I often use pictures to capture my writing muse. And chances are, if I am teaching in my classroom or facilitating a writing workshop, picture prompts will be involved. Pictures are a great way to get the brain thinking and exploring. A picture presents part of the story and leaves you, the writer, to create the rest. What happened just before the image? How about after? If nothing else, writing from a picture prompt is a GREAT way to practice your description skills.
Recently my writing group, Wwink, has been playing around with picture prompts. We have been exploring the ideas of visual cues and physical space so that we can figure out how exactly we can make our readers feel like they are living and breathing right inside a story scene along with the characters. Next week I will share a super short story that was inspired by our last meeting’s picture prompt. But before you read that, I’d like to show you how I use pictures to very practically improve my writing.
I have been working on (on and off for the last three years) a young adult fantasy novel. The first draft (which was really more like the fourth draft because I stopped to edit and revise along the way) was finished in August 2017. I then sent it to Author Accelerator for some critique and feedback. The overall impression was that the editor assigned to me, Megan, (whose favorite author is also Maggie Stiefvater… it’s FATE!) really liked it. However, there were some things that needed to be improved. (Okay, lot of things.)
First of all, she told me that it was about 20,000 words short of industry standard for YA Fantasy. (In layman’s terms, I’d written 60,000 words – AKA 300 double spaced pages, and it needed to be more like 80,000 words – AKA 400 double spaced pages.) Mostly what I was missing in the story was description. Megan said, “You’re missing some surrounding details. I can’t really see where your characters are, or what’s around them.”
Side note… I once asked the genius storyteller Maggie Stiefvater how to get better as a writer. She said,
“I try to take what is in my head, and make it look exactly the same way on the page for the reader.”
I am always happy to take the suggestion of a pro and put it into action, but I had a problem. The visions in my head weren’t all that clear. For me, the details of the places my characters travel and interact were more of an instinctual feeling, than a map or panoramic, all-encompassing view. So to solve this problem, I went in search of pictures. I can’t tell you how many times a day I GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH, but that is exactly where I went to first. Then I pulled up another favorite picture searching site, DeviantArt. Fantasy art is very popular on the site, and it is fun to search for images and imagined worlds that match my own story universe.
Once I gathered a few images and stored them in a file separate from my actual manuscript document, I printed them. They lived inside a folder that comes with me everywhere. (FYI: Writers do not have to go to the gym to workout as often as other humans, because we are constantly carrying our books, computers, hundreds of pages of manuscripts in various stages, and 47,000 writing utensils with us. Not to mention all the books we schlep from our house to our car to the book sale and back again. Really, we are mules of our craft!)
When ever a free moment arose in the last two weeks, I would pull out the pictures. While my son ran and jumped around at the Y for Parkour class I stared at the images and jotted down some ideas. As my students read books silently in the library (halleluiah!) I added more descriptive details. After the boys went to bed I started sentences of description. While my husband was at baseball (Go Eagles!), I searched for more images and refined my ideas.
Then, I went back to my manuscript and found appropriate places to include these pieces of description. An added bonus is that through writing these landscape and building descriptions, itty bitty plot details also came into focus. Character preferences, occupations within the story world, villain devices of mayhem and strategic castle defense systems also were either born or clarified.
The bottom line is, my use of pictures helped me two-fold. First, I was able to show my reader where my characters lived, and how they fit into the world around them. Second, I was able to add about 1,000 words in a three-chapter section.
If you are a visual person, here is what this process looked like.
So, I have about 40 chapters left to revise, and 19,000 words left to add. It’s a big job, but one I know I can handle, especially with my trusty stash of pictures in tow. I hope that the dissection of this process has been helpful for you too. I’d love to know what you are working on. Email me! firstname.lastname@example.org