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Surprising Similarities between Sewing and Writing

Life is crazy, and I'm not sure it will ever be sane again. Sweetie is zipping between Oregon and Indiana to settle his father's estate, I'm hyperventilating over manuscript requests from literary agents, and the two of us are having big talks about marriage and houses.

Only a few months ago, all of these things were far away concerns for our future "adult" selves to worry about. Our parents were supposed to live for two or three more decades. We didn't expect to buy a home until our mid-thirties, at least. And now that my vague sparkly dreams of publishing are slowly solidifying into a conceivable reality, I'm terrified.

I feel like the minute I turned twenty-nine, the fates checked the calendar and said, "Whoops! You're about ten years overdue for your coming-of-age trials. Here, do all of these now and become a grown-up."

And so this blog post has been sitting in my drafts since March 26, ten days before our nicely ordered world collapsed like a Jenga tower. Over the past month I could write "academic" posts about storytelling and literary criticism, but I couldn't bring myself to post about sewing pretty dresses while Sweetie was ordering death certificates. Now the worst of it is behind us, Sweetie is home (albeit temporarily), and it's a good day to talk about pretty dresses.

The Dresses

I finally did it—I sewed a qipao! After the satin disaster, I tried again with a mildly stretchy linen/rayon blend for the fashion fabric, with poly/cotton shirting for the lining. I tied the frog closures myself from some black nylon cord with the immeasurable aid of YouTube videos.

Cheongsam - Front

Cheongsam - Side

Cheongsam - Top

Then over Easter weekend I made myself a faux-wrap dress out of a colorful Liverpool double knit fabric. The fabric is non-reorderable, which makes me sad—someone needs to set up an affordable print-on-demand service for fabrics.

Wrap Dress - Front

Wrap Dress - Side

Wrap Dress - Back

Sewing and Writing

Sewing and writing seem like very different creative endeavors, but as I learned more about dressmaking I found many surprising similarities.

1. The actual sewing/writing is not the hard part.

When people who don't sew think about sewing, they think about, well, sewing. The physical labor of stitching cloth together. It's so-called "women's work," a mindless chore or frivolous hobby that supposedly requires little thought or skill.

But the physical labor of sewing is only the last and easiest step of the process. The real work is in all the things that must be done before a needle goes anywhere near the fabric. Measuring bodies, calculating pattern pieces, planning out garment construction. Studying the properties of different fabrics, thinking in three dimensions, considering how people move and bend. Tracing, cutting, pinning, basting, fitting (every step of the way!), and making adjustments.

Similarly, when people think about writing, they think about writing. They imagine writing a book is a simple matter of sitting down to type 80,000 words. Even writers believe it. We tell each other that the secret to writing great novels is "butt glue." Just glue your butt to your office chair, turn off your brain, and hammer out 1,000 words a day, and brilliant stories will magically craft themselves.

In reality, hammering out the words is the fun and easy part of writing. Just like in sewing, the hardest and most important part of writing is thinking. Developing characters, laying out plots, weaving in settings. Studying the tropes of genres, considering how people read, designing scenes to make readers feel wonderful and terrible things. Outlining, drafting, and revising, revising, revising.

Impatient people might be tempted to skip all that because it's too bothersome. They say outlining "sucks the joy out of writing," and revising "dilutes the artist's natural voice," and other such excuses that all boil down to, "I just want to skip to the fun part."

This is like an impatient new sewist cutting into her fabric with no pattern and no plan, because she doesn't want to fuss with measuring tape and "math makes her head hurt." Well, she might get the project done, but she can't expect it to be couture.

2. When you first start sewing/writing, you'll discover many things you didn't know you didn't know.

Did you know that sleeves were invented by Satan himself? I didn't until I attempted to draft one.

I'd never given a thought to sleeves until I wanted to add them to the first dress I designed. Vaguely, I must have thought they were merely tubes of fabric. They are not. They are these crazy things.

Basic Sleeve Pattern

Over my lifetime, I've worn countless sleeves. I pride myself on having a reasonably good eye for fashion, and I can tell a pretty sleeve from an ugly one. But until I drafted and sewed a sleeve myself, I had no idea how complicated they are.

Most people start writing because they're avid readers. They love books, and they're discerning critics. They can tell a good story from a bad one.

But there are many things about books that a person will discover only by writing them. Thinking like a creator is very different from thinking like a critic. Here's a famous quote by Ira Glass, host and producer of the long-running radio program This American Life.

"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not....It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions."
3. No project turns out perfectly on the first try.

That deceptively simple-looking cheongsam at the top of this post required three attempts. A full six yards of fabric went into the trash (or my shoe box of crafting scraps).

