How Does Your Story Grow?

My dad is a master gardener. He taught me early on that canned peas are to fresh what beef jerky is to top sirloin and that it takes skill, patience and passion to cultivate organic works of art. While I’m grateful to have inherited his zest for creating, I gained not a cell of his green thumb. (My dead Chia Pet’s ghost will vouch for me…May it RIP.)

Gardening philosophies work well in writing. Some proper planning and nurturing can help ensure that our stories grow, thrive and nourish ourselves and our readers. So don your grungies. We’re about to get dirty…

Lesson #1: Assess Your Seeds
Many of us recall the moment the “seed” of our work first appeared. Sometimes we seek it out—”Hmm… I’d like to write a novel. It will be about..hmm…” More often, the notions strike us out of the perceivable blue—”Give me a pen! HAVE to write this down.” These “seeds” can strike at any time of the day or night, whether you’re half way through your first novel or haven’t yet scripted a sentence.

People often ask writers where we get our ideas and whether we fear we’ll “run out.” This makes me laugh. We’re overloaded with ideas; we need only stay open to them. I have a Word document and several notebooks of ideas that have struck me at random times. It doesn’t matter where you jot them down, just that you do.

Lesson #2: Prioritize Passion
Tomatoes may seem easier to grow then, say, avocados. But if your dreams feature artichokes and you crave homemade guacamole at every meal, plant artichokes!(Lucky for us, we don’t have to worry ourselves with season or soil-appropriate ventures…) I asked my agent recently which book he’d prefer I focus on completing next. His reply? “Whichever you feel most strongly about.” He knows that this is where the best, sellable stories begin—with passion. Ask yourself what you want to write, then write that.

Multi-published author, Marc Shuster, shares some fantastic thoughts on writing “for love” in this post.

Lesson #3: Start Small
As a kid, authors were some of my heros. One thing that awed me about each book was the fact that someone wrote it. (“It’s so long! So many words… Seems so complicated. How do they keep their facts straight? Must take forever…”) If you focus on cultivating an orchard when all you have is an apple seed, intimidation can damage your soil and send you dashing in the opposite direction.

My first novel started as a short film that became a short story and so on. Don’t obsess over the end at the beginning; start with one line, one page, one chapter… If you’re approaching a second or third work, or wish to try something in another format or genre, apply similar principles. Write some lyrics, not a symphony. Sketch out a few scenes before the whole series. You get the idea.

Lesson #4: Grow First, Prune Later
A talented friend of mine is working on his memoir. “I have a hard time knowing what I should put in and leave out,” he said, in part because he fears offending people in his story. Such fear can sabotage your process. I suggested he get his entire story out, with awareness that he can trim away whatever he’d like later on.

Whether you outline or not, allowing what crops up to unfold as you write can lead to some of the most genuine, unique and riveting additions to your story. Yes, you’ll create some needless, perhaps ridiculous, bits. Who cares? Consider them weeds and pluck them out during the revision process.

Lesson #5: Keep A Mulch Pile
Our hearts can ache as we delete that “totally amazing sentence” we wrote. I place whatever I cut away from my work in a Word document titled “omits.” Do I end up using any of it? Rarely. But it makes trimming and editing far easier. If what you cut truly is fabulous but doesn’t fit your current work, save it for something else.

I also suggest “mulching” paper. I print out pages I’ve written to read and review, then recycle them. Use them as scratch paper or get creative. I made this at my “novel-tea” party—if you look closely you’ll get a scrambled sneak peak at my book. 😉

Lesson #6: Share Your Goods
Fruits and veggies only do some much good sitting in your backyard soil. Pick them once they’re ripe. (In other words, don’t send a manuscript or query letter out before you’ve raked over every detail and shared it with expert eyes.) Another way to share involves writing to and for others. This post by Joe Bunting, writer, editor and founder of The Write Practice, features excellent insight on writing for people you believe in.

Lesson #7: Consider Your Readers
“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.” – H. Fred Dale, gardening editor for the Toronto Star

You can cultivate the most splendid roses on the planet. But if the recipient is allergic, you’ll have problems… Who is your reader? What type of experience to you hope to impart? Read within your genre, if you have one. Print your manuscript and read it away from your desk, as a reader. And seek opinions from trusted, literary friends. Keep your readers in mind while revising in particular.

What about you??? How does your “garden” grow? Any tips to share? Challenges you’d like to overcome? I always love hearing from you… 🙂
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  1. mgmillerbooks

     /  November 11, 2011

    What great analogies for these writing tips you’ve cultivated and shared, for the art itself truly is organic. Kudos! (No comment on your Chia Pet. Ha.)

  2. Love this post – especially the mulching part! Gardening is an apt metaphor for writing. I would add to the list – waiting! You have to allow the seeds to germinate and sometimes it takes a while before you see those first shoots poking through the ground. 🙂

  3. Shannon Esposito

     /  November 11, 2011

    I have a black thumb, too. I’ve actually killed a cactus. But, these are great metaphors! Everything does start out as a seed in life, doesn’t it? Oh, and love the idea about a novel-tea party! I want to make a cup now. 🙂

  4. I love your novel-tea idea! I’m also not so great at gardening, but I love the idea of it 😉
    Great post!!

  5. What a fun post. That was a very clever comparison with writing and gardening. And, I have to say you had me worried at first. Gardening is so not my thing that I used to say I have a brown thumb, until I thought about it for a second and realized that was not a good idea. But then I kept reading, and I was hooked with the Chia pet. You had some great ideas in there. I especially love the coffee cup idea. Right now I save all my pages. Yes, all of them. Even the ten copies I take to critique group. I don’t know what I’m worried about, but I just can’t seem to recycle them. But those cups would make fun gifts. So creative!

