The writer as carpenter


One thing writers love to discuss is the way in which they go about writing; almost, it seems, as much as the writing itself.  They will debate and dissect various methods of story-building, preparation and production, reviews and rewrites, trying either to find the best method for themselves, or to convince others which is the best method for them.

I am no different, and I’ve been asked frequently of late how my writing process works.  I like to compare my writing process to that of a carpenter making a chair; an orderly process that invariably results in a recognizable product, as basic or ornate as I desire.  Since I’ve used my writing process on over a dozen novels, and it has never given me a problem, I consider it a pretty good method, and I often recommend it to other authors.  So, in the interest of edification of my fellow writers, I’ll describe the process here.

The first rule may actually seem strange, but bear with me: Most authors profess to first conceive of a story premise, a “What if?” question that will guide their writing project; Not me.  Before I create a premise, I decide what kind of story I want to write… that is the actual beginning of any project.  Compare this to a carpenter who decides to make a chair: First they must decide what kind of chair, as there are many kinds, desk chair, barstool, straight-backed chair, Chippendale, high-chair, etc, etc.  Only when you know what kind of chair you intend to make can you actually get started.

For me, the questions are: In what genre or theme do I want to write?  Do I want to write a cerebral or an action story?  Serious or comedy?  Is there a particular atmosphere or resolution that I want to achieve?  For me, this is important, because I can’t do my best work on a book if I’m not “in the right zone,” that is, if I don’t feel like writing that particular type of story.

Once I’ve decided on the story type, I create my premise.  Often, I have a few ideas lying around, in varying stages of development, that I can pick up at this point if they fit the type of story I want to write.  If not, I can develop a new premise.  The “What if?” method works for most initial story development, but sometimes it leads you in the wrong direction.  Often, you are better off framing your premise in terms of a statement, rather than a question: “I want a story that results in this.”  This leads you to develop a storytelling goal to aim for, and will subsequently guide your preparations to get there.

Imagine you are about to shoot an arrow with a bow.  One method, “What if I shoot this arrow?” will cause you to lift the bow and let loose the arrow haphazardly, then see where the arrow falls.  The other method, “I want the arrow to hit the bulls-eye,” requires advanced preparation, choosing the correct bow, sighting, aiming, and more carefully loosing the arrow at your target.  The difference is that, where the former method may or may not hit something significant, reflecting on how significant your story may or may not be… the latter method is more likely to hit a significant point in the first place.

I prefer the latter method, just as a carpenter generally decides in advance how their chair is intended to look—say, a dining room armchair with a white fabric seat—before they start making it.  Everything I do from that point on is intended to reach that specific goal, that product, that bulls-eye.

Once you have a premise, you have to world-build… the carpentry equivalent of collecting your woods, fabric and other materials.  This is accomplished with notes, often lots of notes, about the settings, the types of characters involved, the atmosphere of your story, the bits and pieces of action you’d like to see happen.  Don’t be afraid to go nuts here: The more notes you write, the more detail you can incorporate into your story, which should enhance its realism.  If you’re writing about futurist fiction or fantasy, use this opportunity to work out your technological or mythological details.  Also spend some time on the history of your world and characters, to give things a sense of perspective and direction… why they do the things they do.

Concurrent with your notes, begin to write up character synopses: Names; relationships; personality types; backgrounds; significance to story or other characters.  Start out with your Primary characters first, giving them a good amount of detail and development, and add Secondary characters with lesser amounts of development and detail later (depending on the story, you may find you don’t need Secondary character detail at all—just names and basic traits).

As you fill in all of these notes and characters, always keep in mind the type of story you want to tell; this will inform what you add to your notes and characters so they can get you to that goal, just as a carpenter must select the proper pieces of wood, in the proper sizes, colors and grains, to fit their design.  If your story will need an engineer that thinks fast on their feet in order to satisfy part of your story premise, this is the time to add those traits to a character.  If a character is doomed to die in order to give another character something to react against and guide their subsequent behavior, pick them here.  If the story requires specific aspects of a piece of equipment to be in place, such as a fast car or a computer that will malfunction, write the details down.  Make sure it makes sense and doesn’t sound contrived… or if it is contrived, make sure you can give a substantial reason for your audience to accept the contrivance.

As your notes and characters start to gel, you’ll find yourself increasingly ready to write.  For me, I hit a critical mass with all that information, and find it’s time to start putting a story together.  Now comes the outline.  The outline is where you’ll describe all of the main points of the story: What happens, moment by moment, in varying amounts of detail to make sure significant points from your notes and character details are hit upon.  This is a detailed synopsis of the story, from start to finish.

Consider these your carpentry tools, what you’ll need to do a proper job.  This step also suggests the sketches a carpenter might make of particular parts of a chair, or even the whole thing, to make sure he remembers all of the aspects he wants to be part of the finished product.

I write my outline as paragraphs of abbreviated sentences describing the action and the thoughts and reactions of characters, along with minor notes (in parentheses) to help make clear why an event is happening or why a character is reacting as they are… essentially, a synposis.  I write virtually no dialogue here, unless a particular word or phrase is crucial to the scene.  Usually, my paragraphs equate to a chapter in my book (and why that works out, I may never know), but there’s no hard and fast rule there; a chapter should end at an appropriate break-point in the story, or at a crescendo in the story that demands a break for emphasis.  My paragraph endings usually provide that.

