Today, I want to talk about some advice I received in art classes, and how it applies to writing.
I took a lot of art classes as a teenager. When painting a portrait, I would take time to get the nose exactly right before moving on to the lips or the eye.
Walking around the classroom, the art teacher would tell us, “Don’t get precious.”
He was advising us not to do exactly what I was doing.
Don’t fixate on some little detail. Don’t fall in love with the nose you’re drawing, or the eye, and forget about the rest of the picture.
But for a long time, I ignored this advice. I wanted to get the nose exactly right!
Here’s the problem with my approach. When I tried to build a portrait one piece at a time — first a perfect nose, then perfect lips, then the eye — the result was a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. Each facial feature was lovingly painted, but the parts of the painting didn’t flow together.
Eventually, I learned that it worked better to build up a painting in layers.
First I just blocked in areas of color, proportions. Then I gradually built up forms, working across the whole canvas until finally I got to the little details.
Then I would try to get the nose exactly right.
So, how does this apply to fiction writing?
Different writers work differently. Some writers prefer to work at the sentence level, getting each sentence exactly right before moving on to the next. But for many writers, this doesn’t work.
Working this way, it is very easy to lose track of the whole story.
You might end up with some excellent sentences, but they never come to life as a fictional world.
You have a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a story — dead pieces stuck together.
Instead, you can try building the story up in layers.
First, you sketch in the main dialogue and action, and descriptive details that occur to you, working quickly to avoid losing the flow.
Once you’ve laid everything out, you take a look to see what you have. And then you fine-tune draft by draft, gradually adding depth and surface highlights until you have a three-dimensional world.
I think that beginning writers are often frustrated because they try to accomplish everything in the first draft.
Then they compare their results to stories they admire, and their own work feels flat or clumsy in comparison.
What they don’t realize is that they’re comparing their first drafts to stories that have been built up in layers through multiple drafts.
The first draft of those stories were probably flat and clumsy too.
And in the same way, the authors they admire have built their skills over the years by writing story after story.
The process isn’t always pretty. You have to be willing to take some risks, to draw some bold lines, to make a mess.
Keep your eye on the big picture. Don’t get precious.
All the best,
Creative Writing Now