to move along your image.

The desert
Where’s the movement?

Please post your description in the comments. Don’t be shy! It’s a great place to learn the wide range of possibilities. I’ll provide feedback for each comment posted. Post two, if you wish!

Write in JOY,

McKenna Donovan

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Literal v. Figurative Descriptions

Some of the best descriptions I’ve read — including some of the responses to the previous #ImageryFriday exercises! — are not literal descriptions that paint a picture, but figurative, which evoke an emotional response.

So the question becomes when is it best to use literal descriptions and when to use figurative ones?

There are no hard-and-fast rules, of course, but here’s one simple way to look at descriptive passages:

Literal descriptions work best when you need to direct the readers’ eyes to a specific point;

Figurative descriptions work best when you need to evoke an emotional response from the reader.

Literal descriptions

…allow you to point out a specific something, especially if it’s something out of kilter with the norm: an elegant model in an evening gown with a skinned knee; a hummingbird with all-white wings but a ruby throat; a mansion with a sparkling koi pond but a tarnished brass knocker on the front door; a barefoot, dirty child in a poor alley wearing one shiny tap shoe.  The possibilities are endless, when you keep selection in mind.

This also allows the reader to draw their own judgments, which often causes them to delve deeply into their own experiences to find the emotion that your description evokes.  This can be truly powerful, but it has one danger: what the reader reaches for might not be what you intended.  So use literal descriptions to “paint” a picture.  Literal descriptions are your sketch pad.

Figurative descriptions…

…allow you to look for ways to present the emotion beneath the image. What does the image remind you of, and how can you tap into that?  Is a group of water lilies really like a menorah? Is an old house necessarily a sad, abandoned thing? Or does it resonate with the happiness it knew for decades before the prairie swallowed it?

A figurative description also sets a tone.  Yeah, I had the same reaction to “tone” in writing. What the heck is that, and could I get published without knowing what “tone” was?  Well, you can’t get away from tone; it’s there, whether or not you’re aware of it.

A few years ago I ran across the best description of “tone” I’ve ever heard.  In Nancy Dean’s “VOICE LESSONS: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone,” she says:

“Tone is the expression of attitude. It is the writer’s (or narrator’s) implied attitude toward his subject and audience.”

It’s your IMPLIED ATTITUDE about your subject.  In other words, how you choose to describe something on the page also creates an image of YOU for your reader.  (We’ll be doing a series of exercises on “tone” come spring of 2013.)

Playing with tone is actually quite fun, and it quickly becomes second nature when you’re writing/drafting. One entire lesson of my free e-course, “8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to your Writing,” is devoted to tone in writing. Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll start that free e-course today.

 

 

TODAY:

For today’s exercise, write your description as figurative, okay?  You can write a literal description first if you wish to sharpen your eye, but end up writing the figurative description.

Study the feature image (below), and tap into the emotion it creates within you. Try to present the image to your reader in terms that evoke that same emotion for the reader. We want to hear your implied attitude!

Storytelling is all about emotion, and imagery is where we pull the reader into our stories.

Please post your description!  I know you’re coming here (blog stats don’t lie), but not leaving a comment.  I’d love to hear your descriptions!  C’mon out and play!

Imagery Friday, Abandoned House
Imagery Friday: Abandoned House

 

Now forgive me, but after staring at this photo, I need to stick my head in a trough of water!

 

P.S. Click on the tag “Imagery Friday” below my name to get a list of past “Friday Imagery” exercises. The comments remain open, and I’ll be delighted to comment upon any work presented!

Your writing is important to me.

Write in JOY!

McKenna Donovan

 

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise — The Christmas Factor

I hope you’ve been enjoying our Imagery Friday exercises. If you’re here for the first time, you might want to read the first post in this Imagery Friday series to gain a perspective on how this highly important exercise enriches our writing.  (The link opens in a new tab or window, so it’s easier for you to return here when you’re done.)

So far, we’ve seen that whatever we are writing, it must bring an image to mind. An image is at the simplest level of a story.  Since all writing is about imagery, great writing focuses on selection of detail. This not only brings the image into vivid focus for the reader, but also guides them into making emotional commitments to your imagery. The trick isn’t to show the image, but to guide the reader into what the image means. We’ve also looked at imagery as a function of emotion, such that familiar emotions can be evoked by unusual images.

Today’s image brought some interesting thoughts to mind.  First, here’s our image for this week:

This is a York street at night during the Christmas holiday season. You’ll be describing this for your exercise today, but let’s talk about “the Christmas Factor” first.

