Do You Follow Instructions?

Following directions has never been my strength.

Cooking, for example. I rarely use a recipe, and when I do, I almost always vary it in some way. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a great cook. Changing the recipe is risky business. Ask my family sometime about Thanksgiving Dinner 2012.

The same thing goes for a new product purchase. Following those incomprehensible printed instructions is annoying. I already know I should open the box before eating the pizza. And I’m not likely to use my new hairdryer while sleeping.

 One place I do follow directions is knitting. Going rogue in knitting is likely to result in a garment no one could wear—or want to. I learned about knitting from my Norwegian aunts who knitted for the arts and crafts store Husfiden (Oslo) as a way to earn income while raising their families. Each year as a child I would receive a new pair of handknitted Selbuvotter, Star Mittens, usually red and white or black and white, in the traditional patterns developed in the 1800s. I marveled at the tiny stitches and imagined that I would learn to knit one day.

I did learn—from my mother, who taught me the “continental method,” which produces an beautiful fabric but is difficult to perfect because it requires a great deal of control over the yarn tension. I remember watching her fingers move with such skill and grace. When I started out, my fingers refused to obey me. I lost control of the yarn. I made mistakes, which she would patiently pick out and get me going again. Eventually, my fingers learned the subtle motions. Muscle memory, they call it. Today, even though I haven’t had time for serious knitting in several years, knitting is as easy for me as breathing. I could knit in the dark.

The hard part is following directions.

My masterpiece is a Shetland cardigan that called for twenty-two colors of yarn, a bunch of advanced shaping techniques, and a pattern chart so complicated I had to mark off rows with a pencil as I went along. So involved were the directions, in fact, that I couldn’t watch TV, chat, or even listen to music while I knitted. Often, in the process, I couldn’t see how the sweater would turn out in the end. I had to trust the pattern and follow the instructions to the letter.

Writing a book can be a bit like following a pattern because stories have a pattern—at the basic leavel, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There will be a cast of characters, and (usually) conflict. In mysteries, there will be suspects and clues, misdirection and red herrings. The pace and intensity of scenes must ebb and flow. Questions must be posed—and answered. Threads must be woven in seamlessly, and in the end, the overall pattern must be pleasing.

Writing a book, however, isn’t a matter of simply following directions. There are no templates, although there are helpful guidelines, like the W Plot above. Each work of fiction will have similarities, but like my sweater with all those colors and patterns, it’s how the elements are woven together that makes each work of fiction unique. Like choosing colors in knitting. And that’s what makes writing a challenge and a joy.

Do you follow directions or defy them?

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