Aim Small, Miss Small

autumn grass, Snoqualmie FallsSo a friend told me each time I lined up a shot on the pool table.

What he meant was don’t just target the cue ball. Pick a specific point on the surface where I want to leave a chalk mark. And choose a specific point on the ball I’m aiming to sink. Know exactly where I want the balls to click together.

Not just which ball, which pocket.

“That way,” he said, “even if you don’t hit it exactly right, you’ll still get pretty damn close.”

Aim small, miss small.

I got some critiques on my writing the last few days, from novelists I really respect.

 

It was devastating.

I’ve got eleven scenes that need more specific settings in time. And I need to collapse the time span my novel is covering so it doesn’t drag. Which means running back through 100 pages of the current draft. I have a confused mishmash of metaphors and images and subtext for one character that will have to be straightened out. I have scenes that need to be cut, scenes that need to be combined. A tendency to write too-long sentences.

I always know when a critique is right. I get that little gut-wrenching twist, like I’m back in Tae Kwon Do class and have just taken a punch to the stomach. But then, usually, I get to work.

Not today. I did some freewriting. Didn’t get anywhere. Crawled into bed for a nap. Crawled out of bed, packed a coffee in my thermos and caught the bus downtown.

That was when the action started. I spent the bus ride guzzling coffee and sketching out a scene. Other passengers stared at me as I scribbled in my notebook. I jotted down lines of dialogue, listened as the characters spoke to me, shook my head when I knew something wouldn’t work, nodded and wrote it down when it did.

At 2:15, I breezed into a cafe, bought my cookie, and sat down with 16 other writers at a cafe. Aim small, miss small, I told myself, tapping my pen against the blank page.

I didn’t have to solve all the problems with the whole novel in one day. I just had to write this one new scene, and try shaping a clearer subtext, a more compressed time-frame. This one scene, this character, this day.

Aim small, miss small. And then one of the instructors punched the timer, and we all started writing.

Forty-five minutes later I didn’t have a masterpiece. But I had something workable.

More importantly, I had developed a solid understanding of this character–his deepest fears, his need, and the spine of his subplot.

“It’s a lot to keep in mind when I’m writing a scene,” I commented later to a published novelist in his 70s.

“Yeah,” he said. “But just do a bit at a time. Do half a scene, and then rest.”

Not the whole novel in one day. Just one scene, half a scene.

“It’s good to get outside my comfort zone and try new techniques,” I said to another of my mentors. “And for a while, my writing gets worse. But eventually I catch on, and then it’s better writing.”

“Exactly.” He said.

Being good at something, I am slowly learning, isn’t about ego or impressing other people. It’s about focus. It’s about blocking out everything else around you while you take aim and line up your shot. It’s about knowing what to zero-in on. And then doing just that. Aiming small and sinking it, and then moving onto the next thing.

One page, one scene, one day at a time.

 

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