Writing a novel is like building a desk

Writing a novel is like building a desk Image

“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Wyl Menmuir

In late 2015, I made the final edits to my debut novel, The Many. At 47,000 words, it’s a short novel, but after three years of writing and editing, I needed a break from words for a while, so I decided to put Marquez’s theory to the test.

I knew that building a desk was something I wanted to do. I don’t have my own desk and don’t have the money for the antique leather top desk of my dreams – but I had no idea the process would be quite so similar to that of writing a novel.

“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Working the wood

Choosing the wood and the basic form for the desk, I was pretty much in the dark. I looked over the pile of uninspiring, dusty planks I’d bought and wondered how the hell they’d ever become a functional (and hopefully beautiful) desk. I’d never undertaken anything like this before, and I really had no clue how it was done, nor whether I’d be able to complete the job. That said, I was excited by the challenge.

I made my desk building known to friends and family, and took help where it was offered, all of which helped to ensure I’d stick to my goal of finishing. The cabinetmaker who helped me choose the timber, the boat builder who pointed me to the right tools, the neighbour who helped me to choose the wax to fill some of the dents and cracks I’d created. And of course the father-in-law who lent me all the tools I didn’t have and the garage space to work in.

I made pretty much every mistake I could have along the way and looking at the desk now, it’s not quite like any other I’ve seen before. I was told by several people along the way I’d made unconventional choices (some would say wrong choices, but I’m stubborn enough to stick to my guns), and I’m happy with the choices I made. And the scars it bears are, weirdly, the things I’m most pleased with.

“A series of barely visible, incremental improvements.”

All in, it took me three months of seemingly endless sanding and endless polishing, of making small changes and then stripping it right back again. A series of barely visible, incremental improvements. But looking at it now, it was worth the effort and I can read in my desk and its dark whorled knots, in its undulations and thin cracks, the story of its creation.

“How do you write a novel?”

Unknown-7

Sanding and waxing

So how do you write a novel? Substitute choosing the wood with the long hours of considering the material you’ve got to work with, sanding down with writing, waxing with editing, and learning the technique with reading critically. Substitute the support from boat builders and cabinetmakers with two weeks at Arvon, an MA in Creative Writing with friends, family and the Write Track community, and you’re pretty much there.

I’ve fantasised about writing a novel for as long as I can remember. For the last 30 years I’ve romanticized it, blown it out of all proportion and bought myself some pretty damn fine stationery, pretty much anything other than actually sitting down and writing it. And when the fear of not doing finally overcame the fear of doing, I’d have to agree with Marquez; while I had some moments of real inspiration, mostly it was a lot of hard work.

“moments of real inspiration, mostly it was a lot of hard work”

Taking shape

Taking shape

Setting my wordcount and sticking to it, day in, day out. Long nights of writing, reading, rereading and rewriting. Of stripping it back to its core and working on it until the truth I was trying to get at started to reveal itself. Of covering the same ground over and over, of sanding it down the until the path became clear and then polishing it over and over until I had something I was happy with.

Will I do it again? Hell no. One desk is enough for anyone. But as for writing a second novel, definitely, I’m currently felling the material for it, sharpening my pen and prepping my workspace.

Wyl’s first novel, The Many is released by Salt Publishing on 15 June 2016.

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The author’s guide to building a desk

1.    Get wood

Good wood

Good wood

Do you really want to write your magnum opus on a piece of MDF? No. I chose an offcut of English Elm. It’s heavy, it feels serious and – I was assured – would look lovely if I put some effort into it.

And unless you’ve got a serious toolkit, get someone to cut the wood down to size and straighten it out for you. A saw just isn’t going to cut it.

2.    Think about legs

I came up with an amazing plan to create the legs out of scaffolding poles. I drew a crap illustration of how this would work. However, when I visited a fancy design studio that used sawhorses as desk legs, I knew that was going to be a better option. It also feels right – after all, your desk isn’t the work of art, your novel is the work of art. The desk is a beast of burden. Think form and content.

The other good thing about the sawhorse legs is I could use them to work on the desk while I was building it and then turn them into the legs for the desk. Neat, eh?

3.    Go shopping

You’ll need:

  • Something to brace the planks together with. I wanted to go pure – no glue and no metal plates holding the thing together either. I used three 2×1” braces of oak.
  • Parcel tape. To strap the planks together while you brace them.
  • Screws. You need more screws than you think. 40mm 5s. Loads of them.
  • A candle. Candle wax on the screw tips helps you not to split the wood when you put the screw in.
  • Sandpaper. Loads of different grades of sandpaper.
  • An orbital sander. Because sanding by hand is a terrible idea.
  • Woodworm killer. I didn’t realise I needed this until I saw the exit holes.
  • A drill, screwdrivers and a spirit level.
  • Beeswax and lint free cloths.
Waxing the nails

Waxing the nails

4.    Assume the brace position

Lay the planks on the floor. Remember the wood facing up now is the bottom side of your desk – don’t drill holes in the top side of your desk. That would be a bad idea. Use parcel tape to bind the planks while you’re fitting the braces, so there aren’t any gaps.

Drill clearance holes in the braces. Clearance holes? Yes, so you don’t end up with a gap between the braces and the desktop, drill holes in the braces so the screws can pass through without you needing to screw them in. With 5mm screws, your clearance holes should be 5.5mm.

Then drill 3mm pilot holes in the corresponding places on the underside of the desk.

Coat your screws in candle wax. This makes it easier to screw them in, and the wood will be less likely to split. I decided to light the candles and dip the screws in the wax, because it would look better on the photo. I still managed to put a split in the wood at one end, but this is called character.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

5.    Sand it real good.

My advice is don’t sand it by hand. There’s a reason they make electric sanders. Start with a low grade and sand the shit out of it. Sand it for hours and hours, until your arms hurt. Then stop for the day and sand it some more the next day. And the next. And the next. Work your way down to a fine grade sandpaper. It feels great for the first few days and then it’s just boring grind.

It’s worth sanding down, or chamfering, the edges. You’ll know about it if you lean your forearms on sharp desk edges, so it’s worth rounding them off at least.

6.    Kill the woodworm

I’m not big on killing things in general. However, I’ve got a timber-framed house and woodworm would a bad thing, so when I found a load of exit holes in the wood while I was sanding it, I bought some Cuprinol Woodworm Killer and gave the desk several coats.

7.    Oil or wax it

A large drill

A large drill

I was going to use Danish Oil, but due to the amount of (ahem) character in my wood, I used beeswax, which covers a multitude of sins. This is like the editing process, wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off. You can’t really see the difference as you’re doing it, but waxing (like sanding) properly will make a massive difference.

8. Buy some cool stuff to put on your desk

You don’t build a beautiful desk and then put a cheap, tacky lamp on it. No, if you’ve built a desk, you’re obviously the sort of person who would prefer a vintage Anglepoise lamp.

How much does it cost?

The wood, bracing and sawhorses for legs (including having the wood cut down to size): £50. The screws, wax and woodworm killer: £25. And the essential vintage Anglepoise lamp: £30 on ebay. All in, about £100.

Wyl Menmuir About the author: Wyl Menmuir lives on the north coast of Cornwall. He is the author of The Many, released by Salt Publishing in June 2016. As well as writing fiction, Wyl is a freelance editor and literacy consultant. When he’s not writing, you’ll find him out on the water or up on the cliffs – anywhere there’s a view of the sea. His website is: http://wylmenmuir.co.uk