There are a few things I want to focus on in today’s post: writing imagery, theme, and description. They’re important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.
It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.
Theme Emerges During Revision
When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book (check out some book themes here). GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.
Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens for when you’re writing imagery and description. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about developing writing voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. When you’re working on thematic writing, look at all your descriptions and characterizations through the lens of the bigger idea you want to work with.
Theme as a Lens for Writing Imagery and Description
The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is writing imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.
Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your thematic writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.
Watch Out for Purple Prose
In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.
When you’re writing imagery and description, you want to get the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details (more advice on writing descriptions). Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.
So when you’re working on thematic writing, make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.
When you hire me as your book editor, we can create a customized plan to achieve your writing goals. Do you want help fine-tuning your thematic writing? Let’s work on it together!