is writing a novel like building a volkswagen?

Last month Johann and I took a road trip to Mexico. Or at least we started to take a road trip, until Johann’s beloved 1971 VW “Skybus” broke down in Santa Maria, CA.

UHaulbus
cutest breakdown ever

We were stressed and despondent at the prospect of cutting the trip short or paying big $$ to have some shady garageman vivisect little Skybus. But then Johann (re) discovered TheSamba.com, an old-school discussion board of ardent VW owners and mechanics. And it turns out that San Diego, CA is the epicenter of Samba expertise and generosity.

So we found ourselves parked in this guy Gary’s home garage for two days while Gary, Johann and this other guy named Robbie completely rebuilt Skybus’ engine with a brand new core from yet another guy named Jeff up in Riverside.

backofbus
The estimable Gary, working on Skybus in his driveway

Meanwhile I tried to take advantage of the quiet, sunny backyard to catch up on schoolwork and do some writing.

My backyard view at Gary’s house in San Diego

Which got me to thinking: how is engine-building like writing a novel? Based on my research, which consisted of hovering around the garage doorway and eavesdropping, I believe there are some significant similarities…

Most straightforwardly, there’s the aspect of basic assembly, of getting all the parts into the right place, like a jigsaw puzzle. Really, though, with an air-cooled engine or with a novel you want the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. The engine should purr not rattle; the novel should do the same. This seems to be a matter of a) Luck, b) Experience, c) Research (For vintage Volkswagens, the Bible is John Muir’s 1969-78 How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. For writing, there are any number of creative writing courses, programs, workshops, manuals…I like Alan Watt’s The 90 Day Novel, for one).Muir

d) Willingness to innovate and experiment, e) Taking advice from those you’re working with who may be more experienced than you (your co-mechanics, other writers).

Also, both jobs–VW overhaul and novel-writing–are linear in nature. When (re)building a bus engine, the crankshaft is placed in its bearings between the engine case halves, then the connecting rods are attached to the crankshaft and the pistons to the rods’ other end. The cylinders are then mounted on the case over the pistons…and so on and so forth…until the valve train is bolded overtop and the valve covers are affixed by wire bales. The ancillary parts (fuel pump, distributor, alternator, etc.) have to be installed before the engine is mated to the transmission….you get the idea. When writing a novel, one word (obviously) has to hit the page before the next–even if you end up monkeying with the order later, in revision. (Also, will you just look at all that great vocabulary needed to build an engine? It’s pretty much the same with a novel).

And yet for both projects it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, this building endeavour. The bus will run with a clunking sound; it’ll run on two cylinders (like we did, limping into Santa Maria). I overheard Gary say, “Ugh, I really don’t like your breather hose,” and Johann reply, “Okay, I guess now’s the time to do it,” knowing it’d cost a little more time and a little more cash but be worth it in the end. I surmised that they could have opted not to replace the breather hose this time around, and that that would have been okay too. With a novel you can always hone subplots and axe (or add) a character and streamline description later on–at least until publication, anyway. Not thinking too hard about the final result is a a vital strategy for moving forward with a first (or second, or tenth) draft.

Then there are the specialized tools of the trade, without which you may as well not even bother. Gary’s personal collection of tools was most impressive (turns out he’s an aerospace mechanic by training, too yet). Stephen King’s excellent memoir/manual On Writing has a chapter called “The Writing Toolbox,” in which he describes dialogue, grammar, and vocabulary as some of the many tools a writer should know how to use effectively.

And finally, all this hard work is so much less arduous in a group! Luckily for Johann and me, these guys truly adore tinkering with vintage vehicles, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The long days at Gary’s are closed with takeout Italian food, beer, and good cheer, and we depart San Diego fit as a fiddle and buoyed by the sense of having found members of our tribe on the other side of the continent. A week later Robbie sends us a pic of Skybus snapped by a friend of his somewhere on the freeway; we feel surrounded and supported by an invisible community of helpers.

This is where writing a novel differs, despite the excellent feedback and advice from friends and editors: it’s fundamentally a solo enterprise, writing. You’re alone with the page, writing a novel–but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a writing date with a friend and work together. I’ve written before (here) about the importance of writing buddies in my own practice, my need for accountability and company.

Our experience at Gary’s house was the ultimate coming-to-fruition of the Samba.com: these guys have figured out the joy of working together, on a (soft) deadline, on a project. even as strangers. Thanks Gary, Robbie, and Jeff!

3guysunderbus
not strangers anymore
...and Skybus made it to Mexico!
…and Skybus made it to Mexico!

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