Monday, January 6, 2014

Painting and Planning and Pantsing and Pacing, Oh My!

I'm not a painter, although I almost played one on stage when I sang an opera role where I was in a few scenes with Cavaradossi working at his easel, the painter who turned revolutionary and was in love with the beautiful Tosca in Puccini's extravagant opera.  That's probably the closest I've come to the execution of the visual arts other than fiddling with some watercolors and creating the dingiest shade of brown ever seen.

So, when I just finished reading Sena Jeter Naslund's latest novel, Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, Mike's latest post about pacing in fiction came to mind as I thought about Sena's novel and what I'd taken from it.  The novel is a delightful quodlibet with the "Fountain" portion following the contemporary writer, a woman--a precisely detailed clone of Sena herself, right down to the details of her neighborhood and even her house--who has just finished a solid first draft of her latest novel about another woman, a well known painter who lived through the French Revolution.  And yes, they're both old and looking back on their lives, so the "Old Woman" segments are the actual draft of the novel about the painter.  Interesting conceit reflecting the interrelatedness of all the arts, another of Sena's favorites.  Of course, Sena extends the intertextuality theme and riffs off the Joyce homage and frequently improvs off one of her favorites, Virginia Woolf, with the opening line giving notice by immediately bowing to Mrs. Dalloway.

At any rate, Sena has done her research and a major theme of the work is the way artists--in the broad sense of that word--see the world and practice their art and craft.  A fascinating juxtaposition of the visual and the verbal, and their similarities of approach, even when we use different techniques and unique words to describe the concepts.

So here's where Mike's post came to mind.  His thoughts on pacing and the unanswered question of how one achieves ideal--or even just solid--pacing in an extended work, strikes at the root of probably the most difficult of craft issues, and one where failure can render impotent the most engaging characters and delightful prose.  Pacing!  Given how slow the writing process typically can be, how in the world can the writer determine, let alone judge, pacing as they draft?

And now back to those painters and what I saw in Sena's novel.  The French painter--echoing the contemporary writer--not only saw things differently, she immediately thought about them as the subject of her art, and she did so in terms of medium, palette, and composition from the first instant.  Medium--does charcoal best reflect the monochrome secrets of the scene or object, or would a Raphael-esque palette of overbright primary colors make the best, sarcastic, comment?  Should the brim of the straw hat shade a single eye, making the sunlit one even brighter?  How can that radiant skin on the inside of the forearm best balance the mature cobalt of the sky?

Wow, talk about planning!  So painters don't just seat-of-the-pants their way to brilliance?  I mean, after all, one can paint over mistakes, right?  When we think about it, of course, we realize no successful painter approaches an extended work without intense planning and attention to the composition, maybe including sketches and color washes and pencil outlines, before they begin the actual painting.

Yet how many writers think they can dispense with that detailed planning phase and simply pants their way through a full novel!  Character, maybe.  Evocative setting, sure.  Convincing dialog and engaging prose, okay.  But without solid, detailed planning, the chances of a writer nailing the larger structure of the work and its supporting pacing (PACING!), are pretty slim, especially for those of us who haven't been on the NYT Best Seller list lately.

So, as you stand there looking at that snow covered hemlock or that withered pear--or those poker playing dogs--and think about delivering its message to the world, hold up your thumb as a painter might, and consider all the elements of composition and planning that will make your work of art the fullest it can be.  And then enjoy your lovely planning time so you can assess your pacing from the start.  

Thumbs up!

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