Sunday, 23 August 2015

5 Ways My Writing Has Been Like Working On My Allotment

As of this month, I have now had my allotment patch for one whole year - at the same time, I have also been working on Draft Two of Redemption. And during this time I've learned a lot of useful stuff from both activities.

On the surface they don't seem related to each other. But a lot of the stuff I've learned can be applied to both writing and growing stuff, so maybe learning the lessons from one has helped me to look at the other in a different way as well. And because this is a Blog and I like to tell people about my stumbles and tryouts so they can be more sensible than I was... let's do this:

1 - Aim for Functional Before You Go For Beautiful

As I said previously on this very Blog, the plot of land I was given was in a right old state when I got it. Neglected for over two years, it was a wasteland of couch grass, ivy and thistles with roots that practically had an Australian accent by the time you got to the bottom of them. Added to that the wire netting, old pipes and half-rotting bags of fertiliser entwined underneath said urban foliage.... well, Kew Gardens it certainly wasn't.

But I had visions - oh, yes I did! One year from now this weedy eyesore would be transformed into a thing of beauty, with perfectly symmetrical plots lined with neat, green lawns, bearing more fruits and vegetables than I could eat in a lifetime...

Mmmmyeah, didn't quite happen like that. Oh I've done pretty well when it comes to the fruit and veg part; I've grown and harvested potatoes, onions, curly kale, sweetcorn, peas, gooseberries, tomatoes, peppers and a metric tonne of courgettes ( or 'zucchinis,' if you're American.) But only in the spaces I managed to dig in between the jungle infestation I didn't get round to clearing. So it's a functional allotment... but still not what you'd call 'pretty.'

And that's a pretty good description of the process of draft one through two of Redemption, to be honest. Draft One was a weed-infested wasteland - like most first drafts are - and maybe I was a little naive to think I was going to be able to sort it out and make it beautiful in a single, second-draft pass. Weeds have very deep roots, after all, and sometimes you think you've pulled one out only to find you didn't get all of it and the darn thing's grown back again. It takes as long as it takes, so sometimes you have to scale back your goals; first get it functional, then work on getting it beautiful.

2 - You Gotta Have a Plan, Stan

I'll stick my hand up and confess; when I took on that allotment I didn't have a chuffin' clue what I was doing. I'd grown stuff in pots and containers before, and that had worked out okay... surely it was the same, but just, like, in huge containers, right?

No. Soooo much no. The world invented gardening calendars and manuals you could demolish a shed with for a reason, and this reason is that plants are kinda picky about when they're going to start growing and for how long. In our modern world of global trading and intensive farming most of us take it for granted that we can stroll into our local supermarket and buy things like potatoes, onions and carrots any darn time we want to, from January to December. So it can come as a surprise to discover that, when you're trying to grow them yourself, they're working to a goddamn schedule - something to do with 'seasons' or some such malarkey. How inconsiderate of them...

As a result, I couldn't grow a lot of things I wanted to grow in my allotment because to do so successfully I would have to travel back in time and plant the seeds a couple of months before I decided I'd quite like to grow them. Sometimes you can cheat and buy them as young plants from a garden centre if you're quick (and I confess, I did do that for a couple of things) but the more sensible way is to assemble the aforementioned gardeners' calendars and manuals and work out your battle plan for the whole year in advance, so you know exactly what's happening, when it has to happen and for how long...

And if that sounds an awful lot like an outline for a novel... it's meant to. Yes, this was the year I finally figured out that outlining was something I needed to know how to do properly and then actually do it. No more going in blind and rewriting the bits I wasn't happy with 'organically,' to see what 'felt right' when the time came; I had to look at the whole story and decide in advance precisely what was going to happen and when, where, how and why. My outline for Draft Three is taking shape already - and it's good to know that, this time, I already know most of what's ahead of me. Heck, I might even make some spreadsheets - for my novel and my allotment.

3 - Sometimes You Don't Get What You Thought You Were Gonna Get

I planted a load of King Edward potatoes in one patch, and in the picture on the front of the packet they looked like... well, your standard King Edward potato. So I was a bit surprised when about half the potatoes I dug up a few months later were red-skinned -  still lovely, perfect for chunky, oven-baked wedges in fact - but not what I thought I was going to get.  I don't even know how that happened. And lets' not even mention the carrots... oh okay then, I'll mention the carrots. I sowed lines of purple carrot seeds (yes, they were going to grow into actual purple carrots!) between my rows of onions (that's supposed to stop the carrotfly getting to them, apparently.) When their little tufty green heads appeared above the soil I thinned them out as per instructions, watered them and cared for them as lovingly as if they were my own children. Until, months later, at least two other seasoned allotment-ers gently pointed out that they weren't carrots at all, but weeds. How on earth straight rows of weeds with tops that looked very similar to carrots manage to grow in exactly the place I'd planted carrots I'll never know, but that's what happened (and it is what happened; carrots don't produce little purple flowers in July, like mine did - nope, not even purple ones.) Point is, plants can be tricksy little hobbitses.

I also got a few surprises with Redemption draft two. For example, I'd been writing from two POVs up until this point, convinced that I needed both to tell the story properly. And then it gradually dawned on me that one of those POVs, far from providing tension and foreshadowing crucial plot points, was actually ruining them in the style of a human Spoiler Dispenser with his 'can't tell anyone this, but...' diary entries. Either that or repeating in technobabble what he'd previously said in laymanspeak to the other POV character. Not cool, Dr Harvey. You are hereby demoted to Standard Major Character.

