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T. K. and Sweetie Tie the Knot, Part 1: The Preparations

Sweetie and I are now officially an old married couple. For ease of URL-sharing, I've split my post about our wedding into two. First, the preparations!

The Cake

While Sweetie was still in Indiana, over Skype we designed a cake that represents the activities we've shared over the past ten years. My single community college drawing class didn't give me the skills to freehand the design, so I researched how to trace patterns onto cakes for decorating. The Internet instructed me to...

  1. Use an image editing program to flip the design horizontally. Print it out. Trace the pan you'll be using around the design to make a perfect cake-sized template.
  2. Put the template on a solid surface, like a piece of cardboard or a pane of glass.
  3. Tape a piece of transparent parchment or wax paper over the template.
  4. Pipe colored buttercream frosting directly onto the parchment paper, following the template underneath.
  5. Fill in the rest of the template with background frosting to create one massive cake topper.
  6. Freeze the topper overnight.
  7. Flip the frozen topper onto the top of the prepared cake. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.
  8. Gently smooth out the bumps and lines in the frozen frosting with a clean finger.
  9. Bask in the compliments on your supposed artistic genius!
TK's hands piping butterfly on wedding cake
Picture of TK making wedding cake
Wedding cake design in buttercream
Buttercream design transferred to cake
Finished cake on cardboard

The Dress

Sewing the dress was a month-long process. I chose the fabric first: a mint polyester charmeuse. Since charmeuse is thin and slippery, I decided to draft a very simple pattern for it—princess seams, a low back, and a long half-circle skirt. Then I glammed up the arms and neck with pearl embellishments my mother sent me.

TK's wedding dress, front
TK's wedding dress, side
TK's wedding dress, back
TK's wedding dress, back

The pearl flower at the base of the low back hides the zipper slider. The idea was a "happy accident." I hadn't expected the top of the zipper to look so sloppy, and when casting around for ways to fix it I spotted the pearl flowers I'd planned to use in hair accessories. I sewed hooks to one flower and eyes to the dress, and now after zipping up I can attach the flower over the top.

The lace along the sash and hemline was also a "happy accident." When I sewed the skirt, the charmeuse twisted and left me with an ugly bunched-up hem. I bolted to Jo-Ann Fabrics and found a pretty bridal-looking nylon lace to cover up the bunching. Then I added the lace to the sash for cohesion.

Later I'll cut the skirt to tea-length and replace the sash with another color, and then I'll have a regular party dress for other occasions.

The Accessories

For my hair, I took a cheap plastic headband and covered it in several coats of silver nail polish. After letting it dry for 24 hours, I used E6000 industrial-strength adhesive to attach another pearl flower to one side.

TK's wedding headband

For my shoes, I found a pair of gold ballet flats at Payless Shoe Source. I used the E6000 to decorate the toplines with the same pearl strings I sewed along the neckline of my dress.

TK's wedding shoes

The Miscellany

In the week leading up to the ceremony, I purchased our rings, prepared Sweetie's suit and tie, and colored my hair black with a vegan PPD-free dye that turned my skin and bathtub various shades of blue, purple, and green. Sweetie flew back from Indiana five days before the wedding—just enough time to apply for our marriage license and scrub the "chariot," a.k.a. the 2002 Ford Taurus.

These preparations complete, we had only to wait for the clock to tick down to Part 2: The Wedding.

Writing in the Age of Entertainment Overload

Last weekend I devoured the first two books of M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mysteries. I knew I'd found a new favorite author to add to my collection when I read these paragraphs at the top of page two of Death of a Gossip (1985).

John Cartwright was small, thin, wiry, and nervous. He had sandy, wispy hair and rather prominent pale blue eyes. Heather had been one of his first pupils at the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing.

He had been seduced by the sight of her deft back cast and had only got around to discovering the other pleasures of her anatomy after they were married.

But while these books make me very happy as a reader, they also make me melancholy as a writer...because we can't write like this anymore.

M. C. Beaton breaks every rule in the twenty-first-century publishing playbook. She head-hops. She "tells." She devotes more page time to character portraits, light romance, and comic hijinks than she does to the simplistic crimes. The Hamish Macbeth mysteries are books about life in charming small-town Scotland set against the backdrop of a murder, not the other way around.

When Beaton wrote Death of a Gossip in 1985, St. Martin's snapped it up and turned it into a beloved series with thirty-four titles and a three-season BBC adaptation. If a hopeful unknown were to submit the same manuscript to agents and editors today, she would be universally rejected.

As I received feedback from agents for my manuscript of Whacked in the Stacks, I saw one verdict repeatedly: "It's too slow." Agents say the heroine is delightful, her rocky relationship with her sister is relatable and touching, and her flirtation with her childhood crush is adorable...but I need to change all that if I want to sell the book. The heroine must discover the dead body ASAP. She must rush to solve the murder against a ticking clock. I can't waste any pages on comic scenes or relationships that don't have anything to do with the mystery.

