Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Forest vs. trees

I think it was Lisa who asked the other day if we give our attention to the forest or the trees when we're rewriting. I didn't have an answer then except for, "yes," but this week I ran into the same question myself. I am so deep among the trees right now that I simply have to back away, go back to the beginning of the manuscript, and take a look at the whole forest--which is to say, I need to read my book again from the start. Does that ever happen to any of the rest of you novelists? Or can you always just keep writing from wherever you happen to be?

The "trees," in my case this week, are the characters more than anything else. I need to make sure I have portrayed their emotions fully enough, and right now there's so much going on in the story all of a sudden that I'm not sure I have captured the depths yet. So I'll go back to the edge of the forest, and then keep walking up a hill in the distance until I can look back and see what the whole thing looks like. Then I think I'll be able to pick out the bare spots, or the ones that need pruning the most.

That's the theory, at least. :)

15 comments:

paul lamb said...

I'm always suspicious of either/or questions. It's as though the questioner has already set up the conditions for considering the answer and wants to exclude any gray area.

In this case, at least for me, the answer is "both." I may be working on a particular scene or important bit of character psychology at some point in my writing, but it all still has to serve the plot in the end. As long as I stay mindful of the plot (or the theme) then I don't lose my way.

I have found it helpful to go back to the beginning and read what I've written thus far. Not only does it help me stay on track, but it helps me see where I was off the track earlier. Sometimes my plot evolves in subtle ways, or a character's development changes, as I'm writing. So when I go back to the start, I can see the places where I hadn't known that evolution yet. Thus I can fix them.

Maria Lima said...

I'm very much a loop writer. I write, loop back read, revise and write some more.

It's a long slow process, but at the end, I have a fairly clean manuscript.

So I tend to vary between the trees and the forest. :)

FARfetched said...

Unless you can have a complete plot, outline, and character analysis down before you start writing, I think it's necessary to go back and read what you've done so far just to make sure you're staying on track. I've seen novels where the mistakes make it clear that the author just plowed ahead & then didn't catch those glitches later. (The editor can't be expected to catch those things, IMO.)

Heck, I have a couple of continuity glitches in FAR Future and I'll have to wait to fix them when I turn it into an MSS and start flogging it. ;-)

Lisa Miller said...

My original question--When you begin writing a new book/story do you start with the forest,big picture or do you start at the tree level?
Then after the first draft, would you describe your editing as walking slowly through the forest checking and dealing with each tree as you pass or walking at a more brisk pace looking at only a few trees as you go. Then revisiting that forest many times until you've studied all the trees? Or something totally different?

Nancy--I would love to be a butterfly on your shoulder to see the before and after.
Now that would be a fantastic class to see the process of capturing the depths/portraying character emotions fully.
The problem with never having completed a published work is knowing what that actually will look like.

Fascinating to hear your thoughts guys.

Wise Weds. to all.

Jen said...

My perspective is similar to Paul's in the sense that, for me, the trees/forest thing isn't as much of an "either/or" as it is a "both/and". It's a matter of taste but I think when a novel is really working, it is working on a lot of different levels. One of my favorite things to read in others' work and to include within my own is layered meaning, with lots of symbolism and subtext holding up the overt plot-lines, so a reader can read just the "top" of the book if they want and enjoy a straightforward story, but if they're the sort to scratch beneath the surface, they'll find lots of hidden treasures. This requires tracking several different levels of trees/forest simultaneously, or an ability to switch amongst them and synchronize, etc.

I'm currently re-learning how to do a lot of things (due to the chronic illness, bleh), and along with that I'm having to completely restructure my writing process. I haven't finished a novel in years because my old process, which was similar to what Maria describes, doesn't work for me anymore. I used to be able to focus on a lot of different levels simultaneously but now I can't, and paying sufficient attention to the trees has a tendency to get me so lost in the forest that I can't even grope around in the dark and find a breadcrumb trail.

So I'm amidst altering my process, and am currently at work on what is, by a vast margin, the most detailed outline I have ever done for any book. I didn't used to work with much of an outline because it felt too restrictive to me, like I couldn't really explore the forest. But now I need the map to prevent getting irretrievably lost, and what I'm discovering is that it is inducing me to learn far more details about the trees that comprise my forest (and the plants beneath the trees, and the mushrooms beneath the plants, and the bugs in the dirt...) than I ever imagined before.

Lisa Miller said...

