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Painting with Words

Continuing my series of repostings of articles I have written about writing in various other forums.  I wrote this one after getting a short story rejection.  Having finally sold a book, I hope this essay doesn’t come across as whining.  I think I found a few useful things to say.  Enjoy. 

Painting with Words

by Jay Hartlove

Maslow Would Be Thrilled

Having so successfully filled my life with enviable joys like a happy marriage, loving children, a good paying career and all the material bonuses that come with it, I feel somehow guilty to complain about not being able to fill that highest segment of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Creative Success.  Yes, I got another rejection today.  Being the romantic (read desperate) silver lining seeker that I am, I am taking this moment to reflect on this pursuit that I love so much, in spite of my commercial invisibility.

Busy Life

Since I do lead a busy life (some have said insanely so) I only get to write when everything else is done.  I’m not complaining.  The peace that comes at the end of the day, when there is literally nothing left to distract me, is a very good space from which to launch myself into the world of whatever story I am working on.  Since this peace often doesn’t happen until after 11 pm, I have given that name to my muse. 


Eleven is like most women I have been attracted to, a flirt, a provocateur, a trouble maker with a mind of her own.  I am always thrilled when she joins me in earnest, but that means I don’t get to sleep until I completely run out of gas around 2 am.  Oh, and yes, I get up at 6.  And also yes, my real wife does get jealous, which is only appropriate.

Writing Like a Painter

Writing in installments like this, and on demand, I can clearly see how the work progresses.  I have come to realize that I write the way the old masters painted with oils.  Since oil paint takes days to dry, and puts color down in layers, the painter has to carefully plan the progression from blank canvas to finished work, and wait days in between each step.  The first layers to go down are pale and easily covered up, and do little more than record the decisions made by the artist as to scope and basic layout.  The next layers fill in increasingly more detail and document more and more in-depth decision making.  Finally, the last layers are going back and embellishing on decisions already made.

Approaches to Writing

I do the same thing when I write.  Ask any six writers about their process, and you will get at least six different answers, probably more.  Some outline extensively.  Some fly entirely by the seat of their pants.  Some are driven by the need to tell the plot, while others design characters and then let those characters take the story where they want to.  You can probably guess from my paint layer metaphor that I am an outliner.

Drafts as Layers of Color

Having watched myself do this for about 30 years, I have identified six layers of “paint” that I lay down.  The initial idea gathering and note collecting is the stage for a painter where doodles capture small bits of inspiration.  The first draft for me is the barest assembly of these notes into a sketchy outline.  It basically sets up what will be the beginning, middle and end of the story.  This “pencil sketch” is really just a test of whether the story concept holds together well enough to be worth pursuing.  If not, then the concept is abandoned and the story bits (the doodles) are filed away for possible future use.

Who Are These People?

Once an outline shows promise, I typically ask who are the characters whose story is being told.  This is the artist working out the details of the main figures in the painting.  I add how and where in the story we will find out the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations.  A key question I try to answer at this point is why are these characters the right characters to be telling this story.  This addition usually takes the one page story sketch up to a three page outline.

Going Back With New Eyes

You can see where this is going.  The idea is to take advantage of the enforced breaks between writing sessions to come back with a fresh perspective.  By reimagining how a situation would feel to be in it, or to ask anew how a character would react, now that you know them better.  I try to change my perspective as much as possible with each new draft.  I wrote my first novel back in 1984 before personal computers were widely available.  The first complete draft was handwritten in spiral bound notebooks.  Then I got a word processer, took off my writer hat, put on my editor hat, and rewrote it as I typed it.  I don’t have to reach for such dramatic changes now to achieve refreshed viewpoints, but it was very useful when I was just figuring out how to do this.

A Story to Tell

Once I have a basic plot arc, and have decided who is telling the story, I then get serious about figuring out the story sequence.  As this stage the story starts sounding like a story.  I establish goal markers and decide how the information will feed to the reader.  Now I don’t just have a “this is what the story will be about.”  Now I have a story I can tell.  At this point the outline is actually a synopsis of the story and is up to about ten pages (for a novel).

