“There’s a World of Inspiration Out There”
In his book of essays, The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green addresses the problem of sunsets: “How might we celebrate a sunset without being mawkish or saccharine?… what can we say of the cliched beauty of sunsets?” Green initially assesses writing about sunsets as being cliche, but ultimately decides that the opposite is true: that writing about sunsets cannot be cliche when marveling at sunsets is such a universal human behavior.
As he writes, Green gives examples of sunset descriptions which are “menacing,” “sentimental,” “innocent,” and full of “mysticism.” What’s so extraordinary to me about this essay is how these exemplify writing as an art form. Sunsets differ by place and time; each person observing the sunset is unique and altered from one day to the next. No sunset viewing is the same, and no description of a sunset is either. When we write, we may explore common themes, tropes, and situations, but our individuality will transform our output.
There are multiple sunsets in my book The Song of the Swan. When a story contains a curse that turns humans to swans at sunrise and returns them to humans at sunset, its writer needs a strategy to describe them.
I regularly go for walks around sunset as it’s the time when I can best hear my favorite birdcalls, and I did this often while writing The Song of the Swan. As I walked, I’d ponder and problem-solve, discover new story ideas while discarding old ones. If there was a pleasing sunset, I’d stop to watch it. Because I knew I needed new ways to describe skies which glow with orange and pink, I would do an exercise in my mind that has since become a frequent activity in my writing process, which I invite you to try for yourself.
Go outside and find somewhere to sit. Use your senses, focusing on one sense at a time. How is the breeze brushing against your ears? Is there laughter nearby? Can you smell the food truck on the corner? Including these details make writing feel more vivid, especially if you can tie your descriptions to real moments where you’ve observed similar sensations.
Thinking of what you noticed, try describing those observations by making connections to unexpected things. This sense of surprise is what gives prose delightful originality. Those flowers might be arranged like a wedding bouquet, but they might also infest the meadow with forced cheer. The multi-colored cars in the parking lot are like jewels in a treasure chest. The sky at sunset is the color of a bruise.
Now, consider the comparisons you’ve chosen, and think about the tone conveyed by each one. A description might be silly, but it could also be creepy, or joyful, or melancholy, or mysterious. What is it that makes the description feel that way? Is it because of the image it conjures? Or is there something about the specific words chosen that have an emotional quality?
And for extra credit:
Go back through your list of observations, and try rewriting to use descriptions that all evoke a consistent emotion. If a lot of your descriptions depict a similar emotion already, try changing them to something different. If you’ve described flowers in a humorous way, how might you describe them in a way which feels sad, or angry, or unnerving?
This exercise can be done anywhere, but I like to do it outside, because I’ve always found extra value in the outdoors and physical exercise while doing creative exercises. The benefits of going outside is a common theme in writing advice: Dickens, Thoreau, Woolf, and many others extol walks as fuel for creativity.
Whether in nature or the bustle of a city, I find that when my body is exploring the outdoors, my mind is more receptive to unexpected ideas. I discover new connections between seemingly separate things, which is what the creative process really is—in order to make something new, artists collect and connect things, like bees patrolling their flowers. Or telephone wires snaking between buildings. Or blackberries destined for a pie.
You get the idea. There’s a world of inspiration out there.
The Song of the Swan
Author: Karah Sutton
Illustrator: Pauliina Hannueniemi
Published October 24th, 2023 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
About the Book: A magical retelling of Swan Lake, featuring a clever orphan, a castle filled with enchanted swans, and a quest to unearth the secrets of the past.
Olga is an orphan and a thief, relying on trickery and sleight of hand to make her way in the world. But it’s magic, not thievery, that could get her into trouble.
When Olga and her partner-in-crime Pavel learn of a valuable jewel kept in a secluded castle, Olga sees an opportunity to change their lives: a prize so big, they’d never have to steal again. But the castle is not as it seems, ruled by an enchanter who hosts grand balls every night, only for the guests to disappear each morning, replaced by swans. Guided by cryptic clues from the palace spiders, Olga soon realizes she’s in over her head—torn between a bargain with the enchanter, loyalty to Pavel, and determination to understand how the enchanted swans are linked to her own fate.
One thing is certain: there is dark magic behind the castle’s mysteries, and Olga will stop at nothing to unmask it.
About the Author: Karah Sutton is an American/New Zealand children’s author and former bookseller. Her debut middle grade fantasy adventure A Wolf for a Spell was an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce selection, an Indie Next List Top 10 selection, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award. Inspired by her many years as a ballet dancer, The Song of the Swan is her second novel.
Visit her online at KarahSutton.com or on Instagram at @KarahdactylAuthor.
Thank you, Karah, for reminding of us the beauty around us!