I recently had the great pleasure of attending Calgary artist Linda Shaikh’s exhibition, ‘Finding Voice’.
It was a stunning display. With a mixture of paintings consisting of bold, brash strokes, followed by others which whisper ethereal colours fading into beyond, she draws the eye into the heart of her work.
But as you step closer to examine the images more thoroughly, you discover all is not as it seems.
What you are actually viewing in her paintings are her research, brainstorming, outlines and even chapter synopses for her PhD thesis. Linda is currently exploring ways to give the disadvantaged in our society a voice. As a visual artist, she has found a unique way of transferring words and ideas into art, which she then transforms back into words and fully realized concepts.
Take these three images. The first illustrates her initial thoughts and ideas for her thesis. The second, her first outline. In the bottom left hand corner of the third, she’s written down some of the basic concepts of the various philosophers she studied, with questions regarding those ideas radiating outwards.
As I made my way around the exhibition, I thought about the different ways that we, as writers, brainstorm and outline our work: traditional index cards; the use of Powerpoint slides to keep notes and images; visual story boards containing pictures of our main characters and the places they live; long rolls of wall paper which can be rolled out on the floor or stuck on the wall so you can see every scene in one place.
And how many of us create special playlists of music for each project to get us into the mood and settle us in our stories? How many of us go for walks to let our minds wander free and the ideas to flow. I have one writer friend who has discovered she crochets an afghan with each book she writes, the colours subconsciously reflecting scenes, images or emotions in her book.
Looking at all these beautiful paintings and their words, it got me wondering if this could be a method some of us might adopt to brainstorm and outline our stories. “Hmmm,” I can hear you say, “but I’m no painter. I couldn’t do that.” And I totally buy that. Something Linda and I discussed at the exhibition was that when asked to draw a bird, most adults will draw a simple double ‘v’ shape, whereas when we were young we painted multicoloured feathers and beaks. We weren’t afraid to take risks.
So here’s an idea. If you’re having trouble with your story or are at the brain storming stage, how about buying a cheap roll of paper and some paints (finger/poster or acrylic – it doesn’t matter), then roll the paper out on the floor or hang it on the wall and start to have some fun.
Look at these two examples of Linda’s chapter outlines. The first shows the details of that particular section. The second shows how the mass of ideas (and colours) develop, the colours taking on a simpler, lighter, calmer feel as the outline develops and reaches its conclusion.
To get you started, what about looking at your roll of paper in three-act-structure form? As writers we know that ¾ of the way through the story there needs to be a black moment, so paint in a wide black streak either with a brush, or with your hands. (Very often something tactile releases an idea in your brain.) Half way through is the Point of No Return where you character is not quite who they will be at the end, but something happens here to make them more of who they will be rather than who they were. Maybe you introduce the hint of a new colour here that will grow stronger as you continue towards the end of the story, while colours you used in the beginning start to fade.
In a romance novel, the midpoint is usually a kiss or sex scene, so what about a bold scarlet or gold stripe here?
What if you have a child in your story? How about including their hand print throughout to remind you of their role?
Once you have the bold strokes of colour of your basic outline and turning points, maybe then is the time to go back and add the detail, whether it is more delicate shadings, writing on the paper, or a collage of notes or images you’ve collected through the brainstorming phase. Once that’s done, you will then start to see the chapters appear.
And when you’re finished, don’t end with a neat line. Let the paper continue to flow and curl as Linda does because, while your story might end, your characters’ lives will continue.