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Photos by Jean Pieri
Building a book
Over the last couple years I‘ve been shaping and reshaping a novel. During the same period I converted a pile of old Stillwater, Minnesota limestone into a series of retaining walls on my side lot. I came away thinking that the process of fitting stones together is not unlike getting words to function side by side.
Okay, there are formulas you can employ. Prefabricated stone is available with tabs and slots that can be stacked snug as Legos. But then you get a wall with the same motif repeated endlessly. This technique works just fine for builders to clean up the exterior of an insurance company or a car lot. And not a few writers successfully use the method to generate content to keep readers coming back for more.
But why do anything easy? I had a picture in my mind of a wall that would look like it was left behind by Caesar’s Tenth Legion 2,000 years ago. So I started with about sixty tons of rock dumped in a heap. May I suggest that 110,000 words that eventually become a novel will involve the same amount of heavy lifting as sixty tons of limestone. Footnote: A cubic foot of limestone weighs 163 pounds. (That’s why Chris Kobs, a strong young guy with a flair for stonework, is in some of the pictures to backstop me. Geologist Brian Lentz helped with the final courses along the sidewalk. I was going on 68 when the project kicked off and I have severe arthritis in both thumb joints. Pass the Aleve.)
So how do you translate the idea in your head into a freestanding dry stone wall? Or a 400 page book that’s made out of paper and glue or digital bits?
If you aspire to reach beyond assembling a formula – read instructions, insert tab a into slot b – an important lesson I learned the hard way is to avoid big mistakes at the beginning.
When I first started writing I would get up every day and type a thousand words. An accomplished writer buddy would then go through a stack of pages, draw a diagonal line across ninety percent of it and at the end render the verdict, “Nah.” The operative advice was along the lines of: “There’s a story in here but it’s encrusted in bullshit.”
So keyboard masturbation equals overwriting. Where’s the simple declarative sentence? What’s with this modifier that mixes sour with the metaphor? Your character has blue eyes on page 16 and brown eyes on page 63? Getting a handle on the craft will help you make the cut from “good try” to “good job.” Think fifty rejection letters.
So rather than just jump in and start moving stuff around you spend a year evaluating this pile of rocks and thinking of ways they could fit together. You scribble napkin sketches with patterns. You put in hours of research that are informed by scars on mashed fingers and toes acquired slinging tons of rocks on learning projects.
Like with writing, you keep going because you have to.
You’re convinced that there’s a wall in that heap of limestone waiting to tell itself. You just have to keep arranging the pieces until they talk to you.
You don’t get to look at a pile of a hundred thousand words and see a story staring back at you. At least not right off. But you do get to untangle your pile of rocks and start to sort them out, looking for a theme. The shape of the big ones will be the anchors that determine the structure. Then you start assembling the secondary stones. Some will complement, others will accent or transition or even take off in riffs of nuance. Then you prepare the ground…
(I was working in a hardpan driveway that had never been paved since it saw its first Model T. Wagon wheels and hooves packed it down before that. The place was homesteaded before the Civil War. It defied a Bobcat. We had to break it up with a 90 pound jackhammer.)
Then you place the foundation stone. Next you wander through your chaotic limestone field and look for that second rock that will work along side the first one.
If you glance through the gallery above you’ll see some close fits. Sometimes this is sheer serendipity. More likely the stones were placed, leveled and then discarded a dozen times or more. When luck deserts you it’s time to reach for the chisels and the mash hammer and the rock pick and the shims. Maybe Flaubert had a poor neighbor who worked in stone. Picture him on a search for “the right rock.”
I’m more fond of the story where the guy asks Hemingway why he rewrote the ending twenty times and he says, “to get the words right.”