Writing Reality: Synaesthetic Scenes

02/06/2014 at 06:00 (Method Writing, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wholly admit to being a concept reader and writer. Rather than framing my work in concrete terms, pinned to actual events and circumstances, I work best with abstract ideas. Maybe this is due to inhibitions about the quality of my work; certainly, much of my life has been governed by vagueness, with facts and figures substituted for smoke and mirrors, symbolism.

While ill with anorexia nervosa, struggling to recover, I would ask for permission to eat and to rest, and fought bitterly with my therapist when she suggested that I begin to serve myself food, and take steps towards reducing my exercise. As she put it, “No one can monitor you forever. The details are yours.”

The thought of feeling well again, of having energy, was the image I worked towards; but whenever it came to the crunch (as it were), I would buckle under the pressure of taking responsibility for my own actions. My opinions didn’t matter, much less my emotions, because I couldn’t trust them. They had landed me in hot water before, after all.

The same self-doubt appears to have filtered across my life, like ink spilled over a map. It is something I push against every day, when writing, when socializing on / offline. As much as I would like to talk about our contemporary world, and certain economical / political aspects of it, I don’t feel I could do them justice. Not yet, at least – lack of experience, and self-esteem, cause me to stumble on words that should come easily, and I throw away as many blog entries as I begin.
Maybe one day, I will find a way to meld my concerns, and this flowery prose.

*

If there’s one thing I hate when writing in free-fall, it is hitting that dead-wall of thoughts – particularly when it comes to description, for it’s here that I’m in my element. With no ready connotations or sensory imagery to hand, the words seem as stick-lines only. While there is a need for a more direct style in certain types of prose, it is not something I can easily maintain. Trying to cut out imagery would feel like cutting off a limb, and I’ve given up trying to walk in the shoes of any author I happen to admire, but could never replicate.
A voice is a voice; mine happens to channel synaesthesia, and it’s to this kind of imagery that I turn when I want to bring a character, a setting or a scene alive.

As someone with Chromesthesia, I perceive colours and shapes/patterns (the concurrent) in relation to sounds and spoken words (the inducer.) Music is a major trigger. A whole song or a single note, the words of a vocalist or the scales played on an instrument – all can spark a response in my mind that is equivalent to seeing the keys of a piano lit up in a rainbow under my fingers, the flick of a whip made of shining copper strands, or a cloud of paint sluicing across the floor.

Vision
Vision by Carol Steen; Oil on Paper

I don’t so much “see” these additional perceptions, in conjunction with sound, as acknowledge the presence of them in shapes and colours behind my eyes.

When a new voice is introduced, the sound of a song can lose its original-composition colour. For example, when listening to the lyrics of Nick Drake’s Riverman, the predominant shades are pine green and bark brown; these are the colours of an oboe, which is also the “texture” of his voice, rounded and smooth, lilting.
But channelled through the voice of a cover singer, the words may become copper, or dusky blue, particularly if the instrumentation used is also different.

An artist can have an inherent “colour” of their own, regardless of what they are singing or playing about. In this, semantics have little impact, for it is the sound of the voice / the instruments which creates the synaesthetic impression, with variations of shade depending on pitch and tone; Cat Power is smoky purple in her alto lines, but on the soprano notes of “Colours and the Kids,” her voice comes closer to lilac.

I’m as yet unsure whether these synaesthetic experiences (the concurrent)are due to the emotional reactions evoked by reading a text or listening to a sound, or if is the actual construct of the inducer which is the trigger (the individual graph/phonemes.) One theory points toward crossed-wires activity in the cerebral cortex, which is divided into lobes that govern our thought patterns/processes, and sensory reactions. This would go some way towards explaining how a mood can have a colour – which is my strongest perception of synaesthesia, leading me to wonder whether it is these causing the colour effect, and not the stimuli. But why then should I have an emotional reaction towards the number 3? It is my favourite, and also happens to “appear” to me in my favourite colour, turquoise. Again, this is not something “seen” so much as perceived. The two are intrinsically linked. Likewise, I will avoid the number 5, because it is yellow – a colour I’m not all that fond of.

When it comes to writing, there’s no greater pleasure to be had than painting with words. I mean this in the way that Nabokov saw the Russian word, “Tosca”:

Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Such a palette of connotative imagery, attached to one small set of graphemes. I personally “see” the colours deep purple and red, as of an autumn leaf on a bonfire. There is a strong tang of bittersweet regret, like iron rust, in speaking the word aloud.

Ashridge in Autumn

Nabokov observed that synaesthetes tend not to share the same sensory perceptions, but instead have variations which are unique to them. This discovery was made through the observations of his wife and little boy, both synaesthetes themselves:

“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.”

Still more fascinating is the apparent blending of grapheme-colours in the parental genes, to form a natural progression in the mind of the child – rather like mixing a set of oil paints:

“Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”

Another author, Patricia Lynne Duffy, tells of a similar experience in her excellent book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes colour their World:

‘My father and I…were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I’d learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter ‘R’.
“Until one day,” I said to my father, “I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.”
“Yellow letter? Orange Letter?” my father said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “‘P’ is a yellow letter, but ‘R’ is an orange letter. You know – the colors of the letters.”
“The colors of the letters?” my father said.’

