Piecing things together… quilts and stories

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Stored on a shelf downstairs there’s a box labelled “Quilt”. It contains one of the two patchwork quilts I began making thirty-four years ago. Its face is done – various pink and white multi-sized gingham squares alternating with plain pink ones. I have this sweet fabric sprigged with pink flowers for its backing.

 

Originally there was enough fabric for a second quilt, but it became obvious many years ago that I wasn’t going to get one quilt finished, never mind a second, so the extra fabric was eventually given away.

I had great ambitions, but I’m not a quilter at heart. I don’t have the patience to do all the piecing, the painstaking stitching together of multi layers, locking polyester padding between the colourful cottons.  I wish I did, because I admire the finished works of art.

Quilt designed and made by Ellen Lewis - a retirement gift from our church choir. The theme reflects a combination of music with leisure time at our cabin, and my DH's love of hunting and the outdoors. (Click to enlarge photo)

I know a few very talented quilters who love what they do and find the process soothing. It only exasperates me.

For the perfect quilt, every piece of fabric and every stitch must be placed “just so” to comply with the pattern, or the end result will look slipshod or chaotic. It’s a little like piecing together a novel from an outline … which is probably why I’m more of a seat-of-my-pants novelist.

Deciding on a theme, choosing the colours and fabrics, and beginning to cut out swatches … these all resemble my novels’ initial stages since they get a certain amount of forethought and pre-planning. But during the actual writing I don’t do well when it comes to staying within a rigid outline. Of course some might think the end result would be better if I did, but no one has suggested that … yet.

Are you a quilter? A novelist who follows plot outlines? How do you reconcile the concept of using stringent control to produce something creative?

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Good friends are like quilts – they age with you yet never lose their warmth.  [Author Unknown]

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On What Rock Do You Build?

Today’s mail brought a glossy brochure advertising the opening of a new CornerStone Church in our area. I like the name.

A cornerstone isn’t a complicated thing to understand. The dictionary defines it as a keystone, foundation, or basis – an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends.

It makes me think of Matthew 7:24-27* where we are admonished to live securely grounded on the rock that can withstand storms rather than on sand that will wash away. It’s a smart policy whether we’re talking about our faith, our lives or our homes, and I think it can also be applied to our writing.

Writing by “the seat of our pants” is a sans-plotting method that many of us have used. It works, too, but I sometimes wonder why, because it’s a little like building a story on sand. There’s no firm foundation, nothing substantial set in place to anchor it or keep it from falling apart as we labour on, tossing our words at it.

I’ve mentioned my not-quite-pantsing, not-quite-plotting, somewhere-in-the-middle planning method before, in a guest post on Joylene Butler’s blog (you have to scroll down a few entries to the October 14th post if you want to check it out), and I’m not advocating any particular method here. I’m just wondering how other writers guarantee a strong storyline in their novels.

Does your writing have a cornerstone? How does it work for you?

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* “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
[Matthew 7:24-27, NIV]

Is it Outlining or Plotting?

Sometimes I get hung up on semantics. “Plotting versus pantsing” is a popular topic of discussion among writers.  Writing by the seat of my pants got me through my first two novels, and with a germ of an idea in mind it’s how I write most of my articles. During revisions of my second novel I had an idea for a third one and quickly wrote my way through its first chapter. Then I decided to give outlining a try.

It’s not working. Not only is it not working, it’s dampening my enthusiasm for the story.

Here’s where semantics come into play. My outline is attempting to touch on all the basic plot points that will take the story from beginning to end. So am I outlining or plotting? I don’t really know.

Whatever it’s called, I’ve drifted back to my earlier revisions and left the new idea to gather dust in the closet. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Novel #2 really needed a major overhaul so I’m glad to be able to focus on it without the distraction of #3. But there’s a still-earlier sort-of memoir that’s beckoning for attention now, too. I’m beginning to see signs of avoidance here and suspect it’s all because of this dratted outline-plotting thing.

Relating it to painting offers a slightly different perspective. With a scene in mind I begin by laying out a basic composition, but I don’t choose all the colours before I put brush to canvas. If I did, it would seem too much like a paint-by-number effort. I know the end result would lack the emotional element I desire and, knowing that, I would put the brush back down.

How would you define outlining versus plotting? In your writing have you found a balance between flying blind and working with a view in mind?