I’m covered in drywall dust. It’s in my hair, my eyes, the creases of my skin. My blue jeans are cloudy white from all the dust covering them.
As I walk, little puffs of drywall dust, fall from my shoulders. I spent most of the day as a cable tech for a small IT Telephone Installation company doing the telephone and computer cables for a methadone clinic that is moving into a new building.
I worked 10-and-a-half hours today, never sitting, always thinking about what to do next, trying to figure out how to accomplish the tasks that needed to be done. As I stood on that ladder all day, my head in the ceiling, I realized that what I was doing was a lot like trying to get a first draft completed.
One of the main jobs of a cable tech is doing cable runs. The boxes of CAT 5 or CAT 6 ethernet cable start in the telephone closet. From there I have to run the cables up into the ceiling and then out to each of the rooms that needs a voice and data connection. I gather as many cables as I need for each run and use electrical tape to attach them to a long, flexible fiberglass rod of about 10-30 feet, that are called “the sticks.”
Then I open the drop ceiling and push the sticks with the cables attached in the direction I want them to go. There’s a beginning, the telephone closet, and the end, the office that needs the voice and data connections. But what happens in the middle and how I actually get to the end, is the journey that changes with every new location.
As I was drilling holes in the wall all day, this seemed like such an apt metaphor for how I was working on my current first draft I wanted to share it with you.
Five Things I Learned About Writing from Being an IT Cable Tech
1. It starts out as a MESS.
When we show up for a new job, the telephone closet (if it IS even a closet, sometimes it’s a flooded, moldy basement) is usually a tangled mess. There are cables going everywhere. Some are punched down (or connected) on the patch panel where they’re supposed to be. Some are cut and stuck in a hole in the wall and we have no idea where they are going. Some are just wrapped in tight knots around each other in a pasta-like configuration we call “spaghetti.” The great news is that by the end of the day, that mess will be a neatly coiled, fully functioning phone and computer system.
The first draft I’m working on right now is just like this. I have some great beats that I know will work, they connect. The characters know what they want and how they are going to try to get it. Those are the cables that are working.
But for the most part, this first draft is filled with all of these crazy ideas and tangents and random characters that are kind of stuck in that hole in that wall with no idea where they are going.
The 30,000 words I now have (on my way to probably triple that) are nothing but a giant mess of spaghetti. But I know that as I keep working on the story, teasing it out, stretching out the story lines, just like with the cables, my first draft mess will eventually be a fully functioning story.
2. We make a PLAN and stick to it, until something BAD happens, then we make ANOTHER plan.
Before we start untangling and doing cable runs, we go from room to room and figure out how many cables we need for each room, where they have to go and how we’re going to get there. I have to pop ceiling tiles, climb ladders and see what’s up in the ceiling. If it’s open and it’s a straight shot to the telephone closet, the runs are easy.
But if it’s all closed up tight, we’re in for a long day, because we have to figure where we’re going to cut holes in the walls to run the cables.
Often we think we’re going to cut holes in one place, but when we cut into a wall, there can be some not-so-fun surprises. I’ve cut into cement, hidden brick walls, old iron staircases, desiccated squirrels, electrical lines, wooden beams, water pipes, nails, screws, even an old Yankee’s baseball cap. If you can name it, I’ve probably found it stuck in a wall.
This is like sitting down to figure out the beats of the story – this happens, and then this happens and that leads to this, and so forth, until I get to the end.
I’m a plotter, so I like to know where my story is going. I write the beats out and make a nice plan. But I often find when I “cut into the wall” of the writing, that my plan isn’t as solid as I thought it was.
This can sometimes be frustrating and makes me want to stop writing the story. But in cable tech work, I can’t just quit, I have to find a new way around the problem or risk the client’s wrath.
Sometimes when I’m writing and get stuck, I take a break from that part of the story and see if I can work on another part of the story.
I often resist this because I think I have to keep a beginning to end progression as if I was telling the story, not writing it. It’s funny, because I also make films and we almost never shoot a film in sequence. We might shoot the ending where the couple is breaking up many days before we shoot the scene where the lovers first meet. But when I’m writing, I resist working this way.
Another thing I’ll do is make flow charts to see if I can figure out a solution that way. It’s a kind of IF/THEN chart from back in my days as a computer programming student. IF this happens, THEN this must happen. Sometimes it helps.
I also like to record myself telling the story to myself. I find that talking about it out loud to myself is a great way to get out of my head and think about the story kind of like an actor would. I start to ask questions like, “What else could the character do at this point besides this?” “What if the character wants this instead?” “If this character meets this person and does this, what are the consequences?” I find myself answering myself and arguing with myself and it’s usually pretty hilarious.
