Imagine that writing is like building houses.
For most of my life, I’ve been building houses, in one form or another. Mostly, they have been pretty small. I started with poetry and the occasional academic essay. Short things. Anywhere from 50 to 500 words.
Model-sized houses, if you will.
It was pretty clear early on that I had a talent for building them. I made so many models, even crappy ramshackle ones, that when someone asked me to make one — say, for a homework assignment — I could invest a little bit of time and make one that wasn’t half bad. I mean, I wouldn’t be winning any awards, but I stood out among the tweens and young teens around me. Occasionally, I’d get a note about a couple of things to fix, a minor note here and there about something that could be improved, but generally, my models were pretty dang good, if I dare-say so myself.
When I started writing for the high school newspaper during my freshman year, I had to learn a more rigorous method of building models. Scale models. With these, I’d get more feedback, and I learned a little bit more — at least about building models.
After four years of that (and not to mention some slightly less-ramshackle poetry models) I was pretty good at building models. I’d take a good crack at it, put in the work, and when I finished, minus a tweak or two, it was ready to go. By my senior year, as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, I went from pages of purple-drenched copy edits to “change this, change this, and put it in the layout.” My academic essays usually consisted of rough drafts that were virtually identical to final drafts, with a couple of minor errors (the occasional run-on, long sentences that left little room for breathing, and the occasional stupid typo) fixed.
I built the models, and sometimes I had to touch up the paint. And that was it.
After high school was the first time that I started experimenting with longer forms. Building bigger houses. I stepped up from building scale models to buying those tiny houses bought by yuppies on HGTV. You know the ones I’m talking about. Short stories, long-form articles, 10 minute plays, and one-act plays.
The semester after I graduated high school, I wrote my first one-act play. It was a terrible goddamn play, and I’ve never been more proud of anything. At the time, those 40-odds pages were the longest thing I’d ever written.
It was terrible. I directed on the page. The story was stilted and convoluted at best. The characters were cliched at best, transparent at worst. In my defense, while I was writing this thing, somebody that I cared for very deeply died, mostly unexpectedly, so it ended up a little neglected. But I finished the damn thing.
And it’s been sitting on my hard drive, mostly unchanged, for nearly a decade now. I have no idea what to do with it. But I was mostly content to let myself forget it; especially when I threw myself into writing a novel a few years later.
I built this tiny, little, lopsided house and, without having the tools or the know-how to fix it, I started building a full-sized house. A full-sized house. Me. With the hard hat and the nail gun and the drywall. Everything.
My process of writing that was pretty horrifying, if you think about it in building terms. I’d start pouring the foundation, and then I’d realize there was some flaw in it, so I’d have to let it harden and then jackhammer the concrete out. Clear the site — start a new draft — and start pouring again. Each time, I’d get a little further into the process — get a skeleton of the house up, maybe some of the plumbing — before realizing there was some flaw, or some way I could improve the whole thing, and tearing it down.
In 2015, after finishing my first draft of the novel, and giving it to author Heather Petty, as part of the Nevada SCBWI mentor program, I felt pretty damn good. I had built a goddamn mansion. And, even more to the point, I’d built one that I was proud of.
But, naturally, Heather had some notes for me. And when I got her notes, I had no idea what to do, except to back that wrecking ball in, and start all over again with a blank document. I had a pretty good blueprint this time, with lots of additional notes from Heather, but I didn’t know how to go back in and fix the house.
I didn’t know how to go in and change this system and change that system, and change this other one. All I knew was how to tear it down and rebuild again. Every time I rebuilt, I got closer and closer to a good house. I even got to one that I was happy with, for the most part.
And, yet, I knew there was something wrong with it. I couldn’t figure out what — I’m not the property inspector, just the guy who builds the thing. I’ve done pretty much everything I could do to the best of my knowledge to make the house as great as I could, but there was still something wrong with it. Something wasn’t up to code.
But, still, I put it on the market. And it got rejected pretty hard, even though I got a number of great comments about how pretty it was.
But I was stuck in a pickle. I had a fairly good house here — a fairly good story. I had one that was close enough to what I’d imagined that I didn’t want to tear it down and rebuild again. And, yet, I had absolutely no idea how to go in and fix up the finished systems. So the house just stood empty, unsold, derelect.
I shelved the novel. I had no idea what to do with it.
Maybe the metaphor is a little strained or nonsensical, but still. I think it works.
I’ve become so good at building these houses out of scratch, and yet I have no idea how to fix up the various internal systems once the whole thing’s built. I’m a builder guy. And I’m a fairly good demo guy. But in order to get a novel from pretty darn good to ready to sell, I need to become a plumber. A HVAC specialist. An electrician. An interior designer.
I need to learn how to fecking edit.
It’s something that I never needed to really do with the smaller pieces — hell, even most of my Medium pieces are written and posted with only a superficial once-over before hitting the POST button.
But when it comes to writing a novel or a full-length play, it’s absolutely critical. And, for someone who’s been writing for this long, not having these skills is pretty damn bad.
Zach J. Payne writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction. He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno, and has a plan to lose weight and travel the world. Support the adventure if you can!