Busting Up Your Writing: Finding Good Pieces in the Remnants of a Failed Story
Hubby and I have relocated to an amazing, truly God-given property in the rural hills of southeastern Minnesota. I’d post a picture of it here to share, but… well, there’s a reason we live away from the city, and it’s name is Privacy. (Sorry, folks.) Still, this little piece of our new found heaven came complete with creek, acreage, a rustic post fence, and an old red barn.
It’s the old red barn that struck my writing nerves this morning.
A Topic of Conversation
Sure, the barn is nice to have, especially to park dirty farm equipment in or house the rowdy donkey that I might decide to acquire someday soon whose job will be to eat the weeds.
But, we’ve just moved in and prior to this place we were renters. We don’t have farm equipment to park. I don’t have (yet) a donkey to eat my weeds. In addition, the barn’s condition is less than optimal. It leans. It’s foundation is cracked and bowed. It’s door is stubbornly heavy. It’s structural integrity is… questionable.
Suffice to say our home insurer had concerns about covering it.
This isn’t actually our barn, but… close enough.
So, in our newfangled homeownershipness, Hubby and I were discussing the many to-do’s that have already piled up in our lives, me approaching the long list with giddy excitement while I could sense the anxiety, dollar signs, and man-tears welling up in my beloved’s brain.
One of the bigger tickets on that list is what to do with the barn: Do we patch it up, or tear it down and rebuild?
While I tend to have a love for refurbishing old things and maintaining the used in favor of cashing out for the new, there are some things that are just beyond repair.
And that’s where the barn and my writer’s brain intersect.
A Necessary Evil: Tearing Down to Rebuild
I was told early on in my UCR Creative Writing days from my still-favorite professor, Susan Straight, that the time would come when I’d realize I’d poured sweat and tears and endless hours and gallons of coffee into a nothing of a novel; that I’d be forced to face the fact that the work couldn’t be patched, couldn’t be fixed, and I’d have to start anew. Sure, I could throw more sweat and caffeine at the problem, but I’d do it all knowing I’d come out with a mediocre product.
And, to a writer, mediocre simply isn’t acceptable.
Same with this old barn: Hubby and I could tear out the rotted boards and replace them with new ones, we could replace the stubborn manual roll-up door with a new motor-operated one; we could even hire a fellow to come in and lift up the sagging concrete floor and another fellow to straighten up the walls that have suffered from said sagging.
But, after all the patchwork, it would still be a mediocre barn in need of a lot more work and a lot more investment. That it would be costlier to fix the current building than to replace it is questionable, but we’re guessing it would be a close call. Close enough that getting a new one is the more economical option.
Not only economical in regards to money, but practical in an investment sense. We’re investing that cost (cost = time + effort + money) into a product we expect to live up to our expectations. For a barn, that means it keeps things dry and safely housed for decades yet. For a book, that means a story that it impacts its reader.
And, sometimes, in order to get the full worth of your investment out of something you need to accept the fact that it’s not worth patching, scrap it, mourn that loss (if only a little), and then begin again.
Demolishing a barn is no small feat. If you’re into quick, loud, and dirty, hiring a crew of husky contractors with heavy machinery to knock things down and haul it away is the way to go. I’m sure that was Hubby’s initial thought, and the concept of having dozen-ton vehicles driving across a narrow, sharp-cornered, gravel-laden culvert rated at only a a few tons made the veins on his already sweaty forehead pop out. The same thought made me cringe, but for altogether different reasons.
I, forever hopeful, envisioned all the good pieces of that barn — the brand new wall of two-by-fours and wiring installed just prior to our purchase to replace an old, snow-rotted wall; the good shingles; the fully functional single-car garage door; the stall doors; the five big overhead florescent lamps; the neat, rustic old windows; the big industrial heater installed to battle a Minnesota winter — going to waste. I pictured them being run over and broken and knocked down by a yellow bulldozer and then haphazardly scooped and poured into an unforgiving dump truck to be hauled away somewhere unspeakable.
“You know how they have barn raisings, where the community gets together to build a barn?” I asked, staring at the building in question. Hubby nodded. “What if we had a barn busting instead?”
The concept in my head was simple: gather folks together to bust up a barn and salvage the pieces to either sell to willing parties (or donate to helpers) or use on other projects that are bound to arise on our “farm” in the future.
I’d heard of people doing it. This guy actually has a passion for it; companies do it all the time. Even the wooden floors covering much of our home are old barn remnants and, lemme tell ya, a large part of the draw of the place for me during the first… and second… and third showings by the realtor were those old, glossy, squeaky barn wood floors. (Ain’t nobody sneaking up on me walking across those babies!) Here’s a neat time lapse of a barn busting by Antique Beams & Boards:
Barn deconstruction involves sorting, stacking, and re-purposing the good and usable pieces of the barn for other projects, like to construct a workshop, furniture, floors, fencing, or even another barn! The rest is discarded as it otherwise would have been in a standard demolition. It’s a win-win for the environment (no unnecessary cutting of trees! Yay!) and for the people who get to reuse those still-good pieces at a fraction of the cost of buying new materials.
“Ugh. My brain. Has stopped. Working.”
So it is with a manuscript sometimes. A writer needs to know when they’ve hit a wall and take the proper steps to either (a) demolish and totally trash the entire piece, or (b) deconstruct and re-purpose those good and usable parts while discarding the rest to where they rightly belong: the round file.
Let’s say you seeded this amazing idea for a novel weeks, months, or years ago and have been working to develop it ever since. Through sweat and obsessive note taking you built it up to be this pile of pages with it’s many chapters and multiple characters. You laid out a list of primary and secondary characters and have created deep and complex backgrounds for each of them. You create a fictional world that has a richly intense history. You write and write and write with fervor, but, after a while, you notice the momentum of the plot waning. Maybe it’s just because you haven’t slept well, maybe it’s other stresses making you imagine your story isn’t great. But it IS great, you tell yourself, and so you continue typing away.
In a temporary flash of sane consciousness you see your characters as flat. But you keep pressing on, hoping that more editing or more writing will fill them out, make them fat again. I just have to keep feeding it, you think.
Until the day comes when it slaps you in the face like a bad novel: your work IS a bad novel!
It’s a day of horror and (possibly literal) tears for every writer. All those hours laboring. All that cost, lost.
But, it doesn’t have to be.
Starting Over vs Starting Anew
To a writer, starting over and starting anew are two different things, so don’t get them confused.
Starting anew = starting again with all new pieces.
Starting over = starting again with the pieces turned over in a different light.
Sometimes a writer has no choice but to start anew. Maybe you’ve grown since that first spark of an idea came to you; maybe you’re not even the same kind of person who could appreciate that story that you imagined would be so fantastic. In that case, it’s time to accept you’ve changed, that you no longer hold the same interest in your story and it’s time to move on.
But, sometimes, a writer needs to take a little break and step away to gain a different perspective.
Take this quote from William Faulkner:
So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.
And I’ve had to set those stacks of typed paper aside until a moment came when I could, with sanity and without wanting to burn them, accurately assess their necessity in the book that has already been written in my mind but has yet to make it onto page.
As for Hubby, I’m not quite sure he’s completely sold on my barn busting idea. I’m of the “if you build it, they will come” type (thanks, Field of Dreams). As my final sales pitch to him, I offered this thought:
“How often do people get to go over to someone’s house to break stuff?”
I’ll leave it to the little boy inside of him to decide whether having a huge party to break stuff is an awesome idea or not.