Are You a Big Picture or a Little Picture Writer?

Frame_picture_gold_263287_lDo you like working with the tiny details or the grand sweep of things in your writing?

I'm in LA, visiting my dear friend Suzanne, researching some locations for my next novel, and launching into the edits for Emma Jean.  This combination of work has me thinking about little picture writing and big picture writing.

Little picture writing = Edits for Emma Jean (the tiny things like approving comma changes and so on).  You could include specific details, description, scenes and final polishing.

Big picture writing = Scouting and visualizing locations for the next novel.  It might also translate as theme, premise, character motivation, and story.

See the difference?

Little picture writing encompasses all the little beats and details that, taken together, create a novel.  The truth is, novel writing is a back and forth process between the little and the big.  You write dialogue between two main characters and realize that what you just wrote impacts the theme.  You tinker with a scene near the beginning of the book, tightening and honing it, and see that what you just did impacts everything that follows it, all the way to the end.

It's important to be able to think both big picture and little picture, though most people are more comfortable with one mode or the other.  (I'm a big picture gal myself.)  Because if you can't think big picture, you're going to have trouble coming up with an overarching structure for the novel.  And if you can't think little picture, you're going to struggle with writing scenes that make the reader feel like she's there.

Anne Lamott, in her writing classic Bird by Bird, tells of keeping a small picture frame on her desk.  If she flounders in her writing, she picks up the frame and peers through it, reminding herself that all she needs to write about is what she can see through that frame.  This is a great reminder for writers.  And yet, you need to keep the big picture in mind, too.  You need to be able to write the little picture that you see through that frame while keeping the big picture firmly in mind.

It's really not that hard, and I think its good for you, because I'm pretty sure it engages the whole brain.  But if you battle with big picture writing, remember this: it's really just a bunch of little picture writing strung together.  And if you struggle with little picture writing, ponder the following: it's really just the big picture divided into portions.

I'm simplifying wildly, of course.  But that's because more and more these days I'm seeing that what this writing game is about is just writing.  Clearing away the worry and the obsessing and the advice and the critiquing and just writing.

Which is the hardest thing of all to do.

So, tell me.  Are you more comfortable with the big picture or the little picture?

If you do struggle with writing novels, you might be interested in my Get Your Novel Written Now class which begins next week.  In four weeks you'll be raring to go!  Check out the page with more information here.

Photo by melodi2.


12 Responses to Are You a Big Picture or a Little Picture Writer?

  1. Don 08/06/2012 at 17:15 #

    Good points, and as far as this guy goes, Little Picture Writing at times is a big bore for me, but totally necessary for sure…. but really not all that exciting. Big Picture Writing, on the other hand, is the really fun part…. engaging your imagination as you try to create a fun, exciting world where you want to escape to, rather than the ho-hum, but real everyday real world from which we often seek to escape from.

  2. Zan Marie 08/06/2012 at 17:22 #

    Little Picture Writing helps me focus on the job at hand. Occasionally, I step back and look at the Big Picture. The beauty of this is it’s not either/or, it’s both at different times.

  3. Charlotte Dixon 08/06/2012 at 17:28 #

    You're a man after my own heart, Don, for sure.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 08/06/2012 at 17:28 #

    "It's both at different times."  Well said, Zan Marie.

  5. J.D. 08/07/2012 at 04:15 #

    I think I am too much big picture. I tell the big story, so my resulting manuscript invariably ends up at about 60k. And the pacing is all the same. I have to work on little picturing the areas where I want the reader to focus, the important scenes. Like I know what the hell I’m talking about.

  6. Charlotte Dixon 08/07/2012 at 08:05 #

    I think you know exactly what you're talking about, J.D.  Sounds to me like you have a really good idea of what you need to do.  I often see that in manuscripts I read–everything is weighted the same, leaving the reader wondering what's really important.  And, that's the kind of thing that comes out in successive drafts, after you've gotten the big picture work done.

  7. Fear of Writing 08/07/2012 at 11:14 #

    I don’t know which one I am, to be honest. I do know I’m an overwriter – I have to write absolutely everything as it occurs to me, and then go back later and hone it down.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 08/07/2012 at 11:31 #

    That's interesting, Milli, because so often people are the opposite, with their first drafts being sketchy and outline-ish.  I imagine your approach is like having an embarrassment of riches to deal with.  I love it!

  9. Karen Phillips 08/08/2012 at 08:19 #

    I think I am a little of both. I lose time when I start editing something and don’t seem to get as overwhelmed as I do when I try to take in the whole scope of the story. I do enjoy getting to know characters and the places they live and find myself lost in thought about characters, setting, and theme. But,I WORRY over the big picture,especially the characters and their actions, so the editing gives me a break.

  10. Charlotte Dixon 08/08/2012 at 08:37 #

    You're fortunate to be so balanced in your approach to writing.  Well, except for the worrying part.  I think if you're going to worry, the big picture is where to focus it.

  11. Sandra / Always Well Within 08/09/2012 at 13:30 #

    This is such a great exploration! I’m just beginning to get the feel for this with the tiny amount of memoir writing I’ve done. At first, I was thinking little/big picture meant the difference between writing scenes (little) and summary (big) and I’m better at the latter. However, I see you mean creating the whole picture by big and this I’m just beginning to learn. It’s fun and I appreciate the differentiation you’ve made here.

  12. Charlotte Dixon 08/09/2012 at 14:59 #

    Thanks, Sandra, I'm so glad that it was helpful.  And, I believe that writing scenes is a learned skill for sure.  Most people start out much better at writing summary because that's what we're used to.

Leave a Reply