Wood, Writing, and Wacky Ideas

by Steve Hooley

I love wood—growing trees, harvesting lumber, cutting firewood, making things out of wood. There’s no official name for a lover of wood, but someone proposed “lignophile” (ligno – Latin for wood + phile – Greek for love). That would be me.

I grew up in rural Ohio in a house on a wooded lot. As a boy, I roamed the woods, built a treehouse, mowed the trails, and repaired the fences. I didn’t realize how much my early years had affected me until I finished college and got married.

Being the typical newlywed with very little income, a family to provide for, and free furniture sitting on every curb for anyone to take, I began hauling old furniture home to my garage and repairing it. The style of our house was “early marriage.”

After a few years of doing this, I became interested in building my own furniture and began collecting tools. When I returned to my home community after medical school and residency, I began heating our house with firewood, cut, split, hauled, and stacked from the family woods.

Fast forward forty years, and I purchased the family property (house and 28-acre woods) from my parents. My wife and I now live in my enchanted forest, where I continue to be terminally afflicted with lignophilia.

We heat our house in the winter with firewood harvested during September and October. It is hard work, my wife continues to remind me, and we are getting older. But I enjoy keeping the house a toasty 74 degrees while the wind is blowing and the temperature outside dips below freezing. A heating bill of zero is a nice bonus.

I am always looking for easier ways to handle the firewood. We burn 8-9 cords a winter. That’s a lot of wood. And this year, because of above-average rain with soft soil and several windstorms, we’ve had five large trees blow down in our yard and on the forest trails, extra wood to cut, split, and stack.

I’ve cut up those trees into firewood, but I’m running out of places to stack it. And that introduces the topic of this post, experimentation and trying new ideas. I hate the extra time it takes to build an end to a wood stack (a crisscrossed, log-cabin-style, wood column). I’m eventually going to burn it, and then I have to build another one. What a waste of time. So, this year, I stacked the extra wood between trees. But I’m running out of trees in the wood-storage area.

And that’s when I tried a colossal, stupid experiment. I didn’t want to build any ends to brace the stack, so I thought, “Why not build the stack in a big circle? No ends, right?” So, I tried it.

Well, the stack reached about two feet. Because the circumference of the outside circle (created by the ends of the wood farther from the center) was greater than the inside circle (created by the ends of the wood closer to the center), the outer end of wood pieces dropped into gaps, and the pile started to lean.

Being a fan of experimentation, I was too stubborn to start over. “Let’s see what we can learn from “our mistake.” (I had now pulled my wife into my insane plot.) I began gradually moving subsequent layers in toward the center of the circle as I stacked higher to compensate for the leaning. Now my stack was starting to look like an igloo.

No, we couldn’t junk the idea and start over. We needed to finish what we started, learn any more lessons that could be gleaned from “our experiment.” So, we labored on.

The pile survived at 4-5 feet high without falling. We’ll see if it withstands the winter winds. The Roman arch is supposed to be a strong design element, right?

I was just beginning to close the circle, when my wife said, “How are you going to get inside the circle to put the tarp on and off the wood?”

Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. I should have put in two posts (creating an entry into the circle) that the pile could lean against on either side. But I might as well have dug a post hole at either end of a long straight pile, and I was too lazy for that. That was the whole purpose, to save time, right? And then another idea hit me. I could put in an open box structure—open on both ends to walk through, no digging required—so the wood could be stacked against both sides, supporting itself, and I would have a doorway into my magic garden.

My wife groaned. We left a “dip” in our pile at about two feet high so I could climb over it. I might yet build that box, maybe, unless I get another idea.

Bottom line, my genius circle of success, turned out to be a giant dome-shaped debacle. But…I had not given up. I stuck with my junker, wacky idea all the way to the bloody end, “learning” from my mistakes. Or as the politicians say when they’ve created a disaster, “We must investigate this, so we can prevent this failure in the future.” Right.

So, now to you, TKZ community. How far down the road that’s not working do you drive your clunker of an idea before you abandon it and scurry off to the new manuscript lot? Do you hang in there, try to repair the clunker, and see what you might learn from a “failed experiment?” Or, do you quickly trade in the old beast for a shiny new one?

