8 Lessons on Writing (Learned from Home Improvement)

how to write a first draft NaNoWriMo

8 Lessons on Writing (Learned from Home Improvement)

Two weeks ago in the first post in my “How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo” series, I likened the prep work for a tiling project I was doing to what you might do to prepare for a first draft of any manuscript you’re working on, but specifically to getting ready for NaNo, where there are significant time constraints.

I promised “before and after” pics of the decorative alcoves I tiled with glass mosaic tiles, and they’re below, but the project wound up exemplifying important lessons every writer should learn about her own writing—especially with a deadline—that I wanted to share.

1. Even with extensive preparation, you may encounter unexpected challenges.

I spent days carefully prepping for the job so that I’d have no surprises when I started the actual installation—and yet I hadn’t predicted how challenging tiling the shape of an arch would prove.

I’d planned to cut the curve with my tile saw, but I couldn’t measure it accurately because of the indentation of the wall.

Even if you’re the most meticulous plotter, stories and characters have a way of developing unexpectedly. You may find a route you’d planned to take doesn’t actually serve the story, or a character doesn’t want to do what you had in mind for her, or new facets of the story have popped up that dictate another path.

Even if you’re the most meticulous plotter, stories and characters have a way of developing unexpectedly.

You can’t force it to go the way you wanted it to if it simply doesn’t work well for the story. In writing as in tiling, that leads to point #2:

2. You may have to get creative to find new solutions.

I wound up having to lay each individual piece of glass one by one: measuring, judging the angle (different at every point of the arch), cutting with glass nippers, testing in the spot, recutting until it fit, and sanding each edge before mortaring it in.

As your story comes to life on the page, you may discover new wrinkles, new obstacles, dead ends you never saw coming. The ideas you had in your head for the story may not quite fit the execution of it.

Take a different tack. Try something new—what’s the worst thing that could befall your character right now? What advantage or resource could you take away from her?

Try something crazy–what’s the most ridiculous plot development that could occur, or action you might have her take?

It doesn’t have to be the right answer–no one need ever see your story until you’re ready, and you can always change it, hone it, or try something else. Unlike tiling, story isn’t set in mortar.

Eventually you’ll find the right fit.

3. It may get hard. Harder than you probably expected.

The bottom five feet of the first alcove went just as planned and took less than an hour to tile. The top 12 inches of the arch took an additional five hours.

I just stuck with it, though, knowing the only way through was through and if I didn’t keep at it, there was no chance I’d finish the project.

You will come to parts of your story that are agony. Where you fear you will never find your way out of the maze, or that you’ve made such a hash of it there’s no fixing it. You may wish you’d never bothered to start in the first place.

You’re wrong–on all counts (except the agony part…there may indeed be pain).

Grit your teeth, stick with it, and find a way through. This is a first draft–it’s meant to suck. Just get something down on the page that gets you where you need to go—the magic happens in revision.

4. There’s a learning curve.

Alcove #2 posed the same challenges as alcove #1–but by then I knew what to expect and how to handle it. The second arch still took the bulk of the total time on the job–at least three-quarters—but it went much faster and more efficiently.

Not only will your skill and knowledge increase with every manuscript you write, but even within those manuscripts, you’ll find the lessons learned from wrong turns and dead ends give you more confidence and efficacy at handling subsequent snafus in the story.

Challenge begets mastery. If every story were easy you’d never grow as a writer.

Challenge begets mastery. If every story were easy you’d never grow as a writer.

5. It’s okay to have help.

One of my friends wanted to learn to tile, so when I told her about my project she asked if she could come over to see me do it. I assumed she’d stop by, watch for an hour or so (if that), and then head on.

Instead she showed up for nearly three full days of work and dived right in to help: mortaring parts of the wall, laying some of the tile, running back and forth to the tile saw for cuts, helping to grout, and generally serving as my right hand. My husband chipped in for the second archway, and their help was a big part of the reason that one went more smoothly.

That doesn’t lessen the fact that I did the lion’s share of this tile job and can be proud of it. Having help just made it much easier–and more enjoyable.

Maybe you bounce ideas off your spouse or a writing buddy. Maybe they help you work out a thorny plot point or give you the key that unlocks a stuck story. Maybe they even offer a full-blown idea for a major part of the manuscript and help talk it through with you.

It’s still your story. Let yourself enjoy walking part of what can often be the solitary journey of creativity with someone who makes the road a little easier.

