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.