Tunnel Vision


Southern Red Trillium, by David B. Coe (2007)A few years ago I took a photo of a Southern Red Trillium, a beautiful and somewhat unusual flower native to this part of Tennessee.  The lighting and composition of the photo worked out perfectly — the light was bright enough to bring out the color, but not so direct as to be harsh.  The background was free of distracting shapes or colors and blurred beautifully.  I’ve sold framed copies of the photo, and I’ve had it published in local magazines.

The thing is, the photo was taken on my old camera.  It looks fine in relatively small format, but if I were to enlarge the photo too much, the limitations of the equipment I used would become obvious.  The photo would look grainy, pixilated.  So in the last two years, since I bought my new camera, I’ve been trying to replicate the photo, so that I can print larger versions.  And I haven’t been able to do it.  I simply can’t find a Red Trillium in as good lighting or with as clear background.  This morning I was out looking for the flower again — same thing.  I couldn’t find it.  That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t find Trillium at all.  I just couldn’t reproduce that one photo.

Southern Red Trillium, by David B. Coe (2010)But this morning, after my initial frustration at not finding a flower just like the other one, I realized that the flowers I’d found, while not the same, were still strikingly beautiful.  I had been searching rather than observing.  I’d been tunnel-visioned.  Realizing this, I started snapping away, and wound up with several wonderful pictures, including the one to the right.  It’s not as dramatic or as simple as the original photo, but in many ways I like this newer image more.  I like the curve of the stem, the almost shy positioning of the flower, the blurring of the leaf behind the bloom.

As soon as I overcame my tunnel vision and began to see, I found a photograph I love.  It’s the not one I was after, but that’s okay.

Tunnel-vision has, at times, affected my writing as much as it has my photography, and it has done so in any number of ways.  Preconceptions of what I want to do with a story or a character, or even with a world I’ve created or a magic system I’ve developed, have stifled my creativity and turned my writing into a slog.  Only when I broaden my perspective, overcoming my tunnel vision, do the words start to flow again.  Let me give you a few examples.

Sometimes tunnel-vision manifests itself from the very beginning of a project.  I’ll have an idea for a novel — a plot line, a character, an element of my worldbuilding — and I will assume that the story is going to develop a certain way.  I’ll begin the outlining and background work with that version of the book in mind.  Before long, though, I realize that the project isn’t coming together the way I thought it would.  I know there’s a story there, that the initial idea was a good one.  But I can’t seem to make it work.  More often than not, I realize that I’ve limited my vision of the project too much.  I’ve latched on to a single approach that doesn’t allow that original notion to grow the way it should.  Usually I can overcome the problem by going back to the beginning and starting once more with the original idea, this time following it in a different direction, or perhaps several directions.

At other times, the tunnel vision doesn’t strike until I’m well into a book.  I’ll have made up my mind about how a narrative thread is going to develop or how a character is going to behave.  As I write the story or book, I’ll find that the writing is becoming more and more of a struggle, until I’m spending almost all of my time staring at the screen, or out my window, instead of actually typing.  Chances are that I’m trying to maintain too tight a grip on my narrative and my characters, and they’re starting to rebel.  Yes, there are dangers in giving in too much to the whims and desires of the characters in my story.  I’ve written before about allowing my characters to lead me down narrative cul-de-sacs.  That certainly can happen.  But there’s also danger in trying too hard to control them.  At least there is for me.  The people I write about are as close to real as imaginary people can be.  They have their own agendas, and to a certain degree I need to respect their independence.  That doesn’t mean I cede all control to them, but neither should I allow them to be constrained by my creative tunnel vision.

Finally, in the last six months I have rewritten two books from start to finish.  Both books came out all right the first time through, but didn’t work entirely, either artistically or commercially.  So I had to tear them apart and put them together again in new ways.  And in order to do this, I had to reconceive.  Talk about overcoming tunnel vision.  It was difficult; at times painful.  And yet, I think it also was enormously valuable to me as a writer.  There is no single way to write any story.  Creativity, I believe, is about exploring possibilities.  Yes, it’s also about making choices.  But I’m trying to teach myself not to be limited by the choices I make, to recognize that our choices should never become straitjackets.

