On Building a House

By Chelene Knight

Book House

When I was a young girl throwing myself into books, I I remember how I used to pull random books from library shelves without concern about what the book was about or who wrote it. I ran my hands down the spines, and slowly pulled back the cover. I wanted to enjoy the feeling of experiencing a book for the first time. It was always the same methodology. Next, I jumped to the dedication. I pictured how that person must have felt having an entire book dedicated in their name. It really seemed like an incredible gesture to me. I spent a lot of time just staring at the dedication page. From there I’d leap to the first page of the chapter, well, the first line anyway, inhaling that initial sentence that either made me want to read more or slam the book shut.

I didn’t know much about “process” until I started sharing my writing, but when I learned the truth about what it takes to write a book, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was thrilled to learn that books didn’t just pour out shiny and glistening. It takes multiple rewrites, hair-pulling, and then more rewriting. I realized that writing books was actually more like building books. You couldn’t do it without certain tools (or collaborators as writer Betsy Warland calls them in her book on writing, Breathing the Page). You couldn’t do it without understanding what each tool was for, how to hold it, and the best way to use it. But that being said, building takes time and each house I build will be different.  Each will require a different toolbelt, so I had better learn to get comfy and cozy with all of them.

Much like houses, stories don’t have to be complicated. They don’t have to be riddled with abstract language or marble countertops either. Simple is always best. And like building a house, you need your tools and a plan of attack for using these tools. I feel like the steps within my own writing process mirror those for building a house:


Prepare construction site and pour foundation

Drafting: Once I have my initial idea for a piece I need to get something down on the page. There’s nothing like that initial page vomit! I must get it all out and sort through the mess.


Construct rough framing

Structure: Where would our stories be without structure? I usually have a general idea for how the pieces will be stitched together, but I go in with the understanding that it is ok if this shifts or completely changes with later revisions. I consider this to be the foundation settling.


Complete rough plumbing, and electrical

Character and plot: No matter what genre I am writing in, there will always be a character—someone who is fully draped in the narrative. They are wearing the story like a cloak. I need the world to see, hear, and feel them. I need to map out their every move, build trust, and make that character irreplaceable and unforgettable. In my opinion, a well-built character is the most important aspect of the story. Without these magnificent beings you have no plot and nothing can truly move forward. Without the plumbing and the electrical you have a non-functioning house. You have … a shell.


Install insulation

I write the setting as if it is the backdrop to my characters and my plot. The setting, much like the insulation, is meant to provide warmth. It’s like a warm blanket being wrapped around everyone’s shoulders.


Complete drywall and interior textures; start exterior finishes

Revise: My first round of revisions always start with major cuts. What needs to go? Now that the walls are in, I need to make sure all my furniture fits in the room. The sectional sofa shouldn’t be wedged in if it doesn’t fit. If there’s no room to walk, it will be obvious that it was was added without thought. Scrap it.


Finish interior trim; install exterior driveways and walkways

Revise: Clarity is key. I ask myself: Can my readers easily navigate their way through the story? Is the driveway smooth? Will they stumble? Will they find the terrain too difficult and abandon ship? Are the readers able to see what I need them to see? This is probably my favourite round of revisions because this is when the book really begins to form and take shape.


Finish mechanical trims; install bathroom fixtures

Revise: Cut the deadwood. Cut the awkward language. Find the inconsistencies: Whoops,I connected the hot and cold water taps backwards again!


Install mirrors, shower doors and finish flooring, and finish exterior landscaping

Polishing: The copy editing phase is really important because it’s an opportunity to zoom in and find the errors that may have slipped through the cracks. Hey, fun fact: substantive editing and copy editing are two very different skill sets, just saying!


Final walkthrough with builder

If all looks good, I brace myself for the sendoff. Maybe it’s destined for an editor, a publisher or agent, but because I know my process so well, I am already preparing for that next round of revisions.

I think it’s a great thing that I love my process, and it took me so long to sculpt it to work for me. When I realized how many times I would actually have to revise a piece, I was forced to look at what the real work of a writer entailed. I always say that the difference between a writer and a journaler is that desire to make it better, to revise. I fell in love with the experience of building because at the back of my mind I knew that I had the power to smash it down to rubble and ash at any moment.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.