Writing

EPIC GARDENING FAILS (And what they’ve taught me about making art)

Growing Food and Writing Fiction

This spring my wife and I decided to stop talking about growing vegetables and actually grow some vegetables. We made this decision without doing much research about the actual business of growing vegetables, and that was mostly thanks to me. Any time my wife opened up a blog or website about growing techniques or climate zones, I’d launch into a lengthy monologue about how vegetables don’t need coddling and if it were really that hard there wouldn’t be gazillions of weeds in our yard. 

It turns out growing an eggplant is not the same thing as growing a weed. I suppose this explains why our front yard is not overrun with perfectly formed eggplants. 

So I’ve learned a few things about vegetable gardening. And as is often the case, the things I learn in one pursuit inevitably influence the way I think about others. In this case, I’ve noticed a few parallels between my questionable attempts at growing food and my questionable attempts at writing fiction for children. I’m sharing them here because whether you’re writing, teaching, parenting, or growing eggplants, it never hurts to glean a little extra information as you go (which I now humbly acknowledge).

Not everything develops as planned.

Radishes are deceptive little devils. They sprout fast and grow bright, promising leaves. You fawn over them and marvel at how they’ve been so easy to grow and why don’t more people grow radishes? Then you pull them out of the ground after the prescribed 28-day period and realize you’ve been duped. At least that was my experience. We harvested those little liars and I couldn’t believe that after 4 weeks I had nothing to show for all my efforts (and yes, all my bragging), but a few marble-sized nuggets of crunchy vermillion failure. 

The radish project looked promising. It all had the signs of a successful enterprise, but under the surface things weren’t developing the way they were supposed to. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the soil. Maybe I watered them too much. Or too little. I may never know. Just like I may never know why the first hundred thousand words I put into middle grade books didn’t develop into huge publishing contracts. But in both cases – my radishes and my writing – I have an opportunity to examine the finished project, no matter how disappointing, and try to figure out what went wrong. I think with the radishes it was the soil. I’m not sure what the writerly equivalent to that would be (stronger coffee during my drafting sessions?). But I’m going to keep exploring, keep dissecting those underdeveloped projects and trade the frustration of an unrealized goal for the promise of a new, and hopefully better crop next season.

 

Things get bitter when they drag on for too long.

A few people warned us that we’d eventually lose control of our zucchini plants. I shrugged at this, because how could you lose track of a zucchini? They’re bright green and quite large, and those people who lose track of them are probably not as committed to the art of home gardening as I am. But then summer happened – days of busy children and travel and sometimes way too much rain. One day I went out to make sure there wasn’t anything to harvest and found a zucchini the size of my arm snugged up against the wall of the garden. Without giving it much thought (I was still shunning research at this point) I paraded it around the house and then chopped it up for the grill. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was terrible. The skin was tough, the flesh was mealy and bitter, and the seeds were gigantic and totally inedible. That zucchini had been growing for way too long.

I don’t know about you, but I have a few ongoing personal projects that have also reached “zucchini monstrosity” status. They’re the sort of things that never seem finished, and rather than harvesting what I have or simply moving on, I’ve let these projects remain connected to the vine of my creative brain and sap resources from other, more promising ideas.

After chewing my way through that thoroughly unappetizing zucchini, I resolved to never let anything grow that long again, and so far I’m doing better. I hope I can say the same for my creative pursuits – nothing is meant in to go on forever, and as many creatives have noted throughout history, art is never finished, but only abandoned.

 

Sometimes the most useful part of a project is the seed of something new.

Before I tossed that colossal zucchini in the compost pile, I finally broke down and looked up an online article about harvesting seeds. It turns out that in most cases you can only harvest the seeds of overripe, inedible fruit. So I left some uncooked seeds out to dry, then bagged them in an envelope and now have what I hope will be the beginnings of my zucchini crop next year. 

Something similar happened with the second book I ever wrote. It was quite a dud – full of tropes and predictable plot twists. It was long, too.  Much too wordy for the middle grade market. And that of course means I spent way too much time writing, editing, and rewriting what would ultimately be a book not even my mom would read (although she did ask several times). 

But out of that project came a system of developing characters that I still use now, three books and many short stories later. It was a seed born out of an overripe project that itself would never see the light of day. Most failed endeavors have something like that if you look for it – a seed of something new, pure potential packed into a tiny morsel of nearly overlooked insight. 

I think next year our garden will run a little more smoothly. Maybe the corn won’t fall over and the squash won’t vine its way to the top of our evergreen tree. Or maybe next season will be just as chaotic and I’ll have more lessons to learn. Either way, I’ll do my best to be thankful for the parallels and cultivate the garden of my writing with a bit more efficiency and skill. 

And I suppose reading a few extra articles wouldn’t hurt, either. 

The Myth of the Mountain

A few months ago, I was walking my dog, Kel, the biggest labradoodle on the planet, up the hill in my neighborhood. And I made a VERY big mistake. I looked up. Not just a little. I gazed as far as I could to the tippy top of the hill. Now you need to know I live in Northern California in the foothills of the Vaca Mountain range. What does that mean? It means that it’s an extremely steep incline to the top of the hill and when I lifted my chin all I could see was the steepness and the struggle. I didn’t see anything else.

