Design to Conception: Part 1 of 7
Readers of Fine Woodworking will be familiar with Michael Fortune’s work as a custom furniture designer and builder. Fortune’s studio has some remarkable pieces in it, showcasing the artist’s eye for careful detail and his unique style.
The latest issue of Fine Woodworking has an article on Fortune’s design process, where he shares the seven steps he takes to bring an idea into the real world as a piece of furniture. Each of the steps has bearing on the writing process, too, and for the next two weeks or so I’ll be posting my thoughts on how writers can learn from Fortune’s Formula.
Step 1. Identify and Analyze
In the initial stage of the process, Fortune says he
“[analyzes] the hard constraints on the piece: what functions it will serve, what space is available, and the requirements of weight, stability, and traffic around [the piece].”
For writers, it might seem weird to talk about analyzing function, space, weight, and stability requirements. If we start with the first one, however, it becomes clear that we’re not wrong in taking a cue from the woodshop.
Each story is going to provide some kind of function, be it to entertain, to inspire, to frighten, and so on. This might be more easily understood as the “what genre do you write in?” question. Getting a clear understanding of your target genre helps you consider your target audience, and that helps you clarify important qualities like tone, amount (or lack) of violence and harsh language, and the types of characters you might cast in your story.
These can be as simple as a max word count handed down from a publisher or editor, or a self-determined word count. Are you up for a novel (50K-100K+), or do you feel like penning a novella (15K-50K)? Maybe a story (3K-15K) that you can get drafted inside of one week or even a few days? Flash fiction?
Maybe this is where the metaphor starts to feel weird for you, but stay with me. Writers are often advised to ensure their stories and novels have adequate emotional weight (sometimes referred to as ‘impact’). Your characters have to be genuine, authentic representations of real people (note: I don’t mean put real people into your stories). They have to be believable and they have to engender sympathy in the reader through their behavior. The way to do this is to give your characters emotional responses to grave situations and joyous occasions.
If you’re shopping to an agent for a deal with the traditional publishing houses, then you will have to make the reader recognize a part of his or her own emotional response in your characters’ behavior. You may have more luck selling a story or novel to a small press without a heavy emotional component, but I wouldn’t count on it. The size of the business doesn’t affect the publisher’s ability to spot compelling storytelling, and a compelling story will always be one with characters the reader can’t help but care about.
A story that doesn’t stand up on its own is not going to sell. Harsh news, but think about the rickety table at that funky coffee shop you frequented in college. Always wondering when you’d show up and find it junked around the side of the shop, half its top split off from the rest, or one of the legs dangling from a split tenon. That’s what poorly edited stories feel like to read. Like sitting at a table that can’t or won’t stay put…
Because it wasn’t built to last or support very much use beyond providing aesthetic appeal.
Look, you can have a brilliant idea, a fabulous story world, and an incredible cast of characters. But if you can’t put a story together that joins those necessary elements, then your book is going to fall apart in your reader’s hands. For writers with traditional deals, you (should) have the benefit of the in-house editing team, which will take you from developmental, through substantive, into copyediting, and to a final proofreading before your book goes to press. For self-published authors, or those working with smaller publishing companies, you may not have the same benefit. Always get a second, third, and fourth opinion of your work before submitting, and get a professional editor to give you a full, unbiased critique. It’s affordable and money well spent.
I hope this series of posts will help ease the writing process for you. If you’ve got a winning formula, please share it in the comments. Happy writing!
Next Post: Part 2 – Set the Goal