Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Buying a House is Like Writing a Novel

Yes, this is one of those writing process is [insert metaphor here] posts. And yes, I may be unduly influenced by the fact that my husband and I had our offer on a house accepted earlier this week. But the whole house hunting/buying process revealed a number of uncanny writing associations to me, which is what I want to share with you today.

At the start of your search for a new home, it’s helpful if you have a sense of what you are looking for. How important is location? Do you want something that you can move right into, or are you a do-it-yourselfer? When determining what your next novel’s about, similar questions crop up. Where does your story take place? Are you a planner or a panster? Are you writing for the market or are you blazing your own trail?



Where do I sign? : Hook and Premise

Over the course of our house hunt, a sure sign a home had potential was whether or not I could imagine myself living there, along with my husband and dog and any theoretical offspring we may consider having in the (distant) future. As an aspiring writer, you can bet it’s pretty easy for me to imagine all sorts of scenarios, even in ugly houses. But the ones that stuck out were the ones that kept me thinking even after we moved on. The ones I wanted to make my mark on right away. And luckily that was the way I felt about the home we made an offer on.

Brainstorming story ideas is a similar process. I have a number of ideas that I could develop, but I usually only tackle the ones that get me hot and bothered (in a good way). The ones with an innovative hook or an exciting premise. An idea that gets its mitts into my mind and doesn’t let me go until I get it all down on the page. Your story idea should grab you, just like any home you buy. Don’t settle for something that’s an almost fit. You will be disappointed.

Location : Setting

When choosing a home, location can be pretty important. The right school district, commuting distance, access to public transportation, distance to stores and services. These type of things all impact your house’s value and can set it apart from others in the crowd. Similarly, if your house backs up to a highway or a gas station, that can negatively affect the value.

With books, setting is just as important as location is to a house, impacting character, plot, and mood. Done well, setting can seamlessly support all elements of your story, in some cases becoming a character in and of itself. Setting that’s underdeveloped or there just for show (think wallpapered historical romances) can weigh down the rest of the work, leaving your reader unsatisfied.

Layout : Structure

Seeing the inside of different homes helps prospective buyers decide if they’d like to live there. Some layouts are functional, others inviting, and some just down right funky – often a result of piecemeal renovations gone wrong. The layout is a result of the plans of the builder, the materials used, and how everything came together.


Just as the structure of your novel is a function of plot, character, and your means of telling the story. It can be full of twists and turns like that creepy upstairs hallway or fairly straightforward like an open floorplan. But what matters most is that your story’s structure successfully encapsulates all narrative elements in a cohesive way. You don’t want a bathroom all by itself in the backyard of your home (unless you actually like outhouses). Neither do you want to have Plot Point C or Character X existing on the periphery of your story’s structure.

D├ęcor : Style and Diction

So you have your house, and now it’s time to put your mark on the place. Wallpaper, paint, tile, new carpets, hardwood floors, furniture, pictures, linens…the possibilities are enough to make any HGTV host squeal with delight. You want something that speaks to your personality, something that soothes your soul on cold winter nights by the fire. Shape, color, texture are all at your disposal.


When writing, it comes down to words, punctuation, and how you combine them. You want your story to be yours. Let every line resonate with your authorial voice. Wield your words like a hammer or as softly as a stroke of a paintbrush, in order to achieve the emotional impact you want. But above all, make it yours.

Repairs and Renovations : Revisions

Whether you buy a fixer (like we are) or you buy new, sooner or later, household repairs will need your attention. Whether it’s a loose railing, a hole in the drywall, or a complete overhaul of the kitchen, you are going to have to get your hands dirty and make some changes.


Your manuscript isn’t immune to changes either. You will need to revisit and revise your story often to eliminate the clutter, to smooth out the prose, and to tighten up the plot. It’s hard work. Make sure you have the proper mindset in place to make the most of what you already have. If you find yourself in over your head, it’s ok to go back to the drawing board. Maybe your improvement project is bigger or more complicated than you thought. Just remember what you’re working towards, and keep chiseling away at it bit by bit.

Home Inspection : Peer Review

Getting a home inspected is typically a part of the buying process. But even over the course of owning a home, an inspection can alert you to potential problems before they become too costly to deal with. Think of it as a preventive measure to keep your home at its very best. Similarly, over the course of writing your novel, it can be helpful to stop and take stock of where you are at. Sometimes the best way to do this is to let a trusted critique partner or writing group take a gander at your WIP. Much like a home inspector, they will typically provide you with unbiased impressions and point you to things you need to work on. But don’t let just anyone inspect your home or read your work. Always get credentials and referrals first.

Appraisal : Agent/Editor Evaluation

After painstakingly caring for your home or laboring to make renovations, you’re ready for Show-Me-the-Money-Time. Maybe you want to refinance or want to have an accurate accounting of your assets. An appraiser would take a look at your property, compare it to others in the neighborhood, and tell you how much its worth. Sometimes all your hard work and investments pay off. Sometimes you can be surprised – maybe your improvements were just average or not enough to keep up with other homes in the area.

The same thing can happen when you think your novel’s ready for primetime and you start querying. This is when you see if your story can hold its own against the competition. Is your story strong enough for an agent to take you on? Is your story good enough to be published? Maybe, maybe not.

Regardless of your home’s appraised value, remember that you are the one who has to live in it every day, not some person from the bank assigning it an arbitrary numerical value. Similarly, if your story gets rejected by an agent or editor, it’s not the end of the world. You wrote your story, you are the one who got to live in a world of your own creation over the course of its development. Remember that and cherish those moments,  especially as you make plans for your next WIP.

There are a lot of homes out there for you to choose from. Just as there are an astounding number of book ideas floating around in the ether. But it is what you do with your idea or your house that makes it truly yours. Happy hunting!

3 comments:

Laura Marcella said...

This is such a cool post! My hubby and I are in the very beginning stages of house hunting, the deciding where we want to live stage. And since I've never bought a house before but I have written a novel, I'm thinking novel writing is much easier than house hunting will be!

Congrats on your new house!!!

mrs mediocrity said...

I love what you did here, a great job of weaving your metaphor into a great post...
I have owned a home for 21 years, and you were "write" on, pardon the pun. Now I just need to get busy on that novel...

Mark Anthony said...

Nice job. You hit your creative stride with the inspection and appraisal comparisons...I liked that. Here's to hoping my 'house' finds a buyer :-)

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