My own grapheme/phoneme combinations possess some spatial relativity to one another. 9, for example, is large and purple, quietly majestic with a faint sheen; 6 is little and silly, light green; 3 is turquoise, medium-sized and slender, with just the faintest sheen of silver. The name of my dear friend Nillu Steltzer, appears to me in white and red. My own name is blue and green, as most words/names with the close proximity of letter A and E, tend to be (interestingly, the co-editor of Synaesthesia Magazine, Carlotta, has a dark blue name; but her Twitter handle, @1chae, is canary-yellow and teal.)

These sensory crossovers have crept into our everyday lexicon. There is the “black funk”, the “itchy mood”, the “cold white light of the moon.” Using these concrete nouns to describe an emotional response to a situation, we can cross the borders into the abstract world, where a mood can have a colour or a texture; and back again, into a sensory-overlap, where a name we see becomes something we can taste, of it is described thus. The text gains what can *almost* be experienced as something tangible.
This is just one way of shaking up the descriptive writing process, giving an audience more variety.

A setting that resembles an empty room can be brought to life by the juxtaposition of what a character knows on a conscious-sensory level v.s. what they perceive on a subconscious-synaesthetic level. If the narrative perspective is channelled through one or more characters, whether in first person voice or over the shoulder, an author can choose to employ variations of sense-imagery based upon life experiences / circumstances. For example, a man who has been down on his luck may perceive the world in shades of rot, decay and rust; he may draw the audience’s attention to the rust on his car – its tangy smell, the rough texture to touch, the strange whorl-patterns to look at – in comparison to the sun sparkling on the polish of his neighbour’s vehicle.

Provided there is enough sensory stimulus and crossover, the relevant connotations and memory-triggers can evoke a “mood” in the audience, which is close to experiencing synaesthesia. In the same way, a film director will employ mise-en-scène – props, costumes, alterations in the colour / shade of lighting – and diegetic / non-diegetic sound, to influence the perceptions of mood from one scene to another.

synaesthesia therapy
Image courtesy of www.kingsroadrocks.com/

Time can be made apparent in terms of light and dark, with the sun shifting over the far wall in an office throughout a long shift, as well as the systematic ticking of a clock, the precision of numbers (senses Sight and Sound.) A shift in the air – the clatter of pigeons and the whirl of their feathers – can summarize a mood of fidgety discontent (senses Sound and Sight.)

Animal Genius: Pegions

A building may take on a mood, or experience an oscillation of these, depending on the perceptions of the workers within – or perhaps the mood may be unique to the structure itself, as of a sentient being. Your everyday environment can become a living organism, should you choose to open all your senses to it.

At work, I cross all floors of the building at some point during the day. The past 3.5 years have imprinted enough sensory triggers to make a library’s worth of stimuli, ready for recall if I need to describe a setting. The building has the creaking personality and elegance of an aged dancer; she is made up of frayed carpets, panes that crackle and flake plaster like skin, and windows that weep rain. Her coffee rings and energy drink towers, are testament to the state of the shifting moods of colleagues. Standing in an empty stairwell, I have only to listen to gauge the mood of a day (which may remain unchanged for a shift, or change sharply at the turn of events.) There are always little clues to look out for, and it is these shifts in atmosphere – from the normal to the charged, to the downright crucial, that you should make yourself aware of, in your own environments.

Dana Vachon’s “Mergers and Acquisitions” is essentially a book about investment banking; but it is the vibrant descriptions of the characters and settings, and the treacle-darkness of comedy and pathos, which drive the narrative. An average office space is framed thus:

“I settled into the eight-by-eight cubicle whose carpet had once been gray, but over the years had been Jackson Pollocked with tumbling chunks of sesame chicken and spilled splashes of Starbucks lattes.”

Vachon worked as an investment banker, and had apparently stored a vast sum of memories to use as stimuli for later recall, when writing of his experiences on Wall Street. The semi-autobiographical protagonist, Tommy, is not one for emoting with direct words; his narrative is rich with sensory perceptions, which do the job for him.

“She was lying on one of the old, overstuffed sofas, her hair wrapped up in a lumpy, unwashed bun. She wore the same red kimono that she had surprised me with weeks before, but it too seemed different, and as I looked closer I saw that among its bright silken peacocks and dragons were burns from fallen cigarettes and stains from splashed sips of wine….I looked at the frogs and noted that the air in the apartment was nursing-home stale and that the windows had all been closed.”

If your immediate environment is lacking the sparks necessary for a scene, take yourself to an unfamiliar setting. My personal jolt-from-comfort-zone is to wander through the noise and bustle of our local farmers’ market. It’s unnerving – there are a great many people around, with voices thrown like knives – but it’s a feast for the senses, with everything from basic reactions (touch = soft suede, sound = chattering coins, smell = fresh fruit), to more extensive imagery (plums that resemble bullets; a rainbow swathe of macs.)

Make a point of listening to what is expressed through surroundings as well as speech – those pigeons circling overhead, what has disturbed them? Is it relative to the time of day, or to a red kite angling nearby? Can this be used as an image of approaching danger? The slate-coloured nimbus that has gathered on the horizon of an otherwise blue-sky day: how might this shift in the weather be used to convey a change of mood of a scene, from peaceful and scenic to unpredictable and troublesome? Will the characters notice and draw attention to it themselves – as with first person POV – or will the audience be aware of the tonal shift before them, as a form of dramatic irony in third person POV?

