A favorite digital editing trick among contemporary photographers is to layer a photographed image with textures.
A “texture” is a second image—an image of anything really. A photo of cracked pavement, the bottom of a rusty pan, a scratched piece of glass. Painted textures work well, too, thin watercolor washes or thick smears of acrylic paint scanned into the computer. Paper textures are especially popular, like grungy pages from old books with torn edges and darkened corners that add the patina of age to a photo. You can download free or purchased textures from a zillion places online, or make your own if you feel doubly creative.
In Photoshop (and other similar editing programs), you copy and paste the texture on top of the original photo, and then play with the transparency and blending modes of the texture layer until you find an effect you like. You can add layer masks, so that the texture is stronger in parts of the image than in others. You can even add more than one texture if you like. There are no formulas for doing it, just trial and error.
But I’m working on a metaphor here, not a tutorial.
Great photographers, masters of their equipment and technique, don’t need to do this—they get all the texture they need from lighting, exposure and composition. And no amount of texturing can make a bad photo good.* But it’s a trick that allows fledgling photographers like myself the ability to cover up a host of minor flaws, or simply produce a final image that is artistically more interesting than the original.
It is the matter of artistic interest that concerns me as a writer.
There are a lot of books out there, popular books, with good stories in them—good story being the number one requirement (in today’s marketplace) to producing a successful novel.** A good story is as essential to a publishable novel as “tack sharp” focus is to a professional photograph. But having a good story doesn’t mean a novel has texture.
What is texture, for a writer?
Texture can be any number of things: It is word-smithing. It is subtleties of character. It is vivid, revelatory descriptions. It is memorable dialog. In fantasy, especially (but not exclusively), it is worldbuilding, and spreading magic through the pages of your book like a photographer spreads light and shadows.
There are countless ways writers add texture to their stories—unfortunately, you cannot download them from the Internet.*** You have to do it yourself, word by word, line by line, page by page. Figuring out which textures work with your style of storytelling, and learning how to apply them tastefully, is part of the process of finding your voice as a writer.
Like Photoshop textures, written textures can be used to hide story flaws, or simply make an ordinary story more interesting. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that many “literary” works are more texture than story. But just as with photography, good texture can’t overcome a bad story…there has to be at least a little something there to start with.
The irony of my dual status as
wanna-be amateur photographer and novelist is that I’m not very good at either focus or story.
Texture I can do.
In my writing, my greatest strength has always been in creating visions of fantastic settings, compelling characters and (more recently) the language with which to convey these elements with poetic verve. My greatest weakness is putting together stories that utilize these elements effectively. In other words, I can’t plot worth a damn. I have always started writing with a vision in my head of a place, sometimes a person, a string of words…and then fail when it comes time to bend a story into that vision.
In my photographic metaphor, it’s like starting with a stack of textures, and then going out to take a photo to put under them.
So it’s probably a good thing that my current work-in-progress started with just the story. But it’s been a very hard, backwards process for me. I hit a huge stumbling block when I began the second draft and bored myself to death because of the lack of texture. After all, I already knew the story, so what was left to hold my interest?
The intervening months has been a slow, mostly-mental process of texture building, adding those layers one by one, playing with the transparency and blending modes. Where do I need more worldbuilding? Where do I need more character development? How much magic does each part of the story need? I am, I think, nearly ready to move on with the final layer—the layer of language itself.
Rewrites are often seen as an onerous task, but I’m looking forward to it. It is artistic interest I crave from the writing process, not just telling a good story. My layers of texture will (hopefully) create a panorama of light and shadow that is as interesting to write as it will be to read.
* Case in point.
** Short stories can get away without one, if the craft is good.