In February this year, termites came up through the floor and ate through the bottom plank of it on their way to devouring 24 of my biggest books. The books can be replaced, but the bookcase was one of a kind, never to be repeated. So in the months since then, I have been busy with a project between bouts of writing. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as the restoration of something precious to you, and the repetition of manual tasks frees up the brain to think while the hands are busy.
It struck me during one of these sessions that repairing a bookcase is like fixing a half-written novel. Parts of the original casing (or first draft of the novel) are still fine and serve their purpose, but big changes need to be made to other parts. Termite tunnels in the bottom don’t make for a solid foundation, so what no longer works needs to be unscrewed, cut away and abandoned in the same way that ideas we once thought marvellous for the novel don’t always work when the characters start to think for themselves.
In place of the ruined wood, a new plank (story thread or idea) has to be sourced, bought, cut to size, sanded down, painted with primer, and left to dry. All new story threads need time to mature and develop before they can be woven into the existing plotlines of the novel.
In order to accommodate the new part, the old bookcase has to be sanded down, have all its joints checked for more insect holes, and rusty screws need to be replaced. Old holes once taped up and glossily painted over (plot holes that I may once have tried to hide) must now be undone and repaired. That original plywood backing that I thought I needed can be jettisoned and the shelves can be left open to allow the books to breathe, in the same way that leaving out a non-essential element of the book allows the characters to stand in sharper relief, on their own, and don’t need me to labour a point.
When both parts of the bookcase are ready, holes have to be measured and drilled in the new plank, in exactly the right place to ensure a proper fit. There is only one chance to get this right so, on my story outline, I highlight all the new pieces and work out exactly where each new bit has to slot in, before I adapt the existing text forever and write the new pieces into it. Very carefully, the new plank is inserted as seamlessly as possible into the original piece.
Huge sigh of relief, but the work doesn’t stop there. In fact it’s only just beginning. Once holes and joins are sealed up, the completed piece needs to be re-painted. It’s very tempting to rush ahead with both the painting and the writing before the holes are sealed up, but time and care taken now will be time saved later.
The bookcase needs an undercoat before the colour, even a second undercoating two days after the first if the old colour or ugly pink primer is still showing through. Two thin coats are always better than one thick one, in the same way that two careful edits of anything you have written will yield better results than one heavy-handed one.
After each coat has had sufficient time to dry, a light sanding is needed to pare down the rough bits (edit out the glitches) that crept unseen into the previous coating of paint. Test the sanded surface by running your hand over it to feel for uneven textures, in the same way as you need to read your novel aloud to hear what works and what sounds awkward.
Paint manufacturers warn that each coat must be allowed time to dry, especially in adverse weather conditions. Read their instructions properly, and stick to what they say. They have written them to help you, because they know their product better than you do. In the same way, you need to read as many books on writing as you can find, before attempting to join the ranks of published writers already out there.
Like coats of paint, you cannot write one draft straight after the other – it needs time to cure, to settle down and solidify. You also need time to forget how brilliant you thought you were when you wrote it; time for your brain to forget what you were trying to say, and instead be able to see with fresh eyes what you actually did write. And then you need to re-write it. At any point, feel free to call in other writers, painters or carpenters to give
your work the once-over and point out where you need to fix things.
Be sure that the undercoat is ready before the first coat of colour goes on. I once made the mistake of painting a door before the undercoat had dried properly. The entire thing blistered and had to be re-sanded back down to the undercoat, and the whole process done all over again, this time with a second day in between each coating. It takes monumental patience to watch paint dry; it can’t be rushed, and it’s no good stabbing at messy bits with a paintbrush in the hope of covering them up. It doesn’t work. Be honest and don’t angrily flog recalcitrant bits of plot until they’re dead or no longer recognisable, just because you’re keen to finish writing the novel.
The first coat of colour needs to be followed two days later by a second, but don’t forget another light sanding in between, or that second coat will never be as smooth as you’d like it to be. There is always time for another light sanding, just as there is always time for more detailed editing. Once you're satisfied with the colour, your bookcase will be finished, but wait until you're absolutely sure that the final coat has solidified properly before you pile on the weight of the books.
Your novel needs to be as perfect as you're capable of getting it before you attempt to send it to prospective agents or publishers, and if you're self-publishing it, then it needs to be even more perfect, so give it yet another edit before you cast your darlings to the wolves.
Good luck with all those books, and watch out for the termites!