A Thread Run Through It

There is always more than one twist.

 

In order to make a strong thread, you have to make many, many twists. In order to sew pieces together, you need a thread run through them.

 

When I was a much younger woman, I spent a couple of years serving as an apprentice shepherdess. In practice, this meant I helped move sheep, feed sheep, clean fleeces, pitch hay and in general do scutwork. But I didn’t mind, because sheep are amiable companions when they aren’t being rockheaded dolts, and best of all, it was mostly outdoor work. One of the things I learned while I was doing this was how to spin a fleece into thread, and then the many ways a thread can be made into something else entirely, be that a garment, a blanket, or macramé. I never did learn how to knit, and I’m a clumsy spinner (not enough practice) but I can clean a fleece pretty darn quick and I know the basics of natural dyes and mordants. I do know how to crochet, and weave, but mostly I lack the patience to do that as anything but a whimsical amigurumi from time to time.

 

I’m talking about fleeces, but really I’m talking about writing, because what I learned about spinning forms a metaphor for creating a plot that runs through the disparate pieces of a book and ties them all together into a unified whole. Just like sewing up a garment, you take bits and scraps of cloth, and make them into something beautiful and richly colored. It’s not easy, by any means. For one thing, while I have done quilting, I ran around the Grange Hall as a tiny girl while the women sat and stitched, and I know how incredible the work can be when done by a master. My patchwork attempts are passable, but could be better. I’ll keep practicing.

 

A fleece from a sheep is, in essence, a lot of soft, fluffy hair. It’s hair, not fur: it will keep growing and growing until it’s cut. If you don’t shear a sheep every so often, it’ll die. Now, obviously this isn’t biologically premium, but a modern sheep is bred to hold onto it’s hair and not shed it, which is what wild-type sheep (and some goats) do. Once upon a time, gathering fleece to spin was a laborious process of gathering clumps of shed hair off bushes and thorny weeds, then cleaning it and carding it. Carding is the process of combing the hairs until they are all running in one direction. They still, if you take a clump and pull in opposite directions with both hands, will come apart. You’ll wind up with a tuft in each hand. But if you take that bit of fleece, and give it a twist, it’s harder to pull apart. Give it more twists, and suddenly you have yarn. Twist it tighter, with less fleece strands going into the spin, and you have thread.

 

Linen is a similar process, but the prep to yield strands is a lot more labor intensive. I’m not getting into that – I’ve never done it, although I’m familiar with the theory. And I’ve gotten sidetracked already from my thought.

 

A good plot has some twists in it. Readers who find the path smooth and easy to follow from opening to conclusion might bother to walk all the way to the end, or they may get bored and wander off, to leave the book unfinished forever. Throw in a few left turns, and suddenly they are wondering what will come next, and they will keep reading, compelled to find out what happens. In thread, the idea is to be as smooth and even as possible. In writing, you want slubs. Slubs are the funny little bumps and clumps that give raw silk, for instance, it’s characteristic ‘nubbly’ look. In a book, you want that sort of unpredictable thing in the plot. It’s still got the strong thread, but there are unique elements readers will only find in this story – it’s the slubs that will make your work memorable.

 

The more twists, the stronger the plot thread. But watch out! If you overspin thread, it starts to coild back up on itself – in DNA, that’s called supercoiling, and it’s part of how 6 meters of DNA can be packed into every single nucleated cell in your body (not every single cell – red blood cells have enucleated, and don’t have DNA) but it is considered less than ideal in spinning thread. It’s less than ideal in a book, too. Once that path has become so convoluted the reader loses track of what is happening, why, and to who, they start getting a headache and vowing to never read another of your books. I have a few authors I avoid for just this reason, personally. I’m sure some of you do, too.

Upcoming

Next week, if I can get enough data crunched (Since as you read this I am flying from Ohio to Oregon to move kids back and forth between Mom’s house and mine) I will be presenting a summary of a guided promo push I’m doing with a free book, and 6 paid outlets for book promotion (Fussy Librarian, Ebookhounds, and more). It should generate some interesting results. On the first day alone, featured in Fussy Librarian, I gave away about 350 730 copies, and on the second day, a whopping 2600. The idea is to break into some new market areas by giving away the first book of a series. If you want to get in on the action, Pixie Noir is free from Aug. 3-7!

