Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It’s Thursday and I want to talk about a particular experience I had over the last month or so that is relevant to my current editing goals.

In December of last year I was doing my best to hit my daily goal of words written, because I had a novel I wanted to finish and a year of writing to smash to pieces. I was successful at both of those, but right there in the middle of it all I had some random inspiration and wrote a short story.

I haven’t posted the short story on the blog, nor have I submitted it anywhere for publication consideration yet. Part of that is that the story isn’t ready yet.

The other part is that – while I was writing this story – I thought it was possibly the greatest thing I’d ever written. My writer brain had convinced itself that I was writing the short story that would somehow make me famous.

That is, of course, ludicrous. I know that, but my brain wouldn’t let me see it. That is, until I went to sleep and read the story the next day. THEN my writer brain fell from its artificial pedestal and cracked its skull open on the realization that I had not, in fact, written the greatest thing I had ever written. Instead, that next day I was convinced that I had written a terrible story that made no sense whatsoever and was being awfully pretentious without any kind of payoff. The mere thought of the story depressed me, and knowing I thought it was amazing 24 hours before was making it worse.

So I shoved it into a dark hole for a while where I didn’t have to think about it. Once the year was over and I had just a little bit of distance from this wretched homunculus, I pulled it from its scabrous cavern and tried to see it without either lens I had previously viewed it.

And I was mostly successful. Where I was looking at the details before and seeing only brilliance followed by looking only at the big picture and seeing only nonsense and terribleness, I was now able to look at it from both perspectives a bit easier.

Yes, it had some REALLY good stuff in it. It also had some really bad stuff in it. So I started to tinker. I cut words, I added some new ones. I eventually extracted an entire scene that wasn’t working. I tightened the whole thing up. This took a couple weeks of occasional tinkering, twenty minutes here, an hour there, five minutes way over there.

For such a short story (it’s only 1,500 words), I was spending what felt like enormous amounts of time poking at it and making little or no progress.

Eventually I just had to put it somewhere and ask for some advice from other writers/editors that I know. I had seen the forest for the trees and I hadn’t. I was in a place where I couldn’t tell if the story was any good anymore.

And I got some really good advice from several people that helped me to get on track. Who were able to reassure me of some of the things I was worrying over, and pointing out other things I hadn’t even thought about. And after it is all said and done, that advice and those thoughts will have made my story stronger, tighter, better.

Being your own first editor is essential no matter where in your career you are. But having other people to give you a hand can get you past the hurdles that your brain is throwing up.

You’ve got to be able to see the big picture AND the details that help make up the big picture.

And you’ve gotta remember to write the hell on.

3 thoughts on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees

  1. Rick, you just described my overall writing experience. Since I aspire to mainly write short stories, I spend enormous amounts of time tinkering and fixing these seemingly docile things. It’s almost as if good short stories are harder to write than longer ones–or even micro-fictions, which can look good because you plop down 100 words or less.

    I have about 15 stories I’ve written over the past 2 years. They are all in some stage of editing (or just not even finished yet–in some cases not even written yet). I’ve only shared a few with other writers, since the others are just incomplete. But the ones I have shared with writers, those have promise. I try to make it regularly to a local critique group, and that has yielded the best results. Another person I send stuff to is a former college professor. One of his comments actually encouraged me when he wrote back saying, “It’s not at all bad.” From him, that was a sign that my writing was improving.

    I can’t speak for others, but for me, at this stage of the game, I just can’t see myself writing well without some wise feedback from a trained eye.

    • Yup. Before you can write well, you have to write. The more you understand about the process of writing and editing, the more capable you are of seeing the obvious problems in your own writing.

      Regarding the time investment of short stories, I think you’re partially correct. Because you have so much less space (in words) to tell your story, you have to be really economic with those words. Where you have some leeway with longer works (from a reader’s perspective) to only have words and sentences pushing on one aspect of story (character, plot, conflict, description, etc.), those same words need to be doing two or three things simultaneously. In that way, you have to really drill down to make every single word count in a short story.

      That’s true of long fiction (novellas and novels, series, etc.) as well, but it’s not AS true for the market, I think.

      I’m glad you’re making progress, Gene! Critique groups can be a great thing and I’m glad you’ve found some that are helpful to you. I rely mostly on informal online groups to get my feedback, but in person feedback is really great. It also teaches you a lot about how to take constructive criticism without becoming a petulant child, which is definitely a thing that happens for every level of writer.

      Good luck on your short stories! My Thursday posts may be of more help to you this year than my Motivationals from last year, since they’ll be focused more on editing and craft of writing outside of the initial writing.

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