Worth A Thousand Words: Using Images to Shape and Reshape Your Thinking

Last Saturday, I found myself in a place where I was excited about my work, but in too much pain to create. I couldn't stand or sit long enough to do any lengthy sessions of revision, and the pain was getting in the way of my mental processing. But it was the weekend, and I still wanted to make progress, so I decided that even if the words were failing me, I could still inhabit the novel's images. So I set up my laptop on my lingerie chest, and started scouring the web for pictures. I found several to represent each character, and several to represent what I think are key elements in the book. It was a lot of fun. In fact, it was so much fun it didn't really feel like work--but it was. Strangely, what I thought would just be a stop gap exercise turned into something much more profound. As I began pasting the images into a Word document and aligning them in tables, I started to see some conceptual and tonal problems in my work.

Seeing the pictures made me realize just how I needed to change things, and made me see what images don't quite fit. For instance, I refer throughout the novel to my main characters' ancestral past, and much of the story takes place in and around a graveyard, but I hadn't realized that the very modern medical devices stood out in contrast to this. In some ways, I think that's a good thing--21st century syringes in a 1920s Victorian, but it did give me some ideas about how I could connect back to the medical devices of the past. It also helped me think even more about the backstory of the novel, backstory that is creeping into this revision in brief flashbacks, which happens to mirror a comment I got during the defense, which was to do more with the past. Somehow setting out all those images made me see the past along with the present, and gave me connections I never would have had otherwise.

Also, quite by accident, I put two of my minor characters on the same page and realized that although they are generations apart and unrelated, they looked alike. This gave me the idea that they could be related, and if in fact they were related, that might tighten the storyline. I'm still not sure I'm going to do that, but it's an intriguing idea, and one that only came up because the page break bumped the characters into each other.

Final verdict: It was a great exercise in thinking, and a great way to sharpen my characters. When I emerged five hours later into the sundappled green of my backyard, I felt alive again and revived. And the image on the left (a bloodletting device from the 19th century) might just have brought me to another novel.


Wait. Did I just say "another novel?"

Crap. I'm doomed.
The first manuscript's the gateway drug.

Just one, prolonged, torturous taste, and the writer's gill-hooked for life.

The first paragraph's free. Then you spend the rest of your life payin'. ;)
Joy said…
Of course you just said "another novel!" You're a writer. That's what you do and do WELL. I love reading about your journey: it's so validating in that I've been doing kind of the same thing (looking for actors/actresses who most represent or could represent my characters on screen). It's good to know that a writer's tools are so useful and sometimes fun!
Fred Ramey said…
Now that's a fascinating process, Kathryn. (An author's process often intrigues me--since not violating it is so often the ground of editing). I wonder if a moment could arrive when the juxtaposition of images might begin, itself, to speak in the text.
Thanks, Fred, and in answer to your question, yes. There are many moments where that happens--the juxtaposition of images is my big strength, drawn possibly from all my experience in theatre. The problem is that sometimes I get carried away, and there's just too much of a difference or one too many images. This exercise really helped me clarify that--and made me realize what I might have to sacrifice. :(

And Joy, just because I'm a good writer doesn't mean I will be a good novelist. I'm having to accept that I could do all this and the book still might not sell. I HOPE I can be a novelist; I hope I can get contracts, draw an audience, etc., but since I've met with nothing but rejection thus far, I am bracing myself. I will always write; there's no question of that. The question is what and in what capacity.