Tell us about one of your “failed” experiments. Catharsis is good for the soul.

48 thoughts on “Wood, Writing, and Wacky Ideas

  1. Good morning, Steve. Your wry humor and life lesson were just the ticket for this morning, where I am painfully aware that we have reached the point in the year where the period between “no see and no see” becomes shorter and shorter.

    “Our mistake” and “too lazy” caused guffaws to echo through casa del Hartlaub for different reasons.

    To answer your question, I tend to hang in there, usually to my regret and to the point where the rope burn and the lack of oxygen cause me to pursue a different course.

    I don’t think your firewood dome is a debacle at all. I think you’re onto something, actually. There are probably websites devoted to firewood splitting and, um, cord cutting (in the pre-cable sense). If so, you might share your story with some photos of the work in progress.

    Thanks for sharing what is in fact a metaphor for the process of storytelling, Steve. Have a great weekend.

    • Thanks, Joe. I’m glad there’s another “experimenter” scientist in our TKZ community. If there had not been people like that in the past, we wouldn’t have: the wheel, electricity, etc.

      I don’t know about more incriminating pictures to document my insanity, but I did wake up in the night thinking about today’s post, and realized that idea I needed to complete my circle of success was not a circle at all, but a SPIRAL. Never complete the circle, just make the stack spiral wider and wider. Hmm.

      Have a great weekend!

  2. When I was ready to start my current novel, I was torn between two storylines in my ideas folder, so I attempted to work on both. I figured the best outcome was the two-novels-in-progress approach might enhance that new novel excitement and produce two first drafts. The worst that could happen was I’d end up with several chapters for two novels, pick one, and drop the other.

    I spent a couple of months toggling back and forth without making much progress on either novel. I lost interest in both, became frustrated, and ultimately chose another idea. But now I know that strategy doesn’t work for me.

    • Good thoughts, Truant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Like you said, if you hadn’t tried your experiment, you would always wonder whether or not it could work. And, who knows, maybe the idea will come back in the future (with some input from the boys in the basement, or the girls in the attic), and you’ll write your “Tale of Two Towns.”
      Thanks for stopping by, and have a great weekend!

  3. Early on in my writing journey I had 3 or 4 partial novels that I abandoned. I finally pushed on through to finish one and realized how much I learned just by doing so. When someone tells me they want to write a novel someday, I tell them to go ahead and write one and finish it and then they can figure out what to do next. That’s why I’m a supporter of NaNoWriMo, which is coming up next month.

    As for firewood, Steve, when winter comes to Los Angeles it can get down to 60 degrees. So I always bundle up and fight my way to the store and get a Duraflame log for the fireplace.

    • Great words of advice, Jim. Thanks. All those “finished” books in boxes or files that will never be published. Our training wheels. I often tell people that I have to do something wrong three times before I learn how to do it right.

      I thought you might point out to us that if we experimented in an outline, we could escape some of the grief of the failures that follow. I’m an outliner, but some things just have to be tried. We have too many products that are designed on paper, but never tested, then we have to try to figure out how to put them together (before we lose our temper and throw the item across the garage).

      Those warm LA winters sound nice. Have a great weekend!

      • I’ve started several manuscripts, fully drafted two. One via outlining, one via seat of the pants. Outlining did not save me from hitting brick walls because it seems there is always something you don’t remember to account for when you do an outline. At least that was my experience.

        • Good points, BK. Everyone is different. What works for one won’t work for someone else.

          I recently tried pantsing with a Vella serial fiction story, I made it to the halfway point, then had to outline to find my way to the finish line.

          Thanks for your comments today!

  4. Thanks for the morning smile, Steve.

    Your leaning pile is a good writing analogy. When plots get lopsided, they often need to be propped up from the opposite side to prevent collapse. That’s where subplots can be used.

    This also reminded me of the old saying that chopping wood warms you twice– once when you cut it, the second time when you burn it. Wishing you a toasty, warm day.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Your point about subplots is a good one. I will try to remember that.

      Yes, a lot of heat is generated in the process of firewood cutting, splitting, hauling, and stacking. That’s why I wait until the weather cools a bit in the fall. If we could only capture that lost heat and use it in the winter.

      Have a great weekend!

