Saturday, June 11, 2011

Forest and Trees--Balancing the Long View and Short View as a Book Writer

When you’re writing a book, you have to simultaneously hover over the forest, while you're noticing the tiny leaves of each tree.  Being in two places at once, you must keep in mind your overall book’s focus and structure, how you want it to come together--at the same time as you work on a tiny detail of one scene or chapter.

It’s often hard to balance these two viewpoints well.  Most new book writers
can’t.

When I began writing and publishing books, I was able to easily see the chapter I was working on, down to the fine-tuning of one step of one theory or the tiny gesture a character makes in one particular scene. It was much harder for me to move to the long view:  see how this particular particle of writing fit in the book as a whole. Where would it best be placed to engage a reader?  Back then, my balancing handicap didn't matter.  I was lucky enough to begin publishing back in the days when there were editors at the publishing houses who assumed this job.  They helped a writer monitor the long view by keeping in mind the reader, the reader's experience of the book as a whole, and how all the parts made up that whole.

As the writer, I was the "talent" (they actually used to call it that!).  I was responsible for creating good writing in each section of each book. My editor, in his lofty treehouse, would take care of the bigger picture.

Things have changed radically in publishing.  Not only has this kind of editor mostly disappeared from the major houses, books need to be in good shape before they are submitted anywhere--to agent, to small press, to contest, to publisher.  So we writers are faced with a task we didn't have to learn back then:  we must be masters at what CD Baby creator Derek Sivers called "future-focus" and "present-focus."

We must balance the long view and the short view in our manuscripts.

Useful Writing Tools for Long View/Short View Balancing
My favorite tool for refining the skill of long view, or future-focus, is the storyboard.

My favorite tool for developing present-focus is the brainstorming list of topics, which generate ideas for freewrites or "islands" if you maintain a solid writing habit.

Storyboards are not foreign to those in publishing.  They are used by many publishers to design sequence in a book that will be created in house.  I learned about storyboards two decades ago and use them in my workshops, classes, and all the books I write.  I've never grown to love them, as some do, but I depend on their power to pull me into future focus, that long view of my manuscript.  They let me see the forest above the trees.

My storyboards are vital maps of each book I write. Without a working map, a writer is severely limited.  She is stuck in present focus, the short view.  This is truly a fun place to reside, but it also can capture you unconsciously in an endless loop.  You produce many small bits but they never become a whole, a real book.

Some writers love playing with dramatic scenes or “islands,” but balk at systems.  This kind of writer is stuck in the short view.  They aren't able to gain the overview of how these “islands” line up into chapters,and eventually the entire mess gets overwhelming.  Either the book will be abandoned, the writer will decide they are more cut out for easier-to-manage short stories or essays, or the writer will finally force herself into a long view--learn to map her manuscript.

What about the opposite tendency?  This exists too.  A writer can equally get stuck in future-focus. Do you love, love, love storyboarding, make countless outlines and charts, line up ideas on index cards, but don't do much actual writing?

When I talk with writers who adore storyboarding and admit that the actual writing time feels, well, messy, my inner alarm bells go off. This writer has been hovering far above the trees way too long.  Yes, writing process is certainly not as tidy and controlled as the beautiful diagrams that line the walls of your writing room, but writing is organic.  And it's important to allow equal space for the organic as well as the planned when you're writing a book.

So be wary of getting so hooked into the big picture of what your book could become, that you aren’t willing to do the work that will let it grow into that picture.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This week's exercise allows you to explore the two views, and see what you might need to balance in yourself.


1.  Read the article on future-focus and present-focus by Derek Sivers, which is here.  See if it changes your point of  view about where you come from, with your book.

2.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and write about your like or dislike of these two aspects of book-writing:  the big picture (i.e., organizing your writing into a storyboard, outline, or other future-focused system) and the short view (i,e., writing "islands" or freewrites, creating your book loosely).

3.  What did you learn?  This week, ask yourself how you could begin to adjust any imbalance.