Holly Lisle's Workshop
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
is the manipulation of someone else's imagination.
- Sol Saks,
reading along, completely into the author's story, excited about where it
is going -- and suddenly the characters do something so sloppy, or so
physically impossible, or so lame that you're thrown out of the book.
pick up something in the bookstore that -- from the cover -- looks like
it's going to be great, but when you start reading, you feel like you're
standing in the dark listening to someone muttering on the other side of a
wall. Nothing is getting through to you in enough detail to keep your
interest. You put the book down and look for something else.
send off a piece in high hopes; you've gotten an okay from an editor who,
based on a nice chat the two of you had at a con, is already excited about
your idea. But within just a
couple of weeks, your story is back.
Rejected. The editor's
note says, "Nice idea, but development is too thin."
all three scenarios, the author would have benefited from developing
better visualization skills. The more clearly you as the writer can see a
scene in your mind's eye, the more clearly you can write it.
is one of three essential skills for building a career as a professional
writer. (The other two are good grasp of the mechanics of writing and the
ability to tell an interesting story in a coherent manner.) All three are
learnable skills, but visualization tends to not even show up in most
books on writing and in most writing courses.
Writers seem to assume that if they can write coherently and if
their stories are good, their work is done.
you cannot put the reader inside your scene, make him believe that he
stands in the center of the world you have created, then it does not
matter how technically proficient your writing is, or how compelling your
plot: your work will fall flat.
how do you learn to visualize? And
once you have learned this skill, how do you put it into practice in your
is exactly what it sounds like -- it is seeing clearly and in great detail
with your mind's eye. And you
learn to visualize well by first learning to see with your other senses,
and then transferring what you experience to your mind.
People believe that they truly notice their surroundings, but the
sad truth is that, on a clear and conscious level, most people really see
only those things that are going to run over them in the next minute if
they don't pay attention.
Writers do not have the luxury of wandering through their lives in
a state of blissful fogginess. We
have to see - really see - the people and places around us as if our
bodies were full-sensory cameras and our minds were film.
This workshop will give you some beginning visualization exercises. Beyond these exercises, make a conscious decision each day to
notice in detail the people, places, and events around you.
to the exercises, then. Before
we start, gather up a couple of simple items:
a piece of metal jewelry (something as plain as a gold wedding band, or as busy as a piece of costume jewelry)
a food item from the kitchen -- anything from a piece of fresh fruit to a can of peas
a photograph of a person
piece of unpatterned cloth. A
square of black cloth will be the least distracting, but you can use
anything from a white business shirt to a plain blue terrycloth bath
can do all of Exercise 1 in the Writers' Community, and get feedback from
other writers on what you've done.)
your piece of jewelry on your cloth backdrop.
Look at it until you are certain you have memorized everything
about it. Then turn away and
start writing. Do not
look at it again until you are certain you have described everything about
it in the best detail you can manage.
you've done a good job of paying attention to detail, you should have no
trouble expending a hundred words or better on the description of a simple
wedding band. If you're
having trouble getting that far, I'll give you a couple of helpful hints.
Did you remember to notice the shadows the ring cast?
The many colors reflected in the metal?
For smooth jewelry, the actual reflections you saw in the surface?
Any engraving? Any
signs of wear? Any scars?
If it includes a stone, have you remembered not just the details of
the stone, but any light it scatters, the method by which it is attached
to the ring, the way it reflects in the metal?
1B-1D are the same as Exercise 1; simply replace the ring on
your piece of cloth with the book, your food item, and your photograph of
a person. In each instance,
look at the object, hold it in your memory, and write every detail of your
chosen object, no matter how minute.
When you've finished check to see what you got right, what you got
wrong, and what you overlooked entirely.
on how to do the exercise on the community board:
time you're out, spend some time looking at strangers.
Imagine that you're going to have to identify them in a police
line-up, or better yet, describe them to a police artist.
(This also is great fun, in a paranoid, conspiracy-theory way.)
Stare at one person only so long as politeness permits (or until
you get caught). Start
writing from memory. In busy
public places, it can be tough to check your work.
Restaurants can keep people in one place long enough that you can
often see what you've missed. Bank
lines can be good; doctors' waiting rooms are just great.
to put your folks into action. Find
a couple of interesting-looking people, do your best to memorize them.
Find a complex, interesting setting -- a local mall, botanical
park, grand old Victorian house with display gardens, or someplace equally
challenging. Really pay
attention to your surroundings. Do
your best to notice everything, not just with your sense of sight, but
with all your senses.
you think you have a pretty good bead on your people and your place,
create a scene in which you use EVERYTHING you observed.
Put action in there. Put
dialogue. But your main issue
in this exercise is to create an absolutely over-the-top
all-senses-engaged presentation of two people and the space they occupy.
You aren't shooting for great literature here: in fact, you're
going to be replicating some of the most extreme indulgences of many
professional writers who are powerful enough to be able to override
editors who would curb their excesses if they could.
BUT . . . you'll be duplicating a sin of professional
writers, who have been visualizing scenes clearly for years, and in the
process you'll be learning through excesses valuable skills that will,
when toned down and controlled, take your reader right into your story.
He will stand in the center of your scene, tasting your protagonist's fear, smelling the moldering autumn leaves and the faintly cinnamony scent of autumn woods, watching living people moving through a living landscape.