16 January 2023

Swing a hammer, write a page.

If you’re learning to become a woodworker or a writer, the most important thing is to make a lot of mistakes.  This means you’re developing skills, since not making mistakes means you aren’t actually working, just convincing yourself that you are.  The trick is to not be deterred by the mistakes, but rather have them teach you things.  Such as, don’t make the same mistakes more than once.  Two max, if you can help it. 

Before writing a novel, or building a house, figure out what you want to make.  For me, it starts in the imagination.  At this point, all you need is to see it with your mind’s eye while you’re driving a car, sitting on a beach or trying to fall asleep.  This is the basic plot; this is the floor plan.  Move your mind around and test how the various components can work with each other.  Both efforts are reasonably sequential:  this happens, then that; this goes here, so that can go there. 

When you finally get to your desk, or drawing board (mine are the same), sketching is handy to see if those mental playgrounds are more than fever dreams.  The goal is to hear yourself say, “That can work.”  The key for me at this stage is to not lose the sketches or rough story treatments, since the ideas will evaporate if not recorded. 

Assuming the rough paperwork survives, working drawings can proceed from there.  In this, the house designer has a clear advantage, since you have graph paper, standardized proportions, set engineering principles and a sturdy eraser to aid in the effort.  (Or if you’re technologically capable, a computer program.)   For the novel, some write out a complete outline.  I admire those people, but it’s not for me.  I’ve tried, but the outline always collapses soon after the writing begins (as in, the war plan never survives the first contact with the enemy).  Still, I jot down a lot of stuff – rough plot structure, progress of the story, potential scenes, character outlines, things that will help as I embark on the project. 

At this stage, the acts of building a house or writing a novel begin to diverge.  The house becomes more of a team activity, like a movie production, where you need to recruit specialists to do things like shoot the elevation, dig the foundation and pour a concrete basement.  With a novel, all you have is you, and you need to start writing, if you haven’t already – like me, eager to jump the gun.  With a house, the entire frame is raised in an exhilaratingly short period of time.  With a novel, you start building piece by piece, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. 

A house from there is a much slower process of filling in.  Roof, exterior, windows and doors, mechanicals, electric, insulation, sheetrock, trim.  Though after a while, the two activities of writing a book and building a house begin to re-converge.  The final finish of a house now more resembles editing a book.  The polishing, decorating, re-writing (more expensive with a house!), a million little aesthetic decisions.    

Craft is an old and overused word, but it applies to both woodworking and writing novels.  When you’re beyond the planning and plotting stages, the handwork makes the difference.  Getting those clauses in the right order and wrangling prepositions directly equates to cutting on the right side of the pencil line and fitting tight, symmetrical joints.  A sixteenth of an inch off at the beginning of trimming out a room can mean a half-inch failure at the end.  Same with a book.  What starts well, ends well. 

The process is never complete, though eventually, the book has to go to the printer, and you move into the house.  At first, all you see are the imperfections, the unfinished work.  You can’t do much about the published novel, but at least you can keep working on the house.  Either way, time will eventually settle in and you’ll accept that what you did is what you did. 

Maybe, with luck, you’ll actually be satisfied with the ultimate result, though you’ll be distracted by the next ungainly, terrifying projects already underway. 



  1. A computer publication argued 'craft' was the discipline between art and science. I can see that with writing… it's part science, part art, and all craft.

    My friend Steve is an artist, a lot of commercial art and a surprising amount of architectural art. And that sixteenth of an inch (or a millimetre) makes a huge difference. Just ask the builders of those bridges to nowhere.

    1. There's a principal of Chaos Theory Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions. Also referred to as statistical noise. Small deviations at the outset amplify over time, until slight deviations take over the formula and wreck the stew.

  2. FYI

    Chris, I've used a variety of graphics programs over the decades, starting with MacPaint, MacDraw, MacDraft, and Visio, then on to Freehand, Illustrator, and Photoshop. I detest Adobe's rental policy where the user never owns the program. Sadly, Adobe has become the Quark Xpress of our era, the company everyone loves to hate.

    (BMW is using that business model with cars– requiring a subscription if you want certain features to work. You never really own a BMW because you have to rent parts of it.)

    I discovered Serif, a British/German company, and their Affinity series of products– Photo, Designer, and Publisher– for Mac, Windows, and iPad. For version 2, they raised their prices to $100 for the suite(!) across any platform. That barely gets a toe in Adobe's massive oaken door.

    I work a lot with Designer (their Illustrator competitor) and have grown to love it and Affinity Photo. I miss an Illustrator feature or two, but I don't miss that monthly $80 fee.

  3. I admire anyone who uses these graphics programs, I've worked with many who do, but for architectural drawings I'm strictly graph paper, pencil and architectural scale ruler (the three sided thing). It's what I've used for almost 50 years and I'm sticking to it. I find the effort comforting and the product often artistically satisfying in its own right. When I'm ready with a design, with all the dimensions called out, I turn my pencil drawings over to a certified architect who loads them into one those programs to create the finished construction drawings, which then go to the building inspector (and sometimes the bank.) I'm not a Luddite, I just enjoy the mechanical process, and often little works of art that emerge.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>