Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow? Tips for Avoiding the “Forced” Story

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel, @KLCzepiel

JH: Please help me welcome Kathy Leonard Czepiel to the blog today, to chat with us about growing our stories. She offers us a few tips on how to avoid writing stories that feel forced, and she learned them all from some tulips (okay, not really, but it's cute story).

Kathy is the author of A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster), named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. She is the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, CALYX, Confrontation, Brain Child, and elsewhere. Kathy teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

On a fun note, Kathy has a project underway called 45 Treasures that will result in readers’ antiques and vintage items being included in the pages of her next novel! Here’s how it works: readers e-mail a photo of a household item from the period 1900-1945, along with a brief description, and Kathy posts it in her gallery on Pinterest and on her website. This is crowd-sourced research, one way for Kathy to immerse herself in the period of her as-yet untitled second novel. Eventually, she’ll choose 45 items from the gallery to mention within the story itself. Your treasure could be one of them! The galleries are already filling up with everything from the mundane (a toaster, an iron) to the downright quirky (“cigarette silks,” a 1920s dentist chair, a “Mr. Ree” board game). E-mail your own contribution to KLCzepiel (at) att (dot) net.

Take it away Kathy...

Last fall, I did a stupid thing. I planted some tulip bulbs under a tall, shady bush. They were tulips that had already been struggling to grow in another shady spot in my garden, so I dug them up and stuck them under this shrub, calculating that its leaves wouldn’t come out in time to shade them much. In the spring I watched them valiantly trying to do their tulip thing. They were slow to emerge and stunted, half the size of the other tulips in my garden. In the end, they were tall and leggy, desperate to find some sunlight. Eventually they bloomed, but they looked like clowns on stilts. As I puttered around my garden this season, looking for other stupidly-planted things to move (I am a slow learner), I couldn’t help thinking about all the times I’ve planted something in my writing where it wasn’t happy growing.

You know the stuff. You go into a short story or a novel or some other writing project with a predetermined idea of what it’s about, what will happen, who the characters are. And then they refuse to blossom. The plot vines in an unexpected direction, the theme goes underground. And maybe, if you’re stubborn like me, you try to force it. You try to make the tulips grow in the shade, or the ferns in the broiling sun, because that’s where you want them to be.

My first novel, set on one of the Hudson Valley’s bygone violet farms, came to me organically (that is, slowly). As I started work on my second novel, I thought I could save myself some time and pages by writing an outline. To some extent, it worked. I thought through a lot of the novel’s big-picture points before I sat down to write. I had an idea of where I was going. Still, the things that I thought this new novel would hinge on were the things that felt most forced in the first draft. I realized that the story and its characters were developing as I wrote, and it was more important to pay attention to those developments than it was to stick to my preconceived outline. In the second draft, entire scenes, even chapters, disappeared. They were based on ideas I had tried to force to grow in the soil of a novel where they didn’t really belong. Once I got the novel started, I had to “watch” it just as I watch my plants to figure out what they need. I had to dig stuff up and haul it off to the compost pile. I had to move some items around. I even had to plant a few unexpected things.

To dispense with the metaphor and get real, here are a few tips for what to do when your writing starts to feel forced:

Follow your instincts.

You’ll know when you’ve taken a false step. You’ll feel just a little bit uneasy every time you read a certain passage. You’ll catch yourself justifying it: “But this has to happen so that So-and-So can do this!” When a beta reader points it out, you’ll feel resignation: “Yes, I knew that all along.”

Try out an alternative.

Tell yourself it’s just for kicks, to see what will happen. I keep a folder called “Outtakes” for each of my projects. When I cut something, I paste it in there, knowing that I can always go back and resurrect it. I never, ever do. But having that folder gives me the security of knowing that I’m not doing something irrevocable. I’m just trying it out.

“Kill your darlings.”

You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. You must never be so enamored of your own work that you can’t slash it. I recently cut about fifty pages of subplot from my novel-in-progress.

Choose your beta readers carefully. Then listen to them.

Your beta readers should not be your biggest fans. I have one reader who is an old friend. She is also the kind of person who tells it like it is. She might worry that her criticism will sound harsh, but that won’t stop her from giving it. That’s the reader you need! Listen to her, don’t argue. If your own instincts aren’t up to par, she’ll be the one to tell you when you’ve done something contrary or false.

Now, as I put my garden to bed for the long New England winter, I have a list of plants I need to move in the spring. I also have a solid draft of my novel to work on through the cold days, a draft that is feeling more and more like the story it is meant to be: a story that I hope, in its own good time, will bloom.

About A Violet Season


The violet industry is booming in 1898, and a Hudson Valley farm owned by the Fletcher family is turning a generous profit for its two oldest brothers. But Ida Fletcher, married to the black sheep youngest brother, has taken up wet nursing to help pay the bills, and her daughter, Alice, has left school to work. As they risk losing their share of the farm, the two women make increasingly great sacrifices for their family’s survival, sacrifices that will set them against each other in a lifelong struggle for honesty and forgiveness. A Violet Season is the story of an unforgettable mother-daughter journey in a time when women were just waking to their own power and independence.


  1. I have an "outtakes" folder also, and it's a great safety net! I especially like it when I can pilfer a line from the "outtakes" and tweak it to go back into the story. Excellent post, ma'am, thank you!

  2. Thanks Kathy I loved your take on this and know I need to cull words often, leaving the good seeds to spread and take root in my stories. Enjoyed reading about you and wish you well on your latest book.

  3. Hi Kathy
    Great post, thanks.
    Like you, I start with a notion, but try to let things happen as and when they will. I believe it's about letting the characters decide what happens next, letting their personalities drive the story,which often leads me down paths i never expected to take.
    I like your point about instinct. It's a difficult thing to measure, or talk about, but I think when you are in the flow of your writing, and letting it happen, rather than thinking about it, your instinct takes over. For me, these are the parts I read back when I begin editing and go 'Oh, did I write that?', normally in a good way :)
    Thanks again

  4. Nice post--beautiful metaphor! NExt time I'm digging up plants and moving them around--I'll remember this!

  5. Thanks, all. I'm not surprised to hear you all have similar writing experiences! Michael, how true that instinct is hard to measure and talk about--I've actually been thinking a lot about that lately. It seems to me that's what's really happening when writers claim their characters have "taken over" or are "telling them what to do." I always think that's such a funny way of describing the instinctive part of writing!

  6. This is great advice. I'm writing a first draft right now, and I have a stack of index cards I've prepared in advance. However, I give myself freedom to veer from those cards as needed.

    A Violet Season sounds like a wonderful story!

  7. I have a devil of a time with my stories if they don't grow how and where they want. I've always appreciated the "organic" metaphors for the process because that's how I work. In many ways, we are more pruners than anything. :) Thanks for the post. :)