  6. Thanks, all, for your terrific comments!

    And yes, the novel-tea cups are fun…and useful conversation starters. 😉

  7. Nice article. The “grow first, prune later” is definitely the part which resonates with me most. I’ve had a habit of writing the first few pages and then killing the project by endlessly revising it – usually not improving it much after the first anyway.

    The mulch bit’s a great idea too. I imagine it does make editting less painful.

  8. I love the gardening comparison in your post! Writing is so much like that and I would add that it takes time and patience.( I am new at this and that has become my mantra!)

    • Excellent point, Susie. Loving the process, or at least most of it ;), can help make the time/patience issues easier. Hope you’re having a fabulous weekend and writing happily away…

  9. I love your Lesson 4: Grow First, Prune Later. It’s easy to get bogged down in what NOT to write to the point where we don’t write anything. Thanks for sharing all the great advice!

  10. lynnkelleyauthor

     /  November 11, 2011

    What a cool post. I love the analogy and the steps you broke it down into. Really well done, August!

  11. Nice comparison. I feel like the metaphor works well here.

  12. I am so not a gardener. my poor cacti would compete with your chia pet for death throes. But I will never think of writing in quite the same way again. What valuable insights you’ve provided. and I have to say some of my ideas are like chickweed – they grow and expand but are never substantive enough to support the spine of a story.

    • So glad this resonated with you, Louise. Your warm response is much appreciated!

      I suspect that chickweed will flourish for you soon… Keep at it. 🙂

  13. What a great post.

    Luckily my writing does not take after my gardening, or it would all be withere and dead by now.

    I have an ‘idea’ book. It’s like a mini scrapbook, really, with scribbled notes, newspaper cuttings, photos etc. I’d be lost without it.

    …..and I have the biggest Mulch pile, ever. Everything I delete goes into a file marked ‘writing not yet used’. It has come in handy on more than one occassion.

  14. Hi August,

    You have a gift for this girl. I love your analogy.

    I have never been interested in gardening, though I do like to plant flowers. But I unlike you throw the weeds out. I never see how they might germinate in another story, as if they were planted in that one specific spot and then unhappily did not fulfill their purpose. So off they go just as a dry wilted plant and then I start with a fresh new crop in a new garden, water and fertilize, stimulating the roots and somehow it grows.

    Thanks August! Another great post!

    • You’re a gem, Karen. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and praise! Means bunches (no pun intended ;)), especially coming from a talent like you.

  15. Love the analogy and have thought of writing in that way, too, since I dabble in gardening. The mulching is something I do and the pruning later is something I’m working on. Writing down ideas in a notebook is something I need to do. I never seem to have one handy when I need it. Don’t get me wrong…I carry one in my purse and have several on my desk, but if I’m anywhere else…I’m up a creek without a pen. I guess I can scatter them around the house instead of leaving them piled on my desk, right? Great post, August!

  16. I never actually thought of writing being like gardening. This was a really neat way to look at it. Thank goodness you don’t need to remember to water your novel!

  17. I LOVE this comparison. I always wished that I could have a green thumb 🙂

  18. Amazing post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  19. Jess Witkins

     /  November 13, 2011

    What a lovely way to relay the story. And I love that coffee cup you made with bits from your book. I think that’s inspiring!

  20. We’re on similar wavelengths, I think. I posted about discovering your story through archaeology today, only to find you wrote about discovering your story through gardening a few days before. I like it. Also, thank you for the link 🙂

  21. Thanks, all! Your kudos mean a lot…like fertilizer for my blog garden. 😉 Have a super week and keep me posted.

  22. For me, this was my favorite part of the article. “If you focus on cultivating an orchard when all you have is an apple seed, intimidation can damage your soil and send you dashing in the opposite direction.” I think I focus too much on ALL of the stories waiting to be written. It’s time to start paying attention to that first seed before I worry about the trees.

    I also love the idea for a deleted scenes folder. Kind of like a security blanket. 🙂

  23. What a great post August! I love the idea of comparing the creative mind with planting and nurturing seeds. Great example.

    My problem, too many seeds, not enough time to nuture and harvest. I’m there with that seed/orchard concept. I need to select one seed at a time and go from there. Hopefully I’ll have a lovely colorful garden soon.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  24. I also keep a mulch pile, hate losing work even if it never sees beyond my hard drive. Thanks for my visiting my blog.

  25. Loved this–especially because I’ve been listening to Michael Pollan’s wonderful book (on audio) “The Botany of Desire” perfect timing! And as an editor, I definitely agree with the don’t prune or pick too soon. My writing instructions are: Write pages (or book), let sit (repeat).

  26. Love the Chia pet comment. Hadn’t thought about comparison of gardening and writing, but it definitely holds water. (So I guess i dig it.). Nice read


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