There are many analogies for writing. Construction is frequently used. Writing is akin to the walls and floors, structure and outline are akin to the foundation, figurative language akin to the furnishing. My favorite analogy for writing compares it to excavating a fossil, and is one that I read for the first time in Stephen King’s book “On Writing”.
In his book (pg 160 on the paperback I have), King mostly talks about the metaphor in reference to plotting out a novel and as an argument against it. Plotting vs. Pantsing is outside the scope of this post. Today I just want to explore the extended metaphor of excavating a fossil (or writing a story).
Before We Start Digging
When you first get an idea for a story you’re thinking very broadly. In our excavation analogy, we’re looking at a map and thinking where best to cordon off our dig site. We haven’t even started digging at this point, we’re just planning. We’re figuring out what genre to we want to write in. For instance: “I really like science fiction, but I also like fantasy. And I know for sure I’m not writing romance,” or maybe, “It’s going to be a young adult novel. Definitely not an adult science fiction book.” We all have our preferences, interests and strengths and will naturally gravitate to different areas.
Once we have our general idea we can begin writing in broad strokes. Maybe we’ll figure out the MICE quotient: Are we writing a Character story or an Event story? Is it going to follow the Hero’s Journey. Then we can play around with general tropes about our story beats, heroes and villains. Maybe we’ll even use some of that dreaded plot and write some summaries of scenes.
We’re moving a lot of dirt with each stroke of the pen. That’s because we will haven’t found a bone yet.
I do agree with King that these broad Ideas of tropes and plot and beats are like excavating with heavy machinery. I don’t know if I agree that these powerful tools are such a bad thing at the start. I’m not suggesting you pull the whole dinosaur skeleton out of the ground with an excavator, but there are plenty of fossil / historical sites that were discovered precisely because of construction and heavy machinery like that.
Digging by Hand
A bone can be lots of things, but it’s really only one thing: A starting point. When we’re digging, as soon as we find a bone the foreman calls out, “Oh shit! Stop! Stop!” Sometimes the bone is a story beat, sometimes it’s a character’s backstory; it doesn’t matter. A bone is when the foreman stops the heavy machinery. A bone is when the writer stops with a broad summary and starts writing a scene.
Writing summaries is easy. It’s easy to summarize a scene or characters. Excavating with heavy machinery is easy, you pull some levers and move tons of dirt. Hell, you can summarize a whole book into one sentence with a heavy enough machine. It will look like shit and no one will pay you for it, but it can be done.
No one puts an archeological dig site (or a summary) in a museum. They put fossils in a museum. You need to dig out the bones and clean them up.
The other thing is, digging out the bones, aka actually writing scene after scene, is the slowest goddamn part of writing. You have to pull out the hammers, chisels, brushes and slowly free each toe bone, each vertebrae, each tooth. When you’re writing scenes, you have to describe the setting, the characters, the dialog, how the characters react. Each subsequent piece is another bone, painstakingly excavated.
Completing the Skeleton
We would be pretty lucky if we found a complete skeleton right? Yeah, that rarely happens and it likely won’t happen in the first place you think to dig. Sometimes you find a partial skeleton, sometimes your princess’s skeleton is in another castle. So you backtrack, you go back to the drawing board. Maybe you rethink your genre, your dig site, your outdated analogies that the kids won’t get. Stories will never, ever, come out right in a first draft.
Which brings us to the last part of the analogy: Editing. Did I say earlier that writing the scenes and digging out individual bones was the slowest part of writing? I might have lied. For most of us, editing is the slowest, most tedious part of writing. There’s different levels to editing, but I’ll speak in broad terms because this analogy has already taken longer to write and read than it should have.
Editing is taking the skeleton back to the museum, cleaning it, making casts of all the parts and getting it ready to display to the public. Editing is also realizing that one of your toe bones is really a piece of coprolite, but that maybe if you file it down right it looks enough like a toe bone that it works. Editing is also realizing that maybe you have an extra arm bone and no matter how cool you think the dinosaur would look with three arms, no one else wants to see that. Editing is polishing your story, trimming scenes and characters that aren’t needed.
Putting it up for Display
Finally, putting the skeleton up for display is akin to publishing your book. This is the point where the public is seeing it for the first time. This is the time when some people walk past it because they’re not really into that genre of dinosaur. Some people give it a quick glance, while others take their time and read the whole book. Then there are others, our dear readers who look at that skeleton and imagine it in all its glory roaming the long forgotten landscape. These readers look at the skeleton and see the same beauty that kept us writers going through the long days of digging.
How about you guys, what are your favorite metaphors for writing or publishing?