  5. We deal with the same wood “issue” in the Coletta home, but my husband loves to stack ends. It’s the foraging that’s getting to him as he ages. Heating with wood is no easy task (for the husband 😉 ), but nothing warms the bones as well. Plus, I love the aroma and ambiance. Have you tried adding a piece of applewood to your fire? One piece is all it takes to fill the house with the fragrance of warm apples.

    As for your question, I usually won’t start a novel unless I can finish it. Narrative nonfiction/true crime is different. Massive amounts of work needs to be done to see if the story is viable. So, although I’ll finish writing the proposal, I might never write the actual book.

    Enjoy your weekend, Steve!

    • Good morning. Sue. If your husband can’t find enough wood stack ends to build, send him our way. Actually, I am gradually building more “book ends,” fabricated from scrap metal, that contain the ends of the pile and can be used year after year. My problem this year is the extra wood that needs to be stacked. Maybe I’ll just build a spiral that gets bigger and bigger, and never needs an end.

      Yes, I love the smell of burning apple wood.

      Interesting process with the narrative nonfiction/true crime. That sounds like a lot of work. If the proposal shows the story is nonviable, do you ever change some details and turn it into a novel?

      Have a great weekend!

  6. Happy Saturday, Steve! That’s a woodpile epic tale you spun for us. Chopping and stacking wood is hard work, I’ve only done it a few times in my life (helping my father-in-law) and nowhere near on the scale you regularly do it.

    My own failed writing experiment includes my noir space opera, The Art of Betrayal, which I drafted during Nanowrimo in 2008, and which blended 1st person and 3rd person narratives, and was the fourth and final time I “pantsed” a novel.

    I’d just finished an intense 8-week private fiction writing class (14 of us, 4 hours each Sunday session, plus lots of homework) and in the spirit of the class, decided to try and implement some of what I had learned by practice. I ended up putting the book aside and probably haven’t looked at it in a decade. The two narratives were pretty disconnected, and it had a rushed, “revelation then solution” climix typical of my four discovery-written novels.

    However, this summer when I wrote my urban fantasy novel Lunaticking, which also features two story arcs, one a 1st person POV and the other a 3rd person, I was able to draw on what I’d learned from the 2008 space opera. I made darn sure my storylines counterpointed each other and converged until my two leads met. It was its own crazy experiment, since the novella ran 25K words in finished draft. By my own count, I’d replaced over half the first draft with new words. I’d barely outlined the novella, and this reminded me why I’m an outliner. Experiment in outline is a better way to go for me 🙂

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Happy Saturday to you, Dale! Thanks for sharing your writing experiments that didn’t work out. I agree with you that we can learn from our failed experiments. I’m glad that what you learned helped inform your choices for Lunaticking.

      And I agree with you about experimenting in the outline. Normally, with projects, I have to sketch it out and think about it before I begin. Maybe that’s why the spur of the moment failure with wood stacking was so much fun.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. Steve, I share your love of wood. Our current home has a wood room that reminds me of an old English tavern. It’s an old house with old school real wood. A modern designer would probaby paint the whole thing white but I love the warmth and texture of it.

    My good ideas nag at me and won’t let me rest. I may not always figure them out right away but I keep revisiting them and sooner or later they work themselves out.

    • Good morning Cynthia. Glad to hear that you’re also a lignophile. And that old English tavern room sounds lovely. Don’t ever let anyone talk you into painting it. My wife and I recently sold a house. We had to strip all the beautiful wallpaper and replace solid brass fixtures with cheap shiny chrome stuff. I shudder thinking of it. The one thing I refused to do was paint the beautiful solid oak white. That was a bridge too far. When we painted the walls above and below the chair rail two tones of light brown, I named the colors “emesis” and “feces.” I don’t think the realtor ever told anyone that.

      I can identify with the way you work out your ideas. When the boys in the basement interrupt my sleep, I work on the current project, sorting out and improving the plans. The medical people call that waking at night “hypomania.” I call it problem solving time.

      Have a great weekend!

  8. I had a sci-fi/mystery novel that searched for love in the slush piles for many months, but in vain. Three months after its last rejection, I decided to extract a scene that every beta reader loved and re-wrote it as a stand alone short story. The story, which I re-titled “The Calculus of Karma,” was not only accepted, but made the cover of Mystery Weekly Magazine.

