Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Art, Rewriting, and Layers Of Work

Many of those who believe in Heinlein's rules of writing, particularly the rule about not rewriting, see writing as a kind of performance. They equate learning to write with learning to play the violin, or learning to dance.

I am not one of these people. Though I see value in the metaphor, the plain fact is, you CAN'T revise a performance. It doesn't really equate at all to Heinlein's rule.

I think the visual arts make for a better perspective on writing.

See, in the visual arts, you have to sketch a LOT -- just keep drawing new lines and shading new spaces -- to gain control over your hand. But you also do revise. It's a critical part of the process.

The first thing you learn in any drawing class is that your drawing should be "complete" at any stage of the game. That is, you don't draw the nose to perfect completion and then move on to the eyes. You sketch the overall shapes, you lay in lines or base shading all over the whole canvas. You might work some details a little ahead of others, but generally, you always work the whole piece of art at every stage.

You may not be finished, but the whole picture is there. And there may be several times in the process where you could declare it finished, as well. Part of the work of the artist is to be able to step back and know when a work is done.  (And, imho, that's what Heinlein's Rule 3 is about.  It's an emphatic of Rule 2 -- you have to finish the work.)

So this past weekend, while I was watching an episode White Collar on Hulu, I decided to sketch a riding boot and save the various stages of the work as I went.

The first step is the basic shape, sketched out in line. I did this one as a contour sketch -- quite literally the outline, with no internal detail. I was making this one up as I went along, with no idea where I was going with it stylistically, so I just slapdash sketched in some shading for the next step -- which is when I got an idea of what I wanted it to look like. Then I sketched in the real shading -- still in sketch form. The third boot here could be a finished drawing, depending on what I was going for.

But I wanted to work on my shading more, so I decided to switch colors and sketch in some highlights, with medium and light tones. The technique I was going for requires putting in too much and then backing it off with an eraser (if you're using layers) or more dark shades if you're just layering in color. So the first boot here is not a finished drawing. The second, where I've backed off the highlights a little could be.

In the final drawing, I decided to take it to another level, and I used a smudge tool to give it a more painterly or sculptural look. It's not a strong drawing by any means, but it has a more finished and polished feel. Very different from the sketchiness of the earlier versions, and yet still the same boot. And it would not have been possible to do this as a first run attempt. To get that last boot, I had to go through the other stages. (Although, admittedly, if I knew I was going for that look, I might have moved to pastels step two or three. But I didn't know I wanted to go there until I saw what I had. Art is like that.)

I write something like I do artwork. It's not an exact equation -- I don't rough in the whole story and go through multiple drafts, for instance. But I... work the canvas as I write, pinning down major events, pinning down details as I work the areas in between. Working all the greens and blacks first and then splashing and blending with the reds and yellows

You might call it layering. And yes, I do think it's a form of "rewriting." I'll talk tomorrow more that layering method of writing.

See you in the funny papers.


Angie said...

Just as a data point, your drawing teacher clearly went to a very different school from mine. I was taught to draw exactly that way -- starting in the middle and working out. I used to have a partial drawing I never finished of an owl; it was a gorgeous (IMO) rendering of the eyes and beak, with a bit of feathering outward, but I never went any farther. What's there looks really good, though, and not sketchy at all.

I was taught to start drawing a face in the center, with the curve of brow down to the nose, then fill in details of the eyes, finish the nose, then move on to brow and temples and cheeks, down to the mouth and chin, out to the ears, then the hair, the neck, however far. My teacher sneered at the idea of starting out to draw a person's head by drawing an egg shape or whatever and working in.

I write the same way, although I've never thought about it this way before. Not from the center out, but one piece at a time, getting each bit done or nearly done before moving on. By the time I'm on Chapter 10, Chapter 1 is pretty much as it's going to be published, maybe a couple of comma fiddles or a misspelling fixed or whatever.

I work from beginning to end -- the thought of going out of order makes me itch, LOL! -- and each bit attaches to the previous bit. Faces don't have a beginning or end, but I pick a spot (I was taught to use the middle) to begin with, and then everything attaches from there.

It's been a while since I did any drawing and it'd probably take me quite a bit of practicing to get back up to a point where I'd be willing to show my pictures to anyone. If I did get back to it, though, I'd work the same way I did before. Both methods can work, obviously, just like both outlining and pantsing can work. I think it's just a matter of how you were taught and/or what you've found works best for you.


The Daring Novelist said...

Wow, Angie. I've been to a number of different art schools (and I work in an art school), and I've never heard of any teacher teaching that way.

I've seen individual artists develop their own techniques like that -- but when something is so proscriptive like that, it's very individual. Not something to teach a group. It's hard to get a student to a higher level with something like that.

In the end, though, you go with what works. And if that works for you, it works for you.

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, and as for your writing process --

That sounds similar to mine, in that you are continuing to "work the canvas" on getting Chapter 1 done while you work on Chapter 10.

It sounds like we both work in the way that when the first draft is done, the story is done. No second draft, just proofreading.

Is that what you mean?

Angie said...

I'll be the first to admit that my drawing teacher might well have been a bit of a nut -- there are one or two things about how he taught that I definitely didn't care for, although the center-out approach hit me like the proverbial lightbulb going off. And I'm not an artist by any stretch; I only took two art classes in college (three if you count art history) and the other one was 2D design, which was pretty generic. I don't have enough experience to say whether this guy was a particularly good teacher or whether they should've fired him; I only know what did and didn't work for me. [nod]

And yeah, by the time I get to the end of a story, it's pretty much ready to go. I'll give it a final going over with sandpaper, looking for typos and such, but if I need to send it in right away (which I have a couple of times, when I squeaked in right under a deadline) I don't get noticeably more edits than I do with other stories I've given that final going-over.

The one time I tried outlining, though, I completely lost the novel. I did a detailed outline, worked out what was going to happen and when and in what order, made sure everything fit and linked up properly, then... couldn't actually write the darned thing. :( It's like all my writing energy was used up on the outline or whatever, and the actual text wouldn't come. Scared me out of ever trying to outline again. [laugh/flail]

I've seen other writers talking about doing their outline and then writing scenes in whatever order they feel like. I can't imagine being able to do that. O_O


The Daring Novelist said...

Art teachers tend to be a bit nutty. I remember in my first studio art class, the instructor's method of teaching was to walk around the room telling each other students "You've got talent. You don't. You do. You do. You don't. You don't. You don't..."

As for outlining, I don't do an outline, but I write the story entirely out of order. This is not something I recommend, it's just what I do.

I'll talk more about it over the coming weeks. I think it's good to hear from different people on different methods of working. We need to know there's a lot of variety -- and we need to know that if something isn't working for us, there are multiple options.

Angie said...

We need to know there's a lot of variety -- and we need to know that if something isn't working for us, there are multiple options.

Absolutely. [nod] I've read a lot of books and articles on writing, and taken some classes, and too often the author/teacher is trying to convince everyone that their method is the best, the only, that anyone who doesn't do it their way isn't a Real Writer, or is just a hack.

I know enough to eyeroll and walk away now, but when I was a newbie I was more likely to listen. It annoys me to think how many newbies get caught up in this same crap now.

to walk around the room telling each other students "You've got talent. You don't. You do. You do. You don't. You don't. You don't..."

Oh, good grief. :( Someone needed a good smack, and it wasn't any of the students.