On the one hand, I don't know why it took me so long to see such a basic error - but on the other, maybe I needed to see it in full bloom to know it had to be eradicated (like my carrots-that-weren't.) Other characters have turned out to have more depth than I'd previously realised, and will now be playing a bigger or more complex role in Draft Three (Junor, Jim, Randy and Fraser.) So, like my surprise crops, at least not all the unexpected results were unwelcome ones. And I've learned some useful stuff for next year.

4 - You Need To Tend To Your Plots Regularly...

Some days - mostly the baking-hot, beach-weather ones - I looked out over my allotment and thought "Y'know what? I can't be arsed to go over there and dig today." Other times I watched the rain sliming down my windows and thought "My god, I can't go out in that - I'll catch some form of Victorian consumptive disease!" And it's fine to play hookey and have a duvet day... every once in a while. But the thing about summer is that you get quite a lot of hot days - even the UK, believe it or not - and when it comes to the wet, windy and cold days of winter the UK's got them down to an art form. So when I started letting the climate dictate whether or not I would go to my allotment, those 'odd days' quickly turned into two or three weeks at a time. Which meant that when I eventually sloped back like the kid who knows she hasn't done any of her homework for ages, everything was overgrown and neglected again. I had to fight my way through 2-foot-high weeds and couch grass to get to my crops, and when it came to tidying it all up and preparing new plots I barely knew where to start. It felt like I'd gone a step backwards, and now I had twice as much work to do just to get back to where I was - all because I'd got lazy and kept telling myself "Tomorrow. I'll go over and do stuff tomorrow..."

I had bad-weather days with Redemption too. Days when  just the thought of sitting down to open up that Scrivener file and knuckle down into a writing session was enough to make me wish I cared more about housework than I do (so I could at least run away from the screen with a feeling of 'fifties housewife pride rather than lazy-arsed shirker's guilt.) Being a mum of a school-age child guarantees an excellent supply of excuses for slacking off; sports days, birthday parties, various PTA-sponsored events...

I told myself it was fine. I was just taking a break from the thing for a few days because I'd hit a gnarly bit I didn't know what to do with, and when I finally came back to it my brain will have magically unblocked itself - like sneezing out a really gluey bogey, presumably - and I'll just know what to do to fix the gnarly bit.

Except that nine times out of ten I didn't, any more than I did before I left it. And on top of that I'd forgotten a lot of what I'd done so far, so I had to go back and look through all my notes to remind myself again. Leaving the problematic bit alone wasn't what caused the problem; running away from the rest of it as well was my mistake. Even if I'd switched to adding new info to my character biographies, putting all the subplots into a spreadsheet - or even restructuring the outline - I'd still have been keeping myself in the loop with the story as a whole.

It's the same as it was with the allotment; if I'd made myself walk over on those sunny days just for five minutes, to water the plants or pull up the weeds in one patch, for example, I could have saved myself a lot of work later on and still indulged in a little bit of slacking off.

I guess that's why so many authors who've 'made it' say you need to write every day, like working a muscle or training for a marathon.

5 - ...But Sometimes It's Better To Leave One Part Alone For a Bit.

Weeds were - and are - a constant annoyance on my allotment - if there was some sort of award from growing the strongest and most impressive weeds, I'd walk away with it no problem. Accidentally bend the stem of a precious little seedling? I can practically hear it scream in agony before it crumples into a Camille-esque heap and dies. Gouge out the heart of a thistle and roar like Brian Blessed as I tear its roots from the ground? The bloody thing just pops up again a week later like I've done nothing more than give it a haircut and a massage. How does that even work? Damn you, Mother Nature!

At first I thought the answer was to swoop on every weed in every patch when it was just an ickle baby, smiting it while it was at its most vulnerable. Until I realised that meant being hyper-vigilant, scanning each patch on a daily basis and turning weed elimination into a never-ending job with standards of perfection that would make a professional forger beg for lenience. "I only weeded this bit two days ago, how in the holy heck have they all come back already?" became something of a catchphrase for me (and a lousy one for someone aspiring to the superhero title of 'Weeder Woman.')

Eventually I realised a far more effective tactic was to... just let the weeds grow. Because for most of the ones that grow on my allotment, trying to dig them out while they're tiny is a fiddly and messy job that involves getting right down on your knees and tooling around with mini-forks and dibber-things. You can easily spend an entire day faffing around like that, only to find that when you've finished things don't really look much different from when you started. However, letting each baby weed grow a foot high and then yanking the whole thing out, roots and all, is a breeze - five minutes work per patch, tops. And boy, does it look like you've accomplished something afterwards!

I've now adopted a similar approach when I'm working on Redemption too. For each rewrite and edit of a scene, I decide in advance what element of improvement/cleanup I'm going to be focusing on - and stick to that task and nothing more. If I spot things I can fix on the fly - spelling or punctuation errors I hadn't previously noticed, for example - I'll do that, but if I see anything that requires switching my focus from the Plan for Today - for example, further research to check if that thing this character says is still true, adding in new plot elements to explain that new bit I added into the previous scene - I leave it alone, to deal with another time. Yank it out, roots and all, when it's time to weed that particular part of the patch.

So... that's the lessons I've learned this year. I shall be taking them with me into the next one, and hoping the processes - in both writing and gardening - will help me be more effective at both.

Have any of your non-writing-related hobbies taught you more about your writing? Why not drop a comment below?

No comments:

Post a Comment