    • Congratulations, MIke. Great idea, extracting the good parts of our ideas and using them in another project. I like the title. It incorporates the two extremes of analyzing and feeling. Maybe your success with finding the gold in an unpublished work and using it in another format will encourage others to take a look at those unpublished manuscripts.

      Thanks for telling your story. Have a great weekend!

  9. My failed experiments around the house usually end up with someone getting injured. Too painful, mentally and physically to talk about. 🙂

    But I do have a few failed books I tried to write. Structure was my major problem. It wasn’t because I wasn’t going to apply good practices – I just lacked the know how.

    • Good morning, Ben. Let’s not talk about those painful experiments. Your “failed books” might have some gold in them, some ideas that could be reworked now that you have a better understanding of structure. (See Mike’s comment above.)

      Thanks for your comments, and good luck with any future experiments. Have a great weekend!

  10. What a great way to start the morning. As I write this from my tiny apartment that looks out over a roadway and a restaurant, you remind me of the homestead-in-the-woods that is currently under construction. We’ll have two wood-burners to feed. I love everything about fires in the hearth except for the dryness. As for warmth, well, we prefer 68 degrees in the daytime and we turn the heat off at night. (We also have heated floors in the bathroom, wo there are limits to our suffering.)

    As for handling mistakes, I’m of the wow-that’s-going-to-leave-a-mark school. There’s always a way to make it work without going backwards. This is the same mindset that has led to my wife inflicting a lifetime ban on me ever again dealing with plumbing or electricity.

    • Thanks, John. If you need to get out of that tiny apartment, we have plenty of space here, and lots of wood to split and stack.

      And, that “wow-that’s-going-to-leave-a-mark” school, sounds familiar to me. My wife has a brother, John, who lives in our community, and who can fix anything. When a project shows up that my wife doesn’t want me to make worse, she calls her brother.

      We once had an engine valve that needed to be replaced. John noticed that I had an unused engine sitting in the corner that had the same valve. We swapped them out. After that, I told patients that my brother-in-law and I did a “valve replacement” in my tractor shed.

      Have a great weekend!

  11. WOOD: Fellow lignophiliac here. My property is southeast of Steve’s (in Virginia) and a little smaller. But with a lot of trees! And although I don’t heat the house with them, I’m always dealing with those trees: hiking through them, watching their leaves turn and fall, and culling the dead ones. And instead of firing up the chainsaw, I use the Incremental Dynamics approach to felling a tree. Holding a small hand saw (the smallest I have), I use the same technique I use to write a book: one day at a time. Every day for about a month, I make a few cuts on the target tree at about waist height. Just a few. Little cuts, Then again the next day, a little deeper in. And the next again. Until finally, the tree falls.

    CLUNKER: I got about 1/2 of the way into writing one of my first Thriller attempts when I ran out of gas. I was frustrated. Very frustrated. Until I read that James Michener had done the same. He called it: “losing forward motion” or something similar. That about summed it up. So I put everything in a banker’s box and spent a few days in the woods with my trees. Until I came up with a better idea, took some time to learn about “structure” (thanks JSB!), and started in on what would become my first “real” (i.e., published) novel about the birth of NYC (historical fiction). And I haven’t looked back. Except to go out into my woods, looking for dead trees.

    • Good afternoon, fellow lignophile. Everyone should have a private spot where they can escape to nature. I like your incremental approach to dealing with dead trees.

      Thanks for sharing your story (and James Michener’s). It helps to know that success often begins with failure. And persistence overcomes. My brain functions better if I get outside and do some physical work each day.

      Keep on cutting, and have a great weekend!

  12. Back in the day in middle school, we had to take a half year of home ec (BORING!) and a half year of shop (YEAH!). I loved working with wood & leather.

    I do not currently, but I’d love to take up small scale wood carving. I enjoy going to wood carving shows when I can. So I can understand the joy of being a lignophile. 😎

    As to how far to take working with a story idea with issues–the majority of the time, I don’t give up on an idea easily. Only rarely do I start a story idea that I completely abandon.

