Anyone can build a chair. Anyone can write a story.
The first question is: “Is it good (according to your point or points of reference)?”
The second: “Does it live up to your own expectations?”
The third: “Does it meet the expectations of the ones you see as your ideal audience?”
In this post I use illustrations from the book “Woodwork Joints”, which you can find here. Scroll through it, study the illustrations and see if you can understand what is done there and why.
I will discuss via text and images:
- The learning process (as a writer)
- Types of feedback
- The importance of (learning/studying) theory / why to look into theory
- The importance of feedback
- Why it is relevant to find teachers and/or people who can give you knowledgeable feedback
You might think you already achieved a lot
When you start writing and start learning certain techniques by simply doing it, you might start to have this feeling that you already achieved a lot.
“Wow! I use this and that technique and look at my writing now!”
Probably you are just hitting the surface
In reality, you have only started to understand the very basics of “how to construct a story”. Where you think your self-fueled research has already taught you a lot, in reality you only touched the surface of all different aspects that make your story a story and that there are ten million basic things you still don’t know about at that point.
To see a bit of the surface beneath that surface, go to this post, called: “Story Basics (of European Culture)”. It already lists fifteen aspects of a story with five to ten bullet points per aspect before even reaching the concept of “Plot” and the overview in that post is probably not even halfway complete.
Active learning expands your horizon
The most effective way to achieve more in your writing and enrich the possible directions in your “box with solutions” is by active learning: studying theory on writing, studying existing written works and apply certain techniques in stories you write as “proof of concepts” and studies of the theory and of your own assumptions.
I am not much better
I am not much better and still learning. This is one reason why I continue to write posts about writing.
Starting point: joints used in woodworking
When you create a chair, at a certain moment you might like to start looking at ways to join the separate parts together.
This is where you will roughly start: putting two parts together, using nails, screws, glue or a combination.
As you continue to create, you learn about triangles and how they help make your constructions more solid.
You probably learn about two or three different types of joints used in many different things around you, by observing how they are built and by taking similar constructions apart maybe.
Constructions used in old-school chairs
When you finally buy that book on “woodwork joints” you learn that these joints you already knew from your own explorations and experiments actually have specific names (“Bridal joint” and “Tenon joint” in the images above) and are only a few among many with several variations that each have their own name.
Two other types of simple joints that have specific names
And that they can be combined in different ways to make more complex structures. For instance: to support (the weight of) a roof.
Bringing it together: more complex combination to support a roof
Notice how the joints are constructed and how several techniques are combined.
- Blocking direction — Each joint is made in such a way that it “blocks” the direction of the force that is put on each part of the construction.
- Cleats and wedges — Wedges are one solution used to “block” the different parts from moving (and help prevent the construction to collapse). Cleats are used to “extend” the base construction, helping it to “pretend” the center beam is actually thicker than it really is: mainly to save material and prevent the main post from becoming more heavy than really needed. Cleats go into wedges.
- Directing force to the Queen post— A strut in the center of the triangle “top beam” formed by the principal rafter assures that the force placed on the purlin (which will carry the actual roof) is directed to the base of the queen post.
- Preventing the Queen post from moving sideways — The straining cill prevents (by blocking it on that side) that the forces directed via the strut to the base will “push” that base of the Queen post away from the strut.
The entire construction of the Queen post roof truss is modular (with different “modules” or parts) and made in such way that it is relatively easy to produce and that it “locks” itself so that that all separate parts behave as if they are one solid block of wood, while the materials to “glue” the separate parts together can be as strong and thick as your regular toothpick.
The places that look “cut” are actually only illustrative to indicate that that (“cut”) part is actually longer than shown in the image.
The Queen post roof truss is quite simple once you understand the tricks that are used to make it work.
Inventing those tricks
To invent those tricks, however, you need to have a deeper understanding of what you are trying to achieve and what solutions are already there to help you achieve that goal.
The three folded path
Usually the fastest way is a three-folded path:
- Study — theory (from a more knowledgeable teacher if you have/can find one). Read books. Find any and all kinds of knowledge that might help you. Deconstruct the work of others by taking it apart and wondering why and how it works the way it works.
- Build/write — (a lot of) stuff (so you understand how things work and how things fail)
- Actively learn — from the things you create (by remaining curious and deconstructing all elements you can see and find in your work or that of others)
In story building you usually start with understanding how to build sentences and avoid the: “and then this happens and then that happened and then John did such and so and then Joe did so and so.”
You learn about present, past and future tense, about first, second and third person. You learn using flashbacks. And how to mix them or not.
At that point in time, you are still a beginner. You know how to build a chair. And the real learning is just starting.
Even more complex and finished wooden constructions making a “stairway”
Most stories are not just “about a chair”. They involve characters, scenes and a story world. The characters have emotions and personalities and these emotions have to be in line with their personality and the actual situation they respond to.
In short: they become more and more complex in structure.
The way you shape your story is to understand how to make different things and how to make those things in such a way that they will do their job.
To understand HOW to create a chair (and a doorway and a stairway) is just a beginning. As you progress, things become more and more elaborate and as you continue to study and learn they become more and more versatile.
“Did you make this?”
When you show your first stories to the people around you, they will probably be amazed by your ability to create stories.
