Years ago, I was a private pilot in sailplanes. Sailplanes are often referred to as ‘gliders’ and while they certainly do glide extremely well their real virtue is in staying aloft on the winds and currents of the air. They truly sail the sky … for as long as possible. Sailplanes can initially get into the air in many different ways but the most common is to be towed aloft behind a power aircraft. During this brutish phase the wind howls around the cockpit and the pilot’s concentration is mainly on making sure at the sailplane stays in place behind the tow plane which is a good deal trickier than it sounds. Once you’re high enough, however, the sailplane pilot grips the release knob with their free hand, pulls the sailplane up and to the right and … bang, the tow cable spins away as the tow plane flies down and to the left. The sailplane slows as it climbs, the howling subsides with the speed and settles into the constant and quieter wind that becomes your friend.
Eventually, however, it is time to land the aircraft. And, let’s face it, in a sailplane you’ve got only one shot at the landing. You have to get it right the first time because there is no second chance to go around and try again. No matter how much joy you have during the flight, none of it will matter if you can’t get the aircraft safely back on the ground.
One of the things that we were taught in order to bring your ship home safely was to ‘hold the picture’ on our final approach for landing. This was a particular state of mind in which the image outside the windshield of the aircraft, the instrument readings on the panel and the progress of the aircraft down out of the sky all fit ‘the picture’ in our head of the perfect landing. It was an awareness of every aspect both inside and outside of the aircraft coming together as a perfect and holistic whole.
A written piece of work is comprised of letters, words, punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters … but it is also one complete thing. In the same way that all the pieces of the aircraft, the shifting environment, and your own dynamic actions influence the outcome of the landing, all of the parts of your story — punctuation, grammar, style, structure, talent and discipline — must work as a whole to complete the best version of your work.
According to William Goldman, ‘story is structure.’ The internal structure of the story determines the meaning and it is this complete structural landscape that the writer should hold in their mind as they write. Then as each piece is set in place, the writer knows where it goes in the overall structure of the piece.
One of the common traps that novice student pilots make is to concentrate to heavily on one particular aspect of flight. They might get fixated on the airspeed indicator, obsessed with keeping their speed to maintain the perfect rate of descent and never look out the window. Or they might disbelieve their own instruments if they concentrate too much on their inner ear and ‘seat of their pants.’
Novice practitioners of the writing craft can make this same mistake, too, by concentrating too much on one particular element of their story or writing. They might spend all their time on background and world creation to the exclusion of character development or they might become fixated on descriptive prose while brushing past dialogue. They might become obsessed with one particular interesting character of others or enjoy exploring the setting so much that they forget about the foundation structure of the story and plot.
While writing a novel, the writer needs to learn — like a sailplane pilot on final approach — to hold the complete landscape of the book at once in their mind. That way the pieces can all be assembled in the correct order to make the complete structure of the book work.
Of course, this can be a problem when one is writing in partnerships … so next time we’ll explore how to hold the picture when you’re trying to deal with someone else’s ideas, someone else’s outline and someone else’s text.