In her novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman’s teen protagonists have a unique form of image-notation – by jotting down a single, significant word that is relative to a time and place, they are able to recall the sensory aspects of it, and the subsequent mood that was felt:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world…they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

Try this in your everyday experiences – particularly when time isn’t on your side – using a word/phrase/idiom to sum up the moment. I use “lamplight haven” and “orange-black” to help recall the sensory aspects of a night-walk; the stirring wind, leaves rattling along the pavement like fallen bones; steps taken a little more quickly than usual, and that odd halo of claws which tree branches make around a lamp. When writing such an experience into a scene, and stuck indoors on a blistering hot day, such sensory recall is priceless.

The trick is knowing when to jot something down on the spot, to record it before the moment is lost. This does involve a fair bit of diving into stairwells and ducking into alleyways. An audio recording / dictaphone app on your phone, is a good way of catching those emotional inflections which snagged you up – how it all made you feel at the time – to be channelled later when writing. Similarly, a photograph taken in-the-moment can help to trace back to the particular image of stillness in an afternoon, when the sky seemed made of lemon juice and fleece, the rain was silver, and the air was purple with the smell of buddleia.

Lewes

With regards to how light shifts across the walls of a room, perhaps mark its passage in terms of what a character pays attention to, in relation to emotions – do they notice the ruddy tinge of the sun while waiting for an agonizing shift to end? If they are waiting in expectation of a loved one’s arrival, is the light more notable than the creeping shadows; or if the visitor are late, do the corners of the room waver in uncertainty? Does the smell of wildflowers through the open window, unnerve them in the sense that the loved one may have chosen “freedom”, and changed their mind?

The progression of time can also be marked as a seasonal narrative – how does this affect your characters? Do they notice when the sun sets further along the western skyline, disappearing behind a different building each night? When the light shifts from spring’s green-gold haze, to the stark gold bars of summer, and thus into the pastels and burnt palette of autumn and the silver-black starkness of winter, does the continuum leave them melancholic, or edgy with the anticipation of change? In this way, the combination of sensory-stimuli and connotative imagery can evoke an emotional response in the audience. Their memories may be triggered; their thinking may turn to aspects of their own lives, emphasizing relativity, by a description framed in synaesthetic imagery, as with Baudelaire’s “Correspondences“:

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant.”

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Writing Reality: Author Voice vs. Narrative Voice

07/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.

If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.

For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.

I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.

Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.

A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.

Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.

Who are your Influences?

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.

Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.

– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.

– “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

– “Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote

These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.

– “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?

– “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.

After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.

They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.

When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.

Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.

If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.

In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?

Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?

Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.

Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.

Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.

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Writing Reality: Using Synaesthetic Imagery

10/02/2014 at 05:50 (Method Writing, Poetry, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s nothing I love more than to watch for the signs in life. Subtext, subtweet, crossed-wires, imagery, symbolism. In particular, the metaphor can create a beautiful path of words, drawing comparison between one image and another, so that the audience might walk to find themselves at a new truth, a fresh abstract landscape, rather than the tired old concrete definition of some reality.

Synaesthesia – “the transfer of information from one sensory modality to another”, or mingling of the senses – is often used to enhance imagery in writing. We find examples of this every day – “a bitter wind,” “a blue sound”, “a black funk.” As sense-imagery can be a vital part of drawing the audience into a scene, allowing them to experience what the narrative POV does (directly or by proxy), it stands to reason that the use of synaesthesia – the mingling of senses, or connecting a sense to something it is not regularly used for – creates an even more memorable effect.

As a synaesthete myself (sound — > colour/shapes [chromesthesia] and mood —> colour) I find a heightened reaction to words layered with this type of literary device, and will often speak aloud certain words to strengthen their colour/texture:

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant” – “Correspondences”, Charles Baudelaire

I already “see” the sound of the oboe in shades of green, even without the additional pleasure of sense Taste (with positive connotations in “sweet”) being connected to the instrument’s sound, and to the smell of perfume.

When using synaesthesia to enhance your own writing, consider the connotations involved.
“The wind was a thin blanket pulled over the city” – a metaphor, which can stand in place of telling the audience that the wind is insubstantial / cold, depending on the context in which it is framed. For a more synaesthetic viewpoint, you might show the audience that the wind is cold by using colour:
“A blue wind slid over the city.”

This relies upon the acceptance of the audience that the colour blue holds connotations of cold, to be chilled, though it may also be interpreted as sadness if that is the context in which you’re writing – the mood you are trying to set.
I chose to swap the verb “pulled” for “slid”, since the former belongs with the image of a blanket being tugged over someone/thing, while the latter fits more neatly with the image of water or something slippery – again, associated with the colour blue, the feeling of (being) cold.
Since the wind cannot be seen (except through whatever it touches/moves) but can be felt and heard, it is the synaesthetic transference to sense Sight which helps the metaphor to work, with the afore-mentioned connotations carrying the message over.

