Monday, November 10, 2008

Building block

It all has to start somewhere. 

One of my favorite bits of writing advice came from one of my college professors who was coaching me through my senior thesis.  As we mused about the revision process, he told me that as writers, we are like sculptors - only our job is harder, because before we can begin carving the statue, we first have to build the block of marble.  

And for those of us participating in NaNoWriMo, that's what November is all about.  This is when we build the block.  It might not look pretty, but that's because we haven't gotten to the actual sculpting yet.  

It takes a lot of effort to build that block, because the only way to do it is word by word.   Each of us is creating a universe, using only our imagination, the keyboard, the blank page.  It's a thrilling and frightening experience.  And sometimes it's frustrating, because the block is rough and unbalanced and has lots of holes.  

But somewhere underneath exists the statue, waiting to be carved out.  


  1. Jes, that's a particularly apt metaphor for me this time around. My current work-in-progress is something of an incoherent mess; I'm not even sure where exactly it's going, or if there's going to be any plot to speak of, only that there are all these set pieces I want to arrange into something that might pass for a story. And I think I've finally talked myself into just throwing everything out there and letting it sort itself out; later, I can pare it down to what's necessary, but I can't do that unless I have more raw material than I need.

    Jim Macdonald (whose writing advice I really need to find and add to the sidebar links) compares novel writing to building a crate: if you have a bunch of pieces of wood of about the right size, and you nail them together and it's not quite right, you can always disassemble the thing and put it back together again until you have a crate. (Short stories don't work this way, but that's another subject...)

  2. How interesting that Katherine Paterson used an extremely similar metaphor in her pep talk just today! The only difference for her is that the block already exists in the world, and has to be unearthed. I tend to agree more with your view, Jes: we have to create that block. And that's a hell of a job.

    I think it also speaks to the whole idea of silencing your inner editor and not revising until you have a complete block to work with. Revise too much too early, and you'll damage the structural integrity of your block or take out something you could very well use later to shape a nose or an arm. You're very right, Dan: it is better to have more than you need than not enough.

  3. I noticed that too, in Patterson's essay. And when I found the "Learn Writing with Uncle Jim" thread earlier today, I noticed that he also uses the "take away everything that doesn't look like an elephant" image that I'm fond of referring to. It's almost like someone's trying to Tell Me Something.

    ("Have more material than you need" is also the first rule of improvisation, which every kind of creativity is also a form of; but that's probably an essay for another day.)