Creativity Sessions: Not Seeing the Trees for the Forest

River in the forestLooking at that picture, most people would hear the water chiming over stones and logs, or imagine the animals that may be hidden behind that line of trees. I look at this picture and imagine the mountain spring that flows down into this river, or the wide expanse of the forest.

I excel at the big picture stuff. My academic background trained me to look at seemingly isolated events or instances over a long period of time and extract overarching patterns of geopolitical and social evolution.

My sophomore year in college I took History 101: Western Civilization. It was definitely not the first history course I had taken, but it was the first one that really clicked that idea in my head: that history was not about memorizing dates and names, but about trying to understand why those dates and names matter. What was society like before that date, or the rise of that person, and how was society changed in their wake? Russell Crowe said it best: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” (Gladiator)

Learning about the structure and functions of the ancient Roman government in that course sparked an interest in designing my own government structure. I went back to my dorm that very night and began drafting a political structure for a made-up empire, complete with the line of succession going back 30-plus rulers. But of course, I needed someone for my empire to conquer, so I made up a small realm of a handful of civilizations, each with their own characteristics. I even had a very bare-bones timeline of important events and battles, with conflicts stretching over generations. I had a historical map laid out like a horizon.

I did nothing with those original ideas, but I still have that first draft. I sat on those notes for years as they germinated in the darkest corners of my mind until one day in grad school, I wanted to revisit them. I decided that my initial story was too small, so I blew it up and blew it out to a much grander scale. I scrapped most of what I had originally built – names, geography, and so forth – but that first draft was an important, if only inspirational, foundation for the real world-building project I am now neck-deep in.

“Jaed and Aston” is the first real story from that universe. I’ve spent years cultivating a macro, top-down summary of an imagined world with its own unique history and culture, and in writing this single, isolated story, I have realized just much much deeper I’ve had to dig in order to make it feel real.

What is the name of this one sailor who may have a few lines at best? Why does his name sound different? What is that marking on his hand – a tattoo? What does that signify about his lot in life? These were questions that I assumed I would just find the answers for, as if the pieces would fall into place as I progressed.

If writing this story has taught me anything, it is not only that the little people matter, but also that a story which just looks at events like a child looking into a snowglobe is not much of a story at all; it’s a textbook. I’ve had to learn – and am still learning – how to plant those minute details like seeds, nurture them throughout my story, and help them sprout. Then, once they’ve grown as strong and bright as possible, I can take a step back to gaze at and study the point where those individual seedlings come together underneath the cosmic snowglobe of this world to form a timeline rich in detail. That point on the horizon is my story.


Speaking of which, my story is coming along. My word count currently sits at 123,471, and with some real legwork, I should be able to hit my goal by the end of the month. However, I’m also cutting out some older, less useful sections from my main draft, possibly to be used in some form later on. That adjusts my word count to the tune of -1,230, so my official goal for February is now 133,775.

Part of my delay in churning out a solid 20-25k this month (aside from general laziness) is that I keep going back to plant those little seeds. Now that I’m in the final third of my book, the overarching themes are abundantly clear to me. I just need to ensure that they’re peppered throughout the story so that they can bloom as I near the end.

10,304 words to go!

Steve D

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