Ron Rash told the Charlotte Observer recently that a first draft is like “an ugly glob of clay on a wheel.”
It is an apt metaphor. The best writers discard the unnecessary bits. They use imagery, actions and dramatic tension to spin their tales, drawing readers in and shaping riveting pieces of art.
Last week at a free Charlotte Writers’ Club workshop, memoirist Gilda Morina Syverson, poet David Radavich and screenwriter Patrick Lee illustrated how that artistry works. The way Gilda described finding the story reminded me of a nautilus shell. You start on the periphery, circling in ever smaller circles closer to its heart.
Imagery helps readers see that heart beat. We all know to use literary devices, such as metaphor and simile, alliteration and meter. We can make our writing even more accessible by creating a sensory impression that’s mental, emotional, visceral. Engage readers’ senses, David said. Don’t tell us you love your grandmother, show love in action. Be specific and linger on the details, letting interactions replace words. Allow readers to see the grandmother push the child’s hair from her face with floury fingers as they bake. Have readers smell those cookies and feel (and taste) that dough.
Action, which is a prerequisite to keep moviegoers engaged, add richness to the written media, too. Patrick underscored how a reader can gauge what is in characters’ hearts by watching what they do, rather than what they say. A proclamation of love could mean affection or signal ulterior motives. Words can be lies; action is truth. The difference between the two creates dramatic tension.
Story telling is not reserved for memoirs, imagery for poetry or action for the screen. Device cross-pollination makes each genre more compelling. Gilda’s memoir is informed by her work as a poet. David’s poetry is influenced by his playwriting. Patrick’s novels draw on his screenwriting experience. We learn from other genres and from other writers, borrowing and adapting.
Novels, poems and scripts can start as loosely crafted works. Then we revise and revise and revise. Ron Rash told the Observer that he will revise a novel 14-16 times, sometimes spending 30 minutes on a single sentence. It took Michelangelo three years to turn a block of stone into David. Art takes patience. Writing is a process. We know we’ve been successful when our readers feel our character’s pulse and can see into his heart, when they want to turn the page and find out what happens next.