Writing a Book is Like Building a House

Last week I wrote about struggling to come up with new memoir material for the packet that was due to my professor the next day.  I’m happy to report that the reason I decided to do this master’s – for the invariable deadlines that would force me to write – is working. After a few fits and starts, prose and pages flowed.

I have had to learn to let go of control in this process. So, while I have been hung up for a long time on the ultimate structure of this project, I finally gave myself permission to simply write what came to me that day, and not worry about writing each chapter in the succession I imagined. There is a lot to be said for writing what moves you in the moment. I was able to tackle several scenes that will more than likely end up in different places – and in a different order – once this book is done. But I am writing. And that’s the key.

Another discovery: I have written some pieces in poetic form, some in dialogue and scene, some in interior monologue. They may change form over time, but the scenes, the images, the feelings I had at the time, are there.

And, finally, a book is a major undertaking, whether it is fiction, nonfiction or a collection of stories. Many writers –particularly new writers – get frustrated when things don’t go as quickly as they expect. Days, weeks and months go by and still you’re writing. A former newspaper journalist, I’ve been used to instant gratification for so long that not seeing what I’ve written in print the next day can be maddening.

But writing a book is like building a house. One has to establish the bones – the essential storyline – first. That may entail spending a lot of time on a detailed outline. Some writers love outlines; others write without them. I like outlines because, while I often stray from the initial plan, at least I can go back to it when the story or a scene leads to a dead-end, or something unexpected happens with a character. An outline gives you a blueprint to consult throughout construction. This first part of the process is like framing the house: putting up the studs and roof beams and adding an exterior skin.

Once you’ve erected and wrapped the house, you have to put all the important functions in – like electrical wiring, central heating and cooling conduits, plumbing and insulation. In the book, these are scenes, dialogue, character development, descriptions of settings and people – all the things that bring a piece of writing to life.

Once you have the drywall installed and the interior rooms begin to take shape, you can begin to add the finer touches: carpeting or tile, kitchen cupboards and countertops, bathroom fixtures, and wall and window coverings. Consider these the literary flourishes, touches like metaphor and other poetic constructs to make the story a pleasure to read for the language alone.

Now you have a first draft. You can begin revision: painting and decorating, adding personal accents and works of art to your new home.

If at any time you get stuck, go back to the blueprint for direction and inspiration. And stay at it. Writing a good book, like building a strong house, takes time.

What I’ve been doing the past couple of months is putting up studs. Soon enough, I’ll go inside and start weaving together the inner workings of the book.

What processes have you found helpful in writing your books?