Tuesday, June 08, 2010


My very first Guest Blogger is Stephen Parrish, author of just-released thriller/mystery, The Tavernier Stones.

Steve and I had a mild argument. He thinks no one cares what an author looks like. He's correct in that the author should be secondary to the story and that the point of blog flogging is to promote the novel, not the ego. However, today I've attached his photo to his post--simply because it is always nice to see who is talking to you.
Besides, I think his photo provides an excellent example of what constitutes a good author shot.

Besides, I like his face.

Note: After numerous tries to cut and paste Steve's post to this blog, I said bad words, gave up and typed it. Therefore, any typos are mine.

The Art of Language

Works of visual art frequently illustrate Bernita's blog, though it's devoted to the art of language. I can't help appreciate what surely is not a coincidence.

I grew up among artists who encouraged me to draw and paint; my room always smelled of turpentine and linseed oil and my pants were often streaked with charcoal dust. And since I write visually--I first see the scenes in my head and attempt to record them faithfully--it was only natural that I come up with an approach to writing that paid tribute to all the canvases I sacrificed.

First, I "scribble" the scene by brainstorming, by slappingwords and expressions down and trying to empty the vision from my head:

start with where she lived
then the train station at the end of her street
It was where you last saw her alive
somethnig about the dirtiness of the place, for contrast
cigarette butts, old newspapers
the train emerging from the fog
after a pregnant pause, you're in each other's arms

(this can go on for pages)

An advantage of scribbling is that I can ensure my purposes are comprehensively addressed; I vent everything that comes to mind. Another is that I get to fill up blank paper with little creative cost. After scribbling, I "sketch" the scene, placing elements in the right order, filling gaps:

you start with the street she lived on, how it wound around obstacles long since removed, how the remaining buildings seemed tired, seem to lean over the sidewalk. at the end of the street is the train station where you last saw her alive. the floor of the platform was covered with cigarette butts, old newspapers, and grime.

as the train approached you saw only its distant headlamp through the fog. when she stepped onto the platform the two of you as though waiting for enough joy to fill your eyes. finally the joy overflowed and you were in each other's arms. one last time, you felt her skin beneath your hands.

only time is inaccessible, never place. you can always go back to the place. you write to preserve moments in time.

I write only in lower case, and I use no indentation or quotation marks. Consequently the piece feels like a draft and I don't have to worry about how it sounds. If you're a perfectionist like me, this will spare you obsessive tooling. Finally, I "draw" the scene, I go final.

I keep a journal. I think everyone should: a journal is to language what a sketchbook is to art. The scribble-sketch-draw analogy has helped me fill quite a lot of empty paper.

But that's not what this post is really about.

When Bernita shares a painting on her blog she shares a window into a world the artist has created. Likewise when we write a scene we attempt to describe a world in a way the reader can grasp. The writer needs to provide just enough detail for the reader to draw the lines and paint the colors in her imagination. Some details the writer will insist on: the scar was on the left side of the bad guy's face. It was rain rather than crickets the lovers heard, or rather didn't hear.

Most of the details, however, the reader must decide for herself. I have little patience with writers who want to show me exactly what a character looks like, by inventing traits and dimensions, by scanning figures from head to toe. If you tell me the bad guy has a scar, I'll fill in the rest. Likewise, if you tell me the lovers don't even lnow it's raining, don't even notice they're getting wet, I can pretty well guess what's on their minds. A visual artist who skimps on detail risks failing to achieve his goal. A writer who is heavy on detail stands little chance of achieving it; the reader doesn't even make an attempt to engage.

When I paint, I fill my canvas with color. I leave no spot untouched. When I write, I provide as little information as I can get away with: less is more.

Still, that's not what this post is really about, either.

Anyone who has been moved by a great poem knows the art of language has as much to do with sound and rhythm as visual detail. With rhyme and alliteration. With contrast, the foundation of all beauty. When it comes time to draw, after you've scribbled and sketched, there should be one thought in mind; to push your work beyond what you've visualized; to take chances; to grapple with the fear that no one will understand you, no one will be moved by your words or will share your vision of light and shadow.

You start with the street she lived on, how it wound narrowly around obstacles long since leveled by bankruptcy and wood saw; how it shouldered stayed and acquitted buildings that retained most of their dignity; except now they seemed to cant forward slightly, like opposing rows of aging chess players.

