Think Big. Write Small.

My alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, launched a branding campaign a few years ago that featured the tagline, “Think Big. We Do.” When it comes to fiction writing, the “think big” approach has great appeal, but it’s a double-edged sword. Writers want to write about big things: universal themes, stakes that matter, larger-than-life characters, wars, planets colliding, magic.

However, I believe some writers, especially novices, would do well to “think small.” Huh? You might be thinking I’ve lost my mind. Why should you as a writer limit yourself when the world is your canvass?

Let me share a cautionary tale. When I launched my “starter novel” in 1997, I yearned to write a big novel, grand in scope and concept. It was a story about baseball and politics, two of my passions. This story had everything: murder, kidnapping, extortion, political machinations. And it was terrible. I didn’t know enough about the craft. I got caught up in the giddiness of telling this big, complicated story. I figured if I piled on enough plot twists, mayhem and upheaval, I would have a runaway bestseller on my hands. It doesn’t work that way. I forgot about some important fundamentals, like story structure, character development, and theme. It was one 300-page, far-flung mess that will never see the light of day.

My second attempt at a novel was equally futile, though I had the wisdom to pull the plug a lot sooner. It was a political novel that I abandoned after 150 pages when I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate. It hit me then that Klein’s novel was exactly the kind of story I was trying to write, except that I lacked his skill, experience and knowledge.

At that point, I took stock. I didn’t even think about writing a novel for three years. I wrote some short stories and took part in my critique group. The fire to write a novel still burned in me, though. So I asked myself some hard questions:

Why did my first two novels fail?

Was it the subject matter? The story? The characters?

Was I just not that good?

These led to a tough self-diagnosis and then it hit me. These were the wrong questions. What I needed to figure out was this:

What do I really want to write about?

In pondering that question, I thought about what I liked to read and why. At the time I was reading Alice McDermott’s masterpiece, Charming Billy. I had read nearly every Anne Tyler novel and most of Alice Munro’s work. And that’s when it hit me. I knew what I wanted to write about: families in crisis. I didn’t write anything right away, but I waited for an idea to take hold. Two years later, I came up with the idea for Small Change. It was, pardon the pun, a small idea and a small story. I wanted to write about one family and their struggle to keep from falling apart. But I soon discovered I needed a second family that was the opposite of that family. And the two families would become connected in some way and there would be family secrets and the bonds would fray. For the first time, I was writing with passion. There are no spaceships or wizards or battles or vampires in this story. No hocus pocus. No kidnappings or murders. And it’s the best story I’ve ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Think Big. Write Small.

  1. Hear, hear!
    I was a kid wanting to write another Lord of the Rings… when luckily I happened to read The Stones of Shannara before I’d invested too much time into it, and found that hey, Terry Brooks wanted to do what I wanted to do, and had already gotten closer to it than I knew I could. From then on, I stayed away from the epic, wrote shorter stories and poetry, and finally knew I was ready to plunge into a novel, again. I’m writing my fifth, now.

    • Mari,
      Thanks for sharing your insights. I think this is a common mistake for newer writers. They have grand ideas, but don’t know enought about the craft. If I had it to do over again, I would have read more “craft” books, but then again I probably still would’ve written a couple of dreadful “starter novels.” You just have to get the bad writing out of your system and that’s how you learn as a writer. Thanks again.

    • Mari,
      Thanks for sharing your insights. I think this is a common mistake for newer writers. They have grand ideas, but don’t know enought about the craft. If I had it to do over again, I would have read more “craft” books, but then again I probably still would’ve written a couple of dreadful “starter novels.” You just have to get the bad writing out of your system and that’s how you learn as a writer. Thanks again.

  2. I realized, after trying and failing to write a novel many times, that maybe I should just stick to short stories until I had an idea that was worthy of a novel. Most of the ideas I had for novels worked better as short stories, anyway. That was a revelation.

    • John,
      Thanks for your comments. I like writing short stories, too, but it is challenging because every word has to count. I find it somewhat confining, but a good discipline. Thanks again.

      Chris

  3. And I am so glad you wrote about that family — for I loved reading about them!

  4. Thanks CG,
    Glad to hear you persevered and found some success in your writing. I like the idea of think big, write small – it’s the first time I’ve heard it put like that. Reminds me of Hemingway and his ability to tell grand human tales in simple prose. On the other side I do enjoy a book that thinks small and writes big – takes simple human experiences and writes them in galvanic heart-palpitating prose, like Thomas Wolfe writing about relatively simple concepts but occossionally one single paragraph can change your life.
    Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comments. I think it’s a mistake that beginning writers tend to make. They want to write big stories, but they haven’t learned the craft yet. So they concoct some grandeose plot and the story collapses because there’s no structure or characterization. Hemingway is a great examaple of a writer who tackles big subjects, but through the lens of a simple story with spare prose. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for your comments. I think it’s a mistake that beginning writers tend to make. They want to write big stories, but they haven’t learned the craft yet. So they concoct some grandeose plot and the story collapses because there’s no structure or characterization. Hemingway is a great examaple of a writer who tackles big subjects, but through the lens of a simple story with spare prose. Thanks again.

  5. I had a great comment all typed up, it was extremely broad and covered pretty much everything you could ever know about our present day culture. And then, wordpress ate it. Too bad… guess I’ll save it for my next Great American Novel.

    This is such a very insightfull post here. We often squelch our own voices by trying to please too many ears! Writing needs to come from our own perspective, and be the story that we want to tell. Not something we’d like to tell; but something that needs telling.

    All the best!

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