This post originally appeared on Kate Arms-Roberts’ blog about writing and creativity on April 12, 2011. Now that it is summer and a year later, her garden is in a more mature stage of development and so is her novel, but the analogy remains a good one.
Irises and crocuses are blooming in my garden. Perennial herbs and vegetables are showing signs of life after the dormancy of a Northern winter.
Inside the house, I have completed the first complete critique of my novel. Pages of corrections wait for me to enter them into the computer.
And, as so often happens, these two simultaneous happenings have made me aware of connections I had not previously articulated: parallels between gardening and editing.
1. Location, Location, Location
Plants need the right conditions: soil, light, water all must feed the plant for it to grow. Sometimes you need to move a plant for it to thrive.
Scenes need to fall in the right place. Sometimes you write a scene for the middle of the story and then realize it works better at the beginning.
2. Treatment Matters
Too much water or fertilizer may kill plants as easily as too little.
Backstory needs to be dripped in like irrigation pipes bringing just enough water to the right plant to drive growth without flooding. Action without pauses for reflection may exhaust some readers.
3. Dormancy Can be Good
Last year, I planted rhubarb in my garden. A friend divided hers and gave me half. I knew nothing of rhubarb, but she said it was hard to kill. I planted it, and watered it. A few leaves died, and a few stayed green all summer, but there was no new growth. In the fall, it died back all the way to the ground. Having no understanding of the ways of rhubarb, I watched, wondering if this was, indeed, a survivor. A few days ago, I noticed bright red growth in the midst of the dead material. This morning, there are leaves coming out. This rhubarb will live!
I wrote the first draft of my novel last November. In December, I read it once and noted a few sections that needed to be cut and a few sections that needed to be fleshed out. Then, before I could revise it properly, I needed to let the project go dormant. For three months, I focused on directing a play. As the play neared production, I went back to the manuscript. By leaving it for a time, I was able to come back with a sense of perspective and a deeper understanding of some of the story elements I had glossed over in the first draft. This novel, too, may live!
4. Start With What You Have
The first house I lived in had an overgrown front yard and a mess of a backyard. To quickly beautify the landscaping, there was nothing to do but dig out the front and start again in both areas. So, we did.
Like that house, my first NaNoWriMo manuscript is a mess. Having looked at it through several editing lenses over the past few years, I have concluded there are no more than 3 scenes that might be worth saving, and those probably won′t be usable once I rewrite the rest. If I want to tell that story, I will be better off starting again from scratch.
Our current house had been cared for well by the previous owner, but featured plants I find boring or actively dislike. I have made changes slowly, looking at what is already in place and deciding how to convert it into something I like better without ever going through the completely dug up phase.
My current work-in-progress is similar. The first draft was strong enough that it holds together as a story. It needs major revision, but the core is strong. Editing what is there will work.
Editing a manuscript and gardening are both about looking at what already exists and making changes to bring that reality closer to an imagined goal.
I planted iris bulbs last fall after clearing space in an uninspiring flower bed. Seeing them bloom this year makes me smile. There are small clumps of them now. I hope they naturalize well and create bigger groupings for the future.
It may take time, but editing a garden or a manuscript produces results eventually.
Kate Arms-Roberts is a Toronto-based writer, though she has hailed from various locations in the U.S. and U.K. before landing in Canada. She blogs at http://www.katearmsroberts.wordpress.com and is currently working on a fantasy novel for teens.