Sketching for Writers

Melanie Hall, Bridge and Fish

Fresh back from teaching Mastering Setting with Kelly Going (K.L. Going), I am excited about a concept that arose and wanted to share it with my writing peeps. On Friday evening, we were fortunate to have Melanie Hall as a a guest. Melanie is an illustrator whose work I would characterize as musical and flowing. Every illustration reveals a dreamscape of some kind, in a very Chagall-like way. As it turns out, Chagall is one of Melanie’s major influences.

One of the things I most love about having illustrators as guests for writing workshops is that artists are wonderful at showing process. They bring sketchbooks along and show us how many drawings it took to get to a final characterization or composition.

Melanie’s sketchbooks gave us a great opportunity to talk about the concept of “sketching.” I pointed out the difference between artists–who do sketch after sketch after sketch–and writers, who seem reluctant to change a word once they put it in on the page. I wondered if there could be an equivalent of sketching for writers, and we talked about Julia Cameron and her idea of “morning pages”–quick writes first thing in the morning as writing warm-ups. Those are great for getting the writing juices flowing, but I don’t think they are the equivalent of sketches.

What is a sketch? It’s a way to try things out. It’s a way to search for different ways into a subject. It’s a way to train the eye to “see” clearly and in detail. It’s a way to explore elements–perhaps you draw a hand over and over and over, or an eye, or a fingernail. Sketching is loose and fluid; it’s not meant to be “final.” It’s a prelude, an entry point.

As writers, we seem to think that every word we put on the page must march in lockstep toward a finished product. We don’t give ourselves room to sketch. But what if we did? What if we carried around notebooks and sketched–in words instead of pictures. Free, loose, meant only to closely examine and capture something in particular.

That napkin on the table: it has thousands of little puffy pillows in it. From my vantage point, looking down at the napkin lying flat on the table, those thousands of puffs look like snow-covered mountains seen from a plane cruising at 30,000 feet.

The brick wall beside me, no not simply brick. Rough red bricks embedded in concrete. Not all one color: maroon and burnt sienna and chocolate brown, some scuffed with charcoal . . . some glazed, glowing, reflecting the track lighting shining down on them. Others dull like chalk, broken, chipped . . . The shiny ones feel smooth to the touch, the dully ones raspy.

  • Sketching forces a writer to observe the details, and in detail lies the difference between rich writing and writing that lacks substance.
  • Sketching frees the writer from the confines of structure, plot and character and tension and climax.
  • Sketching allows the writer to develop fluidity and skill.

If you sketch 100 characters in coffee shops–in words, only words–what will you know about people that you don’t know now? If you sketch emotions on faces, what can you reveal without saying “She was angry”? If you sketch settings, what will you be able to bring to your work that you can’t bring now? Sketch the smells, the sounds–the clock that just chimed, the hiss of the coffee steamer, how many questions the barista must ask of every customer. Does her voice sound interested or annoyed?

Sketch conversations: “I have to do homework today,” says the barista . “When I came in today, there was this homeless guy sleeping on the patio.” “What do you think about that hazelnut?” “I wouldn’t say it’s bad.” “It’s soy, right?” “No. It’s hazelnut. It’s actually made out of hazelnuts.” “I thought it was hazelnut flavored soy or something.”

Sketch physical characteristics: The barista is quick, mouselike, her long hair caught back in a wheat-brown tail that whips from side to side as she moves from customer to espresso machine to pie case to toaster to cash register . . . over and over, scampering about behind the counter.

I offer you this concept: sketching for writers. Just as sketching makes artists better at what they do, sketching with words will make you a better writer. And some of those sketches will inevitably find their way into your work–characters, dialogues, settings, sensory details, all of these can come from sketches.

I hope you’ll share some of your sketches here, but maybe you’ll keep that sketchbook to yourself–or share it someday when you teach a writing workshop!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz says:

    Character sketching at Panera Bread

    I wrote this a few weeks ago, in my notebook. I noticed that everyone around me was eating a salad.

    Watching how people eat
    How they hold their forks when they eat a salad. . .

    Punch down into the salad, getting one piece of each ingredient onto the fork before putting in mouth.

    Hold fork like many hold a turkey leg—whole hand wrapped around the fork
    Most do this close to the tines.

    Mostly women – hold fork at end and lift pieces of lettuce etc onto their fork—like many eat soup.

    One woman doesn’t notice when the salad has fallen off her fork as she’s talking and puts the empty fork in her mouth as she’s talking. She blinks in surprise and tries to get more salad.

    I’m goingto try to observe & ‘sketch’ like this more often =^)


  2. kimgriswell says:

    Reblogged this on Kim T. Griswell: Bespectacled & Bookish and commented:

    Reading back through earlier posts gives me ideas I forgot I ever had. This one’s a keeper and I need to start doing it again. I offer it to you as a writing challenge. Enjoy!


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