This is our second year taking pottery classes. The wonderful (and frustrating) thing about pottery is all the steps you take to get to a finished product.
Wonderful, because at each step you get to make decisions about a very tangible and real physical shape that you are making.
Frustrating because at any of those stages, something can and often will go wrong. There are lots of “learning opportunities.” Your piece could develop an air bubble as you center. You could collapse the whole thing as you do your first lift. It could deform as you take it off the wheel. It could crack in the bisque firing. Another student’s piece could explode in the kiln, destroying your masterpiece with shotgun clay fragments. The glaze could come out all wrong, and you are back to square one.
As I go to class, I’ve been comparing pottery and writing. Thankfully, writing is different in a lot of ways. It’s far less final than clay, and you can always go back and fix something before it goes out to the next publisher. But I’ve also been seeing some of these pottery stages in my writing.
- Center. I take an initial idea and put it under a lot of pressure, twisting it this way and that, seeing if it’s something I like. I do this quickly, at speed, generating pages on pages of possible characters and plot points. If it works and can go on, I do so. If not, I scrap it and clear the wheel for the next piece. Well, actually, I put the raw materials into storage in case I ever want to try again.
- Drill. I write what I call a “meaty synopsis” of the whole piece. Basically, this means going through the spine of the piece and creating a description of the story. I write this in present tense, and can slam it out much faster than the fully fleshed version I used to write first. For instance, here’s a quick piece that takes place in my science fantasy world:
The captain is furious that only Fike survived the change. He rounds on the merchant, berating her. “You told me one man in ten. We took on thirty six men, and I only have one to show for it.” The merchant explains that it isn’t an exact process. She ponders that maybe these men from the north with the reddened skin don’t respond as well. The captain is angry because he could have sold the thirty six healthy prisoners. The merchant assures him that one changed man will sell for more than thirty six normal. She thinks that they will be the only ship with a coral man coming in this season. The captain is angry still, but storms off. The men begin to bring the ship into a giant cove. In the setting sun, Fike can see the buildings carved into the side of the cliff that overlooks the cove. It is closing in on night, and the men will be needing sleep. The captain assigns the merchant to watch Fike.
- Lift. I start to transform that synopsis into an actual story in past tense, making decisions about dialogue, tone, and description. This takes longer, but faster than simply starting here, since I have something to work with and a clear vision for where I am going.
- Fire. I give this first version to some trusted alpha readers. They put it through the fire, revealing the cracks in my story. Thankfully, unlike wheel thrown pottery, I can still make changes. I can take the piece back and fix these things as if the piece was still soft.
- Glaze. I take the feedback and use it to refine the story. Then I start polishing, adding details or smoothing out rough edges.
Of course, after that comes the hard part. Submit, and as Heinlein says, write something else.