Tunnel vision can work on many levels.  The examples I’ve given here are pretty extreme.  Sometimes the issues involved can be far smaller — a circumstance in a character’s past, a small sub-plot, a descriptive detail.  But changing even such small things can free up our writing, and help us get past problems.  The point is not to be constrained by the assumptions we bring to our work.  Be flexible, be aware of the preconceived notions informing your creative decisions, and be prepared to rethink them if necessary.

Here’s a little exercise that might help with this:  Find a picture in a newspaper or magazine that inspires you, and write a story about it.  And then start over with the same picture and write a completely different story.  Use new characters, new circumstances, make it as different as you can.  Then do it again.  Or, better yet, go back to one of the first two stories, and using the same characters and the same photo, come up with a different plotline.  Force yourself to rethink the creative process.  Making yourself creatively nimble is the best way to keep tunnel vision from limiting your work.

Have you ever faced tunnel vision in your writing?  How did you overcome it?

David B. Coe

22 comments to Tunnel Vision

  • First off, beautiful photos! I love them both. 🙂

    As for tunnel vision — I find it hits me worst when it comes to form over function issues. For example, I once wrote a short SF piece in which three points-of-view of the same character at different points in time were all intertwined. I became so obsessed with the form of the telling — just how the sentences flowed, in which voice, in which time, etc — that the actual telling of the story suffered and then stalled. When I finally “finished” the piece, I was left with a unique and expressive character sketch, but no real story.

  • David, the trillium — both of them — are breathtaking. I adore them! (Note to self. Must have trillium in new garden. Wonder if I can find red?)

    I fight tunnel vision. I sometimes feel like I’m a moth all wrapped up in a spider’s web of my own making. I often do writer’s exercises like you described to break out of it, tho I admit that I tend to keep them short and simple. Or I’ll take a break. Or do a prime and wait and dream on it — sometimes waking up with the problem solution and some different way of seeing the work. And sometimes there is just no cure but slogging through it.

    Host (Rogue Mage series) was a horrible tunnel vision experience for me. The book was *way* overdue. The editor was asking for it. I had another book for another editor waiting, and I knew it was going to be overdue too. I was miserable and stressed and sleepless. I’d tried everything, all the old methods, and nothing worked. Finally, I printed out the unfinished book and started reading with my multicolored sticky notes, as if I was doing a rewrite. And I spotted the path I’d taken that got me so boxed in. After a fairly complicated rewrite, the book worked. But it was an awful writing experience.

    I’m glad your books have worked out well. And I’m glad we got to see the trilliums. It was a lovely way to finish my Sunday night (after an 18+ hour, all-nighter at the lab). Heading off to bed now with trillium happy dreams.

  • A beautiful way to get at a real problem. Thanks. I’m getting better at releasing my death grip on what I have written but needs to go or change. It’s tough to kill your darlings, but I’m getting a little more ruthless.

  • Beautiful photos and a nice tie in to writing. It looks like you and Misty are setting the tone here. Hobbies and crafts tied into writing. We’ll have to see what the others some up with. *wink*

    As for the topic, I found myself struggling with a form of tunnel-vision last week. I kept pushing myself to write the story as I usually do, one scene following the last. But a particular scene has been building up in my head for a while and I know it’s ready to come out, but I ignored it and pushed on with others. Well, I got little writing done over the weekend. There were other small factors involved, but I think mainly the problem is that one scene clogging up the pipeline. Maybe if I pluck it out, the rest will flow a bit better. If anything it will give me some positive word count and some momentum to keep writing. I’m off like Ergo.

    “Short in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose and wide of vision.” -Ergo the Magnificent Krull (1983)

    Off to the WIP.

  • Thanks, all, for the kind words about the photos. Glad everyone seems to like them and the link to writing. Thought it would be nice to bring some spring color to the site….

    Stuart, yes, that’s a perfect example, and similar to something I had to grapple with in one of my book rewrites. I had a timeline thing going on with two POV characters — I thought it was really cool structurally, but as it turned out, the second POV was detracting from the effectiveness of the first. The book needed to be single POV, and it took me a long time to realize this. When at last I did, it made a huge difference in the quality of the book.

    Faith, hope you sleep well. 18 hours?! Yikes. You’re right of course — sometimes there is nothing to do but slog through and make what fixes we can along the way and in revision. More often than not, though, retracing one’s creative steps the way you describe will do the trick. And I think that the quick exercises can be helpful down the road.

