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Write Like A Painter

Image Placeholder of - 66Written by Veronica Rossi

On May 16th, Seeker, the sequel to Riders, will release. I’m really proud of it, but for part of writing process, I felt utterly lost in the woods. I wanted to bring sword fights and swoons to the story, but deep themes like forgiveness and redemption kept showing up instead. Not what I wanted. Clearly, I’d gone wrong somewhere. Then I remembered: there are no mistakes in art. There is only process.

We writers think we have control over our creative process, but the best we can really do is coax it along. We read books that teach us how to structure scenes and how to create characters. We attend conferences and join critique groups. But in the end, the book has its own ideas about what it wants to be. More and more, I believe we’re simply the vessel, holding the story inside us. If we’re clumsy, hasty, disrespectful, we make a mess as we spill our tale. But if we take our time, the pour is clean.

Before I officially and wholeheartedly became a writer, I was a painter. I attended the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and I painted every day, and dealt with the struggles of working in that art form—how to stay inspired, how to paint with skill, how to marry inspiration with skill to produce something true. Sound familiar? It is, very much so. Creativity is a journey with many roads leading to the same place—Art. Here are a few of the similarities I’ve discovered between writing and painting:

Art is Work – Part of being a creative person is committing to the work involved in discovering your style, your voice. How do you do this? Devour the things you love. If you love a book, let that love be an obsession. Dig in. Read the book again and again. Buy the audio. Transcribe a chapter. Study. Highlight. If it’s a painting, try some sketches inspired by the piece. Your job is to figure out why you love it. Internalize the art until it’s inside you. Your internal artist has an incredible storage system called the subconscious. Nothing ever gets lost or wasted. Just get the good stuff in there. The rest is not really up to you.

Watch Out for Mud – Part of trusting the process is not forcing the process. In painting with oils, you can overwork a canvas to the point that paints blend together, creating an awful muddy color. It’s actually worse than mud—it’s the color of a cadaver. Usually this happens when you’re overthinking it. You’re creating with your head, not your heart. You’re saying, “It could be a little more this, or a little more that,” instead of asking, “how can I make this more true, more honest?” I do this all the time. I think it comes from wanting so badly to create something great. But greatness cannot be rushed or forced. Greatness requires patience. It requires trust and confidence. So, slow down. If you think you’re making mud, back off. Take some time to meditate on the piece, or the scene. Wrong turns are part of the process. It’s up to you to see them, and to correct your course.

Turn Your Canvas – One of the earliest tricks I learned in art school was to flip the canvas by 90 degrees and step back. This simple trick allows you to see the composition in a new way, giving you a fresh perspective. I use several methods to achieve this “turn of the canvas” in my writing; some are incredibly simple and effective:

  • Change the font
  • Open your document on an e-reader or in another program
  • Print and bind your pages
  • Send your scene to an audio program and listen to your writing
  • Read your writing out loud, or have a friend read it to you

Learn the Rules So You Can Break Them – I loved this rule in art school. We embraced it. We copied the masters. Renaissance painters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci. We copied Picasso, Dali, Monet, Matisse. We fell incredibly short most of the time, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to learn the strokes, the colors. By learning the language of art, you can play with it. Defy it, bend it, stretch it. In writing, you read to learn the art of language. So read broadly. Read everything—things you hate, things you love, things you never thought you’d ever read. Just read. Then forget the rules and have some fun.

Trust the Process – Such a cliché, isn’t it? Yet, after half a dozen books written, I have to remind myself of this all the time. Trust the process. Trust. The Process. And remember that it will never be the same process twice. You’re never writing the same book, or painting the same painting. Even if you’re rewriting or repainting something, you are not the same the second (or third or fourth or hundredth) time. You’ve had new experiences. You’ve learned something (even if you don’t know it.) Trust the process. Do it.

Once, in art school, I was trying to forcibly squeeze oil paint from a tube that had coagulated. I was standing in front of a painting that was almost done when I did this. You know what’s coming, right? A geyser of paint exploded across a piece I’d spent all day perfecting. Raw Sienna. A beautiful color. Like dirt that’s alive—dirt that has the ruddy life of blood in it. Beautiful, but not when it’s everywhere. After this materials eruption, I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry. I think I did both. But then it was time to adapt. I could’ve tried to scoop the paint away with a palette knife—and likely ruined the entire canvas. Instead, I took a brush and got to work—and got exactly the painting that was asking to be made, a painting rich with earth tones. A piece with a pulse, bolder than it would’ve ever been had I not trusted the process.

Art loves mistakes, they say. Knowing that, why not create full-throttle?

What are some of our approaches to creativity?

Order Your Copy

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Follow Veronica Rossi on Twitter, on Facebook, and on her website.

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Writing Out of Order

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Written by Susan Dennard

Do you write chronologically? Or are you prone to writing whatever scene strikes your fancy? Do you skip around, hop ahead, circle back? Or are you inclined to move from scene 1 to scene 2 to 3 and beyond?

I always thought I was a chronological writer. I mean, I sit down and write what 1) I have listed on my outline, or 2) what I feel ought to come next. I follow my emotional dominoes as best I can, and in attempt to give every scene a cookie, I write lots of action and lots of arguing.

Yet, when I follow this method, I always find that my drafts are woefully out of order. None of the scene beats seem to hit that gradual incline of tension and stakes:
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Instead, it’s like this:
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Specifically, I tend to write WAY TOO MUCH in the first half of the book. Too much emotional intensity, too much inter-character conflict, too much action, too much tension, etc.

