I once had a writing teacher who often used the phrase “not fully imagined” when he was critiquing our work. At first, I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but gradually I learned what he meant. Whenever we are creating a scene, we need to provide details so that the reader can create a version of that scene in her mind. If the details are too scanty, the scene is not fully imagined. If we provide too many details, we will put our hapless reader to sleep. Finding the right balance is difficult, and you will begin to notice that every author has her own set-point. Some provide copious details (Jane Urquhart comes to mind) and others very few. As readers we will also have our own preferences as to how much help we need to imagine the events being described.
When it comes to creating scenes, all five senses need to be addressed. For example, if you are setting a scene in a café, you will need to describe what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it smells like, what it feels like, and maybe even what the food tastes like. Each of us varies in how we take in our environments. Years ago, I took a seminar on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). I managed to retain almost nothing from the experience, but the one part I do remember is learning that I am not a visual person. I tend to learn things kinesthetically (by moving) or by hearing. This preference is reflected in my writing: I enjoy writing dialogue, poetry and conceptual pieces, but scene-setting and description are difficult for me.
Fortunately, for every deficit one has as a writer there is a type of practice that can help with rehabilitation. If you are not sure what type of learner or sensory processor you are, there are now lots of free online resources that can help you to figure that out. Here are a couple:
Learning to see
One of the best and simplest techniques I have been taught is to take advantage of down time, whenever you have it, by describing things in your notebook (as a writer you always carry a notebook, or an electronic equivalent—or in a pinch, napkins generally work). Say you are waiting in a train station and you have ten minutes until your train comes. Sit down somewhere (I’ve tried this standing, it’s hard on the body), and from the point of view of wherever you are seated, describe everything you can see. Don’t over-think this. Don’t worry about grammar; in fact, point form is perfectly acceptable. Start writing everything you notice visually: the colour of the bench, the gum on the floor, the bag of the person next to you, the paint on the walls. Then write down every sound, then every smell and so on. Resist the urge to add your feelings or create a narrative (unless something really interesting comes up). Focus on being where you are and recording everything you can.
What is this thing called?
Quite often, when I do this exercise, I will come across something in the landscape that stymies me. What is that colour called? Or what is the name for that architectural feature? Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can now go online and google “names for colours” or “types of arches” and behold— a plethora of information at your disposal. Take the time, at some point, to research the items that stumped you, thereby enhancing your vocabulary and general knowledge. The process will not only make you a better writer, but also a better conversationalist.
You can “tweak” this exercise by concentrating on the sensory arenas where you are weak, for example, if you are not very attuned to sound you can focus your practice on active listening and record just what you hear. Or you can spend a few weeks just noticing and describing textures (sticky comes to mind on a sultry day like today).
An accidental benefit of this practice is that by paying attention and jotting things down you will unintentionally absorb some of these details, so that the next time you want to set a scene in a train station, you will have one fully-imagined and ready to go at your disposal. Like all exercises, the more you practice the more descriptive muscle you will develop, and the easier it will be to communicate the scenes you visualize. Happy imagining!
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive.