You Can’t Get a Straight Board from a Crooked Tree
By Darvell Hunt
Last week while I was surfing channels, I came across a reality show in which a camera crew was following the experiences of a logging company. I wasn’t really interested in it, but they were showing some of the heavy equipment they used to cut down and move trees, so I ended up watching it.
After they had hauled off a load of freshly-cut logs to a lumber mill, their driver returned with a significant number of trees that had been rejected. This rejection cost the logging company money, because they had to pay for the fuel to return the trees, as well as man-power time to bring them back.
I found it curious when one of the employees commented that they would just send trees they thought MIGHT be accepted, but they didn’t really understand how the mill judged trees as suitable. So they decided to take the camera crew to the lumber mill to get a better grasp on what type of trees they should be sending.
It was interesting to see the trees debarked and cut into prime lumber—and I got to see more heavy machinery, which was cool (maybe it’s a guy thing!). By at the end of the lumber mill tour, the logging company employees had a better understanding of what the mill was looking for in trees.
After the tour, everybody was talking outside the mill near some logs and the lumber mill bosses were explaining why some trees got rejected. They had to consider how boards will be made from the trees and how much waste would be produced and what type of quality they’ll get from different logs.
They said if a tree was crooked, the waste they produce is much higher, if it was usable at all, because you can’t cut a straight board from a crooked tree. I thought that comment was interesting, mostly because it seemed obvious, but yet it apparently was not considered when sending trees to the mill.
So what does this have to do with writing? Plenty, I think.
Sometimes we, as writers, are sending out crooked trees to lumber mills and then wondering why they get rejected. Just like the logging company, if we don’t seek to understand WHY the trees get rejected, our rejection rate is going to remain high.
Trees, especially hardwoods, take a long time to grow—just like novels take a long time to write. Once the tree is crooked, there’s not much you can do about it. A story can be crooked, too, because of a plot twist that doesn’t make sense or a character that behaves inconsistently. If we don’t take care when crafting our story, the result might be something that is not easily fixed—or maybe not at all.
We, as writers, have to recognize when our stories get crooked—and more importantly, when they cannot be fixed. Some stories become learning experiences that need to be discarded so we can concentrate on crafting something better. Perhaps a story can be straightened by throwing out large portions of it, but perhaps not.
I think the difference between a published writer and one who just can’t quite seem to break into the market just might be this inability to see the crooked trees for what they are. No matter how much you trim the crooked tree and dress it up, it will still be a crooked tree that the lumber mill will reject. Sometimes you just have to know when to stop and let it go—and move onto cutting down a new tree—hopefully a straighter one this time. Perhaps only then can we experience something besides yet another rejection.