Fleshing It Out

If I have been excited enough by the story to have gotten this far, I will have started imagining what key sequences and interactions will look like, so I add them to the outline.  I start hearing the voices of the characters and start seeing how they react to plot developments.  I fill in decisions about setting and history and character back stories.  I adjust the plot to fit the characters.  This is the stage where a painter has painted the rough of the background and middle ground, and now adjusts lighting and tone so the figures work in the rest of the painting.  By now I am up to twenty or more pages, and ready to start actually writing text.

Using the Outline While Writing the Book

As I get to the plot or character development landmarks I have set along the road, I reassess how much information the reader should have by now, and how best to move the story along.  Sometimes this means sticking to the original plan, but often it means making more adjustments to the plan, and the plan document, the outline.  So I change the outline to fit what I have decided while writing.  The value of this is, when I am not writing, but I have a minute to think about the story, I can pull out the outline and run through it again to affirm or change decisions I’ve made.

Draft No. 5

The first finished draft of a novel is therefore actually Draft Number 5.  The one-page sketch became the three-page outline, which became the 10-page synopsis, which became the 20 plus page working roadmap, which then became the completed first draft.  I have run the story in my head countless times and have made countless changes along the way.  Whether I have told the story in the best possible way is still an unknown, but I know I have gotten where I wanted to go.  The bridge reaches the other side of the canyon, the belt goes through all the loops, whatever metaphor makes sense, I have told the story I set out to tell.  The painter can put down the brush and step away for a moment.  Because now I take off both the writer hat and the editor hat, and put on the critic hat.

The Vanishing Book

Now I read the book cover to cover as if I had never seen it before.  Does the pacing work?  Do you know what you need to know by the time you need to know it?  Do the characters make sense?  Can you sympathize or identify with the protagonists?  Is the central conflict of the story believable?  Do conflicts get resolved in ways that make sense and are satisfying to the passive reader?  All those heartless critical questions need to be answered as objectively as possible.  And any unsatisfactory answers must be addressed with changes.  This is where the painter, having painted what he set out to paint, must now make his vision convincing by adjusting a shadow here, a glint there, to create a seamless experience for the viewer.  The painting has to vanish, and the viewer must only see the picture the painter is presenting.  Anything that doesn’t fit, anything that distracts the reader from the story being told must be adjusted or removed.  The book must vanish, leaving only the story.

A Note about Humor

Once the first written draft is done and I am in rewrites, and I am approaching the point where I have said everything I ever wanted to say in the story, one of the things I check is the dialogue to make sure people still sound like themselves.  This is also the stage where I insert quirky and humorous touches.  I write about deadly serious things, and I have to make sure to allow humor to enter where it should.  Even in the direst of times, people find humor in life, even if only in irony.  The fact that I don’t tend to dream up humorous concepts and tend to add humor as a flavoring at the end has no doubt limited my commercial appeal.  The rejection that inspired this blog entry included an advisory that I was welcome to submit again, and the magazine was currently looking for quirky, humorous stories.  Oh well.  

Painting With Words

So when you hear someone talking about painting with words, don’t make the mistake so many beginning writers make of thinking this means painting detailed pictures in the reader’s mind with a lot of adjectives and adverbs.  To me it means going back and adding things you forgot, or have thought of since, now that you have had time to think about it more.  It means adding layers of color in the form of better and more refined decisions.  I have come to respect the usefulness of fresh looks due to my interrupted writing schedule.  But even full time writers need to step away and come back.  Having multiple projects going at the same time provides another mechanism for stepping away.  I am finishing my third novel, and I have seven others plotted up to the ten page synopsis stage.  If I feel like I’m not seeing what I need to see on the current priority project, I will pull one of the others to the front for a week or two.  When I pull up the main project again, I usually see something new that gets me all fired up.

Maslow be damned.

Categories: Writing
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