Learning from a Different Art Form
Lately, I’ve been studying photography. My husband upgraded to a newer, fancier SLR camera, so I got his hand-me-down Canon Rebel, which is great for learning. And I’m learning a lot about my creative process, which comes back to tell me things about my writing. Let me try to connect the two endeavors for you.
My husband has, for many years, tried to teach me photography, but it’s always been dense to me. Enter photographer David Duchemin and his amazing book, The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs. He explains the photography triangle of ISO, time and aperture in ways I finally understand. Duchemin suggests that you put the camera’s setting on manual and leave them there for all of his lessons. Wow, that’s a challenge!
But he takes it step-by-step and explains why you’d choose this of that setting. For example, one of the first exercises is to abandon the totally sharp image, and instead go for something abstract. I set my camera to a half-second of exposure time, which is very slow. It’s so slow that as I clicked, I could also move the camera in a circle or straight line to blur colors. The point, of course, if that I did it deliberately. He asks that you always know your purpose and then ask the camera to produce the image in your mind.
Duchemin’s accompanying book, Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision, extends the idea that the most important thing is the artist’s intent or vision.
“Shooting from the heart and telling the visual stories you love and care about is the first step in making your viewers care. If we do not tell stories in a way that people care about, we’ve failed. We’ve failed to create an image that connects on some level, failed to pull the viewer into the frame and show them something new. This doesn’t mean we shoot only those things that others want to see. It means we shoot the things that move us in ways that will move others.”
Because of Dechemin, I’ve been thinking about the writer’s intent or vision for a story. Certainly, stories develop as you write, but we all start with some vision of what the story could be. We should be writing “from the heart” and telling “stories you love and care about.”
He’s talking about centering the art of photography in a person, the artist.
The Author’s Vision of Story Holds Power
A novelist attends a conference where an editor or agent reads ten pages and holds out a carrot: I’ll read the whole thing if you make this or that change. Notice that the editor/agent knows very little about the author and his/her vision for the story. They only know what they learned in ten minutes and from ten pages of the novel.
Too often, the author comes back from the critique, unconvinced that the requested change will create the story they’ve always wanted to tell. However, the carrot of possible representation and ultimate publication compels the author to change the story. But in making that change, has the story lost its heart and power to move a reader? Often, it does. The story is rejected, but the author moans, “I did what they asked.”
In that case, the agent is saying this sort of story will move me. But they often fail to see the raw power of the author’s passion in the story just as it was. Sometimes, I think it’s the agent/editor/reader’s failure to be vulnerable to a story. It’s like they are standing before the Grand Canyon and their hearts are unmoved.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t revise for an agent/editor/reader. Of course, you need to check how well your story communicates what you wanted to say. But when the agent/editor/reader don’t share your vision for what the story should be, I’m asking, “Do you really want to revise for this person?”
How hungry are you? Do you want publication more than you want to stay true to your artistic vision? I understand that sometimes it’s essential to sell! Writing to market is a good strategy for many authors who must earn a living. I wonder, though, if the stories lack the power of passion.
But if you do write to market every time, what has happened to your vision of a story that will move readers in some way? Will there ever be a time when you stand firm? This is the story I wanted to tell and I told it in the way I wanted to tell it.
My Story Told My Way
My latest novel, LIBERTY, is one such book. (Buy the Paperback at 25% off by entering this code at checkout: 5FETYTVY.)
I’m the Queen of Revision! Sine 1999, I’ve led Novel Revision Retreats that have allowed many people to break through with their first sale. Kirby Larson attended the retreat, revised, and her novel, Hattie Big Sky, went on to win a Newbery Honor. I teach revision; I practice revision; I understand that revision is often the way to the best story you can tell.
However, on LIBERTY—which I published through my company, Mims House—is a story I’ve always loved. As I considered publishing it, I read through it again. I knew that it could be revised in certain ways. If an experienced editor read through it, they might ask for this or that revision. Perhaps, it should be restructured with the opening section refocused. Perhaps, the villain should appear much earlier. Perhaps. . .the list could go on.
But in the end, it was the story that I wanted to tell, told in the way I wanted to tell it.
I could see how those revisions would make the story, well, different. But would they make it better? No, I decided. They would make it a different story.
Photographers know that they can’t go out and re-take a shot. They might do processing through Photoshop or a similar program. They might crop the photo or blow it up. But in the end, the photo is what they shot.
What if an authors said, “The story I wrote is the story I wrote.”?
Writing is a strange art. We open ourselves to criticism more than any other creative art, and often let those outsiders form the basis of revision. I still believe in the need for revision. What I’m encouraging is that you enter into the critique process with a more balanced idea of what you will or won’t change. Be clear on your vision for a story.
Now, don’t be foolish: if an experienced reader/editor/agent makes comments, you’d be a fool to dismiss them out of hand. But don’t give up on your own passions! Don’t let the revisions—based on another’s opinion—take away the raw power of your story.
Duchemin said, “Shooting from the heart and telling the visual stories you love and care about is the first step in making your viewers care. If we do not tell stories in a way that people care about, we’ve failed.”
Revisions are meant for one thing and one thing only, to match up your vision with what’s on paper. When we write, there are inevitably two stories that result. There’s the story in your head, the one you meant to write. And there’s the story on paper, the story you actually told. Revision is the process of bringing those two stories into alignment. It should help you tell a story that “you love and care about” so that your readers will care.
If you abandon your heart’s vision, you will fail.
Dechemin says the artist’s vision is the most important part of a photograph. I think the statement holds across different artistic domains. Novelists, the most important part of your story is your vision of the story you want to tell and how you want to make readers care. Cling to your vision! Don’t let anything shake you from it!