Saturday, May 13, 2006

Measure twice, trench once

In addition to my love of reading and writing I have another passion. Chickens. I love em! Recently we have decided to move our chicken coop (the house they live in) and build a bigger chicken run (fenced in outdoor area). The coop is currently set atop one of five garden grow boxes, a little tunnel thing leads to the chicken run which is built on another grow box. I wanted my garden space back and it seemed like a pretty straightforward project to build a new foundation and get my grow boxes back.

So the other day I set aside an hour to trench out the area where the new foundation of cinderblocks would be laid for the coop. I tilled it, trenched it out and then realized I probably ought to measure my coop to see if my trenches were the right length. Dang, I had underestimated the length. Retrench—dang, is that an underground power cord? I remeasured and retrenched it a third time. Dang—I’m sweating like a pig and I have to pick up my daughter. It had been four hours.

Was I discouraged? Sure, but I’m just oblivious enough to not give up. So today I went out and started again. My husband came out to help.

“You have to go deeper so that the cinderblock has enough dirt around it.”

“You need a carpenters square to make sure you have your angles right.”

“You need to make it perfectly level so that the coop doesn’t wobble.”

I was very close to saying, “What do you know?” However, I’m the chicken lover, and the only reason we keep chickens is because my husband loves me enough to let me have my fun. I did not yell at him, instead I asked questions.

“Can’t I just pile dirt around the edges?”

“What’s a carpenters square?”

“Does it really matter if it’s level?”

After he answered all this he looked at me. “Is there an easier solution to this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what if we just moved the coop to this one grow box and then built the new run around it. You’d free up one grow box for the garden and we wouldn’t have to build the foundation.”

It was one of those breakthrough moment. “Hunny, you are brilliant.”

And so it is with our writing. Sometimes we just want to write and write and write (dig and dig and dig) without having a goal (measuring) and without having properly prepared (checking for underground cables). We just get in there and write. Then someone asks about our plotting—out characterization and we grind our teeth and think to ourselves. “What do they know?”

That is the fork in the road. Where do we go from there? Do we simply keep digging, intent on finishing the task? Or do we step back, cock our head to the side and look at things a little different.

Is there a more powerful way to show my characters weaknesses?

Could I add a little more conflict to make my story more compelling?

Is it possible that perhaps having 19 points of view is a little confusing to my reader?

Knowing what tools you need and what details you need to cover can save you a lot of retrenching. Don’t stop learning, don’t turn your back on advice. Be open to learning new skills, developing better writing habits and finding a little more objectivity in the process. Sometimes we are our greatest stumbling block—we make it harder than it needs to be.

So my advice? Take a step back from your work, cock your head to the side, think about what you’ve learned, what feedback you’ve had on other writing projects. Is there a better way? Can you save yourself from the embarrassment of a poorly done book or hundreds of deleted passages if you’re better prepared? Usually, there is and if you can’t see it then maybe you need to take a little break from your writing—give yourself some distance. Need something else to do during all that writing time? Ever thought of raising chickens?