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Using Collage to Create a Snapshot of Your Novel

snapshot of How to Bake a Perfect Life I can’t remember exactly who taught me the fine, messy art of collaging a novel—it was either Jenny Crusie or Susan Wiggs. Pretty sure Susan mentioned it first, but either way, it’s been a part of my process for a long time. I’m currently building a collage for a novel of women’s fiction, and as I worked on it over the weekend, I was reminded of the value of the process.

Some writers scoff at this process, finding it a waster of time. Maybe some of you fail to see how an art-based project can help you build a book that’s made of words. If you’ve never tried it, however, maybe give it a shot.

The basic process is straight-forward: you use images and other physical or visual materials to create a snapshot of your book. It can be very simple or very complex, and does not require any particular skills or any kind of artistic bent. Jenny, the former art teacher, builds astonishing collages [1], three-dimensional and with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos. Susan [2] once built them of them of paper board and magazine cut-outs and now has moved her work to Pinterest [3]. I fall somewhere in-between [4]. (The photo above is from the collage I made for How to Bake a Perfect Life [5].)

The product is not the actual point. It’s a process tool. Using tactile, visual, or textural materials, you get out of your logical, verbal left brain and allow the loose, associative right brain to play.

Let me stress again that you do not need artistic talent. You don’t need to create something “beautiful.” No one else has to see it. Ever. You don’t even have to keep what you make, though I find the snapshot very grounding over the weeks and months it takes to complete a book. For example: On the current board, a photo of a row of worn, paint-splattered female cowboy books brings me back again and again to a basic concept of one main character.

Assemble your materials

You will need a base, at least the weight of poster board. I tend to like the kind of foam board kids use for science fair projects. It can be any size you like, though do give yourself a little space for play, no less than 8×10. I have space on my office wall, plus I’m nearsighted and don’t wear my glasses at the computer, so mine tend to be pretty big, but it really does not matter.   It also doesn’t have to be a flat board—you might enjoy browsing around Michael’s or some other hobby store to look at the various options. I once created a gorgeous collage in a hat box, an elaborate thing complete with purple Christmas lights.

Magazines and paper
If you’re flush, by all means go to the local bookstore and buy a bunch of new magazines. I’m madly in love with a series of periodicals published by Stampington [6], especially Bella Grace [7] and Artful Blogging [8], which give me the kind of images I need for my women’s fiction novels about women and cooking and all those things. I splurge on them regularly to have material, but it isn’t necessary. You can find lots of periodicals at library sales and thrift shops, and there is a magazine for almost anything you can imagine. Great general choices are photography and art magazines, travel magazines, and home decorating magazines like Veranda.

Other paper products you might enjoy are tissue paper and scrapbooking sheets—there are big blocks of them at hobby stores like Michael’s. Browsing for materials can be an exercise in brainstorming in itself. You’ll find yourself thinking about the general tone and feeling of your book—is it more a delicate green thing, or a sturdy leather?

Other supplies
Get some glue sticks. They don’t have to be fancy. Basic glue sticks from the grocery store will do. Scissors, of course, to cut out the photos and patterns and color swatches you need. In recent years, I’ve used Pinterest and my color printer pretty heavily because I can search for exactly the image I need, and print it out. A Chinese goddess, say, or an actor who represents a character.

You might also want some simple water colors or colored ink, some Mod Podge or glossy finish, paintbrushes or things like that.  I have a closet for craft and art supplies and never know what might tickle the muses.

You can also use other bits and pieces—I’ve used milagros and magnets, glitter, paint, leaves and branches. Anything goes. Once I built a collage from a kit for a shrine to a rock star and covered the outside with shredded red Santa Barbara incense. Bonus: it perfumed my office for months.

To build the collage, I need to be somewhere beyond the very beginning. To get a strong snapshot, I need a sense of the characters and where the book is going, and what my theme or main ideas are.

That tends to happen somewhere around the end of the first 100 pages. Far enough in to sort of know who everyone is, but getting to the point where the initial burst of excitement for the story might be flagging. Most of us hit this point somewhere in that first quarter to third of the book, and collaging at this stage can help keep motivation high.

You can, however, collage at any point within the book. Whenever it feels right to you.

Process, step by step

  1. Start with a session of cutting out photos, images, even just pages of color that appeal, and stack them up. Maybe listen to music that suits the book, drink a cup of tea and let your mind wander. If you want images of your characters but modern magazines aren’t cutting it, try places like Deviant Art or run an image search for an actor who might work. You can also just capture the spirit of a character in an image—a hard-boiled guy staring at the camera, a leaping athlete.Mainly at this stage, you’re just collecting whatever images and things that catch your eye. It doesn’t have to directly relate to your book—let the girls (or guys) in the basement lead you—those clouds! That red car! Maybe you’ll have gritty urban landscapes, or castles, or dogs, or feet. Don’t think much, just let your eye wander. You are not committed to keeping anything. Better to have more to build with than less.It’s also not just about pictures or bits of color. If you see words that embody your theme, grab them. If other words give a ripple of recognition, cut those out, too.   I’ve sometimes made word images at Wordle [9] to help me get a handle on complex ideas.
  1. Once you have your pile of materials, give yourself some time to play with arranging them. Don’t glue anything just yet, just loosely shuffle your pictures, rearrange, step back, try again. Play with relationships, words, strips of color. You might like slipping some scrapbooking paper behind photos, or looping things together with a little string.Again, don’t glue anything here. Just let it be for a little while. When you discover an arrangement that feels good, take a break. Do something else, clear your head, and come back later. You’ll see more. Maybe something will feel wrong and you get rid of it. Maybe you need more color, or a different kind of image. Remember: this is not meant to be a work of art. It’s a process tool.
  1. Once you feel happy with the layout, you can start gluing things in place. Take your time. I do listen to music, sometimes drink a nice ale, let myself fall into the mood.Get the basic layout in place, and then step back. Is anything missing? Do you feel a need to get some paintbrushes and add some color, or maybe spritz it with some ink? Need more words to keep your theme in mind? Print them out, or use an app like Word Swag to put words over pictures and print those out.
  1. Finished!
    You do not have to put the collage where you can see it, but it helps me to see it constantly. I prop it up in my office where it is the thing I see when I come into the room. First, this offers a focal point—my job, during these months, is to write this book. Second, I catch on new images every time, and that keeps my grounded in a holographic version of the book, right there in time and space.If you don’t have wall space, maybe the back of a door or closet door. Or take a photo and upload it to the wallpaper on your laptop. If you don’t want to look at it, or are one of those people who likes an uncluttered environment, tuck it away. The main work is done.

One last note: I’m often asked if you can do this process in a digital format. You can, of course–as Susan has done on Pinterest–but I strongly suggest trying the paper version first. Some parts of the brain are more fully accessed through tactile actions—the cutting, writing, glueing are all ways to reach those areas.

Any questions? I’m here to answer if I can. Have you ever used this method for your books? Are you one of the resistors who can’t see why in the world it would help? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


About Barbara O'Neal [10]

Barbara O'Neal [11] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [12], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [13].