Writing in Charcoal

Here are your writing tools.
Here are your writing tools.

January 28, 2013

Getting back into the groove of things after taking a month off reminded me of one of the most rewarding, and frustrating things about writing.

As I work on “The Lights of Pegasus” and get ready to send it out for publication, I found myself happy with the overall story, but unhappy with the details. For example, this story is set in a series of short stories I called the Endeavor Stories, a set of tales all set in the same 5,000-year span of human history and following the same families. I literately have years of notes, slang, and tiny details on everything from culture to food.

But I didn’t use any of it.

Looking back, it’s the reason the story seemed to so dry and empty. I ended up erasing most of it, except for the first five pages, and starting over. For many writers, that’s the kind of action that instantly spells doom. Why start over like that? Why not just rewrite it?

It’s the same reason I love drawing with charcoal.


Charcoal Face by ~livinitallnow on deviantART

When you use charcoal, you make the general outline of the drawing first, starting with the light and shadow and slowly building up the general shapes. After a while, you have something that’s similar to a first draft in a story. The image is simple yet captures the general essence.

Then you smear the whole thing.

You take your hand and you smear that charcoal until it’s nothing but dust. But the paper remembers. A vague outline remains even after you erase like this. That outline serves as a sort of guide. You start over but now work faster since you have a better idea of what the picture should look like. You know the mistakes to avoid. Little errors don’t compound. After a while, you end up with a cleaner, more layered image that builds on the afterimage of the first.

And then you do it all over again.

I may redraw something two, maybe three times. Each time, I build on the remains of the previous drawing until I’m satisfied with my shadows and light. It’s then and only then that I go in with a finer set of charcoal and add texture and details.


Charcoal by ~FJansen on deviantART

It’s the same thing with a story or poem. After erasing, you still remember the broad strokes, but you also remember the mistakes that slowly built up. That’s when you erase and start over. You can’t just try to “fix” the story by rewriting parts of it. Writers are sentimental and will want to latch on to every word and letter.

Better to just cut the whole thing off.

The new draft will be cleaner, sleeker, and still have that overall story, but now it may even move faster. You’ll be free of your own work.

At least, that’s the theory. It’s worked for me so far, but let’s see. Of course, you can do this with individual sections if you’re really happy with some parts but not others. It’s up to you.

While I keep writing, please enjoy Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren kicking ass and taking names in Red 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first one and hope the second doesn’t suck a bag of donkey phalluses.

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