    Thanks, A.J. “Killing the darlings” can be the toughest part of this. Sometimes the tunnel vision is simply a device or character or plot twist that we authors come to love too much. And as you say, letting go of those things can be incredibly wrenching.

    NGD — Thanks. Yeah, hobbies are great. Seriously. After spending days alone with my thoughts in front of computer, getting out into the wild with my camera and forcing myself to look outside of myself is enormously cathartic. As for that scene, I am a linear writer — a find it almost impossible to write chapters and scenes out of order. But I have faced the problem you mention, and sometimes merely outlining that later scene will clear the path enough for me to get back to work. Then again, if writing out of order isn’t a problem for you, taking care of that scene now might be just the ticket. Good luck with it!

  • David,

    I love the tie-in of hobbies and writing, and the photos are awesome! I bet my wife would love to have trillium in our garden.

    Your post made me think of a recent trip I took where I went hiking, and became so focused on the goal I didn’t “see” anything along the way. On a subsequent hike, I slowed down and stopped to write about certain views and sights as well as take photos. Because I slowed down and took in more of my surroundings, I ended up with some great settings and descriptions for my WIP.

    Thank you for post!

  • Those photos are beautiful!

    Tunnel vision nearly killed my WIP. I was so determined to force my main character in a certain direction (mainly relating to her beliefs) that everything else suffered as a result. She came across as a very different person than I intended her to be, and no one could relate to her because she was, ahem, “too much of a cold-hearted bitch” (said one more than one beta reader). Writing the ending was a struggle.

    One of my beta readers is a close friend who saw exactly why I tried to force it in that direction, and she pointed it out. There were some things going on in my life that had driven my belief of what path the story should take.

    Now I’m in rewrites, after taking a few months away. Letting go has been the best thing I’ve done.

  • It’s funny, sometimes you need the expensive cameras to get just the perfect shot and other times you snap a shot with a regular camera and get lucky. I’ve got some pretty nice flower and butterfly pics that I took with our Kodak C875 that came out nice. They don’t always, but it’s awesome when they do.

  • Thanks, Alistair. As you point out, tunnel vision limits us in all sorts of ways, not all of them writing related. I’m a birdwatcher as well as a photographer, and I have allowed my pursuit of birds — or a particular species of bird — to ruin many a hike, not only for me, but for my family, too. Not pretty at all…. This is something I have to work on all the time, and in all aspects of my life. Thanks for the comment.

    Moira, thanks. Glad you liked the photos. And that’s a great example of tunnel vision, and something I’ve done, too. As I say in the post, my characters need their independence. They can’t be working on my emotional agenda; if I try to force them to, it ruins the work. Sounds as though your friend did you and your WIP a great service. That’s what Beta readers are for. Hope the rewrites go well.

    Daniel, yes. I have a friend who takes beautiful shots with a little camera that’s not nearly as expensive as mine. The most important thing isn’t the equipment; it’s your eye, and of course your willingness to see. Naturally, though, I try to hide this fact from my wife. I like my toys….

  • The trillium pictures are beautiful! Great photo work!

    I often struggle with tunnel vision! I want the story to work the way I have it in my mind, so I try forcing it to happen. When I start trying to force things, even my original idea seems limited. That’s when I step back from the story and let it (and me) rest for a bit. Before getting back to it, I rewrite the scene or story. New directions are opened up, ones I hadn’t seen before, and I’m able to rewrite my story in the way that works, not the way I’m forcing it to work.

  • Damn, I’m sooo jealous of that trillium picture. Now all the ones I took look, well, not as good as that. Congratulations, those are both splendid shots.

    I’ll start with a quote a question from a reader (Don Fitch) to John Scalzi on Whatever about two weeks ago: “I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, & onion on a hamburger, or grass & a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.” Scalzi’s response, incidentally, was “…So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.”

    My WIP is set on an alien world, with different gravity, day length, sky, seasons, and of course, an alien flora. One thing I noticed on writing was that it was hard to get into the rhythm of that world, and that if I didn’t constantly pay attention, the world started settling into 24 hr, 1 g, boring old Earth. As a result, I spent a lot of time considering what the characters were experiencing, not just the action, but the view, how fast they would fall, and so forth, as well as all the alien plants, forests, moors, and crittersThe result is fascinating, because it feels like an alien world, and I’m hoping I can share this with some other people.

