Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How a Manuscript is Like an Oil Painting

My mother was a painter. I used to sit with her for hours watching Bob Ross on TV. He always made it look easy. Mom used to get discouraged and say, "I'll never be able to paint like that." And of course we'd always tell her, "Yes, you will. Keep painting." And we meant it. Now that I'm an adult, I realize she won't ever be able to paint like Bob Ross. She can study his work, buy his paints and brushes, and pray all day long that God will allow her to paint just like Bob, but she'll never be able to. Because she's Sherry Brooks. She'll paint with the talent and style God gave her.

The same is true with writing. Every time I read a book by Denise Hunter, Rachel Hauck, Susan May Warren, Lisa Wingate, or Becky Wade (just to name a few), I think, "I want to write just like that!" Each of those authors are talented in their genres and bring something fun and unique to their books. And though studying the craft, observing other authors, and writing constantly to become stronger are all good and vital things, the truth is I'll never be able to write like them. Because I'm me.

Studying one of my mother's paintings that I display on my mantle every winter, reminded me of that recently. Where I think my mom paints every bit as good as Bob Ross, she feels she falls short. Where I have friends and family that encourage me with similarly kind words, I feel I fall short. May God forgive us for not taking what He's given us and being humble, yet confident, in it. Using my mother's painting as an example today, I'd like to show you how a manuscript is like an oil painting--created in layers. 

It all starts with a sketch of the story. For me it's very basic--setting, character motivation, the character's occupations, and title. A few other details may come, or not, after brainstorming. I'm a more of a "seat of the pants" writer than a dedicated plotter. Ideas flow from me as I type.

Next, I utilize my tools. In this case, research. I study the geographical aspects of my setting, surround my self with pictures for inspiration, read books related to the story's subject matter, and surf the net for various related things. Depending on what season the story is set in, I may burn candles to help spark ideas. Example: if it's snowing outside my window, and I'm writing about my characters taking a walk through a garden in June, I'll light flower-scented candles to make my brain think of summer.

Then the scary, yet exciting, blank canvas. Or white computer screen. This is where the magic happens. (Or so I'd like to think) Some days the brushstrokes--words--come easily. Other days, I stare at a blinking cursor.
The first draft. It's always dull and in a lot of ways lifeless, but it's the first and most necessary layer to a story. (I know I'm stating the obvious here, but stay with me.)
As I revise, and revise, and revise, I add as much color to my story as possible in the way of secondary characters, raw emotions, humor (I try to have a good balance of the two), and utilizing the five senses.

When I believe I've made my manuscript as good as I can on my own, I send it to my fabulous critique partners. After a grammar check, adjective suggestions, revealing of plot holes, and an over-all push to do better, I do another revision, and the manuscript takes on yet another layer. This time, it's taking the vague shape of a masterpiece. (Or so I'd like to think.)

With shaky hands, a nervous stomach, and lots of prayer, it's off to the publisher. With the editor's wise suggestions and another revision, it's finally a story.
With the help of a talented artist, it gets a frame (book cover). After the galleys have received a thorough going-over and any final changes made, it's finally done. The author has created a place for the reader to escape, be entertained, and in the case of Christian fiction, an opportunity to grow closer to God through the character's journeys.

My approach and techniques may be different from other authors, and with some they may be the same. But no matter how each author attacks the canvas, the end result should be a story that glorifies God.

What techniques work best for you?

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