When it comes to depicting a character through synaesthetic imagery, one of my favourite examples is by the US author Peter S Beagle, in his novel “The Last Unicorn.” It’s to this book that I owe most of my writing influences. Having first seen the film at age five, and being marked by its dark magic (I mean that in the sense of the wild world, the quiet woodland, the pathos/comedy of heroism), I tracked down the book to some desolate second-hand store, where the pages of the stacked volumes were old and yellow as the light filtered through papered-up windows.
My copy still smells of old leaves; the very best kind.

It’s through this colour that Beagle chose to sum up the jaded life of the character Molly Grue, a woman brought down to the level of a drudge by harsh circumstances. When confronted with the sight of the last unicorn in the world, her reaction is poignant to say the least.

“But Molly pushed him aside and went up to the unicorn, scolding her as though she were a strayed milk cow. “‘Where have you been?”‘
Before the whiteness and the shining horn, Molly shrank to a shrilling beetle, but this time it was the unicorn’s old dark eyes that looked down.
“‘I am here now,'” she said at last.
Molly laughed with her lips flat. “‘And what good is to me that you’re here now? Where were you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?”‘ With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. “‘I wish you had never come, why do you come now?”‘ – pg 63, “The Last Unicorn,” Peter S Beagle.

I have yet to find a passage in any text that can move me more than this one. The image is stark, the pathos (particularly when read in the context of the novel) is raw; here then is the image of a yellowed woman, standing before the shining white immortality of a unicorn so much older than she, but untouched by time or care. As Molly says later in the book, “The sky spins and drags everything along with it … but you stand still. You never see anything just once. I wish you could be a princess for a little while, or a flower, or a duck. Something that can’t wait.”

We can look upon the sky, but it is left up to weather to provide us with contact through the other senses – we hear when the storm charges a sound through the static-tumble of thunder, feel our neck hairs prickle with the electricity of lightning’s rise. But to taste the wind?
“So they journeyed together, following the fleeing darkness into a wind that tasted like nails.” – pg 68, “The Last Unicorn.”

Beagle creates an alternative image of something stronger, more memorable, as of a cat flehming to gauge a strange scent on its territory, via the mouth (taste-smelling the air.) You’ve probably come across this phenomenon yourself from time to time, when a smell tingled on your tongue and palate, or a taste filled up your nose.

Placed in the context of the scene – walking through a sullen, grey land – the negative connotations are ramped up with this sense- image of the wind and air “tasting” metallic, bitter.
Similarly, the smell of the main foe, the Red Bull of King Haggard, is described in a unique and quite unpleasant way:

“Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn.
‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

The image created is something fetid and dark, slippery as rotting fish. Something best left unknown, hidden in the depths of the world beneath Haggard’s castle, surrounded by the sea.

It’s worth mentioning here that context can influence a lot of what you are trying to say to the audience. Pay attention to the connotations surrounding the sense you wish to draw upon, before forming the image. To describe the moon as having a “soft glow” (Touch —> Sight) creates a pleasant setting, as of a balmy summer night:
“Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere” – Emily Bronte, “Moonlight, summer moonlight.”

Whereas in the setting of a hunter’s time, that same moonlight may become a finger of bone, or a sliver-blade come to slide through the heart of the midnight woods:

“Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.” – W. B. Yeats, “The Cat and the Moon”

The sense Touch is mingled with Sight, creating a bonelight glow synonymous with hunting, the clarity of a cat’s movements; the chill message of death. I find real pleasure in these lines, and know that feeling well – to wander with the night burning the blood – though it’s difficult to understand its origins. Through synaesthetic imagery, Yeats has created a more primitive time, in which the audience can perhaps see themselves reflected – that wilder side, so often lost in the light of day.

When describing a mood, I tend to fall back on how they appear to me – as colours, usually in cloud-form and with no definite shape. A feral mood – all itchy feet and hot blood, a restless spirit – is a beetle’s back, because this is how it actually appears in my mind, all glossy and purple-black. It’s handy for describing this particular mood when writing metaphorical imagery; but I am reliant on the connotations of mystery surrounding these colours, to get my point across.

Similarly, a “pale mood/mind”, can be used to describe weariness. This is because my mind will actually turn pale, like a negative inversion of the black “fadeout” seen in films. It will get to the point where I find it difficult to think (see) clearly. The extreme of this is a “whiteout” (again, associated with and derived from the cinematic fadeout), wherein shock / fear will stimulate a neurological reaction – my mind literally turns white, blinding and stark.

This form of synaesthesia has been known to occur as a self-preservation technique. Take into consideration how you might describe the mood of a scene, through an overlap of the senses – how might fear be conveyed without describing the feeling of cold sweat, goosebumps? Could another sense be employed, such as seeing blinding-bright sparks (of fear), or having an acrid taste (of fear) in the mouth?

Whether synaesthetic or not, I believe that a writer can engage with their audience on entirely new levels of perception when using the syndrome in conjunction with imagery. Particularly if it is to mnemonic effect; I know of several synaesthetes who use their “type”, of colours associated with dates/days of the week, like a highlighter pen on a calendar.

For me, grapheme/phoneme colours of certain passages in a text, can trigger a reaction that leaves a “bookmark” impression. I can then return to these influential snippets as and when needed. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote are favourites for this, as are Nabokov and Alice Hoffman, all of whom are “colour-associative” authors.

