I thought I was going to make a blob-like paperweight, until Nate, our teacher, showed me a gorgeous straight-sided largish vase. He asked what color I’d like to make the glass, but I was so stunned by the piece he held in his hand, I couldn’t answer. “Or you could make it a different shape.” He pointed to other vases in the studio. Amazing, fluted-top shapes, round-bottomed dishes, traditional vases with a round base and narrow straight sides—nothing like the blob of translucent material I’d envisioned carting home and cherishing like a piece of kindergarten art.
Maybe this is how you began your writing career; it’s how mine began. I couldn’t get this story out of my head. The characters would talk to me before I fell asleep. An English teacher friend suggested that I write the story. I did, intending it to be just for me, like a secret treasure. Like that kindergarten artwork.
Before you begin a glass piece, you decide how large it will be, the color, and its shape. That determines the number of gathers (times you add molten glass from the 2000° crucible; three for all of us). You also prepare your tools. I’m holding newspaper that I wet with water from a nozzled plastic bottle. When that hot glass touched onto that thin layer of wet paper, I was tense. I felt no heat, but the paper steamed and tiny bits charred and drifted into the air. Kind of the same feeling I got the first time I sat down and started writing Keeping Athena.
When you begin a new writing project, you decide the general length, the genre, and, even if you’re a pantster like me, you have an idea about the characters or the beginning scene. Unless you stick to an outline, the shape of your story may take you somewhere you hadn’t thought of when you started.
Next I moved to a metal table where I had arranged the small bits of color into a large rectangle. I rolled the glass oval through the middle of the mostly emerald green with a sprinkling of cobalt blue, then rolled back, angling to catch the leftover color on the top and bottom of the glass before it cooled.
In writing, this is where you begin fleshing out your characters, adding color and details to their goals, motivation and conflict. Oh, and those idiosyncrasies that endear the people living in your mind to your readers. You need to have an idea of the kind of character you’re creating, because you can’t change colors after this step. At least, not when you’re a beginner. The beauty of your piece is going to be in how you shape and use those bits of color to show character arc.
You can change your mind about the shape as you go. The glass goes back into the 1000° furnace every 2-3 minutes to keep it molten, pliable. During this time it is important to make sure your blob, with the tiny starter bubble in the center of the molten glass, stays centered on the hollow-tubed rod. This is similar to centering your clay and keeping it centered if you’ve ever thrown a ceramic pot.
I do this all the time in my writing, and so do you. Sometimes I think something is going to happen on a planet, and it doesn’t. Sometimes I’m surprised by a razorfish attack. But all the while, I have to stay centered, make sure the story is proceeding with a good pace, that everything I add is important to the plot or the character arc to show the motivation, goal and conflict. My story is pliable as I reread and revise it. I can talk to my critique partners if I have a question, just like I talked to Nate, my glass-blowing teacher, while I worked.
Now you blow and enlarge the air bubble, to open up your piece. Your artwork is constantly moving, to keep it from slumping and falling off the rod. You’re turning the rod all the time, even when you’re blowing, so that you don’t end up with a thinner wall on one side of your piece.
If you haven’t seen the similarities to writing yet, you’ve heard “just keep writing” often enough that you can equate that to “keep turning the rod.” If you set aside a project for awhile, when you come back to it, you’ll have to put it back into the fire of your creativity, and spin it around with your craft to get it back on track. And revising, looking at how your character arcs, plot arcs, and GMC all work together, keeps your writing from becoming thin on the side of motivation or character growth.
It’s time to open up the glass into a vase. How much I open up the bubble will determine the shape of my finished piece. It might have straight sides or slanted sides, depending on how I hold the forceps-like tool. Picture huge metal tweezers. Once I open the neck, you guessed right, back into the 1000° furnace to keep it molten-enough for the next step.
My novel’s dark moment is at this point. I have to decide how to drive the dialogue, the setting, the conflict, and the stakes to mold my story into something memorable. By this point my reader should have an idea, a worry, of what might happen. I have to deliver that crisis in a way that delivers the initial promise of the book. I have to commit to how wide I want to open the neck.
Back to the glass-blowing studio. I have another decision to make. Am I ready to remove my vase from the rod, or do I want to put it into the fire to flute the rim? My piece went back into the fire. Nate showed me how to make the top edges have that free-form ripple. It was easier than I thought it would be.
At the end of my novel, I can wrap things up quickly or take just a bit longer to tie up loose ends. No matter my choice, it is my responsibility to deliver a solid, satisfying ending for my reader. That doesn’t mean long and drawn out, it means focused and clear. Big on emotion. If I’ve done my job in the first 95% of the book, the resolution of the black moment should be easy to write. I say this from experience. When the ending of the book didn’t gel, I had to go back and find out why. I hadn’t motivated the actions and emotions of my characters to get them where they needed to be for the ending I’d planned. Back into the fire.
The last step is to remove the glasswork from the rod. Once that’s done, the bottom needs to be polished or finished so there are no rough spots. I used a small blow torch to smooth out the rough bottom of my piece.
In my writing, working with an editor and completing final revisions is that polishing step. Just as polishing makes a glass piece not scratch the table or shelf what will become its home, revisions polish your manuscript to allow it to find a place in your readers’ hearts. It’s an important part in the process.
What part of the glass-blowing process do you identify most with in your own writing process? What task gives you the most trouble?
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Harmony, California on the central California coast, just south of Cambria, drop in to Harmony Glassworks. You might be able to watch someone blowing glass. If you’re lucky, you could be the person someone else is watching. My thanks to my teacher, Nate.
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.