Here are the notes I kept during the process. The notes under each version detail what went wrong and how to fix it on the next try.

* Muslin *
Skirt hugs pelvis -- Shorten skirt waist darts by 2" all around
Skirt too bell shaped -- Make skirt waist darts straight, not concave; reduce curve of cut at hips; reduce hip ease by 1/2" on each side
Tapered skirt not flattering -- Cut A-line instead
Sleeves too tight -- Add 1" additional ease and bring out armholes 1/4" on each side

* Satin *
Bodice stands away from body -- Add shoulder dart 3" long, 1" wide to outer bodice piece
Collar too short -- Lengthen by 2", extend inner bodice piece by 1"
Sleeves still too tight -- Widen and shorten caps

* Linen *
Waist too snug for non-stretch fabric -- add 3/8" of ease on each side (fixed this time by letting out back darts by 1/2" each, front darts by 1/4" each)

I probably spend twice as much of my sewing time on alterations as I do on actual garment construction, because every attempt is an imperfect one. Even dressmakers with decades of experience need to sew up muslins and do multiple fittings to get a garment just right. Likewise, even authors with dozens of books to their names will still need to revise, revise, revise.

And by "revise," I don't mean they make some small tweaks and call it good. They have to be willing to trash those six yards of fabric they'd worked on for three weeks and try again.

Over the next few months, I'll be rewriting about a third of Whacked in the Stacks. I'm moving events around to improve the pacing of the plot, cutting whole chapters of dead weight, and introducing new characters to make conflicts more interesting. Revision isn't something that can be done by halves. As Mary Kole says in her blog post "Big Revision," the word means "to see again," to see the story in a new light and make drastic changes, not "to shovel text like a kid pushing peas around his plate."

Preaching in Fiction

In my last post I talked about a modernization of Pride and Prejudice that disappointed me. I said I didn't enjoy the novel because, though it had all of P&P's beloved characters and basic events, it lacked the story that makes the reading experience of the original so magical.

The modernization also rubbed me the wrong way for a second, even stronger reason: it's one of the preachiest books I've read in years.

When I say the book is "preachy," you might imagine something along the lines of C. S. Lewis and his unmissable religious symbolism, Rudyard Kipling and his not-so-subtle imperialism, or Harriet Beecher Stowe and her in-your-face paternalism. If you do, you're on the right track. This book had the heavy-handed moralizing of Uncle Tom's Cabin in a twenty-first-century flavor. Instead of "Christian charity! Christian charity!" the novel screamed "Social justice! Social justice!" until my ears were ringing.

Every story, in some way or another, is a morality tale. Stories are how people around the world express cultural values: what is heroic, what is villainous, how society should reward the heroes and punish the villains. We write books and make movies for entertainment, but also to build our collective understanding of an ideal universe.

It's perfectly natural for authors to use their stories to show the difference between right and wrong. However, there are stories with good moral lessons, and then there are sermons masquerading as stories.

Sign of Preaching #1: The "Point" Overshadows the Plot

The author of that P&P modernization ruined the story because she was trying to "make a point." Many points, actually.

  • Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley falls apart when Jane gets pregnant through IVF. The author wanted to make the point that it's a woman's individual choice to have children or not, and everyone should respect that.
  • Mr. Wickham plays no real role in the story because, instead of finding out he's a money-grubbing cad, Elizabeth finds out he's a racist. The author wanted to make the point that racism is bad.
  • Lydia randomly runs off with a trans man because the author wanted to make the point that everyone should be allowed to love whomever they want, and no one has the right to judge.
  • Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist with no business being in the book because the author wanted to make the point that strong women should be applauded, not reviled.

The problem with the novel isn't these "points" themselves. The points are all good points.

But instead of working her points into the story structure of P&P, which could be easily done, the author wrote a long egalitarian sermon. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble, and her readers a lot of time, by dispensing with the charade of writing a novel and simply printing big posters that say, "Racism is bad! Sexism is bad! So is slut-shaming and fat-shaming, by the way. Liberty and justice for all!"

Sign of Preaching #2: Characters "Tell" the Morals

Many times in the P&P modernization, Elizabeth Bennet pauses to reflect.

  • She reflects that her mother's racism is subtle and insidious, as shown by how she takes the maid for granted and distrusts the real estate agent because he's black.
  • She reflects that while she dislikes her younger sisters for being so vulgar, she also admires them for being so open about their feelings and so unashamed to go after what they want.
  • She reflects that anorexia is a terrible disease, and that's why she tries her best to avoid talking about diet and exercise with other women.

And so on, and so forth.