Whatever sensory-crossover you choose when using synaesthetic imagery, keep in mind the associative connotations; how these will impact upon the context of events in a scene, the portrayal of a character, the mood surrounding a narrative POV / dialogue.
Using the adjectives “juicy” and/or “red” to taste/sight-describe a cemetery’s creepy atmosphere, will more than likely evoke the wrong image.

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Writing Reality: Method Writing (Through their Eyes)

14/10/2013 at 05:45 (Method Writing, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I am a method writer.

It’s hardly a new concept; a literary adaptation of the emotionally charged technique used by thespians on stage and screen. Method actors bounce light off of the mirror of personal inflection, bringing into focus the characters they wish to embody as well as portray; they seek “imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior,” brought about by “performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Which isn’t a million miles away from what writers are after.

Some film directors are known to use/have used versions of the Method, to induce a necessary emotional state in their cast. While working on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick “had his cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, to put them in the right frame of mind.” This is channeling external creativity, as a form of pseudo-mood input.

Before settling to write, I’ll use the same technique, as well as several others to create a mood within myself that’s relative to a scene and/or narrative voice. Creative outlets – music, film, literature – of similar genres and mood, can be filtered through personal memories to tap into an induced emotional state. The audience only sees the end results, of course. The inspiration stays hidden in the wings, whispering cues.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t maintain a steady mood pattern. We tend to oscillate between whatever’s going on in the immediate day-to-day, and the sort of abstracts that prey on anyone’s mind (existence, climate change, world domination, economy, etc.) That’s before we even get close to creative input, either imposed on us or sought out to entertain ourselves. Picking up a book and reading a few passages on my work break, can cause a U-turn for whatever mood I was in – from wistful (fantasy) to dialed-down sharp (science fiction, crime thriller). Which is fine, so long as I wasn’t intending to preserve the former mood for later writing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Method doesn’t need 24 hour submersion. Prior to writing, I’ll have a “build-up” of mood and character, and will become very careful who and what I allow in through the filters. There’s no call to be rude; it’s just a Fading Out from the real world for an hour or so, prior to and during writing. This is “closing the door”, and for me it’s not only about shutting off external noise. It’s damage limitation where mood is concerned; whatever I hear on the news, read in a book or feel for a song, might colour my writing with an unintended atmosphere. Working with synaesthesia, where sound and mood appear in colours, there’s always the chance that I’ll inadvertently write a character’s “warm” mood too “cool” because of a blue song going on a loop in my head.

A difficult day, a trying time of life, can make all the difference between a good and bad writing experience. If you’re aware of emotional flux, take responsibility for your moods and writing – work them around each other. Work them to your advantage, to avoid writing-blackout. I tend to keep several projects on-the-go at once, all of which have different genres, setting and tone. This allows for a margin of success; more chance of hitting the right note at any point in life.

Look to film directors for affirmation in doing this. If necessary, they’re prepared to work off the cuff, shooting non-linear scenes and forgoing a chronological framework, in favour of getting the best out of the cast and setting(s.) Sometimes the season is out of kilter with the plot; freak weather patterns can emerge. War can break out. A cast member might sicken. A piece of equipment may require updating. To avoid wasting time, other scenes will be filmed instead; the results edited together later.

Use this technique in your writing. Don’t feel bad for working outside a standard chronology of events. Life happens. If your mood fits one scene and not another, why waste it for the sake of keeping to narrative structure? You’ll find an enhanced sense of attachment to your characters; their actions/reactions can become symbolic of your own, and vice versa. A setting can seem your home-base, your emotional playground (or indeed, your personal hell.) The story will feel bound up in your own life-narrative. If it gets the work done – and as long as you take care to leave bread-crumb notes of what goes where – the audience isn’t going to know any better. They may be more likely to feel the story reverberate with what you were going through at the time, though only in emotional terms – the details remain your own.

Generally speaking, real life doesn’t allow for a sudden drop-of-the-hat reaction to a writing mood. I’m lucky enough to have few responsibilities or plays on my time outside of work, and can generally settle to a routine. This has its merits and drawbacks – it’s easy to get complacent. A writer would do well to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to test whether a character’s emotions and mindset are so easy to grasp when set against an entirely alien backdrop.

This is a useful technique when a story’s in pre-development. Take the early outline of a character – their name and whatever specifications are to hand – and write them into a scene of high emotional intensity. It can be outside of the story itself if you wish; I personally like setting characters in a war zone, or at the site of a volcanic eruption. It’s when we’re emotionally stripped raw, that true idiosyncrasies and flaws come to light.

Get to know your phone’s video/audio recording app. With the afore-mentioned dramatic scenes, I find recording vocal inflections and references to mannerisms (facial expressions, paralinguistic features like body language) priceless. Record whatever ad-libs come, symbolic references, interaction with other characters etc – these can all help to develop and strengthen a character’s voice, both in mannerisms and speech. Ideas are often triggered just by speaking in freeflow; the beauty of the app being, you can replay your thoughts at a later time.

A soundtrack crafted around a character’s personality can help enhance and inspire their thought patterns, actions and reactions. When listening to my iPod, a lyric may hangnail in my mind as something a character could relate to – either in general mindset, or at a particular point in their lives. This entry was an early compilation for my novel, End of the Line, when it was in its first draft. Songs attached themselves to characters and scenes along the way.