    • Good afternoon, BK. Yes, shop. I still remember the projects we made. Luckily in those days, the boys didn’t have to take home ec. Maybe we should have. Have you ever tried woodturning?

      It sounds like you work out your ideas carefully, and they succeed. When you do wood carving (and woodturning), don’t they call that “subtractive” art? Once the wood is gone, you can’t put it back. You have to plan your project.

      Have a great weekend!

  13. Hilarious blog, Steve. Several years ago, I decided to write a serial killer novel. I got ten chapters in and sent it to my editor, who said, “Give it up. You’re no Thomas Harris.” I reread it and realized my prose was . . .wooden.

    • Thanks, Elaine. Someone told me I had a wealth of mistakes that others could learn from.

      Sorry about the serial killer novel that didn’t work out. I read and enjoyed BRAIN STORM. I thought your prose was great, especially when you described hospital food. So true.

      Have a great weekend!

  14. I am currently struggling with my own screw up. I trusted iCloud with my passwords and other things I now need. My new iMac came on Thursday, and it’s been nothing but a disaster transferring from the old iMac to the new one. My keychain for passwords has vanished into iCloud, I wasn’t as up to date with passwords on paper as I thought I was, I can’t get on iCloud, and I’m having to start over with even my most basic needs like email. Thank God my trust old iMac keeps working minus rebooting every few hours and having dementia regarding the existence of my keyboard and mouse. Two reboots and a vanishing mouse and keyboard, this morning!

    In the good/bad news department, my new keyboard has finger recognition so I can tap it for some stuff, and now Apple has my fingerprint.

    • Sorry to hear about your troubles, Marilynn. I’ve never trusted computers or the Cloud, and now you’ve reinforced my paranoia. And I’m certainly not the person to talk to about solving computer problems. I believe I could make any problem worse. As to the dementia your computer is exhibiting, I could send you a prescription for Aricept, but, alas, how would we get the computer to swallow that.

      I’m too paranoid to give my fingerprint to Apple, or anyone else. I’m old fashioned. I do keep my computer expert on speed dial.

      I hope you get things straightened out with your new computer, and maybe, someday, let us know the lessons learned from your ordeal.

      Here’s hoping for a better weekend!

  15. Entertaining post, Steve!

    We used to have a wood stove in the house we tore down on our property. When we re-built on the same site, Alan decided he was done with the wood thing. I miss the campfire smell, but we have a fire pit outside which suffices. I love the crisp fall air in the PNW, mixed with the smoky aroma of a few hot dogs on the forks.

    As far as MS experiments, I’ve got 2 finished MSs and another 4 in various stages. I want to finish all 4, which, if you look at how long it took me to finish the first 2, should be birthed in about %*$# years. 🙂

    I’ve never “abandoned” a piece; just got distracted.

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

    • Thanks, Deb. I can understand why your husband had enough of the wood thing. It’s getting harder each year, but I refuse to give up. Heating costs in our area for our house would probably run $1000 – $1500. I need to clean up the trees that are down on the yard or the trails, anyway. I might as well do a little extra splitting and stacking. My wife may drop out of helping because of her arthritis, but I march on. I almost used the phrase “certifiably crazy” in today’s post, but that’s your line for 10/23.

      If you stay certifiably crazy and persistent, you’ll finish those 4 manuscripts. I look forward to your post.

      Have a great weekend!

  16. My clunker/albatross was a Plymouth Voyager we bought in Michigan and tried to keep running long after it should have had a decent burial. On the other hand I learned exactly how far one would go. That number was 216,047 miles.
    It’s a good idea to know when to dump something-a bad relationship, a writing project, or a Plymouth Voyager. It’s also a good idea to have a backup plan of some kind, like maybe a Ford pickup. Or another writing project you can slice and dice.

    • Good advice, Robert. I had one of those Voyager’s. We went through 3 transmissions before we decided it was time to abandon the clunker. Now, my wife has a 2001 Pontiac minivan that is still running, although our son tells us that the seals are going. We have a backup. And a backup writing project sounds like a good idea, too.

      Thanks for your good advice. Have a great weekend!

  17. Thanks for this great post, Steve. Woodworking must be a very enjoyable and therapeutic endeavor.

    If necessity is the mother of invention, experimentation is surely its father. I’m grateful to those who never gave up. (Think Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers.)

