The Mark Blog

THE BIG PICTURE

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Since the moment I heard this Chinese proverb, I have loved it. Over the years I’ve recalled this saying when feeling overwhelmed by a large task.

One of the great things about writing short stories is that they’re so manageable. Each tale can be seen as a separate entity. In my mind, a daunting undertaking such as writing an entire book can be slimmed down to writing a story. It’s just 10 or 20 or 30 pages, I tell myself. No big deal. Make it the best I can: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Start a new one. Periodically revisit previous pieces. Years pass and a collection emerges.

The only problem is that at some point a writer has to view the big picture. The structure of a single story is one thing; the structure of an entire collection is another. There are matters of theme, chronology, emotional weight, and characterization. A balance amongst the pieces needs to exist. The structure needs to be clear to a reader. There are a myriad of ways to craft a book. It comes down to this: it just needs to work.

To begin pondering structural considerations, I wrote down the title and year of each of my stories on an index card. Some people put these cards on a wall or floor. I carry them around in my purse. As I wait for an appointment or find I have a couple of minutes, I shift through the cards. I shuffle them up. I’m starting to see possibilities I never considered.

I also look at books I admire. Some of these books are story collections and others are novels. The important consideration for me is if the book tells its story from multiple points of view.

One of my favorites is Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. This book follows the stories of four Muslim people who are illegally crossing into Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar in an overcrowded inflatable boat. There are two sections: before the immigration attempt and after. Each character has a story in both parts. This chronology flows well and makes logical sense. Additionally, there’s a tension that carries through the entire read. In part one, the reader learns what brought each character to take on such a life-changing risk. There’s a lot of motivation to read the second part– some characters make it to Spain, others don’t. In each situation, lives are changed and affected.

Even though I’m still in the process of revising many of the stories, I’m thinking about the larger scope and organization of the project. It’s time to put energy towards the big picture.