Do all of your story development here, referencing your notes and characters often.  As you work on the outline, feel free to make changes to your notes and characters, especially as you hit points in your outline that need help moving to the next desired story point; it is easier to backtrack and rework snags in the outline than it will be in the final work.  Write the story outline right up to the last scene—the bulls-eye you were always aiming to hit—and make sure there’s a bit of room for the epilogue at the end of the story, the triumphant bow, the prize, the result of hitting that bulls-eye.

Once done with the basic outline, walk away for a bit (maybe a day or two); then go back over it, line by line, to make sure it all makes sense with time and distance.  Then take time to add embellishment to the outline, further fleshing out characters or adding detail to scenes, the things that will add realism to your work.  Once you can’t think of much more to add to the outline, it is essentially done.

Now you’re ready to write, the equivalent of the actual woodworking.  Armed with my outline, the writing of the story is fairly straightforward: I already have the gist of what I want to say, I just have to find the best way to actually say it.  As I write, I add detail to a scene where the outline has left me some leeway, and I write the dialogue as I go, allowing the notes and outline to keep the dialogue moving in the desired direction.  (I will occasionally “allow” my creations to go off on a non-sequitor, but only when I can easily guide them back to my intended course.)

At this point my work comes to me as easily as a carpenter cutting wood, shaping the legs, and carving interesting patterns and rosettes into the frame.  The writing generally goes without a hitch, following my outline and notes closely and applying artistic license to the open areas.  I will occasionally come to a pause on a difficult passage, similar to the pause a carpenter must make if he comes to an unexpectedly rough or misshaped section of wood; careful not to ruin the overall product, the difficulty must be considered and carefully worked to get it into shape.  If you did a good job with your outline, notes and characters, there should be few pauses of this kind to slow you down.

If all goes well, I finish the story just as a carpenter finishes the body of the chair: I call it a draft, but in actuality, I won’t be using it as a guide to rewrite the final; the outline was the real “draft,” and this, with some (hopefully) light editing and proofing, will be my final manuscript.  At this point, I usually take a break from the book, then come back after a few days to a week to read it and proof what I’ve read.  Again, if you did a good job with your characters, notes and outlines, the story itself should present few areas to fix or rewrite; maybe an edit to a section of dialogue to clarify a point, or a better description of a moment to improve its pacing or emphasis, etc.  Most of the work will be proofing actual words, grammar and spelling.

This is the polishing of the product, making sure every angle looks good.  As with carpentry, it’s possible to go too far with polishing, not being able to tell when the product needs no more work; and if you’re not careful, you can over-polish and take the life out of a section; but as you write more and more, it will become easier to recognize the point at which you can stop messing with it.  When you’re done, you should have exactly what you envisioned at the beginning of the project, the product that you intended to make (and presumably sell).  And if it sells well, you will know that you also have all the tools you need to make more, either just like it (creating sets, the sequels some readers love so much) or completely original.

And there you have it: The carpenter’s model of producing books, as applied by me.  This model may not work for everyone—especially those who like to just take a hammer and chisel at a piece of wood, and see what they get at the end of the day—but for those of us who are trained to be more “workmanlike” at the tasks we take on, this model is a good one, and has not failed me yet.  Again, I recommend the method to any author looking for a good writing process, even if you only need a few parts of this process to add to your own.  If you use it, good luck… and if it works, I’d love to hear from you how well it worked for you.

3 thoughts on “The writer as carpenter

  1. “my writing process”

    Does your “process” and your “workmanlike” approach indicate the constraints of your personal comfort zone? I wonder if you have ever tried to push yourself in a direction that makes you uncomfortable. Possibly collaborating with another writer on a type of story that you might never have created had you stayed within the boundaries imposed by your usual “method”. Have you ever wondered if your “method” is safe, but preventing you from doing your best work?


  2. An interesting question, John.

    There are many kinds of writers, including (among others) those who like to write what they know how to write, and those who want to push their personal envelope and see what they can accomplish. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach, but the approach you use may have to depend on the intended audience (assuming that you have one). For instance, an avant-garde stream-of-consciousness writer has no business writing sports articles for the Washington Post.

    I write according to the audience I target, specifically, those who like to read entertaining stories of science, adventure, romance, mystery, etc. That audience has a preset image of what kind of story they want to read, and how that story should be structured, and I use my method of writing to provide that to them. In return, I hope that those readers will buy the book.

    That said, my method does allow for a lot of literary leeway in the actual writing; it lays down a preset path, which should be interesting enough by itself, but I am still free to walk, run, crawl on my back or dance the mambo as I travel that path.

    Does that keep me within my “comfort zone”? Yes, it does. I prefer to write according to my gifts, as opposed to struggling to create something I don’t understand, and hoping I (and others) like it.

    Does it prevent me from doing my best work? Frankly, I’d have to say No: I feel the work I do right now, under my control and done within the bounds of my proven abilities, is my best work; and I do not feel that using a different method would improve my work. This is the best way for me to produce the novels I want to produce.


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