Secrets of the craft, by Deb Katie

PhotobucketI’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?”

Why, sure!

PhotobucketFor 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.

PhotobucketCookie-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.

PhotobucketThe 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.)

PhotobucketYou 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.

PhotobucketQuilting 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.

Cheers, everybody!
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.

17 thoughts on “Secrets of the craft, by Deb Katie

  1. The quilts are gorgeous! I’m envious that I never learned and wouldn’t have the patience to finish one anyway. You should see the “dresses” I made in Home Economics if you don’t believe me.

    Love the side-by-side description of quilting and writing. I hike and that’s a lot like writing too, especially when you step in bear scat.

  2. “Quilters have to get everything right the first time.”

    And this is exactly why I don’t quilt! Or sew at all, actually, except for buttons and seam repair and repairing stuffed animals that have been mauled by my dog, and only if I absolutely have to.

    Your last line about your actual writing routine cracked me up. Speaking of ‘net surfing instead of writing….off I go.

  3. Katie, gorgeous quilts, great post. What do you do with all the finished quilts? I have this vision of you sleeping on a pile of a hundred of them, a la the princess and the pea. My novel has a quilt in it, and it was really fun to write about it, but I think I’ll stick with imaginary quilts for now.

  4. Beautiful quilts. That must take a bit of patience, eh?

    Here’s my writing routine: Look after 3 boys all day long (ages 2.5 – 5). Make supper. Put them down to bed. Turn on laptop. Fall asleep on my keyboard. Wake up and get an hour or so in. Repeat five days a week. 🙂

    No wonder I can’t build anything to save my life. I employ the technique of measure once, cut 3-4 times. I’ll have to try your technique.

  5. Judy, it’s comforting to know we’re not alone, isn’t it? 😉

    Marsha, thank you. You know, it’s never too late to learn… I got my first sewing machine two and a half years ago. And LOL about your bear scat comment. I guess those are the moments where you realize the crucial character in a scene is actually supposed to be at the courthouse twenty minutes ago or something.

    Kristina, see, I don’t have the patience for buttons anymore. So you have me beat there. I would say the “getting things right the first time” isn’t so bad, but I think seam-ripping Katie would disagree with me… (but really, it’s not SO bad!)

    Tiffany, thank you! The finished quilts get given away. Some are for babies, some are for dogs… recently I’ve started sewing quilts as gifts for adults. Winston gets a lot of the scrappier quilts that only take a couple of hours. It’s handy to have something made for his crate. So, no, I’m afraid there’s no pile of quilts under me… although I do have one quilt top (with no backing or batting) hanging on the rack, and when I finish that one, it’s mine-all-mine. Just have to get there!

    Jason, LMAO at your measure-cut routine. See, this is why I blog. To help the desperate souls. 😉 And your writing routine sound a lot like mine modified to accommodate children! I’m impressed that you can wake up and work after sleeping. I’m a raging beast when I’m sleepy. My laptop would end up smeared all over the wall. And yes, the quilts take patience, but it’s very zen and pleasant, too. Audiobooks all the way!

  6. Ohhh, I loved this post, and the way it was crafted…no loose threads. Creativity is such a wonderful gift to have, no matter how it is expressed.

  7. Your quilts are stunning. I quilted for a few years- but hated being back in my sewing room/office after being shut up there all day. (Gulag writing room some days) so I switched to knitting which I can do in the living room.

  8. Beautiful quilts! I made one that I worked on from age 4 to age 21, and then retired from the scene (most of the squares I sewed before age 10 I had to toss out). I was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    Thanks for your insights on writing and quilting!

  9. Stunning quilts, Katie, I’ll take the multi-green. 😉 And, though writing and quilting may be direct opposites, they both allow you to be creative while taking a needed break from the other!

  10. Eve’s Mom, thank you! I’m hesitant to claim the gift of creativity for myself, but I will say I feel blessed to have the time and resources to pursue my various crafts.

    Thanks, Eileen! See, I beat the system by claiming the best room in the house for my sewing/writing room. The guests get the next room over, with the little window… I get the view of the backyard. (Wow, now I sound like a terrible person.) I’ve never tried knitting, but I failed miserably at crochet. Counting stitches got to be too much for me. But knitters can make the most amazing things, so I’m very impressed.

    Meredith, thanks. I loved reading about the quilts in the Little House books. Funny, that was before I even knew what any of it meant. I should go back and read. The staggering thing is that it was all done by hand!

    Larramie, don’t tempt me. I love quilting to order. And that’s absolutely true about the two activities allowing me to get a break from the other. I’ve gone weeks without touching my sewing machine because I’m on a writing jag. Funny how they feed each other when they’re actually very different–one is so tactile and analytical and one is all about baring your brain on the page. It’s an interesting symbiosis.

  11. Wow, Katie – gorgeous quilts!!! And nice post. Hey, there’s a quilt in my book too! But (as you will see) I am not blessed with that quilting gene.

  12. Ooh, I want to be a quilter too! I doubt I have the patience though. Great post–I laughed like crazy over the final paragraph about your writing routine.

  13. Thanks, Eve! A quilt in your book? If it weren’t already on my “definitely TBR” list, that would land it there for sure!

    Eve’s Mom, spoken like the mother of an author (and a woman who dances on tables at weddings, if I’m not mistaken! 😉 )

    Danielle, if you want to learn, I can teach you… I’m just sayin’! I’m always looking to recruit people to the dark side.

  14. Katie-

    I do think that you are a fantastic quilter (and I’m not just saying that). I especially thought it was very nice on your part to have put your talents to use when you made a quilt for your friend’s new baby boy. Do you remember that post?

  15. Thanks, Tom… I think it’s the one with the green diagonal squares and the yellow bars that you’re talking about. I don’t remember the post, but I’m flattered that you do. It’s harder to quilt for boys than girls because boys require a little more careful fabric choices!

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