With Christmas just around the corner (gosh, where did this year go?) and owing to the fact I just put up my own Christmas tree (I usually wait until it’s at least December but I have a full schedule in the near future) I thought I’d do something fun today. Let’s talk about how writing a book is like decorating a Christmas tree!
What do I mean by that? That it’s awkward to put together and half the lights don’t work? That you get sick of looking at it after a while? That no matter how pretty and perfect it seems, something is lurking in the shadows, waiting to topple it? (I’m looking at you, kitties of the world.) No, I mean that creating the structure of a book is like decorating a Christmas tree. Or at least, it is when you enjoy metaphors and need a subject for a topical blog post.
How Writing a Book Is Like Decorating a Christmas Tree:
- The bare-bones branches. You start with the tree, undecorated and plain. You have to create a solid foundation for it to stand on, or it’ll fall right over before your cats even get a chance to climb it and take care of that for you. Some trees come wholly intact, but they require special care–maintenance, trimming, watering. Some trees need to be assembled, and you have to do it a certain way, and then arrange all the branches so there’s no gaps. Whatever the case, the structure of the tree has to be sound and it has to be well-supported. From the fluffy bottom to the pointy top, every branch and needle needs to be in place so the whole thing makes sense and, well, looks like a tree. Your plot needs to makes sense, have a base, and when you step back, the whole thing needs to look like a coherent story. Even if it’s kind of gnarled and twisted at first, you can always rearrange it so it looks better.
- Lighting it up. I always put the lights on first, because they’re a messy tangle and you have to do this in layers. The lights are pretty, but they’re small. They’re the little sparks of excitement that move the story along. A clue here, a roadblock here, a breakthrough there. All the things that keep the characters stumbling along their path and the readers hanging on to see what happens next. Every light is a bright moment in the story where something happens, good or bad, that continues to make the plot unfold. You want more lights than anything else on the tree, or it’s going to be dull and boring to look at.
- Make it shiny. Next comes a layer of tinsel/garland. I put this on next and it can also be awkward to wrangle, thus I don’t want anything else on the tree at this point that I can knock off. This is the shining, glimmering thread of the story, one long piece that wraps around the entire thing. This is the theme, or the purpose of what you’re trying to tell us. It’s bright and flashy, but once you get everything else on the tree, it blends in and becomes part of the whole. All the pretty lights along the way won’t mean much if there isn’t also this thread–the reason your characters are doing what they do, what the story means as a whole, and why you’re telling it. The tinsel may be different colors but it’s all connected, and it’s there to bring the tree together.
- The ornaments! Of course, this is the fun part. The part where you get the family together and someone inevitably drops a hook that you’ll find a week later in the bottom of your foot, and you have to explain to a small child why putting six gold bulbs all in the same spot looks tacky. These are the pretty details, the fun and play of the story. This is your heroine’s wild hair color or the big goofy German shepard that your hero owns. It’s that little old lady in the story who’s a muscle car collector or that secondary character who has an interesting secret. It’s the little bits of pizazz that make your characters real and your world complex and interesting. But just like ornaments, you need to have some balance or it’s going to look odd. Don’t put too many candy canes on one branch or let your uncle talk you into letting him put his entire collection of NASCAR ornaments on there.
- Top it off. And last but not least, we place the star on the tree. Maybe you use an angel or something else, but it’s the finishing touch that makes it complete. It’s the goal of the story, the endgame, the place where your characters are trying to get to. It’s what they’ve been striving for all along, through all the individual lights, through the tangles of tinsel, through each and every shiny, unique bulb. They want that star and they keep reaching for it, as they climb each branch hand over hand. Or maybe that’s your cat, already near the top, and no matter how fast you go running and shrieking toward the tree, you’re not gonna catch it before Mittens comes crashing down in a tornado of glitter and shattered glass.
If you celebrate Christmas, do you have your tree up already? As I said, I usually wait until the first weekend of December, but I’m going away this weekend so I did it early. I like to decorate it with my son, and shockingly, my cat actually pays the tree no mind and never bothers it. I have certainly had cats who were not so courteous, however…
During this holiday season, may your trees be beautiful and your books well-decorated!