The Four P’s

We had the ash tree in our front yard pruned this week.

On Monday, as I was watching the tree guys at work, I found myself thinking that gardeners often make good writers.  The two crafts have a lot in common.  For my amusement – and yours, hopefully – I thought I’d talk about the four P’s that gardening and writing have in common.

Last Year's Thriving Squash

Last Year’s Thriving Squash

Before I do, I want to clarify that I’m talking about gardeners in the literal sense of people who tend plants.  Over the last couple of years, I became aware of a bit of writing jargon that classifies writers as either “Gardeners” or “Architects.”  Gardeners are those who start writing and see how the story grows.  Architects plan the story in advance, sometimes in great detail.

Other terms for these types of writers are “Pantsers” (as in writing “by the seat of the pants”) and “Planners.”  I originally heard them defined as “Intuitive Plotters” and “Outliners.”  And, no, the divisions are not absolute.  Even the most intuitive of Gardeners has times she needs to plan something out in advance.  Even the most ardent Outliner enthuses about when inspiration hits, and he realizes that his architectural design will be improved by reshaping the original plan.

So, what are the Four P’s that gardeners and writers have in common?  Preparation,  Patience,  Pleasure, and Pruning.

Preparation is key to being a good gardener – and is one of the reasons that I think calling an intuitive plotter a “Gardener” is deceptive, because to non-gardeners this implies a story that “just grows” without any effort.

A real gardener knows that nothing “just grows” without preparation.  Soil needs to be prepared before a single seed or plant goes into the ground.  This isn’t as simple as tossing on fertilizer, either.  The first step if figuring out what sort of soil you have – or if you even have soil at all.

When I moved into my current house, I did not have soil.  I had sand.  Pure sand.  That’s great for drainage, but lousy for nutrients.  I had to make my own soil, which I did by hauling a lot of horse manure, leaves, and other organic matter, then digging it in.

The writerly equivalent of this is soaking in lots of different material – both related and unrelated to any specific project.  Read lots of stuff, not just within your comfort zone.  Watch your favorite TV shows or movies – but not passively.  Think hard about why these pieces touch you while others leave you cold.  Watch people, places, things…  Go do something new.   Teach someone something you’re good at.  All of these will enrich your personal soil.

Patience is necessary to real gardening – and by this I mean something other than going to your local big box and buying plants already in flower and popping them in the ground.  That ain’t gardening.  That’s decorating

Gardening patience involves staying involved.  It’s remembering to water even though the seeds won’t germinate for two weeks.  It’s replanting when seeds fail to germinate.  It’s weeding, so that the plants you want aren’t choked out by the plants you don’t want.

Writing patience is very similar.  Too many non-writers or beginning writers think that every moment is going to be full of great excitement or, at the very least, a rich, spiritual satisfaction in being creative.  Nope.  Sometimes writing involves just keeping moving forward, working your way into the story, trusting that those “seeds” are going to be beautiful flowers one day.

Pleasure, whether in gardening or writing, is closely tied to patience.  One of the best ways to take pleasure in a garden is delighting in all the little stages along the way.  “Look!  The squash has sprouted!”  “Look!  They’ve got their first ‘true leaves.’”  “Look at all the squash blossoms!  They’re so pretty.”  “Look!  Fruit has set.  Wow…  We’ve got yellow squash, green squash, and one that has stripes!”

Writing pleasure is like that.  Some writers join work groups so that they can share their work along the way.  I don’t workshop, but I do keep a journal wherein – especially when I’m working on a longer project, like a novel – I note each day how much I have written.  This keeps me from falling into the belief that I’m “getting nowhere.”  I also note when I stop to research or when life gets in the way of being able to write – like having to stop to do proofs for another project.

Pruning is very important to a healthy garden, whether on the large scale, where branches need to be thinned and old wood taken off, or on the small scale, where dead flowers need to be pinched off so that new ones will form.  This process, by the by, is called “deadheading.”

Most new gardeners do not like to prune.  Either they’re scared they’ll kill or maim the plant or they believe that more is better than less.  I know I was in a near panic the first time I had to prune a tree but, as it was pretty clear that my little apple tree was not thriving, I had to try something.  I was rewarded when the tree not only didn’t die; it did (and continues to do) better than before.

