Seeing the Elephant


The phrase “seeing the elephant” or “he saw the elephant” makes me think of old war movies, especially ones with the British Army bivouacked in a remote area, with references to first combat. But as I research it, it actually originates in Georgia (United States) in 1835. The phrase “seeing the elephant” was originally tied to some exciting event, but in later years was associated with negative emotions.

I tend to think of the combat reference.

Classes are wrapping up this week, and my last class session with my Narrative Writing class is tomorrow morning at 8:30. Their final project is to write and present the first 50 pages of a novel, complete with story outline. Based on past experience, I suspect that about half of them won’t get all 50 pages done. And of the five students who do, I will be surprised if one or two go on to write the rest of their novel.

Why? Because writing a novel is hard work. Very hard work, with no guarantee of reward, other than saying that you finished it. People who write a short story (and I highly recommend starting out with short stories) might be successful in that genre, and think it wouldn’t be much of a step to graduate to writing a full-blown novel. It is. Others who write non-fiction books think it’s all about length, and that they can easily turn around and write a novel now. It isn’t, and they can’t.

Oh, that’s not to say that thousands of people don’t try. Every day on Twitter I am hit up by people promoting their new novel, or even worse, their new series. People, how many ways can I say this: you have to learn to crawl before walking, and walk before running. And to my chagrin as an indie author, there are too many half-baked stories available out there.

What makes writing a novel difficult? Well, I guess I need to qualify my answer. Some novels are relatively easy to write. Some of my novels have been very straightforward and were no more than extended short stories. But a good novel is one that develops multiple characters, shows their interaction in a way that there is no one story, but multiple stories going on at the same time. That’s where it gets good, and that’s where it gets complicated–and exceedingly fun.

I look at it like writing a symphony. You start out with the melody, perhaps carried by woodwinds and then violins. Then you add counterpoint to make it interesting. Then you add other parts, such as the bassline and the percussion. The theme continues throughout, sometimes strong, other times almost disappearing but reappearing almost as a echo or a shadow. But that theme continues, sometimes carried by the woodwinds, sometimes by the brass, or even the percussion section. And when you come up to the climax, all of those interwoven parts come together at exactly the same time, at the peak of passion and energy, to resolve beautifully together.

That’s what writing a full-blown novel is like. And that’s what seeing the elephant is about.

Because it’s easy to think and talk and plan to write a great novel. But it’s another when you come to the day when your fingers type out “Chapter 1” on the keyboard. It can be very intimidating. In fact, if it isn’t at least a little intimidating, you’re doing something wrong.

As classes wind down, I find myself switching mental gears and thinking about my next great writing project. And I will have to admit, as much as I have written, it still intimidates me to consider taking on such a project.

But just like combat, if you’re prepared, then maybe it’s a little bit easier. I will know soon.

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