Novel Gardening Part II

Since my last post about tending to the garden of the novel, I have been doing a great deal more novel gardening (i.e. revising and rewriting), some actual gardening, and thinking a great deal about ways to cultivate growth and positive change in the wild spaces of writing.


In the spring, my sweet husband made me two small herb gardens in old metal tubs, since we live in a rented townhouse and thus can’t plant an actual garden just yet. I’ve already harvested herbs from them several times, hanging the fragrant bundles in my kitchen to dry, and I’m already looking forward to cooking with them all winter long. It then occurred to me that sometimes I need to trim back parts of my novel and let the bundles rest for a bit, so that I can use them later on. Not only does this pare a scene down to its essentials and keep it from interfering with its neighbors, sometimes the extra bits can be put aside for later use. I enjoy using Scrivener when working on novels, partly because it makes organization so easy, not only for the novel itself, but also for all the research, notes, etc. that go with it. A bit like a garden shed nestled in a back corner.

I am not, by nature, an organized person. While this drives Daniel crazy, I quite enjoy running on chaos most of the time. However, I’m working hard to become more organized when it comes to my novels, as a bit of organization and planning at the beginning can mean far less revising and rewriting later on (as I’ve learned the hard way). In tidying my novel “shed” (all the behind the scenes work), I’ve created a few different bins into which to sort things I’ve either cut or dug up from my books. For each, I created a separate folder in my Scrivener project, as well as a few notebooks in which to jot ideas outside of the garden proper. This is by no means a definitive system (it’s hardly a system at all), simply what I’ve found works best for me. For this season anyway.

Things to Transplant

Often when I’m revising a scene, I’ll cut large chunks of text that don’t work, but that I still like. So I’ll put them in a separate pot in the greenhouse for a while, and see if I can find a place for them later in the book, or in a different project entirely. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Plants don’t always survive in pots, just as fragments don’t always work outside of that particular scene. But that’s okay too. A healthy garden needs compost to! Which leads me to my next bin…

Compost Bin

Some days we are blessed to write page after page of brilliant stuff. The flowers bloom, the sun shines, and the birds all break out in glorious song. But more often than not, at least for me, when I sit down to work on a book, it feels like I’m slogging out into the garden in heavy rain, my wellies sticking in the mud, and nothing is growing. So I write the weeds, then put them in my compost bin. This can be a depressing process, especially if it goes on for weeks and months, but it’s a necessary one.

So it cheered me somewhat to read a recent keynote speech given by author Lynda Mullaby Hunt at the SCBWI LA conference where she said:

“I wrote for hours. For days, months. Many, many moths. And I knew it was not good stuff. And so I just kept writing crap. The gardener inside reminded me that crap makes good things grow. So, I just kept going.”

I believe in writing every day. Even if that means writing weeding compost stuff. Because the compost shows that I’ve been working through it. I choose to believe that nothing is wasted. I choose to see my compost bin as proof that I’m willing to put in the hard work day after day, and to really tackle the questions and problems of the book in a deep and meaningful way.

For the last six years, I’ve worked on and off on a YA fantasy trilogy. I was 75% of the way through the second book when I realized none of it was working. The books and characters had changed so much through a half-dozen revisions that I no longer recognized them. The plot felt disconnected, the themes buried under half-hearted attempts to make the books more “commercial,” and my inspiration had long gone stale. So, I threw the books into the compost bin and decided to start over, combining the ideas of both books into one new novel. Was it an easy decision? Not in the slightest. Did it hurt? You betcha. But as soon as I made the decision to start over, with a freshly tilled garden plot (pun intended), I found inspiration rushing back to me, begging to be planted. The two composted books are providing excellent fertilizer for the new novel; they’re helping nurture my seedling ideas and questions, so that they can grow into a garden so full of life it one day will become a forest of its own.

Staying Open

In the midst of all this, I have realized once again the necessity of staying open. Open to new ideas, directions, and inspirations. Open to seeing what you once thought of as a weed as a beautiful flower. Open to letting yourself try new things and experimenting in your garden. Once I let myself be open to the possibility of starting over, my inspiration began to come back to life.

I believe that openness is a choice. It can start with a small choice to try rewriting a scene from another character’s perspective. Or to play around with a new setting and see how it influences your characters and their decisions. Openness is a sum of small choices. Such as my choice to view starting over as an opportunity to have fun and start something wonderful growing, rather than just slashing and burning my old book gardens and letting that negativity and resentment fester.

Seedlings and Clippings

Of course, I’m still trying to preserve a few clippings and seedlings from the previous two books. Maybe they’ll take and maybe they won’t. But until such time as I find the perfect spot to replant them, they’re hanging out in my garden shed in their own little area. This is what I refer to as my “To Root” bin. Here I’ll put bits of writing that spark an idea, emotion, etc. but I don’t know quite where they go, or how they fit in with the novel as a whole. So I set them aside in the greenhouse to grow on their own for a bit, much like putting clippings in water on the kitchen windowsill for a month or two to root. I’ll often go into the greenhouse and pick one of these seedlings as a starting point for my morning writing practice, or if I’m stuck and need some fresh inspiration. Often times the seedlings will grow up and go into different gardens entirely, and that’s fine too.

I also keep a greenhouse notebook, where I jot down interesting ideas that don’t correspond to a particular project yet. Sometimes these will be ideas for future books, or just something I think would be fun to write about. The notes can be anything from a word or two to whole sentences or bits of dialogue that might pop in my mind. Then, generally owing to my own scattered mind, I’ll forget about them for a while, during which time they can germinate and sprout if they have enough energy. If not? Into the compost bin they go.

It might sound naive or idealistic, but because I want my books to be deeply positive things, I believe that writing them should be deeply positive experiences as well. I wish to incorporate nurturing practices in every step of the journey, both for the sake of my books and my own creativity. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard work, challenges, and failures along the way, but it means that I can choose to see them as opportunities, rather than disappointments. Whatever my garden grows into, I plan to enjoy it, and to celebrate the journey as much as the end result.