The Squint Test and Tolerating the Imperfect

Sharing some pre-Christmas thoughts in this reprise from 2009…

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Through the years my husband has wound umpteen dozen strings of lights around our Christmas trees … and unwound them … and rewound them. It’s hard to tell if they’re perfectly spaced even when the strings are lit up, so he does “the squint test”. Peering at the tree while squinting removes all the visual distractions except the small sparkles of illumination. He likes them to be exactly right.

Last year our tree looked lovely – the treasured family heirloom ornaments glistened among our collection of snowflakes, frosted pinecones, and a few red balls for a festive touch. And then the lights went out. Actually, just one string went out – the new, supposed-to-last-for-years LED’s faded away and left the top quarter of the tree dark. Drat!!

So we un-decorated that section, removed the string and replaced it with another, and then redecorated. There. Now it was lovely again … until the next evening when another set of the lights slowly faded away to nothing, this time mid-way down the tree. To replace that string would have required removal of a great number of the decorations as well as the beaded swags, so we did some minor tweaking, rearranged a few nearby lights and then resigned ourselves to ignoring the imperfection, but it’s hard to do. You know how it is. The lights form the backdrop for all the other ornaments. This errant string left a darkened gap right in the middle. But we didn’t have any family coming to visit that Christmas, so no one else saw it.  Later when we were putting everything back into storage we discarded that string so we wouldn’t forget and try to use it again the  next year.

It’s a little like my first novel. I wanted it to be perfect but it was written before I learned what writing was meant to be. Peering critically at it reveals weaknesses. There are gaps that no amount of rearranging is going to fix. I know; I’ve tried. The underlying plot is flawed. The story needs a total rewrite but that would be more work than I think it’s worth. So I’m resigned to its imperfection and have stashed it in the dusty depths of oblivion better known as the closet. No one is ever going to see it.

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What do you do with your less-than-perfect writing efforts? Are you able to discard them or do you keep trying to make them better? How do you decide if they’re worth the effort?

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What’s one tree, more or less?

In the remote area where our summer cabin is located there are thousands, millions, of trees. I couldn’t begin to count them. Through the years I’ve heard the crack and crash of occasional ones falling, but in the woods one tree more or less doesn’t make much difference. Ones that topple toward our cabin, however, are another matter.

Yesterday one towering evergreen was discovered leaning precariously in that direction, its roots already partially out of the ground. All plans to head back to town had to be put on hold until the tree was removed – and it was no small endeavour to get it to fall in a direction other than where it was leaning.

I hate losing magnificent trees that are part of the view from the cabin window, but left where it was, this tree would likely have removed the window before our next visit! Recognizing its threat and taking action saved a later catastrophe.

Thinking about that tree reminded me of when I axed a chapter from an earlier novel. It wasn’t that the chapter was doing any harm where it was, but it hovered over subsequent scenes and threatened to send readers off in the wrong direction. And that could have destroyed the impact of the whole story.  As much as I liked the chapter, it was expendable. It had to be removed.

The analogy is weak, I admit, but there’s value in remembering that sometimes characters or scenes (or, in this case, a whole chapter) need to be sacrificed for the good of something more important.

Have you ever had to “kill your darlings”… cut out parts of a manuscript? How easy, or difficult, is it for you to do away with those precious words?

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Paving the way to publication

Fifteen years with a gravel driveway conditioned us to get use to certain things. Like circles of reddened fir needles that collected under evergreen trees and were impossible to rake out of the rocks. Weeds and moss that regularly snuck in and took hold, even though we all know gravel is not a good growing medium. Holes in the housing of the snowblower from flinging pebbles along with the snow.

This is what our driveway looked like Wednesday morning.

This is what it looked like Thursday evening.

Yes, I’m smiling. Having a paved driveway was only a faint dream, but by doing our bit, plus receiving some help from a good friend in the business, and putting the job into the hands of a team of knowledgeable workers and their equipment, the dream has become a reality. Not without a lot of work, of course.

Over these past two days as I watched and photographed the twelve workers, five pieces of heavy equipment, two truck loads of gravel and three more of asphalt, it occurred to me this wasn’t unlike the process of writing for publication.

1. Doing the groundwork. ~ Making preparation for our writing. Trying out ideas.

2. Setting out the material. ~ Doing the research and determining what’s needed.

3.  Assembling the equipment we’ll need. ~ Plotting, planning, finding a pen and preparing to write.

4. Getting started on the real work. ~ Beginning the first chapter!

5. Persevering even when the task is long and tiring. ~ Um, yes… what I just said.

6. Adjusting and redistributing the material. ~ Revising and editing.

7. Inspecting and working on cohesion. ~ Reading the manuscript to critique for weak spots and inconsistency.

8. Compacting and smoothing the material. ~ Polishing words until they shine!

9. Paying the bills. ~ Yes, there are dues to pay in the publishing industry, too. Learning the craft, building a platform, querying, etc.

Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a dream driveway. It’s a long time to wait for a publishing dream to materialize, too. Neither just “happens” because we wish it would. But when I watch the grandchildren run their scooters down the driveway next time they come to visit, and when one day I hold my own published book, I’m going to be smiling again, because that planning, work, perseverance and payment are going to be so worth it!

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Are you actively working through the necessary steps to make your writing dreams a reality? What stage have you reached to date?

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I. Am. A. Writer.

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K.M. Weiland says a lot of things that grab me when I think I can sneak past with a cursory glance at her site. It’s that moment when time is limited and I promise myself I’ll just snatch a brief look at her topic du jour and get back to work. She never lets me get away with it. There is always something that captures my attention.

What was that???

I have a section in one of my writing binders with quotations and excerpts intended for inspiration and encouragement. Some of the entries are gleaned from her websites. One favourite:

Writing is both a gift and an art.

As a gift, it must be approached with humility: the writer is only the vessel through which inspiration flows.

As an art, it must be approached with passion and discipline: a gift that’s never developed wasn’t worth the giving.” 

[K M Weiland]

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I found another gem in her post today that has already been printed out and added to my collection for days when I need reassurance — a reminder that, regardless of what I may think of my ability on any given day, I am a writer and my writing is important to me. I love what I do, and I will write with joy.

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 Do you sometimes need a reminder that what you do as a writer is worthwhile?

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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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Writing and Fence Building

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Fifteen years of shade and encroaching moss did their damage. The fence around our 30’ x 40’ dog yard wobbled like a bobble head if we leaned against it, and only a few of the posts kept it upright. Fortunately our dog wasn’t an escape artist, but there was very little keeping him from a romp in the neighbourhood. Replacement couldn’t be put off any longer.

One man, four months and $1200 later, the old fence has been dissembled section by section, and a new one put up in its place. The yard needed to be safe and usable during construction so nails were carefully removed from the old boards as they came down, and the wood was stacked outside of the yard. Old wire fencing temporarily filled each gap as it was created. It’s been painstakingly slow work, but – halleluia! – the job is almost done, with just a few cosmetic tasks left.

Each time I took a progress photo to send to our family I found myself comparing my husband’s fence building to my novel writing endeavour.

  • The initial commitment
  • Planning and research
  • Calculating and obtaining the necessary materials
  • Starting the work, and keeping going despite bad weather and interruptions
  • Taking down less than perfectly cut boards and redoing them so the next ones will fit properly
  • Slowly building the sections and putting everything together until only one final gap is left
  • Crafting the closure
  • Trimming and refining the finished product.
  • Taking pride in a job well done

Yes, there are similarities.  What other forms of construction can be compared to novel writing? Piecing a quilt? Composing a song? Planning a Sunday School lesson?

Is the existence of such similarities enough to prove a theory that formulas or templates can be used to produce almost anything? Then at what point do creations cease to be art? When does our writing stop being original and become just another fence board?

Oh, my! I’ve digressed a long way, haven’t I? I should be content that the dog can’t find his way into the creek or the neighbour’s garden and stop this mental meandering.

By the way, have you built any fences lately? Finished writing any novels? 🙂

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Know where you’re going, whether walking or writing

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It’s easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going.

Last week we took the ferry to Vancouver Island and combined our visiting with a bit of camping (okay, RVing for you purists). We spent our first night at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park with its 347 hectares of old growth, picnic sites and campground, plus two kilometers of sandy beach and magnificent views.

We tucked the fifth wheel and truck into a convenient spot and wandered off to find the shore before sunset. There was a well worn trail not far from our campsite, not marked, but it seemed to head in the right direction, so off we went.

 

Shadows lengthened. We discovered a few delights along the way, but no sign of the ocean. Eventually we came to a wide wire gate leading onto a street of private homes and caught a glimpse of water beyond.  Should we trespass or continue on the trail, which now turned ninety degrees and carried on with no end in sight? We elected to stay on the trail and soon found a break in the underbrush that let us through to the shore.

It was an enjoyable walk and we eventually reached our destination, but on the way out of the campground the next day we saw signs for the real beach trail. I’m sure if we’d planned ahead and read the park brochure we could have saved ourselves a lot of wandering and wondering.

That’s also true in our writing. There are various ways to craft a novel. Some are well documented and named: the Snowflake Method, the Kiser Method, the Marshall Plan, the Hero’s Journey, Plotting, and Pantsing, to name a few.

Like our impulse to find the ocean, we can get a story idea and simply jump into the writing. We can begin at the top of the first page and let the words tumble out, or outline first, sorting scenes on recipe cards, sticky notes and spreadsheets, and doing detailed character sketches and hours of research.  No matter what route we choose, as long as we have a destination in mind and don’t give up before we reach it, we have a fair chance of getting there.

