Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Big Picture

A dozen years had passed since my first novel came out, and for the benefit of a group of students I was launching into my spiel of how the book came to be, a preemptive response to the inevitable question of where writers get their ideas.  A nice little narrative: how a bush pilot dropped me on a tundra airstrip, how at the school there was a boy who was angry, how I created a fictional angry boy for a story and then wrote the book around the story, to tell what happened before and after the boy falls through the ice.  In describing the real-life boy, I recalled for my audience a time when he and one of the teachers had chased each other around a table in the classroom. 

Then I read as I often do from the part where the boy nearly dies, where he breaks through a frozen lake and barely gets out and then gets lost. I read the words I’d written, revised, and proofed who knows how many times, and I did a double-take.  He found himself back where he had started, at the gaping hole in the lake ice, an angry circle that mirrored the angry circle he’d trod in the snow.  

Running circles around a classroom table. The angry circle in the ice.  How had I missed that connection all these years?

A handy example, now that the “duh” moment finally presented itself, of how the subconscious works, how a real-life image wiggles its way into a narrative.  But also an opportunity lost, because had I been paying better attention, I might have done more with the circle motif.  It might have shown me new ways of thinking about my novel. It might have led to more depth, to a richer and fuller big picture.

Letimotiv, or theme, is one of six areas of macro-editing noted by author Susan Bell in The Artful Edit.  Micro-editing, at the word and sentence level, is where we typically gravitate when it’s time to revise.  Micro-editing is tidy.  You look at small chunks. There are rules. Macro-editing – concern with the “big picture” - is tougher.  The big picture is hard to see, and it’s messy.

Of the six macro-editing concerns Bell identifies, leitmotiv or theme is by definition one of the toughest to nail down.  “A theme is not a message,” she says. “It is an idea written in invisible ink on the backside of your text…A leitmotiv should not speak so much as resonate.” 

At its best, the big picture is discovered, not imposed.  When I began expanding that tundra adventure story into a novel, I soon saw that it would be about cultural conflict and forgiveness.  Had I paid more attention, had I more consciously macro-edited before whisking it off to my editor, I might have noticed the circle motif, and I more deliberately explored its implications – the spiraling effect of cultural misunderstandings, for instance, or the way blame circles back on the victim. 

The novel works, and it was well-received.  But it could have been more. These days I’m paying better attention.  Hey you. Staring at the screen. This word you keep repeating.  That’s me, your subconscious, trying to get you to see the big picture.