Open Wounds

A Guinness Walks Into a Partagás Smoking a Bar…

Writing is painting pictures with words.

That’s all we get.


No facial expressions, no visual cues, no body language, nothing… unless you write it in. Otherwise you leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. That’s the way it works. Some writer’s are sparse in description and some are heavy. Some like to control what the reader sees and some like to leave some space for them to see on their own. The writer directs. The reader follows. If the reader doesn’t follow the book gets put down.

It’s an amazing process of collaboration led by the writer. I don’t think I ever realized this before – how collaborative the act is.

Worlds can be brought to life with just the right details. Civilizations can be raised up from the dust or from beneath the ocean’s floor. Think of the images you just pulled up to see those civilizations in your mind’s eye. Each of your images is different depending on your own life experience and how that influences what you see based on the words I chose. Our experience of words is part subjective, colored by our life experience. Now that is cool, if you think about it for just a moment. That’s also why, when a book is made into a movie some people say it is exactly as they saw it from reading the book and others say that it’s not like what they read at all – even though they read the exact same book.

How do you know when you have found truth in painting your picture with words? How do you, as the writer, know you have chosen words that show something authentic, that you have directed effectively enough to tell a good story?

I edited a script for an e-learning system today and was faced very quickly with an example of how this works. Dialog for a character ran like this:

I acknowledge that there are challenges in conducting service placement.

I read the sentence out loud to the writer and saw a look of understanding come over her face as soon as I said the word acknowledge.

“It doesn’t sound right,” she said, shaking her head.

“Then let’s make it sound right for the character,” I replied.

She wrote: I know as a provider that there are going to be challenges in doing my job.

She changed it to sound right – to sound authentic to her. Writing scripts I tell my staff to read them out loud. “You’ll hear authenticity in dialog,” I say. I find it works the same way with narrative.

A full read through of my manuscript, out loud, to myself, is the final step in my revision process. That is my final check on directorial authenticity. It takes me a day or two with breaks for coffee or English Breakfast tea, sometimes toothpicks for my eyes (not in them) and a bunch of pee breaks. My butt is usually sore by the end, as is my throat.

But when I finish – if it’s really finished – if the words paint a picture that is authentic to me – then it’s time for a Guinness and a Partagás underneath a pale sliver of moon.


19 responses

  1. I think you should stand while you read out loud.

    January 27, 2012 at 7:16 am

    • And wear a hat. A porkpie if available.

      January 27, 2012 at 7:22 am

      • And hold a sword. Some kind of falchion, cutlass, or saber.

        January 27, 2012 at 7:23 am

      • Have a parrot perched on your shoulder to correct you.

        January 27, 2012 at 7:28 am

      • Hah!

        January 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

  2. Don’t forget some fake audience members that look real from behind.

    January 27, 2012 at 7:26 am

    • a string quarter for background music.

      January 27, 2012 at 7:29 am

      • There needs to be a spotlight shining on you from above. You have to be able to see the dust motes whirling through the air.

        January 27, 2012 at 8:33 am

      • And a monocle.

        January 27, 2012 at 9:55 am

  3. Well, if there is a monocle, a pocket-watch should be there as well.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:02 am

    • High leather riding boots with jodhpurs tucked.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  4. and eye patch on the other eye, a la Joyce.

    January 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    • and a long coat from the Matrix.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm

      • This is shaping up to be one cool dude. Oh wait, it’s you. Already cool.

        January 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm

      • Hah! It’s a steampunk pirate reading my last manuscript out loud. The real image is much more pedestrian. But I do have a cigar and a Guinness when I finish. Seriously. They taste good together.

        January 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      • Are there things that don’t taste good with Guinness? Who knew?

        January 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      • If you ever do decide to dress up like this when reading the manuscript, make sure you take a photo. It would be an awe-inspiring sight.

        January 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm

  5. What a lovely ritual, Joe.

    January 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    • Interesting that part about painting with words. I think that’s a key to how some of us grow as writers. For example (Joe can probably attest to this), I tend to over describe. Like I want to show the reader exactly what I see. I’m not saying that’s wrong, per se, and some writers are geniuses at making it work, but I think the more we grow, the more we realize that the most beautiful pictures are the ones painted by the reader.

      Or maybe I’m talking out my ass. I’m still learning this thing called writing.

      January 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm

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