When creating your own soundtrack, make a point of heading tracklists with a characters’ name, adding notations as to which song is relevant to which scene. Then when it comes time to continue from where you’ve left off – particularly if real life has forced you to quit mid-scene – give that tracklist a listen, either before or during the writing process. It helps to define individual soundscapes for a narrative voice, for each chapter-scene.

This is equivalent to a film’s diegetic / non-diegetic sound; that is, what a character hears in their environment or prefers to listen to, as opposed to what sounds are outside the film-universe, laid over what is being filmed; outside the narrative construct and a character’s experience, but audible to the audience.

Put in a literary context, your Method soundtrack can be layered with the aesthetic and tone of a character – any song you feel fits their personality – as well as sounds mirroring unique reactions to a situation. Try subverting your own expectations of tone by shifting abruptly between a character or object’s signature “theme”, while writing a change in atmosphere and events. The resulting juxtaposition can really get under the skin, becoming symbolic:


(Hellraiser: Deader, Rick Bota)

You might even feel jangled enough to write this crossover into a scene, to evoke the same symbolic tension in your audience:

“What he heard was the clear, clarion call of a trumpet, its music cold as the air from the snow-covered mountains of his homeland. Pure and crisp, the trumpet call rose bravely above the darkness and death and despair, to pierce his heart.
Sturm answered the trumpet’s call with a glad battle cry…Again the trumpet sounded, and again Sturm answered, but this time his voice faltered, for the trumpet call he heard had changed tone. No longer sweet and pure, it was braying and harsh and shrill.
No! thought Sturm in horror as he neared the dragon. Those were the horns of the enemy! He had been lured into a trap! Around him now he could see draconian soldiers, creeping from behind the dragon, laughing cruelly at his gullibility… Fear knotted Sturm’s stomach; his skin grew cold and clammy. The horn call sounded a third time, terrible and evil. It was all over. It had all been for nothing. Death, ignominious defeat awaited him.” – pgs 121/122, “Dragons of Winter Night,” Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

Sometimes, circumstances can’t be passed over for writing. It becomes essential to jot down whatever notes you can, to later reactivate whatever you were feeling at the time an idea hit, or an inspirational scene was witnessed. This is memory-sense recall. The idea of key words was, for me, inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. In the narrative, a girl writes the word “orange” on a scrap of paper, to carry as a constant reminder of one blissful afternoon spent with her family:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world… they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

You’re looking to evoke the same emotional response you felt, by reading the sensory words and remembering exactly how the light was, what smells were in the air, how the air moved about you. This is Realism – walking back through time, recreating scenes from your life to bring scenes to the page. Reread old blog entries and that of friends, to engage once again with how you once felt in a situation similar to what a character might be going through.

Keeping a diary or journal framed in a character’s voice is a priceless component of Method writing. I regularly dip into the thoughts of protagonists by jotting down notes from their lives – mundane events, love interests, secret fears etc. I often write short poems through a character’s perspective, if they’re so inclined to do so. These may or may not enter the narrative proper; but they’re handy to have on the side, as a means of slipping in and out of character. Connections sometimes leap out of nowhere – things that were not apparent to me at the time of serious writing, but which become strikingly relevant when framed in a looser context.

Free-fall writing is equivalent to dropping stones down a well, listening for the splash. These are stream-of-consciousness sessions, which may or may not have an immediate bearing on an ongoing project, but are written in the style and tone of a piece I’ll be currently working on. These short blog entries are often framed in a character’s voice, or run parallel to its tone, and will sit adjacent to the actual story like a slip-road to a motorway. They are exercises in writing to music, spurts of creative output, for the sheer joy of imagery and often frantic emotional output. Words wind about and through the music, snagging lyrics and tugging them along for the ride, taking leaps between my own thoughts and that of a character. These entries are examples of the freeform style.

The end result often resembles a wordy Pollock painting, but they’re my most honest work next to life-blog entries. All formality, all boring thoughts of perspective and chronology, go out the window. Sessions like this are good for loosening the writing limbs before opening an actual project, or just to shake up the imagination – and they’re great for getting into character / setting tone.

This is Method writing to me. Preparation for what lies ahead; getting comfortable in a character’s perspective, picking up the narrative reins; grasping the sense of what an imaginary world is like, drawing on relevant personal experiences to colour up and enhance a mood and/or theme. Flipping the timer to let inspiration run between reality and fantasy.

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Writing Reality: Connotation and Denotation (AKA was that Really what you meant?)

23/09/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Have you ever handed your writing to a beta reader, and – despite careful editing – been rewarded with an interpretative summary completely off-kilter with the intended message?

This might be clear in your own mind. Your characters know one another as well as you do their credentials, innermost fears and hatred of broccoli. A setting could be a photographic copy of real-time surroundings, or indeed, drawn from an image pulled off the Internet and studied for every nuance, to try and capture its spirit in words.

But what if the word choices were wrong, when placed in context?

This may come across as a little blunt, but what you see, feel, emote etc for everything you write, is your own business until it’s shared. The audience comes fresh to the scene. They haven’t been with you on field research, haven’t sat with their elbows propped at the bar while you earwigged on dialogue-drops. Most pertinently, they haven’t broken sweat and maybe tears for your characters, known their foibles and lusts as you do. It’s your responsibility, as a writer, to give them the means of approaching and accepting your literary universe. Their suspension of disbelief is in your hands, and the tools to make it happen are of of course your words – more specifically, the choices you make when stringing them together.

