Tag: process

5 Ways to “Garden” a Story

Most fiction writers are familiar with the concept of plotter/pantser for getting a story onto the page. The term is shorthand for describing those who write extensive outlines (plotter) organizing each plot point, character development, and twist, before beginning the actual writing of the story. Proponents of this method point to its efficiency. Knowing all the important points ahead of time speeds up the writing and lets the author keep a tight schedule.

The pantser (flying by the seat of your pants) has an idea about a story and plunges into the writing, trusting that the plot, character and surprise twists will appear as she tells the story. Proponents of this method say it keeps the writing fresh and keeps the author engaged as she discovers the story along with the reader. Jo Beverley described this method as “flying into the mists.”

Now I’ve heard a new term for someone setting out to write a novel – gardener. The term is  attributed to George R.R. Martin.

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. . . . The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. . . .― George R. R. Martin

Many writers who consider themselves “gardeners” object to the “drop in a seed and water it” analogy. As we all know, writing is much harder than that. Still, the notion of gardening or growing a story inch by inch is a definite contrast to the plotter who lays out every twist and turn before putting pen to paper. 

So, here are five principles I’ve learned as a writer who grows her story and keeps a garden.

1.The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. 

Visiting a garden centre last week, the clerk behind the counter said “I love this job. I’ve been here five years and I’m still learning more.

For writers, the learning never stops. Read — books, articles, blogs — about writing. Listen to podcasts. Attend workshops. Read widely. There is always more to learn about the art of storytelling. 

2. Know the soil.

In gardening, knowing the acidity of your soil, the amount of sunshine it receives in a day, and the drainage it receives  helps you to choose plants that thrive in such conditions.

In fiction, the expectations of the genre are key to a successful career. If you write romance, readers expect a happily-ever-after. If you write mystery, you’d better reveal “who dunnit” by the last page.  If you write thrillers, we expect justice to prevail. If you disappoint readers in these basic expectations, they won’t buy your next book and they will discourage others from exploring your list. Know your genre. Understand your readers.

3. Thin — kill your darlings.

I hate thinning my plants.  I sew thickly because that’s the way to ensure good germination . Yet when all those tiny seeds sprout, I have to thin to make room for the remaining plants to mature. Did I mention I really hate doing this? It seems so unfair to take a happy little carrot and throw it on the compost so its brother can have more room. But thinning is necessary to produce healthy plants. Hint: sometimes I’ll transplant the extras to my neighbour’s garden so the chore isn’t so painful.

The same applies to writing.

In the first draft, throw down all your ideas, worry about sorting them later, just get it all on the page. Once you’ve written “the end” it is time to start thinning. Some of your best prose may not advance the story one little bit, so it has to come out. If you can’t bring yourself to throw it on the compost, save it in an “outtakes” file. Saving it will soothe your feelings, but,  warn you, my outtakes file is full to bursting and none of that beautiful writing has proven useful in another manuscript. However you do it, you must “thin” your seedlings.

 

4. Trust your process 

George Martin to the contrary, there is more to gardening than dropping a seed in a hole and adding water. Gardeners plant, water, weed, support, fend off predators, till . . . the list is endless. But gardeners also know that the nature of plants is to grow. Even when we are not in the garden, nature is nudging our little seed to produce a perfect, red, ripe tomato.

Sometimes a writer needs to get out of the way and let the story take shape as it wants to. She needs to trust her muse and her instincts. She needs to let her subconscious drive the story, even when she is on her knees digging out crab grass, or staring aimlessly at the clouds. Those random thoughts and sudden inspirations are gold in the writer’s creativity bank.

5. Do it for joy.

Gardeners grow flowers for their beauty. They spend money on heirloom tomato plants that don’t produce enough fruit to repay the purchase price. If a gardener were in it just for the money, she’d put down paving stones and buy her produce at the farmers market. 

