Writing Advice

Get Fearless…Burn Some Trees

I was in Florida where my daughter is enrolled in Ringling College Of Art + Design and studying computer animation. It is fun to be a parent and listen to the teachers here explain the program, which seeks to prepare people for the animation industry.


I was sitting with my daughter, listening to a wonderful talk by one of the animation faculty this morning. He was describing what it takes to become a good animator. It sounded very much like what it takes to be a good writer.  I thought I’d share some of what he said, as it might be applied to writing.


For example….


“Make your hand do what your eye is seeing.”


I love this. It is all about looking at something and being able to translate it onto the page as it is or as we imagine it might be. I suppose that with animation, they have to not only look at the thing, but see it in its environment, imagine its potential, give it some kind of visual energy. The object being looked at could be anything from a person to a desk lamp (like the famous Pixar lamp), and comes alive through the magic that is film. Everything on the screen is brought to life by the animator, but they first have to get their hand to “see” what their eye is seeing.


In writing, we consider a thing and describe it, but it doesn’t usually make sense to describe it unless in doing so we show how it is interacting with its environment or with a person or as a means of advancing the story. So, the thing is either contributing to characterization or to setting or to action – otherwise we leave it out. If it doesn’t serve our story, it is detracting from our story.


For example, right now I am wearing a sheer, sleeveless top as I type this. But who the hell cares what I am wearing as I type this? Does it help you learn how to write? No. If I just throw in a detail of what I am wearing and that detail is unattached to important characterisation and story, I should probably throw it back out.


But what if I say that right now I can feel the air conditioning blow against on my back where the blouse lifts above my belt as I bend toward the screen; if I talk about the fraying cotton at the shoulders from the years I’ve worn it while working at my computer on hot summer nights such as these; if I tell you how I’ve come to know it as my “writing shirt” and that I have imposed upon it a kid of muse-like quality? That the shirt is important to me in the same manner in which some artists have favourite smocks or hats?


Now, does it begin to have some relevance? Does it matter that I love this shirt? And I love to write in these glorious, hot August nights. I wrote most of my first novel, Dying Young, on nights such as these.  The shirt’s brocade front has a few coffee stains I’ve tried to scrub out but cannot. I am feeling tired but excited, as I type these words….


See, now the shirt becomes a little more worth its description? I’ve thrown in a bit of characterization, a bit of setting. It hasn’t done anything to advance the story because I have no story. But at least I have a character (me in this case) so there would be hope for a story.


“Get fearless in your drawing. Burn some trees…”


Animators draw–a lot. If they think their first drafts are going to be their final work, they are in trouble. If they are afraid of making mistakes, they are in trouble. Animators draw thousands of drawings they don’t like many more that other people don’t like. The lecturer today told a story of how he drew part of Woody (from Toy Story) hundreds of times before he got what he wanted. “He was carrying around a dead arm…I just couldn’t get it right!” he said.


I think all writers should hear how tedious it is, how much you have to redo, and how important it is to be bold. You have to be willing to abandon a drawing…oh sorry, a paragraph or whatever…if it isn’t working. Those who are drawing understand this – why can we who are typing? Just because we’ve written a thousand words or ten thousand words for that matter, does not mean we have to keep it. We aren’t committed to any of it until it goes into print. We need to be bold in what we write, but also bold in what we throw out.


“It’s all tedious!”


Don’t forget that the most exciting part of writing a novel is when you start it and when you end it. The rest really is just work – though I have some great strategies about how to feel that initial excitement whether you are page 1 of your novel or page 112 or page 283. I’ll talk about that in another blog, but for now please keep this in mind that for animators, as for writers, it can be tedious. It can all be tedious….


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