This is where Semiotics are involved – and if that’s technical gubbins to you, bear with me. It’s important stuff where linguistics are concerned.

Semiotics “is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign … the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.”
The site highlighted (Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler) is top-notch if you’re looking to take things further than this article. It elaborates on the many technical structures that literature/linguistics are built upon. We’re going to focus on word meanings and associations, otherwise known as connotation and denotation.

This is a mnemonic taught to my Media studies class in school, by one exasperated but canny teacher:

“Connotations connect and create
Denotations define and dictate”

Put simply, Denotation is the literal definition of a word. The dictionary pull-out. It’s about as plain as it’s going to get, the reality of fact. It’s one side of the coin, while its flip – Connotation – is the projector of image(s) via “socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations (ideological, emotional etc)… typically related to the interpreter’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on.” In essence, what an individual / audience takes away from what the creator gives, as referenced in this article of Show and Tell.

There’s an overlap between perceived Intentional meaning and perceived Personal inflection. This is art in its purest form, the interaction of concepts. But if the Creator’s angle was off in the telling, the correspondence goes awry. A scene intended to be frightening can at best fall flat, at worst seem unintentionally funny. You may not have wished a character to be aligned with demons or perceived to have a demonic nature, no matter how antagonistic their actions – but if you’re going to use words like “devilish smile” and “forked tongue” in their narrative, don’t be surprised if the afore-mentioned images are invoked in the minds of at least some of your audience. Likewise, a character may take on accidental predatory connotations if described or aligned with words of this nature – “Alpha”, “wolfish”, “stalked towards.” A positive/beautiful setting may become subverted if the sky’s compared to wallpaper paste, the grass to barbed wire.

Studying adverts is a great way to gain a handle on Connotation and Denotation. The company is not only looking to inform the audience about their product – its specifications, the plain facts – they’re looking to sell the product, or more specifically, the projected image. This means persuasive and/or figurative language; linking one concept to another at whipcrack speed, so the audience is absorbing and computing at a subconscious level. It’s only when the ad is slowed down and carefully studied, that the methods used reveal their truths.

Notice the repetition of the word “car” – a key persuasive trigger, ingraining the denotative message in the minds of the audience, while the connotative overlay gets to work.
Other words appear. Nuts, bolts, leather, cogs, steel, wood, glass. All pretty dull on their own, but when set to the beautiful images appearing onscreen, their respective meanings are enhanced. They become abstract concepts, shining metal, a vibrant night-drive through woodland, sumptuous skeins of material, unfolding blankets of light; the darkest pools, so gorgeously thick you can almost taste the toxic beauty. They become, in and of themselves, important. Their purpose is full of clarity, linking one image to another – safety, comfort, intelligence, durability, style, class. Above all – every small piece, making up the whole. Every one word, forming an appealing message in the mind of the audience. A persuasive package, tied up in a clever bow of simple words juxtaposed with carefully-chosen images.

Your writing intends to do the same – to sell images, to persuade the audience to believe in the construct. The projected images may not all be pleasant ones, but they’re required to convince just the same. Your word-choices need careful consideration to gain the effect, and with minimal fuss. This is where context comes into play.

It still staggers me how often a company can shoot itself in the foot with its choice of brand name. I’ll paraphrase a few to give a general idea, and hopefully avoid lawsuits.

– “Mud Pie Pottery” – OK, kudos to them for the rhythmic alliteration of P’s. That’s memorable. But so too is the sticky, messy image of playing in the mud as a kid (or indeed, cleaning up after your own.) The splattergram-image might work for a play area, but in the context of trying to sell fine ceramics and pottery, it doesn’t quite fit the bill. The connotations of “mud pie” are child-associative at best, crude and amateur at worst. Not a great start for sales.

– “Blurred Lines Printing” – Though their precision and output might be admirable, the company’s name is a let-down in terms of public image, simply from a lack of context-consideration. It’s only on a subconscious level, might not even take the form of a thought, so much as a feeling of wariness in the audience. One linked image to another, through the connotation —> context of blurred and printing.

Used carefully, a juxtaposition of positive/negative connotations can actually progress narrative, and inform characterization. Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi novel The Rowan tells the story of a young woman born with inherent psychological powers (telekinesis/telepathy, among others.) As the sole survivor of a landslip in her home-territory, Rowan – aged three – is taken on as a Ward of the Planet.

‘”You’ve done marvels with her, Lusena,” Interior said warmly. “You’ll find a tangible reward from the Council when you’ve delivered her safely to Earth.”
“She’s a taking little thing, really,” Lusena said, smiling with affection.
“A bit odd-looking with that whitened hair and those enormous brown eyes in that thin face,” and the Medic looked uncomfortable.
Gorgeous eyes, lovely features,” Interior said hastily to cancel Lusena’s dismay at the Medic’s blunt description.’ – pg 29, The Rowan, Anne McCaffrey

Odd-looking, whitened, enormous, thin. None of these words are particularly positive when strung together in a description of the child. The Medic might have taken a more tactful (and positive) view with words like “striking”, “pale/snowy hair”, “large/luminous eyes”, “small/slim face.” Instead, the connotations of the words chosen create a projected image through his perspective, of a strange-looking little girl who has an unnerving effect on him. This is a Show of characterization in the scene; clearly, Rowan has got under the skin of the Medic (backed up by the Tell of his looking “uncomfortable.”)

