Tuesday, August 30, 2022

How Writing a Novel Is Like Gardening

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Grow your novel into something beautiful.

For every orchid or African violet that takes meticulous care and stringent rules to thrive, there are wildflowers that bloom along the side of the road that just wound up there, blown on the wind. Each flower is beautiful, but every one found life through a different path.

Novels are the same way. They usually have to grow into beauty, often from a steaming pile of, um…fertilizer.

Luckily, even if you’re a terrible gardener (like me), you can still write a great novel. Because…

Not every (story) seed requires the same care to grow.

When I plant lantanas or impatiens, I can practically ignore them and they grow out of control. I can’t keep basil alive unless I’m constantly out there checking the soil and making sure it’s getting the right amount of sunlight (though I am having good results with hydroponic herb gardens—so maybe I need to write in the pool -grin-).
Some ideas pop into our heads fully formed and practically fall out of our heads onto the page. Others fight us. Every. Single. Word. The easy-growing ideas are a lot of fun and make us feel productive, while the ideas that need constant coaxing and checking make us feel…less so.

We could give up on the hard ideas and let them wither, but sometimes those are the ideas that push us to work harder, and end up being the best stories. They’re also the ones we learn the most from, which makes us better writers.

Don’t stress if you have an idea or novel struggling to grow. You might just have a rare beauty that needs constant care before it blooms.

(Here’s more with I Have An Idea for a Novel! Now What?)

If you don’t prune it, it can die.

Some plants need to be cut back to grow strong. If left alone, their branches grow long and spindly and out of control. They don’t fill out and bloom, but thin down and lose half their leaves.

First drafts often grow wild (especially for pantsers) because we write whatever comes to us. Ideas sprout and grow and we chase them down and add them to the story—even if they don’t belong there. Subplots tangle with more subplots, every character has a well-defined arc, and by the end, the entire novel is shallow with no roots.

Strong stories go deeper, exploring fewer subplots and characters, and looking beyond the most obvious answers to any plot questions. They dig down and create strong roots that connect every aspect of the story in meaningful ways.

Ideas left alone to grow wild can spread an idea too thin, never going beyond the surface of the idea. It’s by cutting out the parts that don’t work, or the parts that don’t serve the core story, that result in a thick, healthy story.

(Here’s more with First Look at a First Draft: How to Revise Your Manuscript)

Some seeds flourish when scattered to the winds.

Wildflowers go wherever the wind takes them, and when they land, they can cover an entire field. They don’t worry about where they’ll go, they just take root wherever feels right.

Some ideas need the freedom to grow without forcing them to fit a preconceived set of rules. This is actually tough to do, because we often have a plot or a story in mind as we develop a novel. We naturally try to make every idea we have for it fit into whatever box we have planned for it. Sometimes this works, but sometimes we kill a wonderful and unexpected idea before it has a chance to sprout.

Don’t be afraid to explore an idea that seems utterly wrong for your story at first glance. The best solutions often come from the least likely places.

(Here’s more with Five Ways to Grow Your Novel)

Some seeds need constant attention.

For every wildflower, there’s an orchid. Forget planting it in soil and watching it grow—this picky plant prefers growing on other things. A tree, a rock, anything but where you’d expect it to thrive. And watering it will kill it. It just wants to be misted.

I think every writer has a story orchid somewhere (mine is my fantasy spy novel). You know the idea is good, you know it’ll be worth the effort, but it’s SO MUCH WORK and it dies every time you take your eyes off it.

If you love the idea enough to go through this pain over and over, it’s worth it (probably?). Something about the story resonates with you, and eventually it’ll reward you with breathtaking flowers. Or you’ll turn it into mulch for another story that isn’t so hard to keep alive.

(Here’s more with The Circle of Write (Or Why Some Books Kick Our Butts))

No matter what seeds you plant, halfway through you just want to go grab a drink and relax.

And that’s normal. Writing a novel takes effort and it doesn’t always turn out like you hoped. But on good days, it brings you peace and you enjoy being in the middle of it. And when it blossoms, it’s the sweetest joy of the season.

Your book is your garden. The end goal is to grow something beautiful, and you can drop seeds into the ground and wait, or you can use a whole shed full of tools and fertilizers to help the process along.

What kind of literary gardener are you?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm a mulcher. Write the story, bury it in a box under other papers. : )

    1. LOL love that. And when you go back and dig them out, you find buried treasure!

  2. Great analogy, Janice.
    I have a couple of stories needing tending. I must go back and carefully water them, and add a bit of fertilizer, too, I think.

    1. Love that :) Someone needs to make a needlepoint with that idea for writers.