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Ten Ways Writing is Like Painting

If you follow me on Facebook, you’re aware that I have spent the past month painting the rooms in my house. It is hard physical work. Writing is hard mental work. As I pondered with brush in hand, the following similarities occurred to me.

1. If you don’t do the preparation in the beginning, you’ll be doing a lot of cleaning up at the end. You can paint without dropcloths and taping, but you’ll be touching up and scrubbing the floor for days at the end of the project when you’re exhausted.

2. There is no substitute for the right tools. Painting with the wrong brush or paint will make you crazy and you won’t be happy with the outcome. Writing without the right tools can make you equally cranky.

3. You learn by doing. The first room I painted wasn’t my best, nor was the first book. The more rooms I painted, the better I got. You pick up little tricks of the trade and things that make the process go smoother. Every room you paint, or book you write, makes you that much better.

4. The first coat always looks awful. There may be paint that covers in one coat, but I have yet to encounter it. The first draft will never be perfect either. Count on revisions then editing then proofreading.

5. Touch-up will always be required. No matter how well you prepare or outline, drips happen or the tape pulls the paint off the trim. By the time you’re done with the room, you’re so sick of working on it your mind automatically blocks out the drips and splatters. If you can step away for a day or so, you’ll spot the problem areas easier.

6. It helps to have someone else look at it. When you’re covered in paint and you’ve spent days going up and down a ladder, the last thing you want to hear is, “Hey, you missed a spot.” Don’t turn the paint can over the critic’s head. If you missed a spot, don your paint clothes again, get on the ladder, and fix it. 

7. You can paint a room any color you like, as long as you’re not trying to sell your house. If you like purple walls and hot pink trim, go for it. Just realize that other people might not agree with your color choices. If a buyer sees purple walls and pink trim, they might walk away from the challenge of painting over them. 

8. Know when to stop touching up. You can drive yourself insane touching up the wall then the trim then the wall in search of that perfect straight line. There will always be miniscule imperfections. Put the brush down. 

9. Visitors will have their own opinions. Your color choices might not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re happy with the results, that’s all that matters. It’s your room. Don't let other people's preferences ruin your satisfaction with your work because others will approve of your artistic choices.

10. Take a moment to step back and admire the finished product before starting the next room. You need the break.

Emotional Detours

Emotional Detours force your character to change a belief, prejudice, or opinion when  your character meets evidence that challenges it. The detour can change his mind, reinforce his theory, or alter it slightly.

First example: Dick had a troubled childhood. He and his dad didn’t get along. His dad was always on the road. When he was home, he wasn’t much interested in Dick. They never spent time together. Dick enters the military and his mom dies. He sees no reason to stay in touch with the old man. After all, dear old Dad was never around when they needed him. Dick refuses to visit even when his dad is critically ill. Then Dad dies and Dick is forced to go home and clear out the house so he can sell it. Dick finds evidence that his dad was in fact a spy in possession of a secret the government would kill to keep. As Dick takes a detour to hunt down the truth, he comes to terms with the fact that his memories weren’t entirely accurate and his assumptions about his dad’s behavior were wrong. Did that make his dad “Father of the Year?” No, but the detour explained why. 

Second example: Jane is against genetic testing and manipulation. It is playing God. Then Jane’s child is born with a disease that only stem cell therapy can cure. Jane must take a detour to research ways to save her daughter. What she learns can either reinforce her initial belief that playing God is wrong, even if it means her daughter dies. She can decide that it isn’t evil after all and stem cell therapy can do great good. She can come to terms with the nuances that anything can be used for good or evil. 

Third example: Sally hates Venusians and everything about their culture. She is furious when she is sent by her employer to work in Venusia. Sally’s prejudice makes her prickly and uncooperative. As Sally lives and works in Venusia, she learns Venusians are just as diverse as humans. Some are good. Some are bad. Most are in the middle: simple, hardworking beings who live and love and want to provide for their families. Alternatively, she could decide that Venusian society is like arsenic, poisoning everyone who comes into contact with it and contamination is inevitable if you stay there long enough.

As the detour comes to an end, your character will have been tested. His belief will be intact, altered, or overturned. Along the way, your reader will learn something from the exploration of the thematic message at the heart of your tale.

Mental Detours

In Story Building Blocks II, we discuss different types of obstacles a character can be presented with. The first type of obstacle is a detour, an unexpected bend in the plot, that forces your character to increase his knowledge, improve his skills, add to his experience, or find new resources to make up for what he lacks so he can solve the overall story problem. There are mental, emotional, physical, and tactical detours. 

Mental Detours condition a character to overcome internal resistance to something or someone he has an aversion to.

I’ll use one of my new favorite shows (Burn Notice) as an example. The protagonist, Michael Westen, is a spy who has been “burned,” meaning fired and dumped in Miami, Florida with his gun-loving ex-IRA girlfriend Fiona, mom Maddie, and former Navy Seal Sam Axe. They work as a crew, helping people in ways the police cannot (i.e. lots of explosions and tactics that border on the unscrupulous and illegal) while Michael tries to figure out who burned him and why. Each season of the show examines a new twist in the backstory intertwined with the “cases” Michael and his crew take on. 

Michael sees himself as a renegade white knight fighting bad people to protect good people. He takes on crime bosses, crazy warlords, kidnappers, gangs, and drug runners without hesitation. The one thing Michael does not do is gun people down in cold blood. He prefers to find a way to turn the tables on them. After all, he is not a psychopath. This is the mental road block that requires him to detour. 

Enter crazy psychopath Anson who created the “secretive” group that burned Michael. The explosive Fiona has the right idea: shoot the evil creep before he can do more damage. She has a sniper rifle at the ready and is willing to do the deed. Michael is more than capable of simply breaking Anson’s neck with his bare hands, but he doesn’t do it. Why? Because cold-hearted killing requires overcoming his mental road block. Michael believes that doing so would turn him into one of the bad guys. So Michael takes a season-long detour to find a way to bring Anson down without gunning him down. Along the way, Michael gathers pieces of the puzzle that led him to become a burned spy in the first place. 

Whether turning gun runners against one another, foiling kidnappers, or stealing information from corrupt corporations, Michael prefers the detour to the direct route to maintain his self image as a “good guy.” 

You can use a detour in any genre. Reaching the line your character will not cross forces him to reconsider. He must detour around the action he does not want to take, the truth he does not want to see, or the reality he does not want to accept. Whatever detour you create for your character, he will reach the end of the story changed and change is good.