Now, the original Elizabeth Bennet spends plenty of time reflecting, but the focus of her reflections is very different. She looks back on her own behavior to figure out her heart and mind, or she evaluates the actions of other people to figure out their characters and motivations. But she never pauses to profess, in a thinly disguised way, her opinions about current social mores.

Fearing that readers wouldn't get The Point from modern Elizabeth's extensive reflections, the author also made sure some of the characters voice her morals plainly. Mr. Darcy explains that Mr. Wickham's vicious prank against a black teacher was racist, in case that wasn't abundantly obvious. He also points out that Lydia's choice of husband is no one's business but her own, in case we readers in 2017 might suffer from doubts on that score.

Like complex emotions and character motivations, morals are higher-order concepts a writer should show, not tell. Modern novels are not ancient Greek plays. We don't need a chorus at the end to sing about how fate can't be changed and hubris leads to ruin.

The Moral of This Post

If you want to make the point that racism is bad, show readers how the racist words and actions of some characters hurt other characters. If you want to make the point that powerful women are admirable, introduce powerful female characters who play heroic roles in the plot.

When you preach morals to an audience, they roll their eyes and make sarcastic snoring noises. If you instead tell an audience a riveting story and let them figure out the morals for themselves, not only will the experience be more enjoyable for everyone, but the lessons will sink in deeper and stay with them longer.

What I Learned from Pride and Prejudice: Maximizing Potential for Happiness

Outlining Rainie Day Mystery #2, in which the murder takes place at the Sea Breeze Jane Austen Society's Annual Regency Ball, has given me the happy excuse to revisit Austen's works. I've been spending my evenings reading the novels on Project Gutenberg and watching the movie adaptations on Amazon...all for the sake of "research," of course.

My opinion of this literary great, and particularly of her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, has vacillated over the years. I adored Austen as a teenager. Then I derided her in my early twenties, when I discovered her imperfections. Now I can enjoy her stories despite their flaws.

As I reflect on the novels and read what other people say about them, I've been thinking about what makes Pride and Prejudice (henceforth "P&P") so much more popular than the others. I've proposed theories on this blog before: P&P has the most likeable heroine, and the story focuses on romance while Austen's other novels are primarily coming of age stories.

But there's something magical about P&P that sucks a reader in more than the others. It's not the brilliance of the characters—the cast of Emma is much more interesting. It's not the wittiness of the writing—the satire in Northanger Abbey is much more amusing. And it's not the pacing or originality of the plot—Elizabeth Bennet is completely reactive, and the plot points of P&P are tame compared to the scandalous secrets, betrayals, and brushes with death in Sense and Sensibility.

No, that special something is not in either the idea or the execution of the novel. The magic of P&P is in its basic story structure.

1. Of all Jane Austen's novels, P&P has the happiest ending.

As I wrote in my March 2016 post, "Thoughts on Conflict and Tension," conflict creates narrative tension because it takes the characters farther away from happiness. This means the potential for happiness has to exist in the first place. "There's no tension when a character sits around moping about the pointlessness of life," I said. "There is tension when a character wants very much to live happily ever after with his college sweetheart, but she disappears without a trace, and he's desperate to find her."

There are two ways to add tension to a story. One is to make the characters' situation worse. Inflict greater and greater misfortunes upon the poor cast until their accumulated misery explodes in the climax and fizzles away in the resolution. This does make for an exciting read—however, overdoing it will inflict misery on the poor readers as well. I've read several dark novels in which every character was a jerk and every scene was a humiliation or a heartbreak for the hero. By the time the hero was facing mortal danger to save the world, I was thinking, "Who cares? This world isn't worth saving."

The other way to add tension is to attack from the other end. Make the promised resolution of the story happier.

Here's a boring movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up to recover his health.

Here's a better movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the respect of the community.

Here's a poignant movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up, mend broken friendships, and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the affections of his long-suffering wife and their adorable young son.

Each successive hypothetical movie above raises the stakes, not by making the situation more dire, but by making the rewards more desirable. The first movie would make an audience go, "So what?" The third would make them go, "Aww..." The greater the potential happiness, the more tragic the obstacles standing in the way, especially if those obstacles are the characters' own doing.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are an ideal couple. Austen shows us how perfect they are for each other through their sparkling conversations, which are disagreements on the surface but hold the promise of harmony in the future. Elizabeth attempts to tease Darcy, and he thwarts her with gallant responses. They get so absorbed in their playful duels of wit that other characters feel the need to cut in and yank them out. And though they claim to dislike each other, Darcy defends Elizabeth against the nasty Miss Bingley, and Elizabeth defends Darcy against her vulgar mother.