6. You may not finish when you think you will.

I’d allotted two days for the installation. It took five.

But the “deadline” I’d imposed was an arbitrary one: It didn’t have to be finished “on time” except that I wanted it to be.

You might like to hit your 50K words by November 30–but maybe you won’t. And that’s okay. This is an arbitrary goal and deadline–the purpose of NaNo is just to encourage writers to sit down and pound out the words, get the story on the page.

If it works for you and you get your 50K, great. If you fall short, who cares? You made a start–now keep going till you finish, however long it takes.

Even if you did zero words…even if you’re on deadline for a publisher and life gets in the way…shit, as they say, happens. Creativity is supposed to be a joy, not a chore–at least for the most part.

Ask for an extension from your publisher or sit down when you can and get those words on the page. The world won’t end if you don’t “win” NaNo or finish your draft right on schedule.

7. It may not be “perfect” or exactly as you envisioned it.

My alcoves are flawed. Some of the grout lines are uneven. A few of the tiny pieces I had to cut for the fiddly little corners of the arch aren’t quite right.

But you know what? It’s fine. Unless you look closely, you can’t tell. And if the imperfections ever start to bother me, I can chisel out those pieces, recut and re-mortar them, and grout them back in again.

I’d say with almost total confidence that every book you’ve ever loved has been reworked since its first draft…a lot. And even so, no book you’ve ever loved is “perfect.” There’s no such thing in a subjective field like story—and writers are constantly growing and evolving, so even if you think it’s perfect at some point, if you reread it again years or even months later, you’ll see areas you want to improve.

Let it go. The more you chisel away at it the more you risk losing what was working well already–and you keep yourself from moving on to a new creation, which will grow your skills even more. Because no matter what…

8. It will feel fantastic to do what you set out to do: whenever you finish, however it comes out.

Two of the sweetest words in the English language are “the end.”

Tell your stories, authors. Free them into the world to affect other people, and get to work on your next one.

Next week I’ll resume the series on practical prep for NaNo/first drafting. Meanwhile, here’s how the tiling job came out!

11 Comments. Leave new

  • Excellent tile work! And an interesting analogy, too. Thanks, Tiffany.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 9, 2021 3:15 pm

      Ah, thank you! It’s ever so gently less impressive if you look very closely, but I’m pretty happy with it. Thanks for the kudos. 🙂

  • Kim Taylor Blakemore
    September 9, 2021 3:56 pm

    Gorgeous arch! And the article was exactly what I needed today. I’m moving into the crux of the story, the swing into Act 3. And a character decided to do something wholly different than planned. Sigh. Grit teeth. Go forward with trust.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 9, 2021 8:29 pm

      🙂 Love that this hit you at the right time, Kim. Thanks for sharing that! (And for your kind comments about my handiwork…)

  • Thanks so much for your helpful post, and the tile project looks stellar from here. I’m assuming you’re not totally happy with the hand-cut pieces in the arch, and if that’s the case, you might consider calk.

    They make calk in many colors, and if you choose a latex water-clean-up product that matches either the color of the grout or the background paint, you’ll be golden. Use a damp but well wrung out sponge to wipe away the excess, keep rinsing the sponge and repeat. Get right into the crease. You’ll be amazed at how finished your project will look.

    Love, love your blog posts and your work for WFWA.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 9, 2021 8:32 pm

      Thanks for the tips, Debra! I did in fact caulk–I found an exact match to the grout color in the same line. It helps, for sure–but you can still see my mistakes. That’s okay, though. The damn thing is done, and overall I think it’s pretty. Good enough is good enough! My new learned mantra. 🙂 And finished and imperfect is better than unfinished any day. Thanks for the insight–and for your very kind words. Means a lot to hear.

  • Loved the very apt analogy! Also, the alcoves look beautiful. Looking forward to Nano!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 10, 2021 2:27 pm

      Ah, thank you! I’m not at all unhappy with how they came out, imperfections and all. 🙂 My series on how to prep for NaNo resumes next week, Sydney. Thanks for stopping by.

  • It’s beautiful! And the writing advice is great!

  • The tile looks fabulous! If anyone starts looking “very closely,” by all means, knock one of those big candle holders on their foot.

    And, because I’m a grammar nerd, I must ask a question. You said your friend “dived right in.” I’ve always been confused about “dived” and “dove” (not the bird-ha!). Is “dove” an appropriate past tense of dive and, if so, when and how should it be used, as opposed to dived?


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