Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lighting up your writing

I had a bit of spare time the other day, and decided to do a bit of artwork. I haven't done any art since October or November, so it seemed about time. I've recently started using a tool called Carrara, which I find to be both more powerful and more difficult than Bryce, a tool I've used since 1998.

The switch should have been relatively smooth: Carrara has intuitive controls, a great deal many more features, and a lot more sophistication and realism than Bryce. However, there was a problem that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I was able to create images with content in forms I'd only ever dreamed of before, and it was indeed quite intuitive to do... but at the same time, something was missing in the finished products. The scenes often felt flat, dull, and less interesting than the ones I had been doing in Bryce.

This was a mystery to me for several months -- all the parts were seemingly there, so I couldn't see why everything didn't gel. I should point out at this point that I'm not a professional artist, and most of my technique is self-taught. To a professional artist, or even just someone trained in mid-level photography, the problem with my Carrara work should have been obvious: light. If you have any passing interest in art or photography, the link above is one of the best reads you may find.

Take a look at the two images below. The one on the left was rendered before I read that article, and the right-hand one was rendered after.

Pretty dramatic difference, right? The only thing changed between them is the lighting. The mountains, their "shaders," the clouds and mist -- none of that was changed one iota. Yet it looks like much of that is different, doesn't it? The mist is much more prominent in the second image, because it is caught in the path of a strong light from the left of the scene. The clouds look different (thicker and more brooding) because the sun is now positioned high in the sky, shedding a redder, more diffuse light as a counterpoint to the harsh white light from scene left. Even the mountains look different, as the deep contrast of light and shadow makes each crook and crag that much more prominent.

In every sense, light is art. Monet certainly knew this. Light is vision, after all -- at the most fundamental level, the only thing our eyes ever see is reflected light. From that perspective, of course changing the lighting of a scene will have a dramatic effect on the way that scene is viewed. Lighting effects everything from clarity to mood.

Here's where I tie this into writing -- perhaps you see the connection already. Light is to (visual) art as words are to writing, right? The wording of what we write is what separates the great writers from the merely good, and the merely good from the truly terrible. Cliches, passive voice, unneeded word repetition, awkward construction, and just plain unclear wording can kill any work -- fiction or nonfiction. It doesn't matter how brilliant or revolutionary your idea/plot/characterization is, unless you can transmit those concepts -- through your words -- to your readers.

This, of course, is old news. I presume I'm preaching to the choir, here, to pick an apt cliche. What may not be so obvious is this: poor wording problems can be remedied with editing. This is the part of the craft that has to be learned by most writers. Clear, original thinking and content -- that's the part that can't be taught. I'm not an art historian, but from what little I have read on the subject it seems that most famous artists attended some sort of art school, or studied under another artist in their time period. This was how they learned what they needed about technique, including everything that was known and relevant about light itself.

Even though these artists had presumably been walking around and "looking at stuff" their whole lives. Maybe even admiring the great art that came before them. My first point is this: a serious writer will take the time to learn the underlying craft it takes to become a true wordsmith. Practice makes perfect, but not unless you know what to practice.

But that's really my ancillary point. The true purpose of this post was that I realized something rather important with those two images of mine: in order to fix my "bland, dull" images, I just needed to put some vigor into the lighting. I have a good sense of form and composition, anyway, so that part was already pretty much set. It's the same with writing. If you have a good sense of plot and character, and have a good understanding of the basics of grammar, that's a pretty decent foundation to work from. It's like my first mountains -- deceptively empty if you're lacking the crucial elements of voice and style, but still quite recoverable. As long as you take the time to learn something about voice and style, as I finally did with regard to light.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of terrible writers with "great ideas" that aren't really great. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about those writers with legitimately new concepts, with solid foundations, who nevertheless get rejected time and again because their work lacks pizazz, or agents just don't fall in love with it, or one of the many other euphemisms for "poor lighting." If you're one of those people, don't just keep beating your head on the wall -- practice probably won't help significantly, for the same reason that I'd have never figured out the underlying mechanisms behind lighting my mountain scene. Instead, go pick up some good writing books (I've mentioned On Writing and Don't Murder Your Mystery recently), and learn a few things you don't already know. Then come back and practice, practice, practice -- and I bet you'll see some progress.

I'll let you know if that worked for me once I find out.

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