The Christmas Factor and Imagery

There are some happenings so evocative of life (or death), that just by using a few words, you elicit the entire spectrum of emotions. If you set a story in New York City at Christmas, you have a “leg up” on the emotions of your readers—especially those who live in the city. They’ll already have strong feelings, and even if you describe only one or two things, the reader will include in their reading experience what they love about Christmas. The Christmas Factor, however, can be a dual-edged sword: while Christmas might evoke family and lights and laughter for you, there are those for whom Christmas is a negative: it’s sheer grit and depression and disappointment.  All of that reader’s feelings of disappointment and anger are brought forth just by your setting.

Can you think of other Christmas Factor settings?  How about Easter/Passover? a graveside funeral? a ceremony of any sort in which a person is honored for valiance, heroism, distinguished service, etc.? The Christmas Factor applies to any ceremony or occasion in which rituals and expectations are shared by a large segment of the population.

When you use a Christmas Factor in your story, focus becomes even more important. You speak of a table laden with food, the family sitting around salivating to dig in, so what do you focus on? (You can briefly mention certain elements of the scene, but we’re talking about where you FOCUS the reader.)  So what do you focus the reader on? The turkey?  Maybe if part of it looks gnawed on. The family? Maybe if there’s a child’s crayon drawing at an empty chair. Maybe if the toddler in a high chair is missing one shoe, which shows off the toddler’s mismatched socks? Maybe the guinea pig in its rolling ball pinned in place by Uncle Herman, whose expression was one of distaste.  Set enough of the expected image—the table, the family, the music in the background, the aromas—then find the unusual, the different. Find that which means something to your story beyond the Christmas table setting.

In the photo above, I included a large size, because I want you to examine the photo for the details. In a photo like this, it’s easy to see what you expect, rather than what is truly there.  Take a moment to study it, maybe even divide it visually into quarters and inspect each quarter.  Then begin to build your description. Don’t be surprised if this takes you a fair amount of time. If you’re doing it right, you can’t do this one quickly.

What struck me about this photo?  Hmm, is it cheating to tell you now?  Nah, guess not … do you notice the many, many tiny lights along the street, but also notice that the stars in the night sky are missing? It’s as if the stars in the sky that epitomize Christmas have been drowned out by the commercial lights.  No, I’m not a cynic, but that was a forcible impression for me.

How about you?

Write in JOY,

McKenna

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Selection, selection, selection

Everything is an image. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen King’s article, “Imagery and the Third Eye,” about how his writing is all about imagery—

…it is the imagery that makes the book “stand out” somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light.” —Stephen King

As writers, we are taught to think of stories as character, plot, dialogue, setting, etc. These are, of course, essential, but at its deepest and simplest level, a great story is nothing more than a series of images, and what is a movie but a series of images, yes?  Stories with great emotional appeal happen when the writer can…

 focus the reader’s attention upon a specific image or part of an image.

It’s a magic act.  “Watch where I ask you to watch, so I can amaze you with my sleight-of-hand.” It is our job, as writers, to select where our reader is focused, and through creating that focus, we seize the emotions of our readers.   The most unforgettable series of images for me comes from the West Wing episode, In Excelsis Deo.  The images?

  • A homeless Korean War vet, curled up on a park bench, dead
  • A business card, left in Toby’s donated-to-Goodwill coat
  • Toby, Mrs. Landingham (who had just confided that she had lost her sons in Vietnam on Christmas Eve), and the homeless vet’s also-homeless brother at the cemetery for the burial
  • Their startled reaction when the first volley of the 21-gun salute was fired.

Throughout the episode, there was this image of Toby—walking energetically, alive with purpose—wearing this beautiful, tan, full-length coat. The contrast between his new coat (worn with energy and purpose) and the old coat (wrapped around a dead Korean War vet) was emotional for me. The writers of this episode, Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland, were highly selective about each image in each scene, and the culmination of these images was an incredibly emotional experience for viewers.

So it’s all about imagery, but more than that: it’s about SELECTION of imagery.

Imagery is about selection!

It’s your job, as a writer, to provide selection, so the reader’s focus is always under your control.  We’ve all heard the “less is more” adage when it comes to many things—cooking and writing come immediately to mind. When there is too much detail, the reader’s mind is confused: What’s important? What should I remember for the duration of this story?

In his article, Stephen King said, “To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.” [My emphasis]

So yes, selection, selection, selection.

Today’s exercise is about selection.  The image below is a complex one, a photograph by a dear friend with a great eye for beauty in the smallest places: David Coyote. Your task is to evaluate the entire image, then decide what you wish to describe—that which feels significant to you, that one piece of the photograph you wish to convey to your reader, and allow them to imagine the rest.

Write your description and post it in the comments section.

Write your description to give an impression of the whole, but a focus on a part.

Truly lovely photograph, isn’t it?  Now think of your character standing at this pond, looking down at this image. What would your character focus on?

