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

 

 

How do I find my 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—

Writing with Music and Emphasis
Music and Emphasis in Writing
  • 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.)

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. 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.

—Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888

The difference between the lightning and the lightning bug
Lightning, not lightning bug
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya (celestialblue) on 500px.com
Lightning Bug by Rocco Saya

 

I wish you JOY in writing!

McKenna

 

 

Friday: Imagery Exercise—Trillium: How much detail is too much?

For many years, I loved Harlequin Romances (Intrigue sub-genre), but most particularly any Regency by Georgette Heyer. Why? Because the great romances are rich in character, and I read (and write) for character.

But let me confess: I always skim descriptions of clothes. I mean, for crying out loud, get on with it, yes?  I want to see what the character does.

And yet there are readers who devour those descriptions, whose eyes want to see each rope of pearls, each complex setting of gems in the diadem, each fluted and scalloped border of lace—(already my eyes are glazing over.  Sorry.)

The point isn’t my taste, though. It’s about knowing YOUR readers, yes?

  • Do your readers demand every piece of flitter and glitter? or do they want to know the character underneath the clothes? or both?
  • Is their interest piqued by architecture and furniture? or landscape or cityscape?

Only you can determine that.  Just as there are things you love to write, there will always be readers who would love to read what you write.

Whatever we write, it must bring to mind an image.

Two things happen when we read:

  1. We see imagery, and
  2. we hear sound (more on this in a future blog post).

Ready to expand the richness of your imagery? 

Then come here each Friday for a new image, which you can examine carefully, then post your description in the comments. The more people who post their description, the richer our skills become. I shall respond to each description with comments about what works well, and what might need a bit of work.  Don’t worry. I’m known for being gentle.  (Still shy? Then click here for an example of one of my reviews.)

Keep in mind that using words to portray images is actually quite a tricky thing. While there is no right or wrong way to do it, there are ways that produce a higher rate of reader interest. The point is to know what ONE THING you wish to focus your reader’s attention on, i.e., what one IMAGE or SENSE do you want to create in your reader’s mind? In other words, do you want them to see contrast of light and dark? or straight lines or fluted edges? dark, somber color or a glimpse of starkness? Do you want them to feel at ease or tense? repulsed or attracted?

The most successful imagery is that which leaves behind the image, but no real sense of the words used.

For example, I love the following description of a man’s voice from Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, but I can NEVER remember the precise wording. All I remember is the FEEL of the man’s voice.

“It was like acid spilling over a polished surface, to show the stripped wood, coarse and ugly. There had been splashes of the same corrosive this afternoon (282)”.

*shudders*

You already know that great writing is about practice, yes?  Deliberate, intentional practice. And great imagery is about more than just color; it’s about texture, form, and non-conformities of things. It’s about comparison.  The richest writing compares one thing to another—a voice to acid over a polished surface—and this only becomes second nature when we practice it every day. (In January 2013, I shall be writing a post about creating comparisons—like to like, like to unlike.)

Look carefully at the photo of the trillium I posted above. In the rain forest of Washington State, where I took this photo, it’s a common sight. So common, indeed, that most natives of Washington’s rain forest no longer SEE the miracle of this flower. Wherever there is abundant dampness, there is the trillium. Despite its abundance in the Olympic rain forest, it’s not a common flower for readers. So study this photo for a bit, and ask yourself “What strikes me about this photo?”  Is it shape? color? contrast? Spend a few moments writing ABOUT the trillium, in terms of what strikes you about it.

THEN, and only then, should you try to describe it in writing for a reader.  Remember, you must know what ONE THING, what one shape or color or texture,  you wish the reader to use to form their image.

EXERCISE:

Write a description of the trillium featured at the top of this page. Post your  description in the comments section. And no, don’t be shy! We learn from each other, and it’s fun to see the many ways in which this image can be described to our readers. (Note: click on the photo for an enlarged version of it in a new tab or window.)

Have fun with this one!  I’ll post mine in a few days. DO NOT BE SHY!  POST!

Write in JOY!

McKenna