“How smart you are! Is this your own work? I would never be able to do this.”
Most people buy and consume things. The idea that they can create stuff like furniture and stories with their own hands and minds probably never crossed their minds. So anything you create yourself and that is not a complete crap is already amazing to them. (This seems a bit condescending, but I have been through this process a lot creating all kinds of stuff when I was a kid. And I want to keep it short.)
Some people will respond less positive. “This is not yet like IKEA.”
They compare your work with the things they are used to and see as the default standard. Until you reach that level and surpass it, they will see your work as inferior.
When just feedback is not enough
At a certain point you will reach that stage (and probably did a while ago) where the “Did you make this?” kind of feedback is no longer sufficient. You want to grow. To reach higher. To get to that point, maybe, where the few who say: “Nice. But not as good as [fill in the blank]” will be in (mild) awe.
“Just feedback” has no direction. It will not tell you where your weak points are or what you can improve upon. It will certainly not tell you what other options you have to make your constructions (your story) better.
Study other people’s work
The first thing most people do in their own development is to study other people’s work.
You take an existing chair and start studying how it is created. Why certain things make it more stable, or what lacks and why the construction is not as good as it could be.
You take an existing story that you liked or did not like at all and try if you can match it, overshadow it.
You assume you can do better and start working on proof of concepts.
Going into theory
At a certain point you will find your growing curve is slowing down. You learned a lot, but you see and feel things are still not good enough. There are still a lot of mistakes in your work. The chair (or your stories) are OK, but you still get this feel things are a but “raw” and unfinished.
You start to understand that “a chair” or “a story” is not just “a chair” but has many different stages in its development. From the design, to the forces that work upon your construction to efficient and time-consuming approaches to the same thing, to the quality and behavior of your materials and your tools.
Some wood is too hard. Some wood too soft. Some wood will split when you ram a nail through it. Some other wood will not.
Some story subjects and styles work for you. Others not (yet).
So you go into theory and learn new things.
For instance: how to lay out your project in a drawing (and on wood) so that you do not forget certain aspects and waste as little material as possible.
Or: how to use certain woods you have in such a way that its weaknesses are hardly hit.
Or: how to make stronger and more complex structures in such a way that they still look elegant or beautiful without losing yourself and your goals in that process.
Doing simpler projects with short iterations
To learn a specific technique, it helps a lot to simplify your project so that you can focus on that.
Where you might have been building entire houses or been writing one novel per year, you find that you need to bring back your levels of ambition back to more simple projects. Short stories. A chair. A box.
By simplifying the project, you make it possible to try the same thing in several ways without losing a lot of time on the complexity and size of a bigger project.
By creating short iterations (by creating something that can be done in a day or one hour) allows you to repeat, revise and redo that one single thing over and over and better and better and better so that you can really accelerate your learning process in that specific direction to the point where you can say: “now I really get it!”.
Finding more knowledgeable feedback
The next step usually is to find people who can give you more knowledgeable feedback.
Sure it is nice you master the basics, but there are still things you do not know. When you compare your own work to that of more skilled people, there are tons of things you can find and list that simply do not match that level.
Even worse: when you ask a more skilled carpenter or writer what he/she thinks of your work, there is still so many things you find you overlooked that it might even feel you are still at the bottom of the ladder.
Theory becomes a central part of your process. and knowledgeable feedback.
The knowledgeable feedback usually come from people who are:
- Very observant and curious
- More experienced in the same field you want to move
- A combination of #1 and #2
Knowledgeable feedback does not even have to come from experts or people who do the same things you are trying to do. It is very possible you have people in your surroundings just very capable of finding what can be done better without ever having created anything themselves.
Simply because that is how their minds work.
Why knowledgeable feedback is crucial
When nobody challenges you and/or your work, you will settle with what you have. There is no real impulse to find other ways. There is no reason to push through those aspects of yourself that you are OK with, because you really don’t care about that part: the so-called “blind spots”
Knowledgeable feedback forces you to look at things you have been (deliberately) overlooking. And it forces you to consider and re-consider what you have done in those parts until then.
This can be: character building, story building, story buildup, exposing certain information, looking carefully at language and many more things.
Different ways to use wedges and dove tails to make constructions that do not require nails.
Where it can lead you to
From simple joints in woodworking, knowledgeable feedback can lead to the use of more complex ways to construct what you are making, leading to even better and more refined results and leading to constructions you might have never considered before.
What you might have noticed is that each construction shown here builds on the other. The Six piece puzzle shown last is nothing more than an add-up of several different joints and probably invented by a carpenter who had a flash of inspiration from the type of puzzle-like constructions that make the spokes of a Barrow wheel (the second picture in this last set).
Nobody decides for you what is “right”
Nobody decides what is right for you (as a carpenter or writer).
You can stick to a specific way of constructing things and feel that there are no limits to what you can construct. You can also dive into all different ways to do the exact same thing and find and refine new ways to do it even better or more amazingly.
You can be conservative, progressive or innovative in your approach and it is all fine. As long as what you write is what you want to write.
In most cases, people telling you that your thing is wrong, are usually the ones not understanding that there is a physical border between their wishes and longings and the ones you have: that your mind is not their mind and you are not the same person as they are. (One advice: listen for as much as you can suffer or want to learn from their point of view. Then walk away.)