Readers can see almost immediately that these two are on the same wavelength. They're equally matched in brains, in humor, and in vanity and stubbornness. Once they conquer their misunderstandings, they'll be the best of friends. We keep turning the pages because we desperately want to see these two likeable characters resolve their problems and live happily ever after.

The incentive to turn the pages isn't as great in any other Austen novel because the happily-ever-afters aren't quite as happy. Every other romantic pairing is subdued or flawed in some way—the heroines are much younger and less mature than the heroes (as in Emma and Northanger Abbey), or the characters just aren't very interesting (as in Mansfield Park and Persuasion), or both (as in Sense and Sensibility). All of these novels have conflict aplenty, some even more than P&P, and yet readers who make it to the marriage proposals at the end will say, "That's nice," not "Yes! Finally!"

2. Every conflict in P&P directly threatens the happy ending.

I didn't realize how tightly plotted P&P really is until last weekend, when I read a modern retelling of this beloved novel that had the same basic characters, and the same basic events, but no story. In the author's eagerness to stuff the story into the 21st century by erasing all traces of sexism, she also erased all the interesting and relevant conflicts.

  • The initiation, temporary demise, and restoration of Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley occur completely independently of Mrs. Bennet's scheming, and nearly independently of Mr. Darcy's meddling.
  • The dastardly Wickham is an overgrown frat boy who strings Elizabeth along, but he never touched Darcy's sister Georgianna and never meets Elizabeth's sister Lydia. Elizabeth wises up and ends her relationship with Wickham before she gets involved with Darcy, and Wickham has no part in the story thereafter.
  • Lydia elopes with a trans man she's been dating since the beginning of the novel. But though the conservative Mrs. Bennet flies into hysterics, everyone else points out that Lydia really did nothing wrong. So there's no need for Darcy to win Elizabeth's heart by saving her family from social and financial ruin—she merely realizes she's in love with him after spending more time with him at holiday barbecues.
  • The powerful Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist who has no relation to Darcy, no objections to to Elizabeth, and really no purpose for being in the story at all.

So this "retelling" ended up being a collection of events that relate to each other only sequentially: scene A comes before scene B, but scene A doesn't cause scene B. Mere bickering and flimsy misunderstandings separate the lovers, and mere happenstance brings them back together.

Every time I read the original P&P or watch the faithful movie adaptations, I cringe when Mr. Darcy explains why he doubted Jane's affections for Bingley, because Mrs. Bingley's manipulative schemes are finally coming back to bite her. I tear up when Elizabeth receives Jane's letter about Lydia's elopement and realizes she'll never see Mr. Darcy again, because she could have prevented the disaster by telling her family about Wickham's history of seducing fifteen-year-old girls. I chortle when Lady Catherine de Bourgh huffs off to tell Mr. Darcy all about the impudence of Miss Bennet, because she's only bringing about the very union she's trying to prevent.

But when I read the modernization, I never once cringed, teared up, or chortled over the plot events. I didn't delight in the ups or despair in the downs of the main couple's relationship. None of the plot points were the consequence of the main couple's previous decisions, and very few of the conflicts affected their ultimate happiness.

Let us return to our alcoholic former athlete, who'll we'll presume is in the poignant version of the movie. Here's a series of conflicts that he might face in a boring plot.

  • The assistant coach of the high school soccer team doesn't respect him and undermines his authority in front of the kids.
  • The president of the PTA objects to him and starts a petition to get him fired.
  • The rival soccer team plays mean pranks on the kids and lowers their morale.

Are these conflicts? Yes, they are. Will anyone care? No, because these conflicts have very little to do with the protagonist's ultimate goal of living happily ever after with his wife and child.

Now here's a series of conflicts that would make for a much more interesting movie.

  • The athlete gets off on the wrong foot with the soccer team by arriving late to the first practice with a hangover and no training plan. He treats the kids with contempt. Half of the team doesn't come back, and the remaining players don't respect him.
  • One of the kids he insulted is the son of the PTA president, who starts a petition to get him fired.
  • After a disastrous PTA meeting, the athlete has a relapse and comes home drunk. His little son wants to play, and the athlete shouts at him. Terrified, the boy begins to cry. The long-suffering wife packs up and leaves with the child.

Now to earn his happily ever after, the athlete will have to sober up, bond with the kids by getting sweet revenge on the rival team, and show his wife he's changed by being responsible and winning the championship game.

These interesting events are not materially different from the boring versions, but (a) they're related causally and (b) at every step, you can feel the pain the protagonist is causing to himself and to others. When you watch him botch the soccer practice, you know he's going to regret it later. When you watch him shout at his little son, you know he's breaking his own heart as well as his wife's. These events aren't just random occurrences that leave you asking, "So what?"