Jen--
I love the layering taking it down to the plants and creatures on the forest floor.
I've tried to weave in a great deal of symbolism and foreshadowing and subtext. For a YA audience, I don't know that they'll pick up on much of it but it's fun to do. I think some YA authors I've read don't give their readers enough opportunity to stretch their minds and reasoning skills.
You say you've had to change the way you do many things because of chronic illness. Learning how to write a novel at 50 for me is like chronic insanity. Now three years into the process I realize this was a life changing decision, all for the good.
After going for my physical yesterday, I am reminded of my weight, blood pressure, not enough excercise, arthritis and other things that have grown out of wack with the years. It is easy to focus on the aw shucks elements and wish Andif could find a picture of that fairy to transform us with a touch of a wand.
I think it is so important to CELEBRATE all your/our effort to keep learning, trying, fighting no matter the reason. If we weren't challenged, each in our own way, we would become complacent and not grow.
As I watch the Olympics I enjoy the vibrance of youth, but for myself, looking at Nancy's porch, hearing about Family Man and others talk about their relaxation time is wonderful too. We have the balance of life that those whipper snappers have no need for. A glass of wine on the porch or a cup of coffee in the morning with friends now that's living.

Beth said...

I'm with Maria - I go back way too often and reread the whole mss -and always find things I need/want to change. Even when I swear to myself that I'm just going to READ this time, NOT mark things to change. That lasts about a page. In fact, I need to go back and read the current one again so I can remember what it's about to write the synopsis (I sure do miss my memory!).

Anyway, morning everyone. Wishing I was on a porch with a cup of coffee somewhere with all of you!

paul lamb said...

Farfetched - I ask this honestly: what can an editor be expected to catch? This would seem to be exactly the kind of thing an editor is for. Or has the industry changed and editing has become a part of the marketing department. Or is there some other understanding of the state of editorship these days?

FARfetched said...

Jen, have you ever fiddled with mind-mapping software? It's kind of like an outline, but more graphical and it lends itself to the kind of world building you're talking about (IMO, of course) where you might go into details that don't make it into the story but provide the foundations for all sorts of backstories and possible side trips.

Back in the 80s, there was a lot of talk about interactive novels, where the reader might choose to follow any of several primary characters, seeing interactions from that character's POV, and even taking side trips down some of the dark alleys that get glossed over or passed by in traditional novels. I'm not aware of any realizations of the concept, partly because on-screen reading can be tedious but more likely because it would take a team of writers a *long* time to complete one. Kind of like how console games require dozens of people working together to produce one.

'Course, that's getting beyond the forest and into national park territory. ;-)

Lisa, to answer your original question, my style would be more like "succession ecology" in which the forest is preceded by grassland, scrub, and so on. Everything hangs on a premise, much like succession starts with a land-clearing event, and things build up organically to the point of the story. Again, this may not be suitable for inclusion in the story, but the characters are certainly aware of some of the backstory that the readers may not be — having that mythos makes them a little more three-dimensional.

FARfetched said...

Whoops, everyone's simul-posting! :-)

Paul, unless the editors can get into your head, or you've provided them a clear Cliff's Notes guidebook to your story, how are they going to know what's a glitch and what's a plot twist?

Sure, something major — like where Ben was the one fantasizing about his neighbor and suddenly Fred is the one — should at least raise a red flag with the editor. But less obvious stuff might get by.

Jen said...

Heh, Lisa, I rarely have to be asked twice to celebrate! ;) (More seriously, I agree with you in the sense that I also view much of life as a plentitude of opportunities for growth and grand adventuring.)

Farf, I have not used that kind of mapping software but I have looked into it. It seems cool and I would almost certainly use it for other sort of projects with lots of elements to keep track of, but as much as has changed about my process, I have always been unable to do first draft creative work any way other than pencil and paper. A computer geek my whole life, I nonetheless still write in notebooks for quite some time before I'm ready to touch a keyboard.

What I'm working on right now, actually, is a giant expanded outline, organized in a linear fashion although not conceived that way, that will [hopefully] eventually serve as a sort of a template for this novel's "true" first draft.

Kimberly Frost said...

When I'm on a roll, I just write, sometimes accruing thousands of words without ever looking back.

When I grind to a halt because I'm not sure where the story goes next, I sometimes go back and read from the beginning, doing some haphazard polishing as I read.

My process seems to be more of a non-process. LOL

Kimberly Frost said...

I should add though that when I feel I'm not hitting the mark, I go back more frequently.

As I was writing the end of TOUCH, every day I had to read and revise what I'd written the day before because humor kept creeping in where it didn't belong.

Action comes more naturally to me than suspense, so I really have to work at getting the tone right and that involves more active editing.

Lisa Miller said...

Farf--Successive ecology-Wow
Fantastic visual for me.
I have a BA in physical geography
so your words are music to this phytogeography (plant geography) geek's ears.

Kimber--I dream of being on that kind of roll. I'm a short spurter.
You probably have either preplanned in your head or are so good at letting the story evolve. I have to do a lot of prewriting before I can go to the keyboard. I am a strong visual learner for me to get it clear in my head I have to write like Jen with pen and paper first.

Now back to the editing. Thanks Nancy & all for indulging me in writer talk!!! Makes the thought of going back to school a LITTLE easier.

boran2 said...

Can't see the forest for the trees, story of my life. ;-)

Hi all.