Posts Tagged writing advice

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. 

For Those Who Write Short: How to Lengthen Your Manuscript

In online and in-person writing circles, I often hear fellow writers bemoan having to cut down their lengthy manuscripts. “Oh no!,” they wail. “I have to cut 30,000 words!” My problem is a different one. I write short. My first drafts tend to be one-half to two-thirds the suggested word counts. I used to feel insecure about this, but now I think this is my process. I feel a little like a painter—I do the broadbrush outline first, then with each draft add more detail and depth. I’ve come up with a few ways to add, so in case you are my fellow traveler on this narrow road, I share them with you.

Add Physical Descriptions

I’ll can get all the way to the end of my first draft and realize I have never given my main character a physical description. Not a hair color, eye color, even a race. Part of me thinks, it shouldn’t matter! The reader can fill in whoever they want! But it can be distancing for the reader if they can’t picture your character. Not only should you include a physical description, but you probably need to mention that physical description more times than seem appropriate. Do you know how many times JK Rowling told us that Ron has red hair? A lot, my friends. A whole lot. Even in book seven. When reading, I didn’t even notice it, but when I started looking for it, it seemed absurd. All of those reminders, though, make Ron seem like a living, breathing person, whom I might run into at the Leaky Cauldron.

Describe Places

Your main character’s home, school, soccer field, favorite spot in the woods—all of the important places where he or she experiences events–should be described. This is a great opportunity to use the setting to show us more about the character. Does the soccer field feel like freedom or dread? The description should show us that.

Check the Calendar

It is likely that some holiday happens during the timeline of your book. Have you included it? If it’s the start of the school year, you’ve got the major Jewish holidays, and then Halloween. Summer includes Fourth of July. Your character has a birthday, right? Or his or her friends or family members do? Think about writing those up. They might be interesting scenes to play around with.

Give Your Main Character Friends

I heard an editor mention that one of the consistent issues she sees in middle grade and young adult manuscripts is that the main character doesn’t have friends. “You guys, it’s really weird if they don’t have friends,” she said. “If they don’t, there needs to be some explanation for that.” Even if your character is alone on a spaceship, he or she should remember friends from back home, and if you can find a pet or at least a pet rock, that would be good. Side characters in general are a great opportunity to flesh out your character and introduce new conflicts.

Figure Out Where You’re Cheating

Sometimes, the reason my book is short is because I’m gliding over the hard parts. I want to get from A to B, but I’m not entirely sure how it would happen, so I just skip that part. This type of thing drives readers crazy. You have to do the work. But you don’t have to do it alone. This is a great spot to phone a friend. Ask a fellow writer (or anyone, really) to brainstorm with you. “Here’s what’s happening and where I need to go,” you’ll say. “What do you think might get them there?” It’s amazing what people who haven’t been living in the book like you have will come up with. Even if they don’t have the magic bullet solution, their fresh ideas may spark something in you that will get you to the answer you need.

Fix a Problem

There is likely some issue with your manuscript that you’ve identified, or that beta readers point out consistently. Maybe people aren’t connecting with your main character, or the conflict doesn’t seem intense enough, or the pacing is too slow. It may be possible to address that problem through a subplot, or adding another character. Brainstorm solutions; try to come up with at least twenty possibilities. Talk them over with other writers, and get their ideas, too. You’ve got the space! Consider yourself lucky, and use it to your advantage.

 

Finally, maybe writing short isn’t all bad. The book that made me cry most recently (Kate DiCamillo’s Lousiana’s Way Home) comes in at a slim 40k. One of my all-time favorite books, David Almond’s Skellig, is just shy of 34k. You can pack an emotional wallop–and plenty of laughs–without oodles of words. Don’t add text just to lengthen. Say what you need, and trust that it’s enough.