Tracey S. Phillips is not only the founder and leader of the Blackbird Writers, she is the author of Best Kept Secrets, and a series of romantic suspense novels under the name Karissa Knight. You can find out more about her on her website, www.traceysphillips.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here and here.
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words.
Or is it?
The winding narrow road that led to Nana’s cottage was tree-lined on the lake side, farmland on the other. Lush greenery and sprouting corn grew beneath cloud-specked Indiana sky as far as the eye could see. On the breeze, faint smells of cornflowers, manure from nearby farmland, and lake weed. At the bottom of a hill on the left, the sky-blue Victorian cottage, with its peaked roof and scrolling detail, was the oldest home on the lake. White window trim popped against the pale blue siding and dark gray shingles. Gabled windows and a spire on the crest of the roof gave it charm like no other house on the lake. Mowed grass full of pink clover and rows of orange and yellow lilies blooming along the sidewalk led to the screened porch. And beyond the yard, the vast surface of Lake Carlson churned in the wind, stirring memories into an emotional melting pot with green lake weed and summer sun.
Can you picture yourself there? An almost idyllic setting made up of 161 words. I could drown you with my love of flowery, emotive descriptions. It would be so easy. But will it move the story along? Is there tension?
I write a lot, I’ve discovered. Not just because I’m an author. I journal, I blog, and I post daily. Yeah, I know, you too. But maybe a peek into my process helps you develop yours. Though some say it’s not the most efficient method, I’m a pantser. I write for discovery. I write to get to know my characters, and I write to expose the story. To find out who did it. And then I cut it back to the bones.
Since I’m a very visual person, words become images faster than you can snap a photo. Before I even write the first sentence I’ll start to journal details about the characters and their situation. I draw pictures. I collect photos and images and create a book of character traits, histories, relationships. Like a stalker, I can tell you every detail of my protagonist’s features. And when I finally sit down to write, this person that I’ve conjured will speak to me.
There’s a fine line between too much detail and not enough. In my first drafts I tend toward too much. While writing my first book, I saved a document with nearly 40,000 words cut from the original manuscript. Oy. That’s half a book! Some gurus suggest the first draft is for the bones of the story. Add the detail later. Not me. I write so I can peel the layers like an onion. I write until I discover the story.
Where does the story take place? Setting the scene grounds me and the reader. Is it worth 1000 words? If you’re writing the next New York Times literary novel, dive right in. However, in my genre, in thriller and suspense, it’s best to create tension with your characters and actions. Keep the story moving. As much as I love a poetic description and creative colorful visuals, thriller readers don’t want to be smothered in a lyrical portrait. They want to run with your characters. They need to move with them through your world—to cook or travel or dive from cliffs—but most of all, to investigate with them. Readers want to be immersed in the lives you create.
Does the reader need to know about the moldering coasters on the table if they’re not setting a glass on one? Do they need to see the deck of cards if the characters aren’t playing? Maybe not. I’m learning to interject action beats into my descriptions. I’ve been told to describe the things in the room when they are being used.
Let’s take the above example and add a character and some tension.
Lush greenery and sprouting corn grew beneath cloud-specked Indiana sky as far as the eye could see. On the breeze, faint smells of cornflowers, manure from nearby farmland, and lake weed. The winding narrow road that led to Nana’s cottage was tree-lined on the lake side, farmland on the other. The sky-blue Victorian, with its peaked roof and scrolling detail, was the oldest home on the lake. Rows of orange and yellow lilies blooming along the sidewalk bordered mowed grass full of pink clover. And beyond the yard, the vast surface of Lake Carlson looked like black oil. It churned in the wind, stirring memories into an emotional melting pot with green lake weed and summer sun. It would suck you under and kill you if you came near enough.
Better? Perhaps tighter at 130 words. But where is the character? Who is seeing this? Let’s add one.
Nana’s sky-blue Victorian cottage was the oldest house on Lake Carlson. Beneath the cloud-specked Indiana sky, rows of orange and yellow lilies blooming along the sidewalk bordered mowed grass full of pink clover. Beyond the yard, the vast surface of Lake Carlson looked like black oil. It churned in the wind, stirring memories into an emotional melting pot with green lake weed and summer sun. It would suck you under and kill you if you came near enough. Daphne had almost let it.
