Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lessons from a Snowman

Do you think in word pictures? Have you ever visualized the process of novel-writing as word pictures?
Bizarre though it might sound, I envision the writing process as similar to building a snow sculpture. Consider…
According to Snowman 101, the first step is simply to wait until enough snow accumulates on the ground. And not just any snow. You need the slightly moist type of snowflakes that stick together, not the cold, dry powdery kind. When that just-right type of snow collects, you head outdoors, scoop up a handful, and then begin rolling it across your yard. More snow sticks to your original ball, and before long—Voilá! You have a large, round orb for your snowman’s foundation.
Repeat that process, but don’t let the second snowball become quite as big as the first one. That ball becomes a plump torso to heave atop the first one. Finally, you create a third ball and plop it into place for a head. Adding chunks of coal (or bits of gravel) plus a carrot will provide a rudimentary face. That accomplished, you stand back and admire your handiwork.
However, a snowman is not a “snow sculpture.” Any elementary-school kid can duplicate that process, but the end result isn’t artwork. If you aim to create a truly extraordinary piece of snow art, it’s time to reach into your pockets for your butter knife, a spoon, and whichever other tools work best for you. By carving away lumps of snow here and there, or scooping up more snow to pat into gaps and cracks, you can transform an ungainly snowman into a genuine statue that delights the eye.
See the parallels to writing? In order to mold stories, you need material to work with. So you read. Short stories, novels, newspapers, magazines, comic books—all of these contribute fresh ideas and concepts as raw material.
Once you have an outline for a story in mind, you draw upon your brain’s accumulated ideas and you write. However, when you type that final period and your manuscript is done—it’s not really done at all. At that point, you have a literary version of a basic snowman. You could leave your manuscript as is and balk at suggestions at changing it, but chances are excellent that no one will give it a second glance. No, if you want to catch readers’ eyes and start tongues wagging about your creation, you must sculpt. You trim off unnecessary adverbs and prepositional phrases. You spot gaps and cracks and fill those in with new sentences brimming with glistening figures of speech, nuggets of wisdom, jewel-studded subplots, tension, maybe even new characters with unique points of view. That done, congratulations! You finally have a unique bit of artwork, the type that results only through hours of mental exertion: a novel.

If other readers have favorite word pictures or analogies related to writing, I’d love to hear them!


  1. Michelle WeidenbennerMay 7, 2010 at 8:15 AM

    I loved this analogy. Well done!

    I think of writing my novel as baking a cake--something I haven't mastered. At times it's too dry, others so moist that it leans to one side. Sometimes when I think it's turned out perfect I go to frost it and the frosting pulls the cake apart. I try to patch it, cover it up with more icing, but in the end it looks forced. The difference is that a lop-sided cake can still taste good; whereas, a flopped novel doesn't taste good at all.

  2. Michelle, on my recent trip to Eastern Europe I took along the latest Writer's Digest magazine. That issue also contains an article that compares writing to cooking with all the right ingredients. Thanks for the comment!