Mar 1, 2010

Need 1,000 words? Use a picture!

'Curling up with a good book'
Freckles our cat.

Editing continues on Dog Show Detective. I'm completing lesson 2 of How to Revise Your Novel and it's about making sure every character and mentioned item in your narrative really counts toward the story. Also this week, I've finally started writing again! Well, outlining anyway. I find it tricky to balance editing with creative writing, as I need to be in a specific mood for each. So... I thought today I would share with you some exercises I use in the classroom for preparing the writer for creative vs essay writing using images.

I have a system called Outside, Inside and All Around (no, it's not a type of 'Hokey-pokey' dance). The best way to provide a three dimensional character or a setting that makes the reader feel like they are there, is to have a clear image in your mind first. Seems obvious, but  I often make the mistake of cheating and rushing ahead with a story only to later look back and find some characters are a bit cardboard, or the surrounds are ambiguous. One way to strengthen descriptions is to have a Character Profile or a World-building sheet, you can check out my previous blogs on those topics (World Building or Character Profile). Outside, Inside and All Around uses images as prompts.

I provide my students with a choice of images, for example, one might be of a small girl dancing:

First is 'Outside', I'll ask the students to describe what they see, to be the observer and report the actions of the character. This will include movement, clothing, physical features and any traits that are obvious to the watcher.

Next is 'Inside'. The student internalises as the little girl (in this example) and writes from her point of view. What is she feeling, physically and emotionally, and what is she thinking? Some students will paint the picture of a happy girl who loves dancing and others will portray her as being forced to endure this boring task by her parents.

Finally, comes 'All Around' - describing the setting. A photo like this is particularly good because it leaves a lot to the imagination. By the time the students have gone through the first two exercises, they have a better idea of their opinion of the setting for this scene. Some write that it's in a theatre and others have it in the school hall. 

I also think it's important to have choice (even if the exercise is just for yourself), if you stare at a selection of unrelated pictures, you might be surprised which one you spark with. This is another pic I find popular with the kids (my husband snapped it in Italy):
Gladiator Texting

But wait. I said you need a clear image in your mind before writing a setting. That's right, you do. You can easily write from memory and you can also totally create a setting in your imagination, but you need to have consistency and depth to your descriptions. You need to focus on the details and imagine the whole picture. If you have students who struggle with 'creating' a setting you could have them either use a familiar place (like the school hall) or use Google Images to find something appropriate.

The 'Outside, Inside and All Around' exercise is a good warm up for creative writing but essay writing comes from a different place for writers and it's not easy to slip from one to another. I've come across a good suggestion from SmartBoard Lessons Podcast (you can find on iTunes) to prepare the mind for analytical writing. Put up a picture, for example it might be a picture of a duck and write for 1 minute (timed) on all the facts you know about ducks. This exercise is repeated 3 times with different images (next might be an apple and the next a lake). 

If you've been at work all day selling fridges, or you've been scrubbing the bath or balancing your bank accounts (like I have today), you may feel like your creativity has been sucked out of you. Rather than sitting frustrated over your WIP for unproductive hours, why not try a quick warm-up exercise to get your imagination in the mood first?

Do you use images when writing? Cut out pictures in magazines of places or characters? When writing Dog Show Detective, I had pictures of dogs everywhere, even in my diary and on my calendar. I find this inspires me.


  1. I am ususally highly sceptical of creative writing exercises because they often seem so decontextualised. However, I think your outside/inside/all around approach is terrific. Experienced writers would benefit as much as beginners.

  2. I love the outside/inside/all around idea. It really makes you think about characters and their surroundings three-dimensionally. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. I use images all the time, usually found by popping around the internet.

    Thanks so much for choosing to follow my blog!

  4. Love your system. It would really get your mind to thinking. The photo of the gladiator texting is priceless. However, the photo of Freckles could spark so many stories on its own.

  5. Thanks guys for the enthusiasm! I have to admit I prefer to get straight into writing my WIP instead of writing exercises, but sometimes we need to get our head out of the banking and into the dragon's lair! :-)

  6. Very informative! Who is the woman in the picture by your name?

  7. What a cute pic of your cat!! I love images as inspiration for all kinds of art, including writing. Thanks so much for visiting and following my blog :)

  8. Judy - Thanks, and that's me. I love 1950's and that was my Grace Kelly wanna be shot ;-)
    Carrie - you're welcome, you have a really pretty blog.