    It’s an insidious problem. In many books, the worlds start off alien and end up feeling like Earth. As far as I can tell, we’re writing based on what we’re feeling, and what we’re feeling is Earth. In many peoples’ writing, this shows up as a scene set in an alien world, but then that scenery is not referred to again, and the action could be happening anywhere. For example, the scene may be in freefall, but people’s butts stay glued in their chairs as if the gravity was 1 g. A classic example is Burroughs’ martian stories. The gravity only seems to matter when there’s a high wall for John Carter to jump, except in the first chapters of A Princess of Mars. Otherwise, it feels like he’s walking on Earth. And Burroughs is still more exotic than much of SF today.

    More generally, I think it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the characters’ drama that you ignore the world around them, except when it’s critical to the plot. I’d suggest that it’s good policy to stop and look around in every single scene and make sure that your head is on Barsoom or wherever, before you start composing the action. It doesn’t matter where you’re writing about. If you’re in Boston and writing about southern California, you have to remember that California is not Massachusetts with warmer weather. Fall in southern California is fire season, not the time when the leaves turn orange (something one author forgot…)

    As for plant blindness, what does it mean? Do an experiment: stop somewhere natural, look around, and count how many plants you see. If you’re in a park, typically you’re looking at nothing but plants. What do most people typically focus on in a park? The animals. Or other people. Or trails. Plant blindness is missing the other 90 percent of what’s around you. It’s a good exercise to do a few times, just because it makes you focus on the obvious. Too often, the obvious is what’s missing in stories. That’s another, correctable form of tunnel vision.

  • David, first off, the pictures are both beautiful. I like how they are completely different. One open and bright, awake, ready for the world and the other appears to be sleeping, exhausted from what the world has to offer. Dimensionally opposite.

    As for the tunnel vision I think your challenge is great, so thanks for that. My greatest problem isn’t allowing their characters their freedom, it’s having too many doubts that gives me tunnel vision.

    Most days I totally believe in write what comes to mind and who cares about the finished product. They I’ll get a rejection and start on the wary path of doubt. Now, I don’t stay there long but it still shakes me up to where I am questioning my story, if I should do something different with it… etc.

    I’m working on it, trying to tell the little nagging voice that everyone has an opinion and their opinions aren’t for everyone. So far I haven’t been able to quiet it just yet.

  • Emily

    David> I will also say the pictures are gorgeous!

    Tunnel Vision> Suffered from this, big time, for a long time, with a WIP. Then we (my co-author and I) totally ripped it apart, created a new plot (same characters) and it was much better and much easier. *sighs* Too bad it took so long to get there. With my current WIP I find myself being a little scattered… too many ideas and I need to pick a few and stick with them.

    Heteromeles> An interesting point. I don’t read much sci-fi, and even less alien-planet, so I don’t have experience with that problem, but I will say that too much description isn’t want people want nowadays, if my students are any indication, anyway. We’re reading “The Big Sleep” in my Freshman Comp class. The biggest complaint? TOO MUCH DESCRIPTION! And this has come from multiple students. I think the book is incredibly tight, but they’ve made me notice how much Chandler describes things. I think they are some of the best parts of the book, because I love Marlow’s voice, but still, I see the criticism. And he does get in a few landscapes and plants, but hey, it’s LA in the 30s… so, not too many plants to see!

  • Hi Emily, Thanks for that feedback. I’d say there’s also a contingent of us out here in SF land that is getting tired of having everything set in sterile corridors. “What people want these days” assumes there is a monolithic group of “people,” who are reading.

    As for LA, since I grew up there and did some research out there, I’ll point out that in terms of plants, it has over 1700 species growing wild (plus probably an equivalent or greater number in cultivation), and in terms of plant diversity, it’s the second most diverse county in the US after San Diego County, which has over 2000 wild plant species. In my other job as a botanist, one of the huge battles we have to fight, constantly, is the perception that “there’s nothing here,” and that it’s therefore okay to pave it all. That couldn’t be further from the truth, but we have to teach people to see what’s right in front of them, every day.

    I’d recommend bringing this up with your students. This isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s the legitimate question of what they’re missing by getting annoyed with the amount of description, rather than understanding both the description and why Chandler put it in. When Chandler wrote his stories, California was an exotic landscape, and so he had describe it to people. Nowadays, people think LA is a city, and miss the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of life there.

