Writing a book is like … hatching chickens!

A long time ago I wrote a post about why writing a book was not like giving birth and why I think it is a terrible and overused metaphor for the creative process. Now I have a new metaphor to replace it with – writing a book is like hatching chickens!

IMG_0855Those of you who follow my Facebook page will know that we have been incubating chicken eggs over the last three weeks and that, this week, 5 of them hatched. My husband assured me he would look after the whole process, knowing that, after having 3 kids in 4 years, I was reluctant to look after anything else. Of course, what that really meant was that he would go and buy the eggs and put them in the incubator and then the whole process thereafter would be overseen and managed by me because he would disappear to the marvellous land called work.

Incubating eggs and ideas

So to writing and hatching and their alikeness. First there is the incubation. The eggs get locked away in an environment with the right temperature and humidity for a certain period of time. I always find that book ideas begin, but can never be written immediately. There is always an incubation period in which the idea takes shape, forms, and then becomes something quite different to what it started as, just as the emerging chick is very different from the egg it began life inside. My current book started as an idea in October last year but I didn’t begin writing it until March this year. And what I began writing kept the kernel of the original idea, but both left a lot out and added a lot until it became something I had never quite imagined.

Hatching chicks and first drafts

Then the hatching. This long and arduous process reminded me a lot of writing the first draft. In the world of eggs it begins with a pip (the first tiny hole in the egg), then a rest (of several hours), then a zip (a crack appearing around the egg), then a chick. Pip, rest, zip and chick makes it sound simple. Just like saying, ‘I’m writing a first draft,’ oversimplifies what actually happens when you begin to put words on a page. The pip is the writers first go at getting the voice right. This always requires a long rest thereafter, as it can be a fairly traumatic process. Many voices are tried and discarded until that magical right voice pierces the shell of the story and sets it on its way. When zipping, the chick wriggles around and around to chip away at the shell until it splits in half, just as the writer wriggles around and around in their seat while writing the first draft, squirming with the fear that it is terrible, often wanting to be doing anything but writing, but also plugging away at it, putting down word after word so the draft gets written, sometimes experiencing long stretches where it just works, the story flows and suddenly, when you don’t expect it, the shape of the story is there. Or the chick, as it were.

IMG_0923Brooder boxes and editing

Of course the process in no way ends there. The chicks have to be moved out of the incubator and into a brooder box. My husband left for work on Tuesday morning with 2 freshly hatched chicks and a promise that they’d be fine. Of course one of the chicks started pecking away at another that was half hatched, thus traumatising the children and I knew I had to get it into the brooder box. What brooder box? Dear husband had left a flat packed cardboard box, some newspaper and a lamp out for us. Thanks. A quick internet search revealed that a plastic tub was a much better option, as was paper towel rather than newspaper. After a bit of work I had the best looking brooder box you’ve ever seen set up with heat lamp, water, food and chick. From not even knowing what a brooder box was, to having created one in less than half an hour is a lot like editing. You know you have a draft. You know it needs work. You often don’t know what to do to it to make it better. Then suddenly, you will get the flash of an idea. You’ll start working on the idea and it will turn into an entire subplot that you had never thought of before and you’ll be standing back, looking at your reworked draft, thinking that you might just be a little bit marvellous.

IMG_0504The runt, the crisis and the hero

Until the runt hatches. The runt is the last chick out. It gets a little stuck in its shell and has to be helped out. Then you discover it can’t open its eyes. It is blind, falling over, walking into things, wanting to sleep but the other 4 robust chicks in the brooder box keep standing on it. Back to the internet you go. A warm cloth on the eyes is suggested. Electrolytes in the water. A separate brooder box – the ICU. Of course the husband who was to look after the chicks is nowhere to be found. So back you go to find another heat lamp, another plastic crate, a bottle of electrolytes from the pet shop and you have your runt in its very own hospital. Novel drafts often suffer a crisis during editing. A subplot that you suddenly realise is illogical or impossible. A great gaping plot hole becomes apparent. One of your characters behaves in an uncharacteristic way. Off the story goes to editing ICU, a place which often has great outcomes. In fact, a plot-hole became very apparent to me in the editing of If I Should Lose You and thank goodness it did because the solution to the problem allowed me to create an entire subplot that was not there before, and without which the book would be all the poorer.

And of course, my poor little runt becomes my most loved chick. The one that begins with hardship, and has the most obstacles to overcome engenders the strongest response. It gets everyone on side, cheering it on, willing it to overcome the odds and not just survive, but thrive. Just as the best kind of characters do in a book. We all love an underdog who emerges victorious. Let’s hope that my chick can be that hero.

10 comments

  1. Tamara

    Congratulations on finishing your book Natasha. How did you manage to do it in 5 months! I know you wrote a while ago about how you aim to write for two hours a day. Do you still follow this schedule? I would love to hear more about you fit in family, work and writing!

    • Thanks Tamara. I’m not quite sure how I managed to do it, to be honest. Yes, it was mostly based on 2 hours a day, although one day a week I have about 5 hours of writing time as my 3 year old goes to Pre-kindy now. My lovely husband also stayed at home to look after the kids for a couple of days a few weeks ago, which really allowed me to build up a lot of momentum – 3 straight days of writing was bliss, and very worthwhile! Perhaps I’ll post a blog about the family/work/writing mix soon. Great idea!

  2. Hooray for the chickmeister! 🙂

  3. Well done, Natasha! A friend of mine just tried to raise chicks with disastrous results. How are you coping with the relentless chirping?

    • So far the cheeping is quite musical and lovely. But they’re only a week old so I’ll update you in a couple of weeks when they’ve gotten bigger and the sound may then be less musical!

  4. A lovely post, and one that made me smile, Natasha. It doesn’t seem to matter what we write, the process you describe is so similar and familiar I wish someone would invent a way around it! I’m on my third re write and wondering what I’m losing as I pare back…and then something just clicks and falls into place. Magic isn’t a term I’d use because it’s such hard work, but it does appear magical at times xx

    • Hi Rashida, yes, I”m familiar with that terrible sense of uncertainty as you edit, never knowing whether you’re making things worse or improving them. I don’t think it gets any easier, having gone through the process on a couple of books now but at least the joy when wonderful things happen in the edit is just as enduring!

  5. Our two runts died. I love that analogy the most though. It is an inspiration mirror that says the hardest parts to write are often the best. I do a significant amount of editing as I go, but I’m finding myself rather tuckered out and zombie-like by the middle of the book.

    • Oh no! Poor runts. I’m pleased to report that our runt is doing really well; the TLC worked. And so our runt has turned out to be our hero. Now I just have to hope it turns out to be a hen rather than a rooster!

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