It’s all very well creating expressive sentences by juxtaposing words, but sometimes I switch to shaping bits of stone into mosaics. The two processes are similar, and I thought I’d see how far I can push the analogy. I’m less experienced with mosaic tiles than words, so I’ll need to go back to first principles. But readers should find the parallels easily enough.
A beginner mosaicist may have no idea of her subject or what she can achieve the first time round. She’s faced with a blank baseboard and a choice of small tiles, called tessarae, in myriad colours, matt or shiny, transparent, opaque, metallic… Tiles are her words. Less conventional (or more inventive) mosaicists work with pebbles, gemstones, coins or broken crockery which equate to onomatopoeia, jargon, quotes or neologisms. (Bear with me!)
The wonderful Roz Wates, our tutor, explains the history of mosaic arrangement. There’s a standard grid, or more complex herringbone, tessellation, crazy paving and spiral layouts. To achieve these using only square tiles is tricky, so we have nippers to cut and shape them, enabling us to turn corners and make subtle or dramatic changes in shade and colour. At the start it’s best not to use too many colour contrasts. We could experiment with abstract or geometric ideas, but most people choose a figurative theme, maybe an animal or flower, and go for natural or fantastic shades to represent it. Roz can control the nippers to achieve exact shapes, but our more clumsy efforts are often jagged or whittled to an unusable crumb. We jettison them, start again, or take an easier option with more straightforward lines. Does it sound familiar, writer colleagues?
We transfer from paper or sketch directly onto the base. There’s no point making it too detailed or precise, because the rigid stones will never follow our design faithfully. Words too, tend to take their own path. If we choose the wrong tiles, cut or place them badly, they stick out and disrupt the design, but well combined tiles have a spontaneous directional flow. These are our sentences. Clumsy ones jar: those that fit move everything forward.
Next come the prologue and chapters. We can overcome insecurity or indecision, or assert control, by starting with a border. This at least has the advantage of getting something down. The creator is off the mark, the remaining space left to fill is smaller, and also now contained, which many find less daunting. I don’t use borders, as I’m untidy and like a design to spill off the sides. But a border is the equivalent of an outline, for those sensible writers who start off with one. It’s a statement of intent – some wide and plain, others intricate works of art.
Or we may simply stick down our favourites – it’s surprising how quickly one develops affection for the stones: this is a perfect shape, that catches the light in a particular way. We may set our heart on one and find we can’t use it. But, if we place too many without anchoring them, the whole design may descend into chaos when it’s time to glue and we can’t see exactly which one went where.
Border or no border, the point comes when we can’t put off committing the first tiles. Roz is a great help: with one glance at a paper template, she can identify where to start, in order to emphasise the most important element and keep the background in its place. This is the main character and must be given an interesting personality straight away, or the mosaic will have no life. Most women spend meticulous hours on this but I’ve seen men or children sling something on spontaneously and it immediately looks right.
This stage takes most time: cutting, placing, replacing, sticking, as a last resort chiselling, if the glue has set but we don’t like what’s appeared. Then we add other characters – a small mirror glint, a patterned stone, an interesting variant of style or colour. Now the sub plots and secondary themes become clear. The story is almost told, and it may have taken months of poring over and carefully selecting each tiny loved piece. It’s imperative to keep calm, taking breaks and fresh air, or the nippers get in a twist.
Roz guides, sounding like a creative writing tutor: “Yes – there’s a logical narrative forming here. “Ah! Now that line looks more coherent…” “You could echo that idea somewhere around this point” – “Oh! That shade is exactly what it needs!” “Now, which element did you want to bring to the foreground?”
I can only edit a mosaic as I go, so I mustn’t rush the ending. I can’t rewrite once my characters are literally set in stone. So here my analogy ends, since good old Amazon does let us upload corrections when an eagle-eyed reader spots a typo (yes, I know there shouldn’t be any, but stuff happens…) I mix a grout colour, against all my instincts slather it over my design to penetrate every crack between the tiles, coating it with a monochrome mush – the frightening equivalent of throwing a bottle of ink all over my only manuscript. Then I clean it off, polish it and there’s my finished product.
For mosaics courses visit www.rosalindwates.co.uk/
For writing courses, I recommend the Guardian Masterclasses. I’m interviewed here on the Guardian blog about one I did with them, a huge help when I was populating my novel The Infinity Pool with characters as individual as pebbles on a beach. If you want to see how the arrangement ended up, you can get it for only 99p in the Amazon May Madness Promotion from 1st-21st May.
© Jessica Norrie 2016