I’ve once more been in the throes of novel revision during the past couple weeks, adding subplot and subtext, honing here, shaping there, putting everything just so before sending it all off to hands waiting in the cybersphere. At the same time I have been forced to pay closer attention to my vegetable garden as the heat and rain combine forces, spurring on quick growth and a crop of weeds that must be eradicated.
It occurs to me, as I consider these two activities, that writing a novel is much like plotting out and planting a garden. If you start with nothing, just a bit of land and some muscle power and some seeds and plant starts, you can, through hard work and sweat make bare dirt into food. You can make this happen…
And if you start with nothing, just a blank Word doc and some brain power and the barest germ of an idea, you can, through hard work, make bare creative impulse into engaging fiction.
In fact, here are 14 ways writing a novel is like growing your own vegetables:
1. You till the soil. You prepare your mind to be receptive to writing ideas (these are your seeds) so that when the seeds are planted it is into a mind that is already at work helping them to grow. In gardening this means removing rocks, adding nutrients, and loosening the soil. In writing it means removing obstacles to creativity (like, say, forgetting to worry about the state of your house or waistline for awhile), adding muse-bait (taking more walks in the woods, traveling to some interesting places, or playing hours of Mario Cart–whatever helps you think creatively), and loosening up your writing muscles (by blogging, writing short stories, writing poetry–heck, even a Twitter tirade could get you loose).
2. You plan the layout. You can’t just dump a bunch of different seeds together and expect your garden to grow. You have to plan. For some people that may look like lots of drawing and erasing and drawing again on paper, scouring reference books for light requirements and companion plantings, and whipping out a protractor and one of those chalk line thingies. For others it’s just getting everything in line in your head before diving in head first with a shovel. Whatever your method, whether you’re a compulsive outliner or a free associating free spirit, you need to have some idea of your goals and how all the different parts of your garden will interact with each other. Otherwise you end up with a big mess on your hands come August and a lot of extra work as you try to fix your errors.
3. You plant the first seeds. These are the cold-hardy seeds that just need some thawed ground and the strengthening spring sunlight to get started. They’re your strongest ideas, the ones you can’t get out of your head, the ones that persist despite bad weather and not writing them down. Don’t worry about a late frost. Just get those suckers in the ground so they can get growing. Seeds don’t grow unless they’re planted. Your garden, your novel, will never happen if you don’t take a leap of faith and trust that the strongest ideas will survive.
4. You water. Here’s where you give those seeds a little push. When you write, what is it that helps you develop your ideas into something approaching a story? Whatever that is–giving yourself a word count or time goal, doing character sketches, etc.–do that.
5. You wait. Put your work away for a bit and let things start to happen. In the garden, beneath the soil where you can’t see, roots and shoots begin to grow. In your mind, the same thing happens when you put your writing aside for a while, get some distance, and let things develop beneath the surface.
6. You plant the next wave of seeds. While you were waiting, I bet you got some new seeds, didn’t you? Plant those when the time is right. Some seeds can’t be planted until the soil is warm. Some ideas don’t occur to us until we’ve already gotten started and the story gets going.
7. You water. Again. Keep an eye on those little ideas you’ve planted and don’t let them struggle for life on their own.
8. You wait. Again. No matter how much we may want to sometimes, we can’t force a garden to grow and we can’t force a good story to develop faster than it should. Time is a writer’s best friend and we should try to work with it.
9. You plant some baby plants. Remember that scene you cut from your last writing project? That subplot you’ve been dying to find a place for? Those are your baby plants. They’re already pretty far along and sometimes you can find just the right place to plant them in your current writing project. Don’t force them in if there’s not enough room for them. But sometimes they’re just what you need to make your garden whole and productive.
10. You water. Again.
11. You wait. Again.
12. You weed. Ah. And here is where it can get tricky, time consuming, and hurt your back. Sometimes you won’t know what’s wanted and what’s a weed. Very early on, it’s really hard to tell sometimes because seedlings can look very much the same. But if you let all these ideas develop a bit (through watering and waiting) eventually the weeds will show their true colors. Those things that stick out, don’t belong, and aren’t productive? Pull them out! And when you look over your work again and find that a new crop of weeds has popped up, pull those out too! Don’t let weeds take over your garden or your crops will suffer (and it will just look like one big mess).
13. Repeat steps 10 through 12 as many times as necessary. I’ve lost count on my first novel MS. But the number of times isn’t important. What’s important is that you repeat these steps as often as is necessary in your particular story garden.
14. Finally, you harvest. At some point, if you have been diligent and attentive, you will have a harvest. A lovely, verdant, productive garden that you are eager to share with others (because you can’t keep all that great food to yourself!). What you do with your harvest is up to you. Self-publish? Find an agent? Give it away for free?
But one thing is sure: you’ll never have anything to share if you don’t plan, plant, have patience, pull up the weeds, and put your back into it! So get out there and get dirty.