With a little forethought and planning, however, we can save ourselves a lot of unnecessary revision and backtracking, as well some anxiety. It’s no fun getting lost!

Do you follow a specific writing plan? Have you tried other methods?

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Getting the Gears in Motion

Everyone but me seems to be packing away Christmas decorations, evaluating the past year and making resolutions for the new one. Everyone but me. Other people are clearing away their mental and physical clutter, ready to dive with fresh determination into 2010’s challenges. Me? I’m less than enthusiastic.

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Part of me is ready to move out of holiday mode and return to routine while another part is procrastinating because I’m not quite ready to tackle what’s waiting for me.

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You see, I have two works in progress, both novels, one of which has been haunting me for months. I put it aside last fall in favour of making a start on something new during NaNoWriMo. Why I put it aside is perfectly explained in a post by Katie Ganshart. I swear she was reading my journal when she composed it!

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She starts out saying, “I’m reading through my rough draft of Wishing on Willows. Makes my stomach knot up like a tangled string of Christmas lights. I keep forcing myself to take deep, calming breaths. I keep reminding myself that this is how I always feel when I read through a first draft. My reminders do very little. Panic has its way. It perches inside my chest and heaves like a raving lunatic. Can you really fix this? Is this story even redeemable?”

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Oh, how I know that feeling! I’ve revised, reorganized, reworked, revamped, attempted to revitalize. I’ve done it all and still it reads like the pages of yesterday’s newspaper. Or the telephone book. Or an outdated shopping list. You get the idea. So I took a break from it. Now that it’s time to get back to work I would be happier returning to my newer novel but that know-it-all part of my conscience says I need to finish the other first.

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Katie’s probably right. She says, “The only remedy? Roll up my sleeves and get to work.” I guess it’s time to get the gears in motion.

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Now that the holidays are over what project is beckoning for your attention?

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The Squint Test, or Tolerating the Imperfect

Through the years my husband has wound umpteen dozen strings of lights around our Christmas trees… and unwound them… and rewound them. It’s hard to tell if they’re perfectly spaced even when the strings are lit up, so he does “the squint test”. Peering at the tree while squinting removes all the visual distractions except the small sparkles of illumination. He likes them to be exactly right.

.

This year our tree looked lovely – the treasured family heirloom ornaments glistened among our collection of snowflakes, frosted pinecones, and a few red balls for a festive touch. And then the lights went out. Actually, just one string went out – the new, supposed-to-last-for-years LED’s just faded away and left the top quarter of the tree dark. Drat!!

.

So we un-decorated that section, removed the string and replaced it with another, and then redecorated. There. Now it was lovely again… until the next evening when another set of the lights slowly faded out to nothing, this time mid-way down the tree. To replace that string would have required removal of a great number of the decorations as well as the beaded swags, so we did some minor tweaking, rearranged a few nearby lights and then resigned ourselves to ignoring the imperfection, but it’s hard to do. You know how it is. The lights form the backdrop for all the other ornaments. This errant string leaves a darkened gap right in the middle. But we don’t have any family coming to visit this Christmas so no one else will see it.  Later when we’re putting everything back into storage we’ll discard that string so we don’t forget and try to use it again next year.

.

It’s a little like my first novel. I wanted it to be perfect but it was written before I learned what writing was meant to be. Peering critically at it reveals weaknesses. There are gaps that no amount of rearranging is going to fix. I know; I’ve tried. The underlying plot is flawed. The story needs a total rewrite but that would be more work than I think it’s worth. So I’m resigned to its imperfection and have stashed it in the dusty depths of oblivion better known as the closet. No one is ever going to see it.

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What do you do with your less-than-perfect writing efforts? Are you able to discard them or do you keep trying to make them better? How do you decide if they’re worth the effort?

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Dealing With Roadblocks

Do you know where you’re going? Most of us have a destination in mind when we start on a journey. If the route isn’t entirely clear we may check Google Maps or program our GPS because we like the security of knowing how we’ll get there. What do we do once we’re under way and an unexpected roadblock crops up? On well-travelled roads our GPS may suggest an alternate route, but that’s not always an option.

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This summer, many miles from a public road, we worked our way towards our northern cabin. We always travel well prepared with chainsaw and shovel for such things as fallen trees and mud holes. But around a curve we encountered an obstacle that left us stymied.

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Now what? In this remote location there was no one to offer assistance. Our best friend was our Dodge 4×4 dually. We backtracked and came at our cabin from a different direction, an eight kilometer adventure.

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We found a solution, but if, as I’m sure you’ve caught on, this were an allegory for writing, and the insurmountable obstruction happened in the middle of your story, how would you deal with it?

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When your characters suddenly carry you to an unexpected dead end do you abandon the story, start over again, or do you use a little ingenuity and take the opportunity to embark on an adventure?

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