Not A Quilt

My Dear Friend and I talked about the process of writing. She is an avid reader, but not a writer (yet). I told her I needed to remove some fat from my current WIP. She asked why I didn’t write everything in up front and take it out at the end.

How best to explain my process? I’ve considered posting about it so many times I couldn’t remember if I had. I still can’t, so forgive me if this sounds familiar.

I used to think of writing like quilting or sewing. Not that I quilt or sew, but what I imagine quilting and sewing to be like. Each chapter or scene is a quilting block. They’re colorful bits of prose held together by stitches of transitional sentences and when enough are stitched together, a story-picture emerges.

Except it isn’t like that at all. Not for me, anyway.

I’ve finished two books and started several others, so I’m getting familiar with my writing style. I’m a weaver.

Long ago, a professional writer (forgive me, I can’t remember which one) told me to treat each chapter of a book like a short story. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It should have a climax and a plot complication. It should stand alone for the most part as a solid piece of writing. Like a quilting block.

Except a chapter cannot truly be a short story within a coherent novel. A chapter moves the greater story forward. It builds on what went before and lays groundwork for what comes after. A novel is like a tapestry of many colors woven together in a seemingly random manner until the final picture emerges.

The trouble with putting too much on the page up front – for me – is I risk tangling or losing threads when I cut. You cannot cut out part of a tapestry without ruining it. All the threads unravel. You can try to pull out a single thread, but you risk snagging up everything else.

Of course, the problem with this analogy is it leads to the idea that everything I put into a first draft is gold, which is patently untrue. It also runs the risk of impossible-to-meet expectations of myself while writing that first draft.

In the end, I try for a balance of writing and quick editing the following day to remove obvious errors. It’s far easier to re-work 500 words than one or two thousand. Or 10K, for that matter.

Fortunately for me and my writing style, I also tend to write “lean” first drafts and use the next two or three passes to add detail. That helps bypass much of the potential mess.

In the end, I hope the work stands on its own – intricate, cohesive and collectible. Only time will tell, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I’ll weave away, one thread at a time, as quickly and carefully as I can.

How about you, writers? Quilters, weavers or something else?

About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn has published two novels and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

12 comments on “Not A Quilt

  1. Hmm, good thought! I’m a Snowflaker, so probably the nearest thing in your analogy is crochet – starting off with a germ of an idea, slowly adding depth and complexity as it gets bigger. When it comes time to move on from planning, knuckle down and work, it’s a matter of knotting one sentence into those that have gone before, in the place where I happen to be up to. And then another sentence… and another. Then one day it’s done, and that tends to be a very good day indeed!

  2. My Dearest Turtle,

    However you do it , I like the results. Keep it up.

  3. I see what you mean about cutting and losing stuff. A couple things I’m trying this draft around are making an outline after the fact, with bullet points of what happened and why it’s important; and light polishing as I refresh myself from the previous session. The outline after the fact stems from failing to do so as I go (which may mean I’m not a quilter), but is hard to keep up with. Writing takes precedence over note taking, and making time to write is even harder if you have to edit and take notes first. The light polishing is always helpful to keep me fresh on my character’s place in the story. Also, the idea that my rough draft is as little work as possible to clean up is very helpful in motivating me to edit.

    As far as the short story within each chapter, I think each chapter should have the necessary pieces to scene(s): setting, conflict, twist, etc. Maybe I didn’t fully get what you said about the random stuff, but I really need to have new information at the end of chapters that propels me forward to see what happens. If it’s random, then I take that as meaning I’m not sure why it was there, and that doesn’t necessarily push me to keep reading. Unless of course it is so random that I have to find out why it was there and how it relates.

    So have you found that as you gain experience you write faster or slower? In other words, do you take your time doing the maintenance of polishing, plotting, etc during the draft, or do you put that stuff off more so till the draft is finished?

    • I write a page an hour, without notable exceptions. Even writing pure dialogue, which seems like more but usually condenses to… a page an hour, once I go back and convert it from screenplay to novel. What can I say? I’m a turtle.

      An outline doesn’t affect my speed other than removing the time it takes to figure out what to write. But I don’t think of “thinking” time as “writing” time, either. If I did, it would take me far longer than an hour per page.

  4. Hmm, I think I might be more like a person working with clay. I have a basic design, but am constantly ripping out sections, relocating parts, fleshing out and pushing things about. I’ve ripped stories apart so that everything was basically “spare parts” and then redesigned the fundamental structure. I tend to have an outline to help me remember where point B is and so that I can put notes where they will help me at that spot. I love putting that outline/notes onto the page of my ms draft and then as I write sections, I delete the notes about them. I tend to wing a lot and let my characters have a generous leash.

    In revisions, I hack, burn and axe then turn around and add entire new chapters here or there. I look particularly for how to up the tension, more fights, injuries, emotional struggles etc. So it’s sort of a slimming and expanding process both happening at the same time. Very hands on and far from delicate.

  5. This would make you Dr. Frankenstein, right? chuckle.

  6. Great post Robynn.
    I love the analogy of quilting or weaving for writing. I would say that I am a weaver for the most part. I agree that chapter is there to move the story along. I also tend to write a leaner first draft and then add in as much as others cut out in the second and third drafts.

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