Fun questions, aren’t they! I’m looking forward to seeing what you select and how you present the image in words!

enJOY!

 

McKenna

 

 

To view all “Imagery Friday” exercises, click HERE.

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Character, as Seen in the Face

Imagery Friday is about keeping our writing hands limber, so we leave our readers with vivid, unique, and very telling images.  For me, strong images are a beacon of great writing. We’ve all read them: a phrase, a brief passage, even a paragraph that catches our imagination and moves us there, wherever the writer’s “there” happens to be. It can be in the past; it can be present day; it can be futuristic; it can be a world of figment and fantasy.

And it doesn’t need to be a scavenger hunt through the thesaurus. Notice in the passages below how the vocabulary is very simple.

If you’ve been here before for our Imagery Friday, welcome back!  If this is your first time, you might want to read the first post of this series (this link opens in a new window or tab, so you can easily return here), to gain a perspective on imagery and detail.

Let me share a few favorite passages with you, before we work on today’s exercise. (I’ll be asking you soon for your favorite passages.)

“But the trouble was there already in the room. It settled over me in a formless way, like fog; no colour, neither dark nor light, no smell, no sound; just a clenching tension of pain and the fear of death…the sheet scraped under my nails.” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat.

“…furred and shifting shadows…” Mary Stewart, Touch Not the Cat

“…when it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

“His voice was old and tired around the edges, but at its center it was patient.” Patrick Rothfuss, Name of the Wind.

and one more:

“…the question that is at the back of your throat, choking the blood to your brain, ringing in your ears over and over as you put it to yourself…”  The voice of Death, in Meet Joe Black.

Obviously, great passages are not limited to books.  I shall never forget the final lines of An Unfinished Life, where Morgan Freeman’s character says:

“I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns to black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything.”

Beautiful lines, yes? I’ve always wanted to write a short story with the title, “Where The Blue Turns to Black.” One of these days, maybe…

Today’s exercise centers on the face of an old person. I’ve chosen two photos—one man, one woman—and you may choose your image to describe.

When describing faces, the trick isn’t to show the lines, but what the lines MEAN.

Sit with your choice of photo for a while, and let the feeling of it settle into your heart. It’s not just about what you SEE, but how does it make you feel? What memories, pleasant or otherwise, does it bring to your mind that you feel are important to share with your readers?

 

 

 

And the second face:

 

Note: Click on the face you wish to view, and the full-sized image will appear in a new tab or window.

Copy your description to the comments section of this post. Be sure that it’s obvious that you’re describing the man or the woman! I’m looking forward to seeing what you have done with these very different faces!

(To get a list of all the imagery exercises, click HERE.)

Write in JOY!

McKenna

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Underwater Hotel!

Welcome back to our Imagery Friday!  If you’re here for the first time, you might want to read our first post about imagery HERE. It’s brief, but fun (and opens in a new tab or window so you don’t lose this page).  When you’re done, come back here for today’s exercise. You’re also welcome to click on “imagery friday” in the Tags section just under my photo. This will bring up a list of all Friday exercises relating to imagery.

Today:

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a center of modern architecture that stretches the imagination.

Today’s exercise is about the imagery produced by a hotel, and what a hotel it will be!  Below, I’ve included two images, but it is the second image that we should focus on for our exercise on imagery. The reason I’m using such an unusual image is to ask you to examine how images of unfamiliar or strange places can heighten familiar emotions. They can refresh our senses, which lingers in our minds and hearts longer than the absolute familiar.

Writing is about leaving your reader with an unshakable image, of course. And while it’s easy to describe something literally, it’s far richer to explore your imagery in terms of the unfamiliar.  Language is rich in  metaphor and simile for that very reason: these figures of speech allow you to allude to feelings and functions that deepen the imagery you’re creating.  (My course, Impact of Style II: Our Figurative Language, provides clear explanations of figures of speech as well as practical, hands-on exercises to familiarize the student with each one.)

EXERCISE: Today, you should write TWO descriptions (both of the second photo):

  1. first, a literal description, of what you see;
  2. second, a description that extends your imagery by using comparison to NON-WATER-BASED things.

Once you’ve written your imagery descriptions, post both of them in the comments section of this post. I’ll respond to each description, with observations of what works well, and what might need a tweak.

So with no further ado … here are your photos:

Dubai Underwater Hotel, view from the air

Dubai Hotel of the Near Future

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isn’t that mind-blowing?

 

Dubai, Underwater  Hotel, view from your room…

Imagery for Writers
Underwater Hotel Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can’t you just imagine?!

 

Remember to post your descriptions—both of them (the literal description, and the figurative description) about the second photo—in the comments section of this post!

Write in JOY!

McKenna