14 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

14 responses to “A Thread Run Through It

  1. Oooo! Nice metaphor, and spot on the problem I’ve got with my WIP. Not enough twists, and it’s a bit kludged together instead of nicely sewn.

  2. For those curious about linen, here’s a detailed link about the process that I found useful.

  3. Demonstrating the applicability of the Unified Field Theory once again.
    Everything is about everything else, if you have good synapses.

    Or if you suffer from certain types of schizophrenia. That’s not nearly so much fun.

    • Mary

      Aristotle observed that the most essential gift of a poet (read: creative writer) and the only one that can not be taught, is the gift of seeing resemblances.

  4. Too many threads.

    This might only be me but this has happened a few times.

    I’m reading a series and as the series goes longer more and more characters get added. Along with their own plotlines, their own conflicts, their own love interests, and even their own subplots. As a reader, I didn’t buy the book for the side characters because if they were so interesting they’d be the star of the book. They are not, and there’s a reason for that. But some writers get so into and so focused on the side characters they lose track of the overarching plot and the main characters.

    I’ve found myself occasionally turning a book over halfway through and rereading the back cover copy to remind myself of what the book was supposed to be about (knight vs dragon in 1920s Seattle? Awesome! Why have I been reading about all the interactions of the kooky characters in the wharf side hotel where the knight has made his home for the last 200 pages? Where’s the knight gone? Isn’t there supposed to be a dragon?) That’s not an actual book, just a kind of book I’d have bought and the kind of mistake (in my opinion) some authors make when they get focused on the side characters, (threads) whether for padding or because they’re not as interested in the story they were able to sell as the one they actually wanted to tell (almost always proletariat vs. bourgeoisie for some reason) .

    That seems like a book that gets over twisted (in the thread analogy) and curls back in on itself to produce an inferior product. If the characters in the hotel were there to show aspects of the knight’s character, the dragon’s character, the character of the city and the time rather than their own unrelated stuff that could work. Compare and contrast but keep it focused on the two central characters and the central conflict and it tends to work well and be the tightly wound and straight string of thread that makes the most satisfying story.

    For me. Others are different and might prefer the winding road of aimlessness that accidentally turns back into the central story at the end.

    Steve

    • “Others are different and might prefer the winding road of aimlessness that accidentally turns back into the central story at the end.”

      Victor Hugo remains popular…

  5. Christopher M. Chupik

    When a story gets stalled, I step back and take a good look at my threads. Either I have too many, or not enough.

  6. Thus far I’ve been fortunate, in that I’ve rarely been bothered by extraneous fascinating minor-characters, aside from cats and mules. However, I had to fight hard to keep from basically adding at least a chapter full of neat stuff I learned while researching a book that had absolutely nothing to do with what the MC was doing but it was so cool and readers just have to know this because it is so cool and I can stick it in here, and over here, and…
    Ahem.
    *Reaches for plot-pruning shears*

  7. Dan Z

    I like to compare writing a story to weaving a tapestry. I’ll start with a sort of general vision of the story I want to create and the threads (here meaning characters, settings, scenes, subplots, and the like) I’ll need to weave into the story. Sometimes… okay, most of the time as I am writing I’ll realize there is a pattern or two among all those threads that I hadn’t noticed until I had enough of the story in front of me. If the new threads are interesting enough, they might inspire me to alter my overall vision for the whole tapestry.

    They might also be useful for shoring up or reinforcing other threads in the story. In one story I wrote I realized at one point that there were these two characters whose interactions were always a bit flirtatious. While I hadn’t originally intended for there to be any sort of romantic subplot in that story, I realized including one would help bring together, literally and figuratively, certain aspects of the story so I made sure to weave a bit more of that thread into the story. That part of the story worked out well, at least the beta-readers all liked it.

    Unfortunately that same story was also contained a good example of working in too many twists – one of the two main subplots is just a twisty mess. One of these days I’ll have to go back to that story and do some re-weaving, but until then I have better behaved stories to keep me busy.