Writing a Story Is Like Remodeling a Kitchen
Astronomy tells us summer left us only last Friday, September 23. But the seasonal gears of creatures change sooner, following the light. Like farmers making hay under September’s Harvest Moon, we humans feel this is the month to get something done.
So every September brings me a new crop of writers.
Enthusiasm whisks them in, for you have to be under the power of some heavy confidence to call or write an editor. I love their bright ideas and believe in each one.
Then we get down to work, and it’s harder than any aspirant ever expected.
“You asked me many questions. Took me most of last Sunday to gather info. And then you cut it all and more,” one writer lamented.
Alas, it’s true.
I ask questions because I want every fact. Often only bits of all that work are embedded in the edited story, which probably looks only vaguely like the writer’s first-born draft. And it is often as many rewritten generations away from it as the monarch butterflies soon to fly south to Mexico are from their ancestors that flew north this past spring. (That’s a story you’ll read in this week’s Creature Feature.)
“Of course I now know more,” allowed the writer, who is learning, revision by revision, about a new craft.
Reminds me of a woman I know who dearly wanted a new kitchen after two decades of cooking in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Nothing designer-magazine elegant; just simple, functional and — because her husband-remodeler is a consummate craftsman — perfect.
A year into the remodeling from the outside in, they’re in the homestretch, crawling like the tortoise toward the finish line. So when they ran into the latest detour — nothing that couldn’t be bypassed in two, maybe three weeks — she didn’t cry, shout, rage, rant, fall into a depression or give it all up.
Been there, done that — and none of it worked.
It will be fine, she said. What’s a couple of weeks?
This woman, who happens to write for Bay Weekly, followed the same path when she learned to construct stories. Used to doing her job well, she self-flagellated and groaned when she had to write, rewrite and rewrite again before she got a story right.
Now, she’s philosophical. She knows writing, rewriting and rewriting again are part of the craft. Especially because she’s got me as her editor. Like her husband, I believe that craft means working till you get it right.
Writing a story is not unlike remodeling a kitchen.
Both crafts start with planning and measuring, and both take getting close to your materials, so you know them pretty well.
If you’re lucky — and skilled — you start with a vision. But inspiration has less to do with the job than persistence. In writing as in carpentry, you’re working with your hands, often for hours — though the former is more likely to give you calluses on your butt than on your knees.
Both take you places you never imagined, because you never know what complications you’re going to run into when you start out. So both take far longer than you ever imagined.
In both jobs, you get to know what you’re doing by doing it. Eventually, you also get to know what’s wrong and what’s right. You learn that the craft has rules, and that in practicing it, you’re aspiring to a truth beyond this kitchen, this story, this craftsman or woman.
But just in case, both jobs have inspectors. Me, I’m the Bay Weekly story inspector.
I don’t know about carpenters and cabinet makers, but writers can come to the job cocky. It’s a job they think a lot of, and that makes them think a lot of themselves and their talent.
I know that because I’ve been there, done that. I’ve wept, ranted and raged when editors tinkered with my stories. Or rejected them outright. I’ve crawled under the covers in blue funk. Once, back in the days when stories were sent to editors on paper, I burned the pages of a pathetic reject in the claw-foot bathtub.
It takes a while for many writers to humble themselves to the craft — and to the story inspector.
“I bet you’re impressed that I keep coming back,” a would-be writer once suggested to me as we worked side by side on a fourth revision.
“Nope,” I said. “I expect it.”
That story never made it to a fifth revision, or into the pages of Bay Weekly.
I fear some among this September’s crop of new writers have reached that point. They’ve decided that I’m too demanding, that the craft wants too much of them.
They’ve yet to decide that the perfect story — even the pretty good story — is worth the craft it takes.
It takes a little experience to get to that point, so I hope they don’t give up too soon.
I want you to read their stories and say, Wow, that was worth my time.
Meanwhile, I’m on to edit a new first writer. As always, I’m expecting a good story.