    The other thing I’d suggest bringing up with your students is understanding how place and time affect action. For example, Chandler had a famous description of the “devil winds,” the Santa Anas, and I can tell you that he was right. People do get a little nuts in southern California when the Santa Anas blow. This isn’t a poetic fancy, it’s something that affects how you live. If you commute home on the freeway during a Santa Ana, everyone’s a little more ready to hurt others, and that drive home is very different. If you’re a child who grew up in the hills, the smell of woodsmoke on the wind may be the only warning you get that there’s a wildfire coming at you at 20 miles per hour, and you need to run for your life. Even now, the smell of smoke on the wind sets my heart racing. How do I convey that if description doesn’t matter?

  • Thanks, Laura. That’s a great way of dealing with all sorts of writing problems, tunel vision included. Taking time away form the manuscript allows you to clear your head and see it differently when you come back to it. Thanks for the input.

    Het, that’s a great point, both about the plant blindness and more generally keeping a setting true to itself. My past settings have been fantastical, but earth-based (and I actually take care to write about flora quite a bit). Right now, writing in colonial Boston, I ‘m having to think about place and time. It is challenging, but also incredibly rewarding when I get those moments right. And the work you’re doing on your WIP does sound really interesting. Can’t wait to see it in print. And thanks for the kind words about the photos.

    Emily, I agree that today’s readers, particularly younger ones, have changed and grown less patient, in a way. This is why I’ve said before that if J.R.R. Tolkien tried to publish LOTR today, he’d have a hard time selling it as is to any publisher. Too much exposition, too “difficult” in terms of the prose. That said, I believe that we have to write our books as we envision them, and if in revision an editor tells us to tone down descriptive passages, so be it. I write for me, as well as for my reader, and I enjoy descriptive writing.

    Het, excellent points. And the idea of the smoke on the wind bringing back childhood fears — wonderful. I hope you’re using that in a story!

  • Hinny! Sorry, I missed your comment. As I say above, I write as much for myself as for anyone else. And I agree with you: that’s the attitude you need to have. It might take a rejection or two to get your book/story where you need it. But as soon as you stop being true to yourself as a writer, your work will suffer. I honestly believe that. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore feedback from readers, but it does mean that you should believe in your vision, in your characters, in your narrative. It’s not easy to do, but it sounds as though you’re pushing yourself in that direction, and that’s a good start. And thanks for the kind words about the photos.

  • We must be running into the absolute opposite sci-fi novels.

  • Lynn Flewelling

    David, this is such an elegant way of approaching the problem! I do the same thing and usually end up blocked until I figure out the corner I’ve painted myself into.

    RE: Trilliums. I grew up with these in the Maine woods, red and white. The ones we had were beautiful, but stinky.

  • Thanks, Lynn. I often write myself into corners and then have to stomp across my work, trailing prints across the manuscript in order to find my way out.

    And yes, there is another Red Trillium species — not Southern Red, but just Red — that is also known by the name Stinking Benjamin. This is the one you would have encountered up in New England.

  • So that’s what you call the things. I had fun popping them open when I was a kid. 🙂

    As to tunnel vision, one thing I’ve found useful is describing events from another’s point of few. Can’t come up with any examples right now, but I’m sure folks can think of some themselves.

    Tell you what, take a scene from one of your books and re-write it from the point of few of one of the extras in the cast. A servant say, or a soldier. Or maybe a clerical worker. Or maybe one of the many fight scenes from David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series in which Cashel starts spinning his quarterstaff like a propeller.

    When the big guy started spinning his staff about his head Charle knew enough to go to ground. People tended to get pulped brains when Cashel started spinning his staff, and the clerk had a well developed sense of self preservation.

  • This is a great idea for an exercise. Alan. Thanks for the suggestion, and also for your example. I like it.

  • And to really rile the purists…

    The ring was winning. Frodo was weakening and steadily the shadow was lengthening on his soul. Samwise checked the edge of his knife, knowing he would need it soon. But first he needed some excuse to get rid of Gollum, for if that creature got the ring the world was surely doomed. Sam Gamgee began plaiting the cords to his garrotte again, knowing they would have to be strong to strangle the strange creature.