Friday, June 8, 2012

Stitches and Words

In conjunction with getting our foundation repaired, hardwood floors replaced, and other neat stuff done to our house, I've been on a redecorating binge. I got rid of some furniture, recovered chair cushions, etc. etc. We had an old leather sofa that had been passed down through family and friends for 15+ years. By the time we got it, it had a couple of small holes which my dogs promptly turned into big gaping holes. They didn't eat the leather, just ripped out all the stuffing, and it wasn't reparable. It was very expensive when new, and the distressed leather just got softer and more supple as it aged, and it seemed a shame to throw it out. So we skinned the couch before we chunked it, and I decided to use the leather to recover some more chair and couch cushions.

The first cushion cover came out okay but not great. I've discovered that when doing home sewing projects, the first is always the worst - but I don't care, I'll still use it. I did some hand sewing to fix the visible problems, and then I went on to the next cushion---which turned into a nightmare. I don't know how, but I managed to cut each piece - top, bottom, and four sides - about an eighth of an inch too short. It wasn't going to fit the cushion. I could either add strips of leather, or I could start over.

It wasn't the first time that I thought of the similarities between writing and sewing.

At first, of course, I tried to just add leather strips, but it soon resembled some kind of Frankencover. I ended up having to rip out one whole side panel and cut a new one. I think that will solve the problem - but I might still have to completely redo it, and cut all 6 pieces anew.

I hate cutting -- it's absolutely the worst part about sewing, especially when you're doing something like this, and you have to keep cutting the same damn pieces over and over. The idea of having to drop a nearly-completed piece, and cut all new pieces, is too awful to contemplate.

It's the same thing when you're writing a book and you start to notice that things don't fit together as they should. Maybe your plot's too loose, or maybe it's too narrow. Maybe it feels like a randomly assembled group of scenes instead of a coherent plot, or nothing much happens and characters are just hanging around. It doesn't matter; if you're fifty thousand words in, you just can't face the idea of starting over. So you start sticking in little scenes to fit the cracks, or you drop lines here and there to explain the stuff that wasn't making sense, or you cut a character and a secondary plot. But then it's even more of a mess, the literary equivalent of the stuff you see on There I Fixed It.

"Screw it," you think. "I'll just write a whole different story."

If you've been on any writing blogs, you know that writers come in two flavors - pantsers and plotters. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants--i.e., they sit down at the computer and start typing with no idea what's going to happen, trusting in their imaginations to take them where they want to go. Plotters plot - they make out a map of the story and then they follow it, albeit usually with some detours.

I'm a dedicated plotter. There's no way I can just sit down and start typing and have anything happen. I have to have at least an idea of what's going to happen next.

Constructing a story, to me, is like sewing a garment or a cushion cover. First I measure the cushion/create the characters and their general arc. Then I start putting the pieces together. I don't always write scenes chronologically--I tend to write the scenes I "see"  most clearly in my head first. And I don't always sew garments in the same order. But in both cases I have to know ahead of time what I'm making and what it's supposed to look like when it's done.

Of course, you can't sew by the seat of your pants. I mean, I know some people who can sew without patterns, but you can't sit down at a sewing machine and just start going. You have to know at least if you intend to make pants, or a shirt, or a chair cover. But within the confines of what you're making, you can change things as you go along; you can make the sleeves short instead of long, or add pleats to the bottom of the chair cover (although why you'd want to do this, I don't know. Pleats are a pain in the ass.)

There are other differences. If your sewing machine breaks down, you're stuck until you get it fixed. If your computer breaks down, though, you can just switch to writing long hand, which is much easier than trying to hand stitch a skirt.

On the other hand, a sewing project is shorter and more finite than writing a book. A shirt or a skirt or a kid's costume has a limited number of parts, and once you put them together you're done, and it either looks good or it doesn't. Whether a garment fits and is well made isn't as much a matter of opinion as whether or not a book is any good. When I finish covering the couch cushions, I can sigh with satisfaction and sit down on the sofa and enjoy my handiwork. It's a tangible, visible accomplishment. A book, on the other hand, is ephemeral and theoretical and of uncertain quality until it's fully written, and revised, and revised and revised and revised, and then accepted for publication (or not!) and then released and reviewed and for the rest of your life you won't ever be certain if it was really any good. And unlike a cushion cover, which can be ripped up and resewn until it looks exactly as you want it to, once your book is published, that's it. It's fixed, unchangeable, unimprovable no matter how many great ideas you come up with for fixing that weak conflict or the scene near the end that everyone says kind of drags.

Sewing is also a great way to procrastinate on writing and yet still feel productive. Which is why I can't get back to the steampunk until I finish the couch covers...


PG Forte said...

sewing machines and I don't get along, Same with scissors, now that I think of it--it's a lefty thing. But I used to love embroidering and I'm totally with you on the plotting thing. ;)

Kelly Jamieson said...

I used to do a lot of sewing and you're right Kinsey, there are some similarities to writing! One time I lost a big chunk of a manuscript I'd written and I had to recreate it. It was not fun re-writing something I'd already written. I always felt that way if I had to redo something I'd already done sewing, like if I screwed up and had to rip it up and start over...same bored frustrated feeling LOL

Kinsey Holley said...

Sometimes you just have to put it down and walk away for a while (she says as she sits on the couch instead of sewing.)