September 30, 2010

Writing is like knitting...sort of

I'm knitting a pair of socks with a complicated (by my standards) lace pattern on teensy 2.25mm needles. While I was frogging* a section the other day after misreading which row of the pattern I was on, I realised that knitting is a bit like the process of writing a novel. (Well, my process, anyway.) Here's how:

1. Know what you're making
There are some right-brained, freeform knitters who can start from the merest whisp of inspiration from a yarn or a shape and grow it into whatever it becomes, but I need a clear idea of what I want to end up with. That means my knitting patterns have to come with pictures (preferably photos) of the finished product. Similarly, I'm not someone who can start a book with just a character or a theme - I need to plot before I can start writing or I'll end up with a jumper with three arms and no neckhole.

2. Make sure your materials suit the pattern
It took me a long time** to accept that the officious knitting pattern instruction to always check your gauge before you cast on was worth noting. After amassing a pile of knitwear that will never be worn because I used chunky yarn on a pattern that called for lace-weight, and viceversa, I now diligently knit a little swatch and measure it to make sure that the yarn and needle size I'm using will produce the correct proportions for the finished pattern.

Similarly, in my writing, characters are my base materials and if I don't know my characters well enough before I launch them into the plot I always end up paying for it later when they don't fit properly into the story or with the other characters.

3. Pick up dropped stitches as quickly as possible
Dropped stitches make 'ladders' in your knitting. They're easy to pick up if you notice them on the next row, a little harder but not impossible if you notice within three rows. But ten rows on and you're looking at a trip to Frogtown, which brings with it the added possibility that in unravelling your work to fix a past mistake you'll drop more stitches on  the way.

Plot holes are like dropped stitches. In the past I've tried to ignore them, telling myself I'll fix them in the revision stage because going backwards in your writing is painful when you're headed for the finish line. But every time I've done that I've ended up having to rewrite other scenes and chapters because what I've thought would be a simple, inconsequential change actually affects a lot of things I didn't see until I'd made the change.

As an example, halfway through the first draft of Little Sister I realised that the character who was driving in a few scenes wasn't old enough to have a driver's license in Australia.*** I figured that it was only a few scenes and ploughed on, carefully not having the character behind the wheel for the rest of the draft. But when I went to make the 'simple' fix in revisions, the solution meant introducing another character whose relationship with the orginal driver introduced further complications. Instead of rewriting the few scenes I had when I first realised what the problem was, I ended up rewriting about five others, and adding a few new ones!

4. The difference between a WIP and a UFO is doing a little each day
In the beginning, every project is exciting because it's fresh and new and full of possibility (and if you're like me you have your idealised pattern photo or plot outline in front of you and you think you have it all together so it's going to be easy), but once you get started that enthusiasm can quickly fade as you realise how much work is involved in making this thing.

For me, the key to stopping my work-in-progress from joining the pile of unfinished objects in my knitting basket/My Documents folder is to do a little each day and stop when I run out of concentration or momentum, knowing that I'll plug away at it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day until it's done (or until I hit point 6).

5. Block your work to make it fit properly
'Blocking' is the revision stage of knitting. Once any seams are sewn together, you wet the finished item, stretch it into shape on a flat surface and leave it to dry. Blocking is the difference between the jumper whose hems turn up at the edges whose shoulder seams sag, and the one that fits like a glove. This is another knitting lesson I took a looong time to learn because I was always so eager to a) declare the project finished and b) wear it, even if I had to tug at bits of it all day to keep them in the right place.

Luckily, I don't have the same aversion to revising manuscripts, but I know authors who absolutely hate it. It's hard to be 'finished' but not, especially if you've got a new idea (or three) brewing, new characters distracting you or you're just fatigued from the first draft. But, like blocking, revising transforms the finished-but-lumpy into the wow-I-can't-believe-you-made-that-!.

6. Know when to quit
There are some projects that just don't work, even if your gauge is spot-on and you've followed the pattern to the letter.**** Some patterns look great in the carefully styled photo but crap in real life; some novels sound fantastic in the plot outline but just don't work once you start writing. When you recognise that no amount of work can save a project don't beat yourself up over it, just frog it and move on.

I used to think that I couldn't give up on a writing project because I'd put too much work into it to just let it go, but now I try to look at it more like frogging. Sure, the thing I tried to make didn't work out, but I've still got the yarn/characters/excellent scene with frollicking otters, and I'll find another use for it in the future. (Or so I tell Mr Fantapants when he questions why the storage space under the queen-size spare bed is taken up entirely by my yarn stash...)

* frogging = rippit-rippit - the sound of undoing rows of knitting to fix a mistake or start again
** seriously, about 20 years!
*** hmmm, who reads too much US-based YA?
**** case in point: the cosy capelet I knitted and re-knitted three times last month but still looked like a shapeless woollen sack no matter how many adjustments I made to the pattern 


  1. Your image of taking apart what you've done if it's just not working reminded me a bit of Jasper Fforde's "Well of Lost Plots" where books that just don't work are taken apart into their constituent words so that those words become available again to other authors.

  2. Sage words, all of them. I particularly like the dropped stitch/plot hole analogy. And it's so true - it's astonishing how tightly 'knitted' a story is, and unpicking one thing easily unravels more than you'd care to have to correct.