My hands grew clammy. My heart wobbled. My legs refused to budge another step. It appeared as if were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and I was facing a sheer cliff of anxiety. My fears were exacerbated by the fact that I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. Plus, evil fingers of mist blew in from the bay and my skin got all goose pimpled. I literally stopped in my tracks, frozen as much the deer that eats the sweet bunchgrass in my front yard.

Then I told myself. Hey, wait a minute, Hillary, don’t look up at the top instead keep your eyes right in front of you, just go one step at a time. So I lowered my gaze and I studied the pavement and pretended it was fascinating. I took one step and then another and, then suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about how I can’t do this crazy hill because it’s too steep and I’m just too tired. Instead, I was thinking, wow the air is not actually too cold or too warm and listen to that birds singing. Look, there’s a Blue Jay hopping along the base of the driveway. And look, how the shadow plays on the road, creating stripes on the pavement in front of me and how that rock glistens in the sunlight.

Then guess what? Before I knew it, I was at the top of the hill. And it’s all because I remembered to appreciate all the steps of the journey.

When we write, we need to do the same thing. If we look at an already created books, which have been through hundreds of drafts with the help of writing groups, agents and editors, and we can compare it to our own work, it’s daunting. In fact, at times, it might seem impossible. We feel as if we are not good enough, unworthy or perhaps that it’s just too much work. And not just books. This applies to almost everything. At the same time, I’m not saying don’t ever look at the tops of things. But just that if you focus only on the finish, the final goal, it’s daunting. So during these times, just remember to breath, and appreciate that bird who hopped down (maybe from the peak of the mountain) to come say hello.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the  Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Maps

When I was a wee lad (5’ 11”, 210 lb.), back in my junior year of high school, we took one of those classic tests designed to magically deduce one’s most likely path to career and life success. My 55-year-old self can’t recall a single question from the test now. In fact, most of the memory from this event consists of filling in the ovals (completely) on the answer sheet (in #2 pencil) and the resultant career of choice subsequently handed down by the gods of career aptitude.

First, I do recall that, as a kid who liked to draw, I took great pride in filling out my answer sheet ovals. They were always impeccable, even if the answers were dead wrong. Second, in the haze of time passed, I recall meeting with my guidance counselor to go over my now clarified path to a well-lived life. The result?

Cartographer.

Yes, that is what the computer algorithm decided my career should be. A quick check of the dictionary told me I should be a maker of maps. The gods of career aptitude must have a sense of humor, right?

When I broke the cartographer news to the family at the dinner table that night, my brothers and sister rolled to the kitchen floor in uncontrollable laughter. My ever-supportive mother gave an enthusiastic “How nice.”, while my civil engineer dad responded,  “A mapmaker? Hmmm…that’s different. So how are you going to make a living then?”

Even though I love maps, I did not become a cartographer. My collection of National Geographic maps handed down from my dad is one of my favorite treasures. Books with maps, both fiction, and nonfiction, line my bookshelves. Eventually, I became a molecular microbiologist, a writer, and a sports coach, not a cartographer. For years, I’ve always wondered about that career aptitude test and how it could have been so wrong.

A few years ago, though, I realized the computer wasn’t wrong at all. The testing algorithm rocked it. Maps are an integral part of everything I am and do. From mapping molecular processes in infectious diseases to mapping stories and illustrations to mapping out sports practices and gameplans. Turns out, I’m a cartographer through and through.

Maps, at their very core function, are tools to give us direction. A map can be a tool to help a hiker get from the parking lot to the mountain vista and safely back to the parking lot. Maps can help a writer build the foundation of the story they want to tell. They can also be tools to help worldbuilding (think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth) or be used as a plot device (think HP’s Marauder’s Map).

In short, don’t short the value of maps in any aspect of your life. They are especially valuable tools to have in your writing toolbox to help turn those story ideas wandering aimlessly in the desert into an actual fully-fleshed oasis of stories. 

Below are some of my favorite maps I use in my life as a scientist, a writer, and a coach.

Science Maps

Writing Maps

Sports Coaching Maps

  • Football scouting and game planning – A coach scouts the opponent by mapping out what the opponent has done previously. It takes a lot of work and most colleges and professional organizations dedicate many manhours toward this endeavor.
  • Baseball spray chart maps – I love to keep baseball hitter spray charts. First, like scoring a game, it keeps one mentally sharp during the course of a baseball game. Second, it allows a coach the data to better position his defenders in the field. 

Your MUF July 2020 Aptitude Test questions are below. Please use a #2 pencil and fill out any oval shapes or other doodles completely. The gods of middle grade thank you.

  1. What are your favorite middle grade books which contain maps? 
  2. What are some middle grade books you wish would have had maps?
  3. How do you use maps as tools in your own life? 
  4. How do you use maps as a writer or a reader?

Have a great summer! No matter how crazy 2020 is going for you, here’s hoping you have a reliable map to help navigate your way to the other side.

Stay safe. Be kind. Make good things.