You describe the train station where you last saw her alive. The paint was yellow with age and smoke and the sour smell of unclean men. It peeled in the damp air and fell to join the cigarette butts, the empty bottles, and the foot-trodden newspapers; litter that clothed the cement floor no better than the rags on the men who drank and dreamed there.

The first you saw of the train was its headlamp; floating ghost-like over the fog, then the engine broke from the mist and rumbled into the station where, here, the sun had burned the valley clean and the trunks of the Bruchweide were amber columns of light. When she stepped onto the platform the two of you stood apart at first and let the smile fill your eyes. Like spring-fed wells. Until the wells overflowed and you were in each other's arms.

The first time was outdoors, as all first times should be. You felt her flesh beneath your hands, soft, pliable, giving, welcoming. The pine needles against your back. Her voice, the rhythm of her chatter, a tonic, the day washed of its drabness. The smell of cut grass, of burning leaves, of moss and humus and primeval soil. A viseral sense of early and distant rain. It's only the time that's inaccessible, not the place, not even the person. You write to preserve moments in time. That's what art is for. You write to capture the love you felt before it broke something inside you. The volume set too high, yet never high enough. A timeline, a Cartesian grid, curved space, a forest of stars, darkness at night, and an abacus in the hands of a man gone mad.

That's what this post is about.


laughingwolf said...

hi steve, thx so much for this 'show n tell', excellent example of how to snare the reader then keep the interest flowing... pictures from words, indeed

bernita, your first guest blogger is a superb choice, thank you...

wv: deristed

Charles Gramlich said...

Good stuff. I know some of my friends who read a lot do check out websites to get visuals on authors. It matters to some folks at least.

I also know of one older author who hired a young attractive woman to pretend to be her for public signings and events.

Bernita said...

Nice illustration of his process, isn't it, LW!
I think I use a variation, though not as regulated.

Charles, I especially liked this photo of Steve, because a reader can easily imagine him writing a thriller/mystery.

And that, I'm afraid, I consider dishonest.
Even though I understand she must felt her own appearance might discourage readers from buying her book, one wonders if there was a certain Mary Sue transference going on on her part.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm listening to my son play his new song "Crazy Train" on the drums. He's been working on just the fills for a few weeks (it's a fast song with complicated fills for an 11 yr old). This is the first time he's played with the music. He's playing about 2/3 of the notes and will fill in as his endurance grows.

Ah, he's playing it again without my asking. I bet he fills in more notes this round...

Bernita said...

I suppose there is a similarity, Betsy.

Alissa said...

I do tend to look at author photos. There can be negative drawbacks. I can't remember the book, but about a year or so ago I read one and the author photo showed a young man in a hooded sweatshirt who looked like he had just rolled out of bed. It made me think less of his book.

Steve's post is great, and I agree completely about over-description. I've read books that take two paragraphs to describe what a character is wearing, and I feel like I am reading an issue of Vogue.

Barbara Martin said...

Interesting how you pull the reader in, Steve, and keep them there until the end with memories.

I, too, scribble in the beginning, but usually in paragraphs. Rarely are there brief phrases.

Bernita, an author's photo speaks a thousand words.

Bernita said...

Too bad about that particular author, Alissa, though in general I prefer the casual photograph to the studio portrait kind.

Barbara, I follow Steve's idea, but my style is disorganized bits and pieces of scribbled words and fragments on the nearest available paper.

Anonymous said...

I see parallels between Steve's writing style and yours. He's a perfect guest blogger for you!

Bernita said...

A flattering comparison, Jason. Thank you.

Lauren said...

I enjoy seeing pictures of the authors in books, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find their pictures if they were not on the flap.

I scribble but more the action than the scene mostly because I like the action better :) I like Steven's scribble, sketch, draw analogy. What a great way to look at it!

Anonymous said...

"It was a dark and stormy night"...yes,less is more and I hope never to stop learning.
Orietta L'abbate

Bernita said...

Somehow I missed your post earlier, Lauren, I'm sorry.

Yes, interesting if available but I don't go looking for one either.

Makes sense, the action is the anchor of any scene.

Orietta, I agree.