As for more being better than less…  Two puny apples are not better than one three times the size of the two combined.  One large, healthy rose is better than a bunch of small, scrubby blossoms.  Yeah, it’s hard to remove potential fruit, but once you learn how to do so, you’ll be happy with the end results and your plant will be healthier, too.

(Reminds me.  I need to look at my Elberta peach tree.)

Most new writers worry about cutting from their work.   Either they worry they’ll lose something vital or they have an unjustifiably high opinion of their prose and view every word as sacred or golden, not to be tampered with.

In the first instance, if you’re really worried you’ll cut something vital, you can save it in another file and rescue it later.  But at least try cutting and see if it helps the flow.

In the second case, no one’s words are always golden.  Period.  But you’ve heard professional writers say they don’t rewrite.  That’s because when experienced writers talk about rewriting, they mean something completely different.

Roger Zelazny often spoke of himself as “not rewriting.”  Then he made me a gift of a novella typescript.  (To the end of his life, he composed either longhand or on a typewriter.)  To my surprise, the typescript was full of little cross-outs and changes.  I said, “I’ve heard you say you don’t rewrite!”  Roger was astonished.  “But this is just polishing.  When I say ‘rewriting,’ I mean the type of redrafting I’ve heard other writers talk about, where they change entire scenes or eliminate entire plots.”

So, whether they cut out whole limbs or merely “deadhead,”  writers prune.  I pruned about 500 words (or two or so pages) from this essay…  But they were worth writing, because they got me to where I needed to be.

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9 Responses to “The Four P’s”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It interesting to read the different between the two main types of writers. The funny thing is, as a “gardener”, I admit there’s often a plan too. It’s just when I sit down to finally write the darn thing, my plans never survive. I think the current record for longest lived outline is three chapters. Though I’ll never forget the one time, I kid you not, my entire outline died on the first sentence.

    I’d spent years (VERY off and on, but still) collecting bits and pieces for this particular story. Working out back-stories, characters, names, places, plots, all the parts. I had a fairly detailed plan of where the story was going to go.

    Then I decided to start a first draft. Within the first sentence, I had a back-story vastly different than my plan, I had a plot-line that was different, I had a tertiary character I suspect isn’t so tertiary (the story hasn’t told me yet, but I see the signs), and an entire world of technology that was no where in the out-line. One sentence, and the entire effort was wasted.

    Or was it? Had I just jumped in and tried to write, would it have grown into what it did? I have my doubts. The plan I had was used as a beginning. The story just decided to take a totally different direction.

    As I look back, even my most unplanned works have had a hidden plan. To borrow from Star War episode 4, my plan have have been; “Kid finds droids, they draw attention of Empire, he gets into trouble, saved by someone who tells him he’s some kind of special knight, that someone leads him on a path to become said knight, kid joins resistance after death of parents and maybe teacher, wins big battle”, but from such a raw set of events, more details come. And you’ll note, some details are different than the final work. My works are often the same way. The basic plan I have ends up being quite different than the final, yet the raw framework can still be found.

    Once I have that basic framework, a flower bed if you will, that’s when I go full on “seat-of-the-pants”. As things grow and mature, I guide them where I want them. That is until the story comes to life. Then the best I can manage is the occasional nudge. Still, even as I write without a plan, I can’t think of a single story that didn’t begin with one. True, they’ve all died, but from their deaths, great beauty was forged.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I’m a decorator, not a gardener. I admit it. Nonetheless, even to me it’s evident that ‘it just grows’ is grossly unfair to both gardeners and writers. No garden ever planted hasn’t had order behind it, even if the object of the exercise was to present the _appearance_ of random disorganisation. Writing even less so – order and organisation stand at the very heart of language.

      I think that only the most skilled gardener – or writer – can make anything look as if it just grew. [‘untended’ is a whole ‘nother matter – even I can manage that!]

    • janelindskold Says:

      I do think that whether you see it as laying foundations or readying the soil, providing yourself with something to work from is helpful for a lot of writers. Nicholas’ example is particularly dramatic.

  2. chadmerkley Says:

    The problems I’ve run into in creative writing are first, getting something out of my head and onto paper (or a computer), and second actually working on revising and polishing it, to a point where it’s ready to be shared. Although, in the last month, I’ve gotten several poems written, and even revised and edited a couple. Writing music is different–it’s easier to hold all or most of piece in my mind at one until it’s “done”. