Posts Tagged writing books

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. 

Writing Books: A Revision Resource Round-Up

I’ve been deep in my revision cave these last few weeks. Which for me means a printed copy of my most recent draft, a pile of sticky notes, a jar full of colored pens, and lots of notes and thoughts scattered across legal pads and journals. It also means revisiting a number of writing books for help while I’m tackling everything from character motivation to the big scary thing that is plot.

Since my brain is a hot mess of new and old ideas right now, I thought I’d keep this blog post simple and share some of the writing books I’ve found most helpful when tackling a revision.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgStory Genius by Lisa Cron
How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)

I really wish I had worked through this book when I was starting this novel. But it’s proven to be a really useful tool for see where I’ve got some key components of a strong story down and where I need to dig deeper.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSave the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need

I discovered Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books on screenwriting years ago and they made a huge difference in my storytelling. Jessica Brody’s take on using his approach for novels is a good one, and I found a couple of key pieces that have really made a difference as I revise my book.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgStory Engineering by Larry Brooks
Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing

I’ve heard Larry speak a number of times and this book is a pretty nice overview of his take on story. I haven’t read it in a while, but the pieces are always rattling around in my brain, and I will be certain to use his checklists later in my revision process.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWriting the Breakout Novel By Donald Maass
Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level

I haven’t found a craft book by Donald Maass that I didn’t like. His questions are great tools for getting deeper into character, motivation, and most importantly stakes. Whenever I feel like something’s not quite right or I’m simply in the mood to run things a different way, I do an exercise in one of his books and see what happens. It’s great for clearing the cobwebs and seeing new possibilities.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson
Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master

Can you tell I have a little lack of confidence when it comes to plotting? 🙂
This book was instrumental in getting my last novel to a final, publishable draft. I’m not sure what exactly it did to make the pieces fall into place – but I appreciate it. And, I have it handy in case I need it this time around, too.

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgManuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lion
Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore

My copy is well worn and filled with sticky tabs. This guide covers pretty much every part of the revision process clearly. And the checklists at the end of each chapter are detailed and incredibly useful.

 

I’d love to hear what writing books help you through both the drafting and revision process. Please share below. I’ll be sure to duck out of my cave to respond.