Don't Forget the Detail

There is only one place where I never forget to look up: cathedrals. Like in York Minster, where the photo to the left was taken. Cathedrals are something special, something so ornate that to ignore the detail that has been painstakingly etched into it, is to ignore the very essence of the building itself. 

Novels are like that. To only look at the big picture, i.e., the plot, we ignore so much of the ornate detail that has been painstakingly placed between the covers by the author. So much of a novel is not the plot, but the characters and their personalities, the setting, the descriptions...it’s much more than the big picture.

When you write a novel, I think you should be concerned with the big picture. If the big picture is blurry, then the novel ultimately fails. However, I think too many authors forget that the entire picture is composed of many different, and smaller, things. In a picture, if there is poor lighting, dull colors or no contrast, and too little texture...the picture is not worth looking at for long. 

Lighting, contrast, and texture are equivalent to character development and minor characters, setting and description. If the characters are underdeveloped, if description is lacking, no matter the plot, the story is hardly worth reading. And if you do make it through to the end, then it’s probably not a novel that will stick with you for long.

The challenge, as an author, is to not perfect the big picture and think that you’re done, or that everything else is perfect because the plot is strong. Yet you also cannot get bogged down with the little things at the expense of the big picture. If you focus too much on the details, the overall plot begins to suffer. 

An author must balance many, many things in writing a novel, but perhaps grasping the importance of details is the greatest. A strong character can carry a weak plot, but a strong plot cannot carry a weak character.


Method in Writing

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.". - (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II).

Of late, it seems there’s more madness to my writing than method. 

Every time I think that I have my novel figured out, some new idea occurs to me that sounds better than the last. If I made every change in my novel that I had thought up, I’d never finish. Which leads me to my question: Is writing method or madness?

It appears that there are two general approaches to writing: outlining and “pantsing.” Usually, I fall into the latter category. I have, of course, attempted the outlining. Outlining is difficult for me, and I always stray from my outline when I write. 

I find outlining, in many ways, too confining. If I were to restrict myself to following an outline, I would never find out other things about my characters. When I write, my characters constantly are revealing more about themselves to me, and constantly changing my perception of them. If I were to keep to the outline, some of my best scenes would never have gotten written.

After many failed outlines, I have come to accept that I find outlines restricting, and recognize that I do not have to outline. When I write, my characters lead me down the path that they have already chosen, and my attempts to outline their paths merely constrains them. 

However, in the same sense, I have found much value in outlining. My outlines usually occur after I have written the first draft. I outline the draft in progress, which helps me to identify what is not working in the draft and realize what I need to work on. In this sense, outlining has proven valuable to me.

I cannot argue that the method of outlining has merit: when you write with an outline, you know your goal, your end result. When you write with without an outline, you waste a lot of time writing scenes that are often tangents. Writing without an outline certainly seems like madness. 

But even when I do not outline, I find that I need to know where I am headed with my novel--even if in just the most general, abstract of sense. If you start with no idea other than a character, you cannot expect to end up with a novel that anyone would want to read. So I follow an abbreviated outlining method, which consists of me knowing just the most general sense of the change in the character I want to show throughout the novel and knowing the end result of the book.

Yet, if you outline, you must allow that outline to be flexible and fluid, changing with your characters and with the novel as it progresses. 

There is both method and madness to writing. You must be able to see the value of outlining and writing according to plan, with a method, while utilizing the madness of writing with abandon, with no outline, with only your character to drag you along. There is both method and madness, but it is up to you to embrace them both.


What Makes Someone an Author?

This is a question that I've turned over and over in my mind. Round and round I go, debating what makes an author.

Do you have to be published? Be querying with a finished novel? Have an agent? 

I have finally decided, no, to all of the above. Having an agent, having a finished novel and querying agents with it, being published...all those may make you an author, but not having those does not make you any less of an author.

Admittedly, it sounds pretentious to introduce yourself as an author. Thereafter follows those embarrassing conversations that go something like this: “Oh, what have you written?” “Um...I’m not published yet.” Weird look, awkward silence. “Oh. Okay then. That’s cool.” 

As a result, I never introduce myself as an author when you are still unpublished. Still, that is what I consider myself, in my heart of hearts. Yet admitting to it in public feels...unbelievably awkward. It’s as though I’m exposing my most private thoughts, and most personal hopes and dreams.

I am not published. I wish I were, but I am not. Yet every day, I get up and write. Every day, I have a plan to write something--even if it’s just one word or editing something I wrote earlier. Every day, if there is honestly not time for me to sit down and write, I am still thinking about writing. I am viewing the world through an author’s eyes, and imagining how the inspiration before me can fit into my work in progress or inspire a new work. I cannot get through one day without thinking something writerly. 

Every day, I make myself into an author. Every day, I renew my commitment to be a writer. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline. But I want that finished project, I want the end result. I have a passion for writing that cannot be written out. I cannot not write.

Even if I never become a published author, I know this: I am a writer.

What makes you a writer? Do you disagree with my analysis? Do you think you aren’t an author until you’re published?