The Craft: ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

A couple of years back I visited my friend, D—, in Wisconsin. He was showing me around his new house in the suburbs and eventually we made it to his garage where he had a woodshop with work benches, drills, saws, wood, the whole setup.

D— is a writer, too. So, we were talking about the Craft (of writing) and he told me how much I could learn about writing from woodworking. So, I shot back with a question. 

DARIUS J.:Like what?

D: Like…For example, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’

DARIUS: What’s that?

D: Well, you have to make sure your measurements are right before you make the cut. Double-check it, then make the cut. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of wood.

We talked about how writing a piece, especially a longer piece, is kind of like building a house. You need to have an architecture, you have to measure things carefully, decide what goes in and what should come out.

That example struck home this past weekend during my writing day. I banged out 2,200 words on a tight, well-crafted short story and I want to share what I got it right. In no particular order this is it:

1. I gave my subconscious time to work.

The original seed of this idea came from a listing for a new anthology on Duotrope. Some Australian pub was looking for a science fiction story set in the world of 1,001 Arabian nights, kind of like Scheherazade-Punk. I thought that was the coolest idea. I wanted to send something in, but no good ideas came up. That is, until now.

Somehow my recent readings on medieval Islamic history and philosophy finally gelled into a unique idea. The idea came from various sources: These included the 1,001 nights, Zoroastrian customs, a history of the Hashashin group and Medieval Arabic philosophy.

File:Arabic aristotle.jpg

But I didn’t slap something together just to get into the anthology. I waited for a solid idea and that was a good move. 

2. When the idea finally gelled, I made it top priority.

Usually, I don’t like to abandon or postpone the writing of a story once I’ve started it. But in this case, I broke protocol.

I stopped writing another short story, already at 1,600 words, to write this new one. It was such a great idea, I knew I had to get it down while it was still hot and fresh. And I didn’t let my subconscious make a bigger deal out of this switch than it was.

The 1,600 word piece is still there and I will return to it soon. No need to dwell on the past.

3. I stayed disciplined on my dedicated writing day.

I have a dedicated time and place for writing fiction. For me, it’s Sunday afternoon at a café I like downtown. Every Sunday, I’m there writing or twiddling my fingers if the writing just isn’t coming. Cell phone is off, I’m not reading, not talking to other patrons. I’m writing or doing nothing sitting in a corner.

But this day wasn’t my normal writing day. You see, because of Easter festivities I had to switch my writing day from Sunday to Saturday. The old Darius would have let this small change distract and inhibit him from writing. But not this time. I started a bit cold, having done nothing but a quick, dirty pre-write. But after 15 minutes, the writing started to flow and I was off.

I also missed my usual gym time that weekend, but it was worth it to pull off the start of this piece.

4. I took the time to do an organized prewrite.

I also had the knowledge and discipline not to dive right in. Instead, I took a few minutes before opening a new Word Document, the dreaded White Blank Page, and I wrote my usual pre-write document.

Very briefly, this is something I call a CSP+K. That stands for:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Knowledge

It’s a template that I fill out with most stories I write. I list the characters, the overall setting, the plot, the plot dynamo (more on this later) and what I know about this topic or story. This covers the basics for starting to write. The knowledge category is quite important, though I didn’t include it in earlier versions of the template. It gets back to the old adage: “write what you know.” If you don’t know something about the topic, you will generally find it hard to write about it. If I feel there is a knowledge gap, I either decide against writing the story or write a list of things to research/experience to make up the gap.

So, getting back to the short story…I wrote a basic CSP+K for it. I found that just 10-15 minutes spent on that exercise helped me figure out more clearly what the plot was, what the characters motives were and how it all hung together.

This, in turn, meant that I could write the story without stopping (and thinking about the logical structure) and the words would just flow. If done properly, a good prewrite isn’t constraining, but liberating. It helps the work move along more quickly.

5. I let world-building take a back seat to character and plot.

I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about how to make my fiction more about showing than telling. To suck people into a new world. It’s not easy.

While musing about this, I saw this post on Twitter a few weeks ago:

That nailed it for me. Sometimes I let my descriptions of a world or character run wild. This time I was very parsimonious with the descriptions. I just gave readers a quick snapshot of new scenes and new people and let the action and dialogue do the rest. Including just the pertinent details fleshes out the world but doesn’t bog the narrative down in excessive detail.

6. I built tension brick by brick, sentence by sentence.

This piece is genre fiction, so a riveting plot is essential. A great way to ensure that is to steal one of George Lucas’s key ideas on plotting. I wasn’t able to track down the exact quote, but Lucas is known for being a fan of 1930s matinees. In fact, Indiana Jones is his homage to the matinee movies he saw on TV. They all rely on one simple device: Put your characters in a dicey situation, make it more and more dangerous. Then, provide the solution.

A great illustration is the trash compactor scene from Star Wars.

Building the tension…It can get messy.

Luke, Han, Leia and Chewy get away from the storm troopers, but fall in the compactor. The compactor has a monster and it grabs Luke and pulls him under. He escapes and the monster leaves. But just then, the trash compactor starts compacting and they are in even bigger trouble.

A crucial element in my story is a ancient structure with three levels. As the two main characters work their way down the building, the tension goes up. It’s that simple. I saw from the start that this was a lovely device for moving the plot along and stuck with it. 

7. I wrote what I wanted.

I’ve made the mistake of trying to imitate others in the past, but this time I wrote something that I wanted to write. That made the process so much freer, truer and better. In the end no one knows how to write a piece that is more “Jonesian” like I do.

So, what was the outcome of my woodworking adventure in Wisconsin? A crappy looking birdhouse.

Birdhouse 1

You can’t tell from the photo, but its roof is all wonky. Thank God I’m a better writer than woodworker. I should finish the story this weekend and here’s hoping it comes out better than the birdhouse. I’ll keep you posted.

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