Comparing gardens with messy first drafts

A number of writers I know are also gardeners. I think it has something to do with a desire for control — or maybe it’s more of an artistic desire to create beauty. No, I still think it’s control. We take seeds, cuttings and bedding plants, tuck them into assorted nooks and crannies in our yard, add a little nourishment and water, and dream about how it will all come together into something beautiful. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t.

My garden beds always end up a jumble of plants, despite my good intentions. In the one small patch pictured below you’ll find a sword fern and a lady fern (I didn’t plant those… they just growed, like Topsy), hosta, scatterings of cranesbill, a clump of Siberian iris leaves, a golden phitzer juniper, a white astilbe, and some encroaching lamium. They’ve overrun each other and when I look, all I see is a crowded mess.

Messy Garden-1

I tend to be a little philosophical about my gardening. (That’s a tactful way of saying I don’t get my knickers in a knot when something doesn’t grow the way I expected.) The surrounding woods create acidic soil and lots of shade, plus we’re on a well and I don’t often waste water on the gardens. So I understand when certain plants appear to be growth-challenged. In search of better results, I embark on a dig-and-relocate mission. Of course if they don’t survive at all, it becomes a dig-and-discard event!

When plants surprise me, taking hold and rambling over and around neighbouring ones, I step back to marvel at their tenacity and scrutinize the effect. Given there are few blooms amid the various greens, it’s not the ‘English country garden’ look. It’s not any desired look unless it qualifies as au naturel. To be honest, it’s just plain overrun and unkempt, and some days I think I ought to dig it all out and start from scratch.


But if I take a closer look and can focus on the singular instead of the muddle, I discover teensy pockets of beauty. Exquisite shades of passion and capsules of colour among the graceful green fronds and glossy leaves. They are moments of glory to salvage. Maybe I need to reconsider my desire to bulldoze the whole thing.


We take words and mash them up, sprinkle them around, link them together… all in an effort to make them convey the perfect story that’s hovering in our heads. First drafts, as I mentioned earlier this week, can be a mess. We work scene by scene and often despair of the writing ever coming together to be seen as worthy.

There is a time to step back, look beyond the scenes and evaluate the whole. Then there’s a time to prune and cull,  looking closely to see what gems might be salvageable.

Then again, there’s a time to walk away altogether — stop evaluating and second-guessing — and wait for another day when we may be in a better frame of mind and able to discern the beauty that was there all the time. A fresh look may give us a better perspective of what it’s going to take to make it all work together without turning it into a muddle or deciding to toss it into the trashcan.

Any other suggestions? In what way does your current writing resemble gardening?

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Slipping and sliding through a novel’s first draft

They aren’t sure yet. The new slide has a curve and its unfamiliarity  overrides the exciting prospect of a breath-stealing rush down its slippery surface.


I feel a little of that uncertainty as I contemplate a shiny new story idea. It hasn’t quite gelled yet and I hesitate to take off into unknown territory. What if the urgent words pull me off track? First drafts can be like that – a headlong dash that sometimes aborts with a whimper.

A little experimentation is called for – a few different approaches explored. Not plotting, but maybe a bit of pre-planning, trying out the options.

And then impatience lends confidence and the ride begins! The first draft is a time to let go of inhibitions and let faith take over. For a writer there is nothing quite like the exhilaration of getting a first draft down on paper.


I suspect my granddaughters know a little of that same feeling.


 What does starting a first draft feel like to you? Does it involve dread or anticipation?

~  ~  ~

Time Changes Everything… in Life and Writing

An overused phrase says it all. Just like a new day, “I’m baaaaack!”

After two different vacation trips to two different lakes, spending time with two different groups of our family, I’m refreshed, rejuvenated and raring to get back into routine. Sort of. I’m not quite ready to rare yet. My brain is still in lake mode, savouring memories.

Daybreak on our lake. (I took this from the bedroom window and promptly went back to bed!)

This past week we trucked into our Cariboo cabin.  To get there we leave the main highway behind, then a secondary paved road, twenty-three kilometers of gravel logging road, several more kilometers of dirt road, before finally reaching the last few kilometers of the somewhat overgrown home stretch, where the guys (my husband, son and a grandson) had to cut out three downed trees with the chainsaw.

Old logging road.

The last leg of the road to our lakeside cabin.

Yes, this is part of our road.

For several days we lounged, read, ate lots, spent time in and on the lake, and still had time to build a much-needed storage shed. I also coerced DH to take a drive so I could photograph a favourite haunt… a derelict log building that has stood in the middle of our nowhere since before I began going there as a young child. (I refuse to specify exactly how long ago that was!)

I knew it would happen some day, but it was still a disappointment to discover the roof’s supporting log beam had finally collapsed.

Time brings changes… some good, some not. The inevitable disintegration of this wonderful old building hasn’t changed its beauty, only the way in which it is perceived. It can no longer serve its intended function.

It’s a lot like the effect of time and revision on a novel-in-progress. If you’re a novelist, think about how the perception of a manuscript’s early draft changes after we’ve left it and gone on to write something else. After only a short time, returning to it reveals a few weaknesses. Nothing that tweaking won’t fix, right? We’re convinced it still adequately conveys the shiny idea that originally inspired our creative hearts.

The longer we’re away from it, however, the more problems we notice. Leave it until after we’ve written three or four more novels and reading through it makes us blush. Our hearts begin to skitter in dismay as the amateur writing taunts us with its weaknesses. We cringe to realize others may have seen its meandering plot, common clichés, and one-dimensional characters. Our dreams for it come crashing down.

There’s a reason why established authors, editors and writing instructors suggest a first novel rarely sees publication. Its structure is often too unstable to withstand the major renovation it requires, but it takes time before we can perceive and accept that reality. Sometimes the best thing we can do is let it disappear into the ground, grieve its loss, smile a bit at the pleasure and experience its writing provided, and at the end of the day, move on.

Sunset on our lake

Do you agree with me, or not? What’s your experience? Was your first novel publishable, or, if you’re still writing it, do you believe it will be?


The Bottom Shelf

My bedroom closet should be purged. It contains sizes I haven’t worn in a decade. There’s a dresser drawer full of sox I never wear, too. They’re in assorted eye-catching colours but I only wear black ones now. (It doesn’t matter what else I’m wearing, black always matches my shoes.) Then there are those kitchen cupboards devoted to empty plastic containers that should be recycled and gadgets that looked indispensable when demonstrated but have never been used.


You get the picture. I’m a hoarder. This may explain why I have in my office a virtual bottom shelf piled to capacity with printouts of successive drafts of my novels and copies of all the articles I’ve written–kept for what purpose I don’t know. After all, I have clips of the published articles neatly filed away. And you can be sure those early novel drafts will never be offered as reading material, even to uncritical family members. So why haven’t they been tossed out? My theory, if anyone happens to ask, is that writers should keep a record of the journey towards publication.


During the months (and years) while rejection slips accumulate I can take encouragement from the knowledge that what’s been sent out is far superior to the earlier versions. If proof is required I need only browse a few pages of Draft #1 and compare them to Draft #20.


As those pages collect dust on the shelf, however, I wonder if some will outlive me and my publication hopes for them. After I’m gone might someone believe these old manuscripts should be circulated? What a terrifying thought!


“… If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my drafts to take.”


Plowing Through the Poop

It isn’t always this difficult. I’m talking about manuscript revision — the re-evaluation and rewriting of material that originally flowed effortlessly from brain to keyboard but now has to be picked apart and put back together again, bit by painful bit.


First drafts develop creatively from ideas given free rein on the page. Revisions happen after we’ve settled into our favourite chair to read through the finished product and come to the conclusion that it’s a whole lot of poop. In her book, “Bird by Bird“, Anne Lamott chooses to call it a “shitty first draft”. Poop or shit, it’s a mess. I think most authors admit that their initial creation requires some additional crafting before it’s ready to be launched into the public eye. Mine requires a lot!


Normally I enjoy the challenge of revisions, plowing through the mess to unearth the nuggets worth keeping and nurturing. It’s satisfying to reshape and refine a crude vessel into something better.


I’m almost finished what I thought would be the last revision of my current novel, but I’ve suddenly bogged down. I feel mired in mucky details and I’m tired of dealing with them. The feeling is familiar. It turns up along with my IC* every time I near the end of another novel.


“This really is poop, you know,” whispers the little voice. “It’s boring and nobody will ever want to read it. There’s the garbage can. Toss it in and forget it. You know you want to.”


Yes, I do. But I won’t.  I’ll slog on to the end of this final chapter so that when it’s really time to move on to something new I’ll know that I’ve given my best effort to clean up this current pile of poop!


 *Inner Critic