Thursday, January 24, 2013

Renovating a house is like writing a novel

I've been a novelist for many years, but I'm new to house renovation. In November my husband and I gutted the upstairs of our 1950 home down to bare boards. Woeful lack of insulation and inadequate ventilation prompted us to engage in this spree of destruction. The upper level of our home had always been a hot box in the summer and a meat locker in the winter due to its deficiencies, and we were going to tolerate this no longer.

Although it's three months since the demolition and we're still not done, I can happily report that things are coming along and substantial improvements have been made. Having properly installed insulation and functional ventilation are great. The upstairs is officially livable, and the recent subzero weather has really put it to the test. For the first time since buying our home, it feels comfortable despite the winter chill. I don't have to wear a snuggie and a stocking cap in the house anymore.

Now that I've spent many hours and days becoming a remodeling contractor, I've had a lot of time to reflect on the process. It ain't easy. That's for sure. Renovations are not new construction. You don't get to build up everything just right from scratch and have everything fit together like in those do-it-yourself demonstration videos. The house has had decades to settle, creating tiny variations between the studs. And of course there are all the puzzling weirdnesses from prior remodelings. Like why is my closet door a 5-sided polygon? Why didn't whoever built it just frame the doorway 12 inches farther away from the slanting ceiling in my finished attic space? Now we have to reframe the door opening and move all the electrical wires on that wall because someone in the past thought a 5-sided door would be an OK thing to do.

So, how is renovating a house like writing a novel?

1. It always takes longer than you think. This is a commandment chiseled in stone by God. There are always unexpected setbacks and delays getting materials. We can spend a whole afternoon picking out and ordering materials. And then spend another afternoon picking up the materials and unloading them. And tasks simply take longer than expected, especially when old boards hold onto nails like they're powerful magnets. And anyone who has ever repaired or built anything knows that projects demand unlimited trips to the hardware store.

Similarly writing novels also takes longer than I plan. Disciplined dedication to daily word counts often falls short of reality. Sometimes I need to ponder what I'm going to write next instead of actually writing for that day. Other times I need to stop and do research so I can write something that is realistically acceptable. And sometimes I need to wait for a character to tell me want he or she would do.

2. You won't get everything right the first time. Despite careful measurements and cutting, the board will not always fit. Maybe it's not level. Maybe there's something in the way that won't let you fit the board in. This happens in writing all the time. Planning a story and creating a story don't always fit together. The process is a constant give and take between creativity and technical requirements. I'm always laboring over transitions between scenes and trying to structure dialogue so that it flows naturally and advances the story with crucial information. The nearly daily need to use a chisel and keyhole saw on my house renovation is an apt metaphor for the process of crafting and editing a novel.

Renovating a home and writing a novel are both laborious jobs, but they share the trait of being immensely satisfying. Every board I attach or chapter I write pleases me, builds my skills, and boosts my confidence. I'm now getting quite proficient with a caulk gun, table saw, and finishing nailer. I love the work because it involves a lot of problem solving and attention to detail. Any yes, both renovation and writing sometimes require a willingness to pry something apart and do it all over, but it's worth the trouble to get it right. Now that I've shared these observations in written form, I'll go put on my plaid flannel and get my work gloves. I still have lots of lovely pre-finished carsiding to put on the walls and many 40-degree angle cuts to deal with. Then, if I have any mental energy left, I'll work on my new novel tonight.