Break it down

Most of what I write is microfiction, stories under a thousand words. Five years ago, the prospect of writing a whole novel was daunting, almost unthinkable.

Today I have a completed first draft of one novel, the bones of a second, and I’m working on the third draft of The Swan Harp. There’s going to be a fourth one, inevitably, when this third version comes back from my readers. I feel confident about my ability to handle it.

When I look back on the novel drafts, it’s an overwhelming amount of work. So how did I manage it? It’s all about focus.

Instead of overwhelming myself with the whole project, I work on small pieces of it. I don’t think about the whole story, but about this scene, and how I can make it as real to my reader as it is to me.

This is warrior work, too. Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great set out to conquer the whole of the known world; while they were at it you can bet they were taking care of a number of small things along the way. World domination is all very well, but if your horse picks up a stone, you’d better look after it here and now.

The big picture is important, yes. The details are equally important, and the details can only be taken care of by diligent, focused attention. A warrior who doesn’t keep an eye on her opponent’s moves is going to be in trouble in very short order. The grand design is fine, and worth thinking about when you’re not in the thick of things, but when you are, it’s what’s in front of you (and maybe just to the side, getting ready to take a swing) that needs your attention now.

Currently I’m writing between 500 and 900 words a day on The Swan Harp. While I’m doing that, I’m immersed in the world. I see the landscape around me and hear my characters’ voices. I know where they are in a scene in relation to each other, and what they’re doing. I fall into it so thoroughly now that when I finish a scene and come up for air, my own world sometimes looks a little strange to me.

That didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of long work on small details, knowing that the way my protagonist looks, or which direction the river flows, is an important part of the story. I built it slowly and patiently. All right, maybe not really patiently, because I”m not a patient person, but I did it.

The warrior writer can conquer any world, complete any project. It’s only a matter of breaking it down into what needs to be done here, now, and giving it that focused attention.

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