How is writing a novel like (or should be like) the Pinewood Derby?

When my sons were in Cub Scouts, they participated in an annual event called the Pinewood Derby. Work started months before the actual event, a long, painstaking process to create a small car to race down an inclined track.Pinewood Derby car How small? By rule, the starting piece of soft pinewood could be no bigger than 2 ¾” x 7” x 3”—a block that fits in the palm of your hand. The annual derby provided a fabulous opportunity for a dad to spend time—and I mean lots of time—with his sons.

First, we’d draw a few rough sketches of my sons’ dream car.  When we’d picked their favorite, we’d draw its lines on the block of wood. Then we’d cut away the excess with a saw. The result looked vaguely like a car that had been mangled in a wreck, and then only if you had lots of imagination. Next we used a file, coarse side first and fine side later, grating down the sharp corners and edges. Soon, the concept became clear—at least to a loving family, who could declare with a clear conscience: “I see it now. It’s car.”

Then came the course sandpaper. My sons would work on it for hours after school until their fingertips could glide over the wood surface. Then they’d switch to the fine sandpaper. When at last it felt smooth as silk, they’d set it aside on the window sill and let it rest. The next day, they’d sprinkle water on it to make any maverick grains stand up and then sand some more.

Finally, only after what seemed like a zillion coats of paint, the gleaming car was ready—something a ten-year-old boy could be proud of.

So what does all this have to do with writing a novel?

If you’re a reasonably talented writer and work hard, you can reach a point where friends and family will read you manuscript and say, “Yup, it a novel all right, a pretty good yarn.” But does that make it ready for publication? Of  course not. Rough edges remain, excess words, typos and punctuation problems. More importantly, not every word, sentence, and paragraph is perfect (okay—they may never all be perfect, but as Vince Lombari said: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”)

Do we have the desire and drive to sand five more times, to moisten the wood and sand some more, even after the rough spots are visible only to the most discerning eye, to paint and polish till our work  gleams?

There are many talented indie authors. But has the path to publication become so easy that we can make do with fewer rewrites and cheat on the final edits? The answer to that question,  more than any social networking or new technology, may determine the success of the indie revolution.


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