Tuning the Rig

Hello, gentle readers,

Well, it’s the last Wednesday before lectures start up again.  I’ll try to keep the moaning to a minimum, as I give my life over to the course for the LAST YEAR!  Michaelmas term* will likely be easier to deal with than in the spring, but I’m determined to keep writing this column every week, with an entry posted by midnight on Wednesday, GMT.  Well, possibly very early Thursday 🙂

* I have decided to adopt the older terms because then I can feel vaguely that I go to a classy, studious school.  And then I can go out on Saturday nights and weep for the future of humanity, when I see what’s on parade.

I wound up actually giving a modicum of thought to the mechanics of how I write, courtesy a little post from Charlie Cochrane, and doing the last edits on two novellas that are on the very tippy-edge of being completed.  Basically, I have no method.  I have an image, or a rough summary, or even just a character, and the story evolves around that.  Sometimes I have an end and a beginning, but woe be to me if I actually write that end — for some reason, I just can’t continue with the story unless I write it more or less in chronological order.  This is exactly as annoying as you’d think.

But all is not anarchy, I think; I get the bones of the story, and most of the flesh, and then it’s time to go over it, again and again, and fine-tune it.  I’m reading Harvey Oxenhorn’s Tuning the Rig: A Journey to the Arctic, which is a rather literary account of sailing on the tall ship Regina Maris, researching whales around Greenland.  He is sometimes (often) irritating*, but he does explain the way sailing works, the emotional guts of it, brilliantly.  This is his description of tuning the rig, wherein one makes minute adjustments to a dizzying array of lines:

“[Lawrence] had found a fracture in the giant bottle screw into which a back-stay fastened.  This was serious, since the counterbalanced tension of the stays is what holds up the mast, like guy wires on a radio tower.  Fran had constructed a steel splint, which Lawrence had then bolted onto the bottle screw.  It would hold for a while.  But it altered the tension on the backstay and made it necessary to adjust th opposing stays (four on each side) by backing off or tightening other bottle screw with a crowbar and monkey wrench that weighted ten pounds.

Only when we had finished with the mizzen did a realize that we had just begun — that the mizzenmast, in turn, was connected by other stays to the mainmast, the mainmast to the foremast, the foremast to the jib boom, and so on.  A single web distributed the tension over every inch of rig; no part, even the stoutest mast, stood on its own; the whole thing held together thanks to counterbalanced stress, so that a change in any single part affected every other.”

*I should note here that Oxenhorn was sadly killed in an accident the same year that he published Tuning the Rig. So I feel very guilty saying this.  But really, I spent the first 2/3rds of the book despairing over him…

I have decided that this is why I hate making big edits.  Every change beyond a certain level is going to affect every other part of the story, is going to change how a character behaves at certain points, so that every time I fix a cracked bottle screw, I must go through the whole delicate web, touching here and there, making tiny adjustments as I go.  But for the whole thing to hold together and sing true, it’s got to be done.  A first draft is a shakedown cruise, and I can see that half my opening page has to be cut, or else I bore myself to death, let alone anyone else.  I don’t follow the patterns you’re supposed to — not consciously, anyway — but the rig of a ship I can understand, and maybe it’s a better metaphor than anything else, should I ever find myself needing one.  Either way, I suppose it’s a fun thought experiment.




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