Helen (heleninwales) wrote,
Helen
heleninwales

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Famine and bogs, death and destruction and fine racing dogs

The subject line is a quote from a folk song I learned back in the late 60s and it goes on to say how all subjects are grist to the mill for a writer of folk songs.

By extension, all subjects are grist to the mill of any writer and you never know when you may want to describe the particular shade of green that the sky goes when there is a tornado.

This, basically, is what writers do. I've heard lots of writers talk about how they may be in a desperate predicament, hurt even, but there is a little voice in the back of their head saying, "Oh, this is what it feels like to break an ankle! How interesting! I must remember this so I can use it some time." Even when a writer is in pain, that little recording part of the brain is still recording.

So if you want to be a writer and you're not already doing this, then you might like to think about starting to train yourself to note down details as things happen. This is why creative writing classes include exercises asking you to describe the room you're sitting in or to describe the objects on your desk. If you can't describe things that are in front of you, how will you describe the things in the protagonist's home? This is also why creative writing courses always tell the students to start keeping a writer's notebook.

There is a well-known quote from Graham Greene:

'His fictional method was to follow the initial incident or situation that sparked his imagination by a careful, personal exploration of the setting. On location, he took sparse but accurate notes and met people who suggested his characters. The key to his technique is what Greene, describing his observation of a mother screaming for her dead child, called the "splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. This was something which one day I might need."'


OK, that's an extreme example, but that "splinter of ice in the heart" is what any writer needs, though obviously in times of crisis you squash the little voice right to the very very back of your head. But once you start doing it, I don't think it ever entirely shuts up and I've also heard writers joke about how they'll probably be recording details and sensory experiences on their death bed.

So if you want to make your writing more vivid and immediate:

  1. You have to realise that the kind of detail people are discussing in the tornado thread makes writing more vivid and immediate.

  2. You have to start noticing this kind of detail about the people, things and places that are around you.

  3. You need to practice translating this detail into words -- not just any words, the best possible words you can manage.[1]

  4. Then you can start applying those skills to fiction and start describing the things that your characters encounter in their story, possibly things that don't even exist in our world, like dragons, aliens or inter-stellar space craft.



It's likely that there are other ways of getting vivid and immediate details into fiction, including just moving words around on the page until they seem right, but I think most people work from the real to the imaginary.[2]




[1] To be honest, I'm increasingly willing to do this at the revision stage and I'll accept "approximately right" for first draft because I have much more confidence now that I can make it better later.
[2] If you do successfully use other methods, I'd love to hear about them because the one that is normally taught is the one described above, ie taking details from the real world and using them in fiction. But the more methods I know about, the more possibilities I can offer to students.
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