    Some people have described me as stubborn. Personally, I think of myself as extraordinarily determined. 🙂 I’ve never given up on a manuscript (yet), and I’m such a new author, every one is an experiment.

    Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

    • Thanks, Kay. And thanks for stopping by. I like your line about experimentation, the father of invention. And I would add the line that perseverance, or being extraordinarily determined, is the energy that makes it all happen. I would predict that there will never be a manuscript that will defeat you. After all, we write fiction.

      Have a great weekend!

  18. My love of wood has resulted in numerous bookshelves, a bunk bed, a patented puzzle, a footstool, a small computer desk with a monitor stand, several key-hangers, a wooden paperweight decorated with screws in the form of a letter, a shelf to convert the car’s back seat into a kid’s bed, and a workbench. And I shaped a chess set on my radial arm saw. While standing on a bowling ball.

    Abandoned stories? None, just ones I haven’t finished. I recently put my S&S novel–begun in 1988–on Vella. The only one I don’t intend to revisit after 8500 words is a story of a boy who escapes a bad priest, only to fall under the care of a homicidal religious psychopath who reads violent Bible passages at every meal and is a never-ending source of aphorisms, like:

    * Don’t look a gift horse anywhere else, either
    * Many hands make light of work
    * You can lead a horse to water but you’d better drink upstream
    * Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open your tater trap an’ get a swift punch in the chops.
    * If it ain’t broke, it will be when you get thru with it.
    * Sticks and stones will break your bones but names is what will get you hit with ‘em.

    • It sounds like you have created many wood projects. It is satisfying to see something you created. It must also be rewarding to finish a novel you started 33 years ago. Good luck with a continued record of no abandoned stories.

      Have a great weekend!

  19. Hi Steve. Loved your wood-stacking story…it’s something I would do. I worked on my first novel for ten years before it sold. And then more work with the edits. But I always knew it was a good story idea…I just needed to learn the craft to write it.

    I’m so thankful for all the TKZers who share their talent with the readers. I learn so much from y’all…even how not to stack wood…

    • Thanks, Patricia. I love your persistence, “I always knew it was a good story idea…I just needed to learn the craft to write it.” And, we’re told that persistence is a key to success. Maybe, not always, with some hair-brained wood stacking idea.

      Thank you for being part of the TKZ community and sharing your ideas and comments. Have a great weekend!

  20. WordPress is being WordPress. I couldn’t open your post, Steve, till now, and I can’t read any of other KZer’s comments. But that don’t stop me from leaving a reply.

    Burning wood is good for the soul. I grew up with a woodstove in rural Manitoba, and I miss the feeling of sitting around it in -30 dressed only in jeans and a singlet. I miss the smell and the pop and the sudden sizzle of sap.

    Failed experiments? Where to start… in writing it was spending time submitting to agents, and in love it was my first girlfriend. *Note to self – gotta kill her character off* But the catharsis of failing and retrying is the soul’s reinvigorating. Enjoy tomorrow, and thanks for your woodpile story.

    • Thanks for your persistence, Garry. I think there are some problems with WordPress. I’ve heard from more than a few about trouble getting onto the site. I have a Mac laptop that WordPress just won’t recognize, making it cumbersome to get on to the KZ website through the back door, not being able to see the current post, not being able to see other’s comments. I have to take an ancient, heavy, PC laptop when I travel to be able to get on the site. But I digress.

      Glad you could identify with the wood metaphor.

      “But the catharsis of failing and retrying is the soul’s reinvigorating.” Great line. I believe that some of the most successful people in history have been those who had to try the hardest, fail, get up, and try again. Persistence; we should all add P as our middle initial.

      Have a great weekend!

  21. I’ve done NaNoWriMo over a dozen times, always intending to rework the messy stories into credible, sellable novels. I guess I need what little structure and deadline that the contest gives me to finish.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Bill. All that NaNoWriMo material is sitting there for you to use whenever you are ready. I recently took a sci fi short story that didn’t sell, and used the kernel of the idea to write a YA fantasy for Vella. I hope you get the opportunity to use some of your NaNoWriMo material.

      Have a good day!

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