Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walking, Drifting, and Staying Lost

Alis has a recent post where she talks about walking and thinking about theme, and layering, and fabric--all the big issues. She calls this "helicoptering" over the book. But then she bemoans the narrowing of vision that comes when one arrives back at the keyboard.

I too love walking to think about writing, and it's nice to get the big picture. But I don't come home and sit down until I've narrowed back in on the scene I need to write. It's good to see the forest, but to write I have to get back down to the trees, and then to the leaves, and then to the pumping osmotic pressure in the veins in the leaves, and I don't sit at the keyboard until the big picture has been replaced by the twitchy obsession to write a particular bit.

I don't even try to remember why I'm writing the scene--I just remember the general idea and the atmosphere and effect I'm striving for. I don't try to remember the big picture while I'm writing. I just trust that it made sense while I was out walking, and that now I have to sit down and do the little task at hand...and pray that my subconscious, instead of wandering out into the yard and snapping at flying insects, hangs around to furnish me with the thematic underpinnings, symbols, subtext, and all that jazz.

I'm sure some people can be deep into a scene and also be consciously aware of all the subtle interconnections of the elements of the scene with all the levels of the book as a whole. There are also people who can tap dance while playing a musical instrument and simultaneously juggling plates. More power to them, but I am not in the ranks of either of those groups.

When I'm writing, I am deep down in my burrow, working in the dark in a very small space on some tiny little problem, and I fear to pop my head up into the sunshine because I'm certain some predator's claws or jaws are waiting for me. For me, while at the keyboard, the big picture is sure death.

So I walk to look at the big picture, but zoom in before I get back to my desk. The only problem comes when I can't zoom in on the scene that needs to happen next. This can result in what Pooh would call Some Very Long Walks.

You know those people who walk or jog across continents, or around the world? I'd guess some of them are novelists who can't pin down the next scene.

Of course, lately I can't do the big picture or the small. So I haven't been walking.

I've done some whacking at plants with garden shears, though. I think of it as editing the botany in our yard.


Tim Stretton said...

When I'm writing a scene I don't think about 'themes' or anything higher-level. What I'm trying to achieve is to make a scene that works in logistical terms: is the characters' behaviour consistent with what we've seen before, is the location fully realised? etc.

Indeed, I'd argue that I don't put themes into my books at all. Maybe my unconscious does, but in general I leave that to the reader. If you write a story with believable characters interacting in believable ways, the themes are already there.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm all about the theme, even when working on the small detail. While reworking my current novel, I've ended up changing from one theme to another, and am now writing new action and putting in imagery into old scenes to reflect that. It's a weird challenge, and I've no idea if it will work yet. Probably not, but it's a great exercise if nothing else.

I can't play the piano and sing at the same time, though.

Creative A said...

"I don't even try to remember why I'm writing the scene--I just remember the general idea and the atmosphere and effect I'm striving for. I don't try to remember the big picture while I'm writing."

That sounds like a very smart idea. Unfortunately for me, after I go helicoptering, I can't zoom in until the next day. So I only do that sort of thing when I'm deeply blocked or out of it or something.

I have a very hard time zooming into scenes, with this novel. No matter how hard I try to get into the mood and figure out exactly what I want to write for those moments, I can't really figure it out until I start writing. When I finish, I finally know what I need to say, and I rewrite it the next day.

I'm keeping like 23% of everything I write these days.


Sam Taylor said...

For short stories, I find that if I don't do some prep work -- writing down a list of possible themes and images and different connections and ideas -- then my work is very shallow and stays on the surface. And sometimes the story or the action dies part way through.

But shorts have to have a laser-like focus. Novels -- well, I'm not really happy with my finished novels yet, so I don't feel qualified to say.

Usman said...

I started my WIP with a definite theme. Now after upteen revisions, the theme is gone, the original one. Its been replaced by a story that focuses on a different theme, IMO.
I think, I've got a better story in the end BUT I'm not entirely happy with this waywardness.

lorrie porter said...

My themes tend to be based on an emotion which acts as a central support to the whole story. When I'm writing, though, I like to get into the physicality of the scene. I also try and keep hold of my scene goals, but they can be slippery things at times.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

When I'm well into a book, I find myself worrying about all manner of amorphous, high-level things, including technical things like pace and balance. But I can't really think about any of that while I'm writing.

As to "theme"--well that's another post.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Whatever it is that you do, it seems to work out quite well. So you should keep doing it.

Like you, I can't play the piano and sing. But for me, thinking about all those other issues while writing a scene is more like trying to play the clarinet while singing.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

Well, that's why my my walks get so long sometimes. If I've been noodling around in the Big Stuff, I keep on going until I get back down to ground level and am so involved in at least of few details of the scene that I've got a glimmering of moments I'm excited about, and even have the opening phrases running through my head. Probably makes me walk funny.

If I've been thinking about overarching issues, I rush to the keyboard again until it feels urgent--to put it crudely, it needs to feel as if my writerly bladder if full and needs to be emptied!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

I'm not a short-story writer, and the few times I've tried the form the story has tended to try to turn itself into a novel.

But one thing about the short story--or so I'm told--is that you can hold the big picture in your head. Novels tend to be places where the writer gets lost (and some of us start out without maps anyway).

Short stories need to be damn near perfect, simply because they can be. John Gardner argued that when a novel works as perfectly on all levels as a good short story, it tends to have a contrived and lifeless feeling--something that feels too neat and designed.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Usman--

I wouldn't worry about it. I think it's common for novelists to discover what the book is really about while writing it. Or even in the second or third draft!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Lorrie--

Talking about "scene goals" does make it sound rather cut-and-dried, doesn't it?

Poe talked about a "totality of effect" that a good short story or poem ought to have, and I think scenes are like that, too. But we don't have a vocabulary for the kinds of effects we want to get from a scene, because they are multidimensional effects. A lot of it is emotion, but we often want the reader to not only feel combinations of emotions, but to sense a change in pace, and to absorb certain information, or catch an element that involves foreshadowing...