Forest, Meet Trees

27 October 2017 on Blog, Storystorm   Tags: ,

As a writer, I feel like I am constantly working on multiple levels. I am deeply involved on a language level, working to create music, working to string together words that sound beautiful. For those of us easily seduced by language (and aren’t we all?), it is tempting to become engrossed in this level at the expense of everything else. We run the risk of crafting beautiful sentences that don’t match the meaning we are trying to achieve, of juxtaposing words in ways that are interesting but not authentic to the piece.

Even as I wrestle with the language-level choices writers face, I am also trying to fix in my mind the fundamental big picture of the story I am trying to tell—who the character is, what the character wants, what happens, what major change occurs, and so on. Writers of fiction return to these questions religiously, working to maintain clarity amidst a bevy of distractions. If all else fails, we hammer out the answers in their barest possible form.

When stories fail, I suspect it is often at least partly the result of the balance being off between these two elements. A writer carried away with language may be left with beautiful writing that lacks clarity.  A writer who focuses solely on the big picture of a story may be left with a clearly-told story that doesn’t sing.

As I plunge into revising my latest mess of beautiful language, I am developing a theory: Successful revision requires writers to constantly move back and forth between forest and trees, balancing macro and micro, subtly tying the big picture back into the language, crafting the language to fit the big picture, and so on. Revision (literally, “re-vision” or re-seeing) demands a careful eye, not just on the story as a cohesive, complete unit, but also on all the minute interlocked elements that comprise it. It is an exercise in seeing multiple things at the same time.

But I don’t believe it’s possible to truly separate language and meaning, any more than it’s possible to separate forests and trees. In a well-crafted story, every detail, every image, every unexpected or cleverly-chosen word illuminates the big-picture meaning within that story. The challenge of learning to see both the macro and the micro in drafts—especially when they seem so inextricably interwoven in finished stories—is considerable. But if we weren’t up for a challenge, we probably wouldn’t be writers in the first place.

Kaely Horton is Barnstorm's fiction editor.

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