Building a Book

By Barbara J. Petoskey



"Have I taught you nothing?"

That's what my best friend asked me when I told her that my husband and I had decided to build a house. Her family had recently survived their own construction chaos, and because they lived in a distant zip code, she had shared her travails with me in our almost-daily emails. After I'd been a digital witness to her seemingly endless ordeal, how could I consider stepping into the same excavated pit?

Well, we did it anyway. And I returned the favor by sending my friend updates marking each of our own milestones and setbacks.

Now I happen to be one of those people slow to throw stuff away. But after a couple months, in a rare fit of electronic housekeeping, I decided to go back through my old Sent folder, copy from those emails any material related to house building, and dump it all into a file. For fun, I also preserved some of my friend's snark and sympathy. From then on as the house progressed, I routinely poured new material into that file. I wasn’t moving a mountain, more like pushing a wheelbarrow.

As the messages accumulated, a cast of characters developed organically: the architect, the builder, bureaucrats, inspectors, craftsmen, and the crabby, soon-to-be neighbor who harassed us over every clod of mud tracked out onto the street.

Amazing, eighteen months after breaking ground, my husband and I moved into our new home. Once the boxes were unpacked and my home office was operational, I looked at that file and was shocked by what I discovered.

Over the years I'd published short stories, essays and magazine articles, but never anything that wouldn't fit easily into a 9 x 12 envelope. And now, without trying, I had compiled 60,000 words—rough, unstructured, occasionally outrageous words—but words nonetheless. The equivalent of a book-length manuscript.

As an editor of technical and promotional material, I'd often told authors that I could spin straw into gold, but they had to give me the straw. Here I had my own barnful of straw. All I had to do was shape it, fill in the gaps, and shovel out the manure.

Starting with that inadvertent first draft, I added an introduction and transitional material to provide context, trimmed where needed, enriched my insights with the wisdom of reflection, and excised most of the profanity as well as any potential slander. Just as the different trades had plumbed and wired and painted, I brought to bear various revision skills in succession, until I had a polished memoir of 75,000 words, Diary of a Mad Housebuilder.

To date, I still have not sold that book. But when I decided to write an unrelated novel, I felt confident I could do it, because the construction experience reminded me that a book didn’t emerge, fully formed, any more than a completed house fell out of the sky. My initial framework file and its later edited manuscript were proof I could get the job done, if I simply worked like the masons adding brick upon brick—and didn’t fall off the scaffolding.

I did write that novel, in the corner office of the house we built. And I had a little help from my friends. Make that lesson #2.


Barbara J. Petoskey's work has been collected in books including The Best Contemporary Women's Humor, The Bride of Funnyside, and This Sporting Life; appeared in publications such as Cat Fancy, Writer's Digest, Bostonia, and The Bloomsbury Review; and posted on the Higgs Weldon Comedy website. As a contributing editor for ByLine magazine, she published more than 100,000 words in her monthly columns.

William KenowerComment