Let’s Paint a Story

Ever come across a book that however boring your morning commute, however limited and insipid the choices of film on that interstate flight, however hard you try, you just find it difficult to get into it? Yes, into it, literally.

It’s got a protagonist, a villain, a lover, a bit of humour, a suspenseful build-up, an exciting climax, and even a good twist right at the end. It’s got all the elements that make a good story. Or has it? Does the plot reflect the reality of the backdrop against which the story was told? Are the characters someone we can relate to, someone as real as the person swiping their phone mindlessly across the metro platform? Can you see, hear, smell and feel the bar or club where the villain picked that fateful fight with the main guy? Do the diction and accent of the characters resemble those of a specific demographic?

If none of these questions yield a positive answer, chances are this book you’ve been struggling to like just isn’t good enough. While it isn’t the reader’s fault that a book doesn’t engage them, it might not even be the fault of the writer whose primary job is to narrate – he or she might be a war veteran, a retired politician, an activist, a tsunami survivor, or a successful athlete. The narrator may or may not have the observant eye of a falcon, which is what adds colour to a story, what makes it tick, bite and engage.

Enter the Creative Editor. Whereas the highly technical Mechanical Editor deals with technicalities and sometimes even style, the Creative Editor points out what isn’t working, the hackneyed phrase, the dull character, the stilted elaboration on frivolous details, and, in the most inauspicious scenario, delivers the sad verdict that the book simply isn’t colourful enough, and  may never be ready for publishing.

Before dropping the brush and palette altogether and leaving the canvas of your story to the “pro”, here are two examples that might help you at least minimise the work (thus cost!) for professional creative editing…

Geographical Colour

… when the flies clustered like syrup in the corners of their eyes, up their noses, in their mouths and ears, they learned the Australian trick and hung corks bobbing from the ends of string all around the brims of their hats. To prevent crawlies from getting up inside the legs of their baggy trousers they tied strips of kangaroo hide called bowyangs below their knees, giggling at the silly-sounding name, but awed by the necessity. p. 94 The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Eurgh. If that’s your reaction, well done to McCullough. That is exactly what she intended to invoke by splashing onto her canvas a wild, deep and sticky shade of the famous, or infamous, creepy-crawly ruled Australia.

Demographic Colour

Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. p. 18 To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee

Poor Miss Caroline with her apathetic school kids. Lee certainly got me there. Without any adjectives on either subject, the author manages to create the scene of utterly uninterested schoolchildren and an inexperienced and endeavouring teacher who is clueless about and helpless against the influence of social background on the younger generation.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much an editor can do. As Picasso lamented:

Colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.

The writer’s emotions; your emotions.