Whacked in the Stacks is zippy compared to the ambling 1985 Death of a Gossip. But now it's 2017, and anything short of a Sonic-the-Hedgehog pace won't sell anymore.

Publishing experts today warn that if a paragraph is boring, the reader might close the Kindle app and tap over to Instagram. If a chapter ending is too satisfactory, the reader might take a nap and forget about the book. They say the age of Tweets and binge-watching has made modern readers so impatient, so accustomed to high stakes and lightning-fast plots, that if you write one single scene of quiet introspection they'll immediately get bored and put the book down.

Is it true? I think no...and yes.

Have readers changed? No.

I don't think the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people read books or watch shows. People have always enjoyed stories full of twists and cliffhangers.

  • In the Greek epic poem The Odyssey (8th century B.C.) the hero sails from one narrow escape to another until he charges into a harrowing battle to reclaim his wife and palace at the end.
  • In Shakespeare's Hamlet (c. 1600), every act ends with a promise of titillating scenes to come. Act I ends with Hamlet setting off for revenge. Act II ends with Hamlet plotting a stage play to expose the king's crimes. Act III ends with Hamlet murdering Polonius in front of the queen, and Act IV ends with the queen's dramatic announcement of Ophelia's death.
  • The first volume of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) ends with the sentence, "To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go," which leaves readers squealing in anticipation of Elizabeth's inevitable reunion with Mr. Darcy.

People have also always enjoyed slower stories with poetic writing and great characters, and that hasn't changed either. Who do people cite as their favorite authors of all time? Jane Austen. Leo Tolstoy. Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale is so slow even I couldn't get through the first chapter.

Tastes haven't altered much in a couple of millennia. The Internet didn't suddenly change our definition of a good story in a couple of decades.

Instead, what the Internet really did change was the entertainment economy.

Has publishing changed? Yes.

When I was growing up in the dark ages of the 1990s, adults flew into a tizzy over the horrifying news that kids were spending two to three whole hours a day in front of TV and computer screens. Then the Internet came along, and now spending most of your time staring a screen is the norm.

Today people walk around with thousands of movies and books in a tiny computer in their pockets. They can subscribe to Netflix for roughly one hour's entry-level wage per month. They can access hundreds of eBooks for free through their public libraries.

In the face of this entertainment overload, turning a profit has become much, much tougher for book publishers.

In the 1980s, when St. Martin's snapped up Hamish Macbeth, publishers could afford to offer readers many kinds of stories: slow and thoughtful stories, cute and fluffy stories, dark and thrilling stories. But now agents and editors have to be more selective about what they acquire, and the books they put out have to appeal to the widest audience possible. In the publishing world today, there is only one "good" story: the unputdownable story. Every book must be a hard-hitting Sonic-the-Hedgehog page-turner. There is no room for cuteness anymore.

Overdrive Mysteries

What does this mean for me?

Whacked in the Stacks is like the song "Have a Nice Day" by the Japanese singer Nishino Kana. It's charming, uplifting, and a little bittersweet. The sound is bubbly, and the lyrics are about a woman cheering herself on when work is exhausting and her dating life is a mess: "Do your best, me! Do your best today too...You're great, me! Don't lose, be patient, don't lose heart. Just like this, even today, I can live with all my might."

It's a lovely song to bop along to in the car, but it's not "danceable," the musical equivalant of "unputdownable." It doesn't make your pulse pound, and it doesn't stick inside your head for hours afterwards.

On the other hand my next project, the wuxia trilogy, is like "Last Romeo" by the Korean band Infinite. To epic rock-orchestral music, the boys sing about an all-consuming love: "Shine on my path; whether I want it or not, the decision has been made. I will put everything at risk. I will protect you no matter what hardships come. I can't see anything else but you."

This song is the essence of "high-concept." It gives you the breathless feeling agents and editors today want to experience when they read a manuscript. They want heartwrenching dramas that sweep them off their feet. They want the sort of books that make readers Tweet words like "obsessed" and "addicted"—the sort of books that have the potential to be international smash hits.

If you were to take "Have a Nice Day," trim out the slow intro, and speed the whole thing up, you wouldn't turn it into "Last Romeo." You'd only ruin the song by making it sound ridiculous.

Similarly, if I were to take out everything in WITS that is not the mystery, put in more twists and villainous plots, and turn the heroine into a fearless investigator who suspects everyone in sight of murder most foul, the novel wouldn't suddenly become The Girl on the Train. It would only become a faster and less affecting version of the cute fluff it is now.

I like fluff. Fluff should be fluffy. I don't want to douse my fluff in kerosene and light it on fire just to make things more exciting. Because publishing WITS would require me to do just that, I've decided to file the manuscript away for now. I'm going to take a short breather and then start work on my wuxia trilogy, which will be a blazing fire by nature.

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."