It’s like I pour out all the REALLY BIG scenes at once…and then I’m left floundering over what comes next. Then, only after agonizing, do I realize nothing comes next, but lots must come between.

An example. In Windwitch, the very first scene I wrote for the Bloodwitch named Aeduan was dark. Like, I’m talking Aeduan goes banana-pants crazy after an encounter hits a bit too close to home. People then die at Aeduan’s hands.

I loved that scene. It was one of those instances where it just poured out of me in a rush of fury and feeling. Yet, as soon as I finished, I was stuck. I could see nowhere for him to go after that scene. You see, I am very, very, very particular about writing murder in YA—I simply do not allow my characters to kill unless it’s absolutely 100% critical to the story. (In my opinion, the emotional consequences are simply too big to have a character take human life. Ever.)

Needless to say, it was…erm…not good that I had this crazy slaughter scene in literally the first scene I wrote for Aeduan.

So I ditched the pages, with much heartbreak, and tried a new approach (or many new approaches).

About a month ago, though, I was hitting the final hard scene beats that precede an epic climax, and BAM! I realized Aeduan’s vicious opener belonged here, at the end of his story. The stakes were running high, his emotions were running even higher, and it was very justifiable for him to take human life based on the previous scenes. (Note: I said justifiable, but not morally right. There’s a huge distinction, and it’s important to remember that in your writing!)

Aeduan’s bloodbath scene was not the only one I wrote in the wrong order for Windwitch. In fact, almost EVERY SINGLE SCENE for every single POV was something I wrote too early (or too late) in the story. But once I rearranged it like the ultimate jigsaw puzzle, I had a book with the proper arc of rising tension and stakes.

This happens every time I draft a novel, yet it’s only with Windwitch that I finally realized what I’ve been doing all this time.

And honestly, it has been a MASSIVE epiphany for me—one that carries huge relief. I’m not a terrible writer! I’m not writing wasted words that will be thrown away forever. I’m simply not getting the scenes down in the proper order.

It’s like that story that author Liz Gilbert shared about the poet Ruth Stone: “[Ruth] would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on a page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first.”

It is absolutely okay if the story comes out reversed or jumbled or upside down because it’s out, and words on the page can always be fixed later.

What about you all? Do you write chronologically? Out of order? All jumbled and messy as I do?

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Follow Susan Dennard on Twitter, on Facebook, and on The Witchlands website.

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What Is a Changeling, Really?

Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterAnd now, a few unsettling words from Sarah Porter, the author of Vassa in the Night.

The baby wakes everyone with an ungodly yowl in the depths of the night. Its head looks distended, its eyes bulbous and glowering. Surely it didn’t appear so grotesque when you sang it to sleep? And that cry: it hardly sounds human at all.

Conversely, the baby is so silent that you rush to its side, terrified that it might have died while you dreamed. It gawps at you with an expression morose and wooden. Its tiny limbs feel dry, airy, and rotten. But those eyes, bulging, pale, at once vacant and horribly knowing: they never leave your face, not while you change its diaper and tuck it in again, not while you croon at it, Sleep tight, my poppet, all is peaceful, all is well, and back out of the nursery. You can barely force yourself to switch off the light.

Feed it, and it will suck so ravenously that you will thrust it away in sudden dread, sure that it means to drain your blood once it has finished your milk.

What is this thing that lies in your cradle? Is it truly your own sweet child?

Anyone familiar with the ways of the world will tell you, Why, no. Your child has been stolen by the faeries. They have left you this hideous effigy in its place.

The folklorist Charles G. Leland wrote that the faeries who steal children are personified fevers, the spirits of pox and typhus and cholera that snatched so many infants in the days before antibiotics. There are other connections between faeries and the land of the dead: one is the well-known rule that eating anything in either Faerie or Hades will trap you there forever. Catherynne Valente called the law permitting human-stealing “the Persephone clause” in her Fairyland books. And the medieval English poem Sir Orfeo, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, makes the association even more explicit. In it, the harpist has to rescue his wife not from the underworld but from the faerie king, who holds his court in the midst of a field of butchered, but still living, bodies: people wrongly believed to be dead when they were actually transported to his realm.

Take another look, then, at that monstrous, babyish lump staring at you with such resentment. Are you sure it’s even there? Are you sure you aren’t remembering your lost child, however imperfectly; that your longing has not made this projected memory appear as something solid and alive? The changeling’s distorted features are a bit too much like the warped and uncertain faces that those we love wear in dreams: He didn’t look anything like you, but I knew it was you anyway. And could anything living, truly living and present in the room with you, be quite so hungry? Only ghosts, monsters, or memories consume so much of us.

One traditional way to get rid of a changeling is to subject it to sadistic abuse. In theory, its otherworldly parents will be so appalled that they will remove it from your custody, and return your rightful child. I wouldn’t count on it, personally.

The other method is to make the changeling laugh. Brew coffee in an eggshell, say; the creature will betray its real nature by cackling in surprise, and once exposed, protocol demands that it go.

That’s what the stories say. In practice, your changeling might stay right where it is, and keep on laughing at you. The one you mourn was taken, like Eurydice was taken, and like her will not be returning. What laughs in the cradle is your own swollen, relentless, and insatiable grief; that is what the faeries leave behind.

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Follow Sarah Porter on Twitter and on her website.

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