Friday, February 28, 2014

Big Picture vs. Little Details

First, you should know that I’m extremely easy going in almost every way. I’m not a picky eater, I’m happy with whatever temperature you like on the thermostat, and I enjoy movies for what they are. (If it’s a smart movie, I enjoy its smartness. If it’s Sharknado, I switch off my cerebrum and just enjoy the airborne sharks).

But in my current stage of writing, I obsess over every little detail. I fuss over miniscule plot points and little character traits. I’ve even been known to spend 20 minutes deliberating about the perfect punctuation to deliver a joke or accelerate the action. Sometimes, I’ll sketch a diagram of a gizmo that my characters have invented, just so I can understand what it looks like or how someone would interface with the control panel. Go ahead: call me crazy. I’m used to it.

Thing is, this is only one phase of writing. I’m not always like this, only when I shift the mental gears into “nitty gritty.” Right now, I’m in the final stages of revising The Non-Zombie Apocalypse (the long-awaited sequel to Mad Science Institute), and hence my attention is directed to the microscopic. My editor, the very talented and patient Jane Kenealy, courageously returned after editing my first book to help me trim almost 5,000 unnecessary words from the new manuscript—words I can now save for later books and short stories (combating the “info dump” is a topic for another post). I obsess about her edits, too, as I wonder how little changes might shift the balance of character, suspense, humor, and pacing.

If I had the opportunity, I might be pleased to work strictly on big picture stuff—plot, character, and world. But that’s a different phase. Right now, if I have a big idea, I need to jot it down in a notebook and get back to the main project or else I’ll never finish anything. On the other hand, when I’m in the “big picture” phase, spending time spell-checking and grammar-policing scares off my ideas before they can get safely to the keyboard.

Stephen Wallenfel’s prescriptions for writer’s block got me thinking about why I don’t seem to suffer from blocks. I have certainly experienced writer’s block in the past, but it’s been a decade since it’s afflicted me. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I don’t have enough time to write so the ideas build up inside of me until I get the chance to blast them out onto a page. Or maybe it’s because what some people consider writer’s block is what I consider to be a distinct and important phase of writing. To the outside world I might look like I’m staring off into space, but really my brain is on fire with plans and possibilities.

I have a question for all you other writers, amateur and pros alike: do you find your writing has distinct phases? Do you have the luxury of working on a project one phase at a time, or do you need/prefer to mix up detail work with big-picture work?

Be good, and dream crazy dreams,

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on, Facebook, or Twitter.


Jordan Dane said...

Good morning, Sechin. Interesting post. If you nitpick in a phase, like a draft edit, then it's normal. You're a perfectionist which is a good quality for a writer. We often toil over word choices and certainly over visual research & diagrams. But if you talking about hitting a wall where you abruptly spend hours or days obsessing over a detail, that might be procrastination with purpose. Some writers wrongfully call it Writers Block (because you're not writing), but I firmly believe it's your brain sending you a signal that something isn't working in the story. It happens to me and I trust that feeling. I stop writing until I figure it out. My brain works on it, independently, even while I sleep. It's a weird thing writers do. I'm dealing with a touch of it now as I puzzle through the twists of the end to my WIP.

Good post, Sechin.

Sechin Tower said...

Thanks, Jordan! I figure I'm mentally healthy as long as I can turn the dials up and down on the nit-pickyness. I wasn't born a perfectionist, so it might show how much a person can reprogram their own brain over the course of a lifetime.

Ilsa said...

What Jordan said. I find that whenever I hit that wall, it's because something's not right and I just don't consciously realize it yet.

Unless I'm in the dreaded middle third of a book. Then I know it's because I'm in the middle third when everything seems to suck.

But a flat-out stop, the kind where you break your nose . . . it's about the story.

Sechin Tower said...

Jim Butcher called that middle third "The Great Swampy Middle." So true.

Maureen McQuerry said...

Another Jim Butcher fan? I am so big picture I can't even see details. It's true.They make me itch all over.And then I get forced into them by editors and copy editors! Every time i vow I will be more organized and pay attention to the details. Every time I vow it again.

A Jim Butcher fan?