On an errand to Lowe’s back in March, I stopped in my tracks when I was only a few feet in the door. Stacked on temporary shelves were bags upon bags of flower bulbs. I’d only ever received bulbs from gardening friends, or had a vague inkling that they could be ordered through gardening catalogues. I’d never seen them in a store. With a bit too much enthusiasm, and some naiveté, I snatched some up.
The process of learning about planting bulbs and preparing my garden for this season got me thinking back to a blog post I wrote 8 years ago about how being a writer is like being a gardener. As I puttered around my yard this weekend, I thought it was time for a follow-up article. While my first take on this comparison focused heavily on the process of writing and submitting, this time, I find the analogy much better suited to the practice of pre-writing.
So, You Want to Write a Book/Plant a Garden
Initially, I might not have thought that the task of planting a garden would be as overwhelming as writing a novel, but I’ve quickly come to realize that both are daunting tasks.
We recently had reason to split our yard so that our two dogs only had access to half the yard. While the reason is not important, the delightful side effect was that I now had half a yard that I could do anything with.
Just as a fantasy writer may sketch out a map of the world they’re creating, I grabbed my pencil and a piece of sketch paper and carved out the areas of my yard where I could grow sun-loving plants, or native plants, or where I might put in a little bistro table for afternoon cups of tea. By the time I was done, I had grand plans to remove roughly 3,000 square feet of grass from my yard and replace it with dozens of plant species. When I took my map out to my yard and began marking pathways with stones and digging up old tree roots, I quickly became overwhelmed.
I tried to accomplish decades worth of work, requiring arguably years worth of knowledge, in just a few weekends. As I writer, I should have known better. In gardening, like writing, starting small is usually best.
Research Helps Everything
I’m inclined to think (and this will probably sound like a maxim) that just about every writing project should start with research. Yet I’ll be the first to admit that research is usually step two in my process. I get excited about a thing, try to write about it, realize I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then go do some research. If instead I got excited about a thing I was already researching, when I went to write about it I’d have a knowledge base to draw from.
My gardening process is a bit like my writing process. I bought the bulbs first, then had to go back and research how to grow them and where. It wasn’t terribly problematic, but I did end up with some extra bulbs, and where I had originally intended to plant them, is not where they ended up. Which leads me to…
When Nothing Is In the Ground/On the Page, You Can Be Flexible
A fair portion of my weekend was spent standing in the middle of my yard studying the corners where the sun did and did not reach and what that meant for my sun-loving and shade appreciating varieties. Turns out, my map was wrong. I had planned to put the vegetable garden in an area of the yard that, after the leaves on the trees grew in, got almost no sunshine. So, I ignored the map and moved the vegetable garden.
And isn’t this the case in writing, too. You plan to have your character do a thing, only to realize that you don’t have enough other characters to create the scene, so you add some more and now your plan for the third act just got more interesting. Or the poem that you thought was a couplet is begging for some breathing room, and now you’re rewriting the whole thing in free verse.
What I’ve come to realize when thinking about writing and gardening years after my first post is that so much of the work happens before “fun” part. Outlines and character sketches give a novel a sense of direction just as a growing plan can help you make sure your plants thrive.
So much happens before the first sentence, before the shovel in the dirt.