Ah. 83 words. I cut the segment in half. Now we have a visual image; the cottage near a lake. An emotion; fear and apprehension. And I added tension in the form of a question. What happened to Daphne?
Maybe eventually I’ll be able to write a first draft in fewer words, to get to the point of my story. But for now, I just enjoy the process of creation. How do you capture the moment?
This Post Has 28 Comments
What a beautiful post – loved getting into Tracey’s head to see her writing process!
Thanks Galit! I was worried it was too much! Lol!
Thanks for sharing your process, Tracey. I learn so much from you!
Thanks Saralyn- and I from you! That’s why I love this writing community.
Wow- I got so much from your post. I’m going to try out the photos and journaling in regards to character. Also, I realize that my first draft is more me teaching myself about what the book is about and to expect the next few drafts will peel back layers plus add the thriller elements (which is my favorite thing to do).
It’s the same for me Laurie. In my interview with Robert Dugoni, he said he uses the first draft as his outline. I do too, in a way. I am always open to deleting and adding scenes as needed. I love that part too!!
I enjoyed this peek into your process, Tracey! It’s amazing the different variations authors use to create, and still we arrive at the same conclusion–a completed book! Thank you!
Thank you Margaret! I really think it’s a matter of figuring out what works best and like people, each person’s process is unique.
Dear Tracey, your teaching was so clear. I absolutely love the way the last, shortest, tightest version did more with less. You definitely got the emotion of fear and dread in there with the description of the hungry and ominous lake in contrast to the rest of the colorful and lighthearted setting and adding that ‘ALMOST’ part with your character nailed the feeling of hairs standing up on my neck. Thanks.
Thanks so much, Pamela! Thriller is supposed to make the hairs on your neck stand up! Reveal -sometimes even my drafts do that to me. Thanks for reading and commenting!
I think what you’ve said here illustrates well how every author has their own process. There is no right or wrong way to do it; it’s how it works for you. Or me. Or them…
Exactly! Thanks Sheila!
Thanks, Tracey, for sharing your process. I loved the visualizations you created. I, too, am a visualizer and a pantser who pares back the description later. Like you, one of my goals as a writer is to reveal my characters early on so they will speak to me, take me with them as they explore, and tell me how the chapter, or book, will end. Only then do I feel like I have a good story to present to my readers.
Sometimes I don’t know how it ends until I write it! I can have an idea where I want to go, but maybe my characters have different ideas. But once I’ve written The End, I sweep back to the beginning again. Then the real work begins!
I loved the way you edited that graf down. It’s a big help to see how I can do it, too.
Thanks Anne, I don’t always pare it down that much. But following Steven James’ rule , as the action ratchets up, I try to have less and less description. It keeps the pace hot.
I love the process of paring down eye-glazing descriptions to settings that serve the plot.
I hear that if you feel like skipping sections of your manuscript, your readers will too. We can’t have that! Thanks for commenting, John!
Thanks for sharing your process, Tracey! It must be fun to be such a visual writer.
Sometimes it’s challenging, Avanti.
Tracey — I’m a panster, too, so I thoroughly enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at your process. Thank you for sharing it.
Laurie, i’m reading Steven James’s Story Trumps Structure and it’s the first book I read that actually encourages this process! Its very empowering! (Go Pantsers!)
Hey Tracey! Thank you for taking me through a mini-writing lesson. This was great. I feel like I learned more about you and something about myself as a writer, plus a gained a technique to try because you brought it to life for me.
That’s high praise coming from you, Joy! Thank you! And glad I could inspire!
As soon as I saw the image, I thought of Daphne. Thanks for the peek into your project.
Thanks for peeking at my blog post! There’s always great writing tips and insights here on the blog, Sharon. hope you come back for more!
I read this post last week and enjoyed it so much! And thought I responded, but apparently that was only in my head. I love watch the progression of the editing and the corresponding vividness of the imagery. Wonderful!
Loved seeing your process for polishing a scene-setting paragraph! So interesting-