I’m a fanatical quilter. At any given time, I’ve got between three and six in various stages of completion. My sewing room is also my writing room, and let me tell you, nothing obliterates writer’s block like ditching the whole idea of writing and getting up to work on a quilt for a while. (Naturally, it also obliterates progress right along with the writer’s block, but beggars can’t be choosers.)
During one quilting session a week or two ago, I was sitting there trying to think of ideas for blog posts (my, what a glamorous life I lead). And then I had a light bulb moment and thought, “I’ll write a post about how writing is like sewing!” And complacently went on sewing.
But as I continued to work, it occurred to me: Writing is nothing at all like sewing.
“Could you please elaborate, Katie?”
For starters, when I’m working on a writing project, I’m fiercely monogamous. The whole 3-6 quilts at a time strategy? Forget it. It’s a lone project and me, together 4-eva–or at least until it’s done. First draft, revisions, and so on. I may toss future ideas around in my head and makes notes on them in my little green notebook, but only one book goes through the major construction phase at a time.
I have a terrible attention span. If I let myself work willy-nilly on various projects, I’d end up with 100 35-page starts of novels.
Quilters have to get everything right the first time. The mantra of sewing is “Measure twice, cut once.” Trust me, I have broken this rule and paid the price. Every cut must be the right cut, in the right place, every time. Every seam must be correct before you move on.
In writing, the first draft is as loosey-goosey as you want to make it. Most writers will tell you their first drafts are basically dumping grounds for everything they think they sorta-kinda maybe might want to have in the book at some point. Subsequent drafts are for sweeping changes and fine tuning. If you tried to “measure twice, cut once” and constantly picked out your bad seams during the first draft, you’d go nuts and probably abandon the project altogether.
Cookie-cutter quilts can be masterful. You can make a gorgeous quilt just by using a sophisticated color scheme and a square-cutting template. You can whip that baby up with your 1/4 inch foot and have yourself a piece of art in 8 hours.
But writing books this way rarely works out well. We’ve all met those people who think they know some magic formula for writing a bestseller. They’ve studied the trends and they’re absolutely positive that by following their observations and writing something that reflects all the current literary hotness, they’ll be rolling in the dollars before you can say, “Expecto patronum!” I hate to break it to these people (and I usually don’t), but a good story is more than just market research. You have to dig a little deeper, or you’re going to end up with a bland imitation.
Pretty much everybody is going to like your quilts.
I mean, they’ll say nice things about them, especially if you back them into a corner. 😉 What does it cost them? And if the quilt is a gift, and they don’t adore it, they can put it in the linen closet and haul it out for sleep-overs and picnics. No harm, no foul. And you never have to find out.
With books, not so much. The whole point of the publishing industry is saying “yes” or “no” in a way that can seem pretty random when you’re on the receiving end. You may pour your heart and soul into your book and find yourself rejected by dozens of agents and/or editors. They may even compliment you as they’re rejecting you, but they’re still saying “no,” and the message feels the same: “Not good enough!” This is a hard thing to hear.
The bright side is that, while a quilt with the binding on is pretty much set, a book is revisable. So if rejection is getting you down, put the manuscript aside for a while, then take another look and evaluate with an eye toward fixing some of the problems.
But as I write this, it occurs to me that there are actually some similarities–
Quilts, like books, can surprise you. When you plan out a color scheme, you think you know what it’s going to come out looking like. But occasionally in making a quilt, you will glance up to discover that all those yellow squares you thought looked so great need to come out, ASAP.
And the same thing can happen in writing. The character you thought was so crucial to the story is just sticking out like a garish piece of polyester mixed in with your quilting cotton. (The nice thing about writing is, you can extricate the misplaced character at any stage in the writing. Whereas once you sew the yellow squares in, you’re pretty much out of luck.)
You need to have a vision. Aside from crazy quilts or patchwork “charm” quilts, a quilt is only as strong as your plan for it. Not just knowing what colors to use or how much fabric to have on hand, but how to cut your pieces and a rough idea of how to lay them out. You need to have a sense of what kind of quilt you want to make–or you’ll be confronted with an agonizing series of very difficult decisions as you go along.
Whether you outline religiously or just spit your words on the page, you still need to have a sense of purpose going into your writing. I’m not saying you need to know everything about the book. But you need to know about your characters–who are they? What makes them distinct from one another? What are their primary motivations? And it does help to have an idea where the story is eventually going, and how it’s going to get there. Even if you end up changing everything in a subsequent draft, having that knowledge in place for your first draft is like having training wheels on. It’ll help keep you on track. Later, cast off the training wheels and go nuts. But starting with a plan is never a bad idea.
Quilting seems kind of impossible until you’ve actually done it. But once you learn the basics, you realize that it’s about hard work and attention to detail, like so many other things. There’s no rocket science involved. When I talk to people who want to write books, my best advice is: “Write your first draft.” Get a draft down on paper, and suddenly you’re a person who has written a book. Sure, it may need a few revisions, but it’s a book. And you can approach the revisions with the confidence of someone who has achieved something most people can’t manage to do.
Deb Katie Alender
PS – I had to concoct this elaborate post because if I were to write about my writing routine, it would be: Sit down. Surf internet for eight hours. Collapse from guilt. Write for two hours. Repeat.