When I was in grad school studying music composition, my teacher, Alice Parker, told us that beginning a new piece like being an eagle circling high above the earth. The metaphor works for writing as well.
At the outset of a project, your idea seems very far away. Your mental image is something like a blurry aerial photo. Then as you work on the piece, you circle lower, picking out details, seeing how parts of the landscape relate to other parts. At last you reach a point where you can identify buildings and cars and maybe even people, but you're still far enough away to see the big picture. You see how everything in that aerial photo makes sense together. Most importantly, you understand why that photo exists and why you need to share it with others. You start writing.
The problem is, in order to write it, you need to zero in on details and get them right. You circle lower and never see that big picture again. You have to rely on the memories of that snapshot to keep you true to your original vision. If you don't, you're likely to forget that first epiphany that got you inspired and excited enough to start writing the work in the first place.
I began a children's novel more than a year ago. The project was a departure from my usual mystery stories. Great fun at first, but I quickly became hopelessly stuck. I simply couldn't seem to make it work. I talked through the story with my brother and one of my writer friends. I changed some major plot points, but that only made things worse. Last fall I finally surrendered and moved on to other projects.
This week I was staying with a non-writer friend who I don't see very often. She asked what I was writing, and instead of telling her about my current work-in-progress, I found myself talking about the kid's book I didn't talk through the plot as I had before, but only gave her the basics. Sort of an elevator pitch, assuming
the lift was slow and headed for the penthouse of a skyscraper.
As I described the story, I found myself getting more excited about it than I'd been since last summer. Somehow, I'd recreated that "big picture" snapshot. Now I've got a better feel for what details and tangents led me away from my original vision.
So, back to work.