Friday, March 27, 2015

About Building a Boat

I'm building a boat.

Not really. But I am writing a novel. It's kind of the same.

Writing a novel could be like building a boat though I've never actually tried to build a boat so this analogy might get lost somewhere along the way. Let's say for a minute that it is like building a boat.

You have an idea. That's your schematics. You can't build a boat or anything for that matter and expect it to hold up without some blueprints. I tried sewing a pair of shorts once without a pattern because how hard could it be. Well, let me tell you, it's harder than you think. One leg ended up slightly longer than the other.

Maybe you outline. Maybe you don't. Not everyone outlines, but it's a good idea to jot down notes, key things that will happen along the way. Make sure the boards are cut just the right length in order to avoid cracks that can't just be sealed with a little putty. Or cut them a little too long so that you can cut them back and make them fit later.

You have your character, you have your beginning. You even might know what will happen at the end. But don't forget the fleshy stuff in the middle or the story will sink before you leave shore.

It's funny really. In order to get a publisher or agent to even look at your work, your beginnings have to shine. Tantalize and excite and give a reasonable expectation as to what will follow. Well written is a must. Full of action, dialogue and interesting characters even more important. So great, you've spent so much time on the beginning, the publisher is intrigued and wants to see the whole manuscript. You think you've made it. Because there has to be some interest if you didn't get thrown overboard at the query letter.

You would think.

But no. Just because your beginning is like magic. Liquid gold. All the stuff in the middle is the real story. And matters probably more than your flashy, well-written beginning.

I struggle with middles. It's where I get bogged down, stuffing large rocks in my pockets until I can't stay afloat. And I'm still only wet up to my knees. Questioning every movement, every conflict, the pace, the structure. Has your character become repetitive and boring, are there enough plot twists and turns, are your secondary characters interesting enough, or heaven forbid, stealing the scenes?

I don't have the answers. After all, I've never built a boat. Maybe some of you experienced boat builders out there have some suggestions. What I am learning though, is that word by word, scene by scene, a story is starting to take shape. It might only be the frame, the context in which I want my readers to fall into and feel safe and comfortable, but is there enough for them to stay afloat. More than a life raft, something solid and full of energy.

We know how to write a scene. Well, hopefully, we do. You know, the whole combination of action, description, dialogue and exposition, balanced in such a way to keep the forward momentum going? I find, for me anyway, that if you can write a scene, and each one of those scenes has the same energy and excitement as the earlier scenes did, eventually it will come together. I stopped looking at the big picture because it became far too overwhelming. But taking it little bit by little bit, and remembering the reader does not know what you see in your head and it's your job to paint that picture for them, it's doable.

Even as the writer, we may not see the full thing until that first draft is done, or maybe even the second draft when you have to string together all those random scenes in a way that makes sense. Does the story bounce like a fully formed boat on the water? Not a tumultuous storm (unless that's what you want to write) but a nice leisurely cruise with just enough waves lapping at the bottom of the boat to keep the reader interested and awake. Do you see the icebergs soon enough to navigate around them or last minute so your passengers are in a state of panic and chaos not sure what the heck just happened? Or do you push the throttle full steam ahead and end up crashed on an island after a three-hour cruise?

I think we want to avoid both of those. Balance, care and understanding. Respect for what we are trying to do and taking the time to do it properly. And by properly I mean creating your draft the way you see it first, your random sloppy draft where it doesn't matter what your characters do or say because no one is going to see it anyway. The first draft is just the frame of your story.

The second draft is where you really start building. Putting it all together, nailing pieces into place, filling in the cracks. Then you have let someone have a boo at your creation. Because you are too close to the story because you've been staring at it far too long to really see all the holes. But fresh eyes will find the dings and cracks, the bent nails that you tried to hide. Nothing gets by a fresh set of eyes, most of the time. And it's better if it's someone experienced in boat building. Not a family member, who loves you and all you do and wants to prop you up on a cloud, but someone who will tell you exactly what is wrong.

The shape, the length, the type of wood you're using.

If your bottom is missing.


  1. Great metaphor and good advice. Chunks not linear! Scenes not the whole book at once! Yes!


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