What decorating and getting dressed helped me learn about creative writing

When we moved my sister, who is an interior decorator, helped me set up our house. Set up as in decorate.

I, alone, can tell you when a finished room looks good, but I can’t begin to tell you how to put it together. My spatial skills are barely adequate. She, on the other hand, can eyeball a room, go to the store and tell you what will fit where, and what will go with it. When you get the furniture home, it works.

The problem with how I “decorate” is that I tend to make everything the same – even if each piece is utterly unique. Too much color, too much busy, too much monochromatic – fill in your own “too much.” I do mosaics, and I love them, and I’d decorate my entire house with them – which I kind of did in our last place. But even I noticed, before we moved, it was getting difficult to “see” them as individuals, and worse, they started competing with each other for attention. Instead of my eye glancing around the room, it was more like a ping pong ball (pardon the cliche). Not a federal offense, but not great, either.

“It’s hard to know what’s important to look at in the room when everything is in it is the same,” my sister told me. “Then nothing is important, and it defeats the purpose for having an important piece.”

a-HA!

As I get inside long-form writing, I need different ways of looking at the different elements that are essential to writing well. Basically, I’m willful, and I want to write what I want to write, and I want people to like it. But it doesn’t work that way, just like it doesn’t work when you’re decorating your home. People will come over and tell you they love your mosaic table, or your this or that – individual things…but what you (I) really want is for the visitor to tell me they love my house, that it’s a place they want to stay, to relax in, to spend time. I want people to say this about my book/manuscript. More than telling me they love my writing (though who doesn’t love that?), I want them to love the story I’m writing, to want to read it, to say it moved them, that it was unforgettable in the best possible way. Don’t you?

Since my sister started to help me decorate I’ve been thinking about “show, don’t tell” differently. When I go into the manuscript, I try to see where the expository parts include information that is essential to the reader knowing the character and to moving the story along. Some exposition is appropriate to inform, info that’s not going to be shown in a scene because it’s not happening in the real time of the manuscript. I do this when I’m editing, not when I’ve writing. To use the decorating analogy, I bring the chair home and see how it looks next to the window, or I move it to the bedroom. Sometimes I return it, and buy something else. The goal is for it to fit, to look great in its place. If it is meant to be the focal point, that it should do that very, very well.

If the decorating analogy doesn’t strike a chord, maybe my “getting-dressed” one will. Exposition can be like buttons and button holes – they help close the garment in order for it to be wearable. The buttons should be attractive, too, but they don’t need to be the entire length of material that makes the shirt. They simply close gaps. However, if the focal point of the story is the garment being torn off, those buttons better pop in the most spectacular way.

How do you think about the elements of writing to support your storytelling?