Friday, August 14, 2009


Today I straightened my sister's hair. Normally, I only do that for special occaisions and sometimes the odd Tuesday. Today, though, she's working on a movie with a friend and insists the only way to get it to look right in a bun is to straighten it first. Don't ask me why. And it occured to me as I worked it with the hot iron that straightening hair is a lot like writing.

For those of young unfamiliar with the process of straightening hair properly (as I was up until last year when a 15-year-old told me I didn't have a clue how to do it), to straighten hair well, one must not only use small pieces at a time, one must work in layers.

Personally, I like to work up the bottom up, and all hair that I'm not dealing with at the time, I like to twist up and clip to the top of my sis's head with a clip. I pull out a snippet at a time and straighten it until it's good. Once I've done that layer, I release the rest, pull out another layer, reclip, and repeat.

How does this connect to writing, you might ask. (In fact, you probably are asking, because I could quite easily sound like a wingnut so far.) It reminds me of editting to turn a book into a better book.

Think of my sister's hair pre-straightening as a rough draft of sorts. (**Dodges objects thrown by people who don't like straightening/anti-consumerists trying to fight movements like hair straighteners/feminists who'd like to remind me that ridiculous beauty ideals are part of the male patriarchy. **) I worked the hair with layers to make it into the hair she wanted it to be.

The bottom layer, which people don't see much but you need to straighten anyway or you missed the point, would be the plot. Maybe you can make it through a reading of a book without a plot whole being noticed, so long as it isn't glaring, but all in all it helps to have that all smoothed out. Otherwise, there'll be some readers thinking, 'you know, that doesn't make sense. Why didn't Sheila just blast the alien with her plutonium death ray, jump down the whole, and save Pietrichoff from the goblin, instead of going the long way around?' If one doesn't straighten the base, one risks it rumpling the other hair. First step is figuring out your plot so it all makes sense.

The middle layers, much more visible than the bottom and very important to the overall appearance of nice hair, would be things like characterization, world-building, tension, suspense, flow of dialogue, symbols, theme continuity, and all those other things that go into making a good book. Without a well smoothed middle, no one cares about the bottom layer's straightness, and a perfect top layer can't possibly conceal a bad middle. The middle part is just too big and too important.

The top layer is overall word choice. While I will from now until I die endorse the practice of using the right word and not that word's second cousin (or worse, it's second cousin's husband's old barber from when it lived in Wichita), I still know that no matter how brilliant and perfect the word choice, no matter how concise the phrasing, if you're wasting these perfect prose on poor under layers, it's not all going to come together well.

Having one of the layers alone will cut it, just like only straightening half of my sister's hair wouldn't have worked. If I wanted it to look good, then I had to take the time to go at it layer by layer and make it all look good. Sure, I could have tried to do it all at once or to take one layer sometimes and another layer the other times without a serious plan, but those methods would not have given me anywhere near such good results.

The key is time, patience, and taking it one piece at a time.


  1. Nice comparison! My super frizzy hair definitely needs to be done layer by layer. Just like our manuscripts!

  2. I think I forgot to do the code, so my message was erased. I love your analogy. Hair in layers, just like writing in layers. We can all learn from new techniques. Thanks.