Writing a Novel is Like Making Hay… with Words

How in the world could making hay compare to writing a novel? you might ask. Or some of you might be asking, how in the world do you make hay? Doesn’t it come in a cube or a bag or something?

Ah, my friends, let’s start at the beginning.

First, the hay animals eat is essentially mowed plant matter – usually either alfalfa (a nutritious legume), clover (a larger variety of the 3 and 4 leaf stuff), orchard grass (a tall hardy grass), and other varieties of grasses. To cut this grass, I pull a haybine with a tractor. It’s basically a gigantic lawn mower except the blades go side-to-side instead of around.

This part of the process is like an author who has decided on a particular story idea (the field) to develop into a novel. The first round with the haybine is counter-clockwise and is like the author wading in among the tall grasses, working on the story from various angles: figuring out the characters with their lies and wants and hidden desires, their wounds and dark moment stories; then the setting, a few minor characters and a place to begin. Hidden things may lurk in the tall grass. Sticks and fence posts or old wire that threaten your cutter (and your story with lack of motivation or no way to connect one scene to another).

After the first round, the haybine is expanded to cut a swath farther from the tractor and pulled clockwise so that the tractor is running on the already mowed hay instead of mashing down the standing plants. At this part of the process, the author begins to draft the story, working through all the obstacles – the trees, barns, silos, and other impediments – until she gets to The End.

Of course, we all know it’s not really finished, just as the hay making process is incomplete. Both the story and the hay need time to dry, cure, and mature. Stories need time to rest before the next round of work and benefit from a month or more away. Hay, on the other hand, is often ready the next day!

Once the hay has been dried by sun and wind, it must be raked. A mechanical contraption with rotating teeth or finger-like protrusions picks the individual pieces of hay from the ground and rolls them into a kind of rope. The end product is called a windrow and is easy for the baling machine to pick up and roll into a bale. (More about this later.) Raking is like the editing process where all the individual pieces of the story are rotated until they make a cohesive thread. This process can take years or only a few weeks depending on the experience of the person doing the editing. And looming deadlines, of course!

Broken PTO – tractor end

Professional editors are proficient at finding and sorting through the mishmashed bits of story until they find the central thread and can give instructions and suggestions for making that core stronger. Sometimes, machines break down and the operator doesn’t know how to fix them. That’s when a professional is called. Stories are no different. Authors often can’t diagnose the holes in their own stories. Even in later stages, proofreading is best done with the fresh eyes of a professional.

Broken PTO – haybine end

Once the hay is raked, it must be baled to make it into a portable, useful product. This is the cover, back cover copy, and front and back matter of that story. Whether traditionally or independently published, these bits are all necessary to the successful distribution and dissemination of what began as an idea in the mind of one person.

trailer with large round hay bales on it
The finished product awaiting it’s temporary home in the barn.

Next comes promotion and marketing. Just like it would be a waste to go to all the trouble to cut, rake, and bale the hay then leave it in the field, so it would be a terrible tragedy to write your story and not encourage others to read it.

Hay making is a hot, dirty, solitary job, but it sure makes animals happy and healthy. I’ve found tractor time is great for brainstorming or canoodling a story. I also enjoy listening to audiobooks during the raking process when the relative quiet of the slower process allows me to hear through my AirPods. Writing is often solitary, messy, and misunderstood, but it doesn’t have to lead to frustration. Find community – a critique or craft partner, a group of like-minded authors, people who you can call when that character won’t stay in line. Someone who will listen and see the connection you’ve been missing.

And the next time you pass a cow munching on hay, (or read your next book) think of all the time and effort that went into getting that bale from field to mouth. And be encouraged, that if farmers do these tasks every summer over and over, you can perform the necessary tasks to get your story idea from inception to bookshelf. Don’t give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Writing is a process and you can’t rush it. Give your story time to cure and mature, then get it into words that have the power to incite change, bring joy and heal through their connection to the Creator – the one who spoke the original Word.