Writers can’t focus on the money alone. Of course we’d all like to have fat royalty cheques rolling in every month. But if dollars is the only motivation, there are easier and more lucrative ways to earn it. Seek the joy in your writing. Can money match the satisfaction of writing “the end” to a story you’ve created from your own imagination? Hours at the keyboard will make your back ache, your shoulders tighten and your bottom spread. Who would risk that for mere dollars? But many thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world suffer the pain, and discouragement, and loneliness of a writing life because nothing else can match the joy they feel at spinning a tale and sharing it with others.

prize ribbons bring joy to the gardener

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gems in the Files

As part of my January clear-out, I sorted through the drawers of my desk. No matter how often I cull, they always fill up again so now it’s part of my New Year’s ritual.  Anyway, amid the old receipts and cards, I came across my file of workshop notes.  What at treat!  I soon gave up my housekeeping and immersed myself in the file.  I have notes on “emotional intensity,” “blogging,” “revisions,” “plotting – by character, by structure, by GMC . . .”  I have notes on building character based on a flaw, on strengths, on birth sign/order, on secrets.”  There are several workshops around editing, the writer’s journey, the hero’s journey and the romance heroine’s journey.  In short, I have several textbooks worth of notes.

I always enjoy the workshops I attend.  I love the vibe of sitting with other writers, cheering each other’s accomplishments, weeping with each other’s disappointments.  The teachers I’ve encountered have all been sincere, learned, and enthusiastic.  At the end of the workshop I’m fired up, sure that a tweak here and a tweak there will have my latest ms ready for an editor.  Dreams of “best-selling” labels waft through my mind.  I come home, renewed, restored, and refreshed.  Within a week, I’ve chucked the workshop notes into a drawer and am slogging away at the writing in my usual fashion.

That pattern used to depress me. Why did I spend the time and money on a workshop if I wasn’t going to use the lessons learned?  Why did I keep on in my old way, when there was this brand new way just begging to be used?  Worse still, why couldn’t I make my ms fit the template given by the wise one leading the workshop?  Through many trials and many tears, I’ve learned something.  My work is my work.

No matter how brilliant my writer friend is, her process is not mine. No matter how much I envy the author who can produce a book a month, she’s not me.  I have wasted many hours trying to make my story, my process, conform to someone else’s pattern, and it has been a waste of time.  Just as our stories are individual, so is our method of getting to “the end.”  Having finally come to terms with that fact, I now enjoy the workshops for the camaraderie, the insights and the day out.  I no longer obsess over the lessons.

That’s not to say I disregard the lessons, I just incorporate the bits that work for me into my system. Looking over this pile of notes I find some common themes, themes that play in the back of my mind as I wrestle with the words in my story.  One presenter used “why?” as the basis for plotting.  Why did a character do something? i.e.  Jane went to the store.  “Why?” To get away from her mother-in-law. “Why?” Because her MIL scared her.  “Why?” Because if her MIL prevailed, Jane would have to tell John her secret.  Ah!  Now we’re getting somewhere, all by asking “why?”

Similarly, another presenter says “so what?” So what if Jane tells John her secret?  She may lose him.  “So what?”  John means everything to Jane.  She can’t live without him.  “So what?”  If Jane can’t cope on her own, she’ll lose her job.  “So what?”  If she loses her job, she’ll lose custody of her daughter.  See how a simple question, why or so what, can drive a story?  We haven’t even talked about character yet.

Over time I’ve learned that I do better with these types of question/guides than I do with charts. In my workshop file are some beautiful charts for creating characters, creating scenes, developing plot, and organizing structure.  But charts are too hard-edged for me.  I never know which box to put an item in because scenes bleed over into characterization and characterization bleeds into plot, and plot bleeds into goal and . . .

Still, I keep the workshop notes. When I need a boost, I’ll read over a few.  Somewhere in there, a phrase, a question, a marginal note will start my brain clicking away and I’m happily back into the wip.  So, thanks to all the workshop presenters I’ve enjoyed, and thanks to all my fellow writers for building a community that embraces me and my process.

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