Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why Looking at the “Big Picture” Can Be Bad

I'd like to welcome fantasy author Lisa Shearin to the blog today.  She's here to remind us that sometimes, it's better to think small.

Lisa is the author of the national bestselling fantasy adventure series featuring Raine Benares, a finder of things lost and people missing. The series began with Magic Lost Trouble Found, and continued with Armed & Magical, The Trouble With Demons, Bewitched & Betrayed, Con & Conjure  and All Spell Breaks Loose, which will hit bookstore shelves in 2012.

Take it away Lisa...

 It’s something that every writer has to wrestle with — taking a book one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time. Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don’t have the whole book in our heads when we finish. They think that it’s all there, we write it down and we’re done. Don’t I wish.

Some of us (like myself) prefer to work with an outline. I’ve discovered that I like to work with a VERY detailed outline. Of course, I can change it (and I always do), but I know it’s there like a security blanket. Other brave souls come up with an idea and just strike out on their own, no outline, no nothing — they feel that to write anything down would sully the creative process. Most authors are somewhere in between. But all of us have one thing in common: we all have to write our books one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.

I absolutely MUST work this way. While of course I have my outline, when I’m actually doing the writing I have to force myself not to think much beyond the one moment in that scene that I’m writing. When the sheer enormity of what I have to accomplish pushes its way into my thoughts, my poor little brain just shortcircuits — actually it panics. How am I going to get from here to there? Oh crap, I forgot to include that character. Do I really need that character? Should I save him and his subplot for the next book? How is that subplot ever going to fit in? In short, I try to do what I don’t think any author can do — have the entire thing in your head at one time. It’s kinda like looking at deep space pictures from the Hubble telescope. Your jaw drops open at just how vast the universe is. The same is true (on a much smaller scale) of your books’ universe. It’s just too big to comprehend all at once.

And when you do that, you lose the immediacy of the sentences you’re writing, the intimacy between the characters in that scene. You lose that emotional human (or elf or goblin) touch. The realness of two people who care about each other, or hate each other, or one is about to betray the other—their intimacy/connection/animosity is lost unless you immerse yourself in their moment, get into their minds, and understand what they’re feeling. Only then can you accurately convey your characters’ emotions and make the words come to life on the page—one sentence, one scene, one chapter at a time.


  1. I've had to repeat this to myself a lot over the years. I agree, it's so easy to get caught up in the need to make the overall story the best it can be that you forget it's the smaller, intimate details that really draw a reader in and make them love a character or story.

  2. Thank you, Paul.

    And thank you, Janice, for inviting me to guest post -- you're the best!


  3. Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don’t have the whole book in our heads when we finish.

    Lisa, I laughed so hard at this quote - I'm finishing up a first draft at the moment and was alarmed at how little sense the Whole Thing made in my head. Then I read this and thought 'At least I'm not alone!'

    For me, the most enjoyable part of writing is always the moment-to-moment probing of the characters - do they smoke? How much tea do they drink? What expression passes over each face as this is said? For me, that's where the discovery is, and that's where the fun is.

    Great post, thanks!

  4. Very encouraging post. I don't think I could hear these things often enough -- thanks.

  5. Your post is informational, inspirational and comforting! You nailed it...the panic AND the solution. Thank you!!!

  6. Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Lisa. It's a very good point that if we spend too much time thinking on the large-scale we can lose track of the small. But it's the small that keeps us reading! Wonderful post.

  7. Thank you, everyone! I love being able to help. : )

    BTW -- I write a bi-monthly column for The Writer magazine on topics like this, if you're interested.


  8. Thanks so much for stopping by today, Lisa! I'm an outliner myself. That's so true what you said about immediacy. As soon as I lose where I was going, or don't know where I'm headed, the immediacy drops to nil. But as long as I know where I'm going, I can keep things interesting.

  9. Great post and follow up comments. I'm trying the outlining approach but am going to try not to get locked in to the outline. And Lisa, I love your series.

  10. The nice part about outlining, structuring, beat-sheeting or whatever you call you plan is it enables you to see your entire story in whatever level of detail you desire at that particular moment.

    Do an adaquate plan so you have the data you need for the scene -- mission, which characters, and other notes -- BEFORE you even start pounding the keys.

    That way, you don't even have to think about where you're going, what needs to happen and all that high-level stuff. You're free to let even more of your artistic creativeness loose.

    It's the difference between a marathon with no map or directions or one with every turn marked. Betcha the one with the turns marked runs a lot faster since it has fewer distractions.

    Now go write something great.

  11. One Scene at a time is the concept for all of us@! I seriously doubt, if someone conjures up the entire book in their head first and then start writing!!!

    Thanks for posting about this stuff!!

    with warm regards

  12. Thanks Lisa it's always good to find that we are not alone in the many different ways that we write. One sentence is sometimes all we need to be able to move on to the next and so on. I so enjoy posts like this and especially the comments, the give me great insight and knowledge that maybe my way of doing it isn't necessarily wrong.

    Thanks again