Interior’s swift annulment of the Medic’s negative assessment – with far more positive-connotative words gorgeous and lovely – Shows the audience that the former has a high empathy and consideration for Lusena’s “dismay”; it also exposes the Medic’s tactlessness in the narrative. This is emphasized when set in the context of Rowan’s predicament as a small orphaned child, as well as her obvious inability to change how she looks. There is also her primary carer Lusena’s previous comment, of being quite taken with her, to consider.

It’s worth considering narrative voice when it comes to choice of words. In third person-omnipresent, the voice is yours as the author; whatever descriptions are laid down, are assumed to be your opinion. When placed through the filter of a character – over shoulder or first person – the perspective switches, and immediately assumptions are made on the part of the audience, everything from the character’s intelligence to their ethos, their feelings about others, experience of settings etc. Consider carefully – what is the primary message of the scene you’re creating? What is the subtext, if any, beneath dialogue; and can context itself manipulate the connotations of words uttered?

“‘Let’s take our good host here. What is he? He is a gentleman… A classic English gentleman. Decent, honest, well-meaning. But his lordship here is an amateur.” He paused at the word and looked around the table. “He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentleman amateurs.”‘ pg 106, “The Remains of the Day,” Kazuo Ishiguro

As adjective or noun, amateur is defined as “engaging or engaged in without payment; non-professional / a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis.” So far, so neutral. But placed in the context of world affairs, as delivered in the dialogue of Senator Lewis – attending a conference at Darlington Hall during the run-up to WWII – and the message becomes one of quiet desperation, frustration and scorn.

Decent, honest, well-meaning – all work to present the sign of Lord Darlington being a “classic English gentleman”, until amateur is put into the mix. Synonyms range from casual participant to dabbler to novice; none of which are particularly abrasive when stood alone. But filtered through context – the severity of the situation – and when aligned with more negative-connotative words like hog-wash and meddle, a pejorative anchor is laid on these positive connotations. Their message becomes subverted, implying Darlington and his fellows are only clueless fools, in danger of losing their grip on the situation.

“All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over… Gentlemen like our good host still believe it’s their business to meddle in matters they don’t understand. So much hog-wash has been spoken here these past two days. Well-meaning, naive hogwash.” – pg 107

Words of authoritative connotation in this context are brought up – world, business, matters. These enhance the impression of there being a higher game at stake than any of the Lords realize.

“You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs. If you don’t realize that soon you’re headed for disaster.”

Lord Darlington’s response is framed along the same inference-structure (both are far too polite and well bred to delve into crude slanging matches), with connotations turned on their heads when filtered through an individual’s perspective:

“‘What you describe as “amateurism”, sir, is what I think most of us here still prefer to call “honour.’
This brought a loud murmur of assent with several ‘hear, hear’s’ and some applause.
‘It appears to mean getting one’s way by cheating and manipulating. It means ordering one’s priorities according to greed and advantages rather than the desire to see goodness and justice prevail in the world.’ … This was met by the loudest burst of approval yet, followed by warm and sustained applause.” – pg 107

Ishiguro uses applause as a paralinguistic signal of approval, much as the adjective “warm” works to frame the action in connotations of intimacy as well as approval. On a universal-subconscious level, it speaks to our earliest instincts of keeping close to preserve heat. If you were writing a similar scene in which the applause was instead sporadic, insincere, doubtful, what alternative word-choices could you make to draw on the senses, to deliver a negative-connotative message?
* Cold / cool – as of the feelings of the gathering towards the speaker and his opinion; lack of intimacy and unwillingness to engage, to accept the message delivered
* Half-hearted – lacking impetus, enthusiasm, not wishing to engage
* Scattered (especially in a room full of people, where applause from all present would be thick and loud, rolling off the walls, tumultous, energetic … not described with a word that has connotations of being loosely strewn, haphazard, quiet where noise would be preferred.)

Also worth noticing is how Darlington – in a progression of characterization and narrative, showing the now-taut relationship between the two men – turns Lewis’ word “professionalism” back on itself. By juxtaposing it with negative-connotative words like “cheating”, “manipulating” and “greed”, a wholly different meaning is pulled from the Senator’s word, subverting his message. In this case, mimicry is not a positive affirmation, but a riposte.

A single word can have many associative-images when standing alone; imagine its impact when framed in the right context and strung alongside words of equal power and direct meaning. This is particularly important when it comes to paring down your figurative language and imagery, for a smoother reading-experience and more succinct message:

“It was the same looking out; the green-tinted window glass was so old and so thick that everything on the other side seemed like a dream, including the sky and the trees.” – pg 4, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

“If only she could believe in love’s salvation, but desire had been ruined for her. She saw craving as obsession, fervor as heated preoccupation.” – pg 31, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

If words are an author’s medium – the brushes of their art – then the colours alive within each one are surely the meanings laid upon the canvas, for audience interpretation. Consider your mixtures and blending; all it takes is one poor choice of colour for the image to be spoiled. Your word-choices affect the balance of the overall message, by virtue of association and context.

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