3. We take ACTION until we’re done.
A lot of the businesses we do cable runs for need their telephone and data cables up and running in their offices yesterday. We have deadlines to meet that, if we don’t meet them, the business doesn’t open and we don’t get paid as much. We often quote the clients how long we think the runs will take and if we estimate that we can get it done in a certain amount of time and bill them for that time, then we don’t make our deadlines, we start losing money.
With writing my first drafts, I often let myself off the hook on this one. I justify my low word counts and inability to get past sticking points. But if I were running my writing business like we have to run the cable tech business, I’d be hitting those word counts because my boss wouldn’t pay me otherwise. That’s where an accountability partner can be really useful. Since I’m my own boss as a writer, it’s easy to give myself the afternoon off. But when I have someone I have to check in with, those words counts really soar. It really helps!
4. We expect to get DIRTY.
I don’t show up for a cable job in khakis, dress shirt and a tie. I’m usually wearing work boots, grubby jeans, an old t-shirt and a flannel shirt as a layer if I have to go outside. Being a cable tech is a dirty job. I’ve had to crawl through fiberglass in an attic when it was 102 Farenheit outside. I’ve waded through flooded basements with I-don’t-know-what floating by to get to the telephone punchdowns. I’ve been in a two-foot high, dirt floored, sub-basement, lying on my back with endless spider webs 2 inches from my face. My hands and fingers get cut, my head gets gouged and my clothes get dirty. I don’t expect it to be any different.
Why, then, do I think writing a novel should be different than it actually is? If I’m honest with myself, I think I have this idea that the novels I’m writing should just spring from my head full-blown and enter themselves into Scrivener without me having to do much else but think about it. Laughable, right? But with cable tech, a skilled trade, I wouldn’t even consider the notion that the cables will get themselves run just by thinking about them. I read other
To get a first draft done, I have to get dirty. I have to be ready for the struggle. Appreciate when things flow, but work through the knots when they don’t. I have to go deep into character. I have to be as specific as I can with my words so the story can live and breathe. Why do I think that’s easy? Why do I think that shouldn’t take just as much effort as doing twenty cable runs a day?
One of the things that stops a lot of us are our expectations. If we can figure out what it is we are expecting, we can get past the disappointment of not meeting those expectations. Our expectations have to be realistic. As a cable tech, I expect to get dirty. As a writer, I have to expect that there is going to be some hard work ahead.
5. It’s HARD WORK, but endlessly FASCINATING.
When we get to a site, we have to unload the heavy collapsible ladders, the boxes full of cable, the server racks, buckets, vacuum, tools and everything else we need to get the job done. I usually sweat through my clothing by the end of the day. I spend most of the 8-10 hours on the job with my arms raised above my head, constantly moving. Standing on ladders all day, especially portable ladders, is painful to the bottoms of the feet and usually leaves bruises on my thighs.
But I love the challenges of the job, finding the ways to get the cables run and make sure the wall plates and jacks look tidy and are easily accessible for the end-user. At the end of the day, if we hook up the computer and it accesses the internet, or plug in a phone and it works, we know our job is done. We’ve worked hard and created access to communication for hundreds of people. There is satisfaction in that.
Same thing can be said for writing a first draft. I might be banging my head on the desk trying to figure out a scene, but when it finally clicks, there is that buzz of recognition, that “knowing it works” feeling, that can’t be beat.
I might set myself a word count goal for the day and struggle for an hour or so and then the story-teller in me suddenly takes off and, before you know it, I’m surpassing your goal by many words.
I might even stare at the blank page or screen and then give up, returning to some other task, only to be inspired a few hours later to start again.
Like being a skilled tradesperson, writing is hard work, but endlessly fascinating. By looking at it as a skilled trade and not something that should happen easily, I’m able to really put it into perspective.
Here’s a summary of what I learned:
- Even though your first draft starts out as a mess you can work through the mess and refine it by untangling the knots. Sometimes you have to work out of sequence to do though
- When you write out the beats of your story, be prepared to run into some problems as you write. If that happens, work through it until you come up with a new plan. Sometimes you have to drill a hole in a desiccated squirrel to get to the other side of the wall.
- Giving up halfway through is just as bad as not starting at all. Take action and keep going! Get that first draft finished. If you’re stuck, find an accountability partner.
- When you find yourself wishing that you were writing, faster, better, more like someone else, remember that false expectations can get in your way. It’s your journey, expect it to be just the way it is.
- While you’re doing all that hard work, think about how rewarding and endlessly fascinating it is to create something from nothing. In the end, you’ll have something that communicates with people in a way that only you can communicate. That makes it all worthwhile.
I always love to hear your comments. Let me know about how your writing is going and any other ways you find to keep getting those first drafts out of your head and onto the page.
If you’re a fan of Sterling & Stone and looking for something to read, you can get a FREE copy of the steampunk anthology Beyond the Gate by clicking this link. My story, My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow, is in there. The first draft I keep referring to is the novel length story based on this short.
Have a great writing day!