I may be a writer, but I’ve always envied visual artists. I’ve always had friends that are great at drawing, and I’ve watched them produce amazing works in mere hours—the same amount of time it takes me to get down a decent plot. I used to think that drawing was easier. How nice it must be to just think of a thing and then draw it. How luxurious it would be not to worry about multiple drafts, edits, and revisions! Oh, what a world!
Then, I tried to learn to draw. Y’all… it’s not as easy as it seems.
When you set out learning to draw, one of the first things you’ll realize is that the best drawings are not just drawn. Any How to Draw! book you pick up will inevitably include first lessons on simple shapes. Master those and you can move on to putting simple shapes on top of each other. Master that and you can give all your shapes a little bit of detail. This process of adding and refinement will go on until all your shapes and lines form your first decent turtle or whatever.
(My first turtle was… just… awful.)
Turns out, you can’t just sit down and draw something cool. It takes time and patience and focus. There are stages and editorial decisions.
What those books don’t tell you (because why would they?) is that these lessons apply so well to writing. Really great art is a process, and it’s done in stages. Those amazing images I see on DeviantArt weren’t just made in single passes. So much goes into a great drawing. Sketching, shaping, shading, inking, coloring, and often digital refinement. Many of these processes happen over and over again.
It takes a long time before the ”real” image develops, and if you were to look at the artist’s first attempts to draw that turtle, it’d look nothing at all like a turtle. I know, because when I tried to draw my turtle, I was not gleaming with pride. (I was recoiled in abject terror. Seriously, it looked like it came from turtle hell.)
The point is: a good foundation is necessary, and sometimes that foundation will seem disappointing when you know what the final product should look like. Same thing if you were to look at a house’s foundation before it was completed, or the boring hunk of marble from which the David was chiseled. The first pass is poopy garbage compared to what the finished piece looks like.
Here’s a picture to demonstrate the point:
As you can see, the artist doesn’t just draw up a badass dragon. The first attempt is just two circles! If I asked someone to draw a dragon and they handed me two circles, I’d shove it in their face and exclaim that Grandpa Tolkien was turning in his grave. You can hardly call those circles a fire-breathing monstrosity. Yet, those circles are absolutely necessary for the final product. Those two simple shapes are the cornerstone for the rest of the detail, and the finished image is a beautiful beast. If I drew this, I’d be damn proud of myself. Tolkien would weep and applaud.
It’s all about the layers.
If we look at this dragon image as a story, you could say that the first pass is an outline. It’s the general shape without any real details. It’s the, “I want to write a fantasy novel.” The story develops as more layers are added—little details that begin to inform the result. Character, setting, and conflict are added. The fourth pass, where the thing starts to “look like a dragon”, is the first draft. The structure and the ideas are drawn together and connected, but they need work. After that first draft, the artist begins to develop the piece, little by little, until it’s complete. Tweaking words just so and making sentences sing. Eventually, the final product is a work of great art.
This is the editing process made corporeal, friends.
Brandon Sanderson, in a recent interview on Fishing with Crendor, suggested that he writes his novels the same way movies are made. This idea blew me away. He claims that his first attempts at writing are like the screen-tests. As his drafts get better, they’re like the cut of the movie when everything still has green screens and people are obviously flying around on wires. Editing your novel is just like film editing—adding those cool special effects and getting the scene cuts just right. It’s placing scenes in the right places. It’s turning all that raw footage into a film.
(Trivia!: Brandon actually doesn’t write his spren into the first drafts of Stormlight Archive books. He claims it’s too much to hold in his mind at one time. He adds in the spren in successive drafts. How neat!)
That’s powerful stuff, folks.
Look, if you’re worried about getting your first try just right, then you’re going to be doing it forever. Trust me. When I started writing my first real attempt at a book, I tried writing it for years. Instead of trying to perfect the first draft, focus on building your work in passes. “This draft, I’m going to work on characterization/setting/sensory detail.”
Build your work the same way an artist draws a picture. Start with random, crazy lines (ideas) and refine what you see in the chaos. If you have an idea for a story, sit down and free-write it for a while. When you finish, sit back and identify what elements within that free-write encompass what you’re trying to say. Take those ideas and expound upon them. Build up a general shape with an outline, add in shading and textures as the thing starts to come together, and slap some personal touches onto it to make it unique. Then, pass over that drawing until all the lines are pretty. Erase all the lines that stick out. Refine, refine, refine until your story is just as you originally envisioned.
I’ll leave you with a video I recently discovered. It’s a drawing tutorial that breaks down the stages of a drawing’s development, and I just really loved the way it’s presented. This guy, Alphonso Dunn, says so many mind-blowing things so quickly that it was impossible not to watch multiple times. As you watch the video, try to frame what he’s saying in a writerly way. Think of his drawings like a story, and watch as he takes his original concept and finds the structure inherent in the chaos. Then, watch him turn it into something with definition, shape, and beauty. It’s really amazing to watch, and it’s fun listening to how excited he is. Here’s the link.
Don’t give up, y’all. Your initial tries won’t be great, but they aren’t supposed to be. They’re just supposed to get you started.
I love you all. Good luck out there!
Ronin still can’t draw a turtle, but he can write about one! You can find his writing advice, opinion articles, and various works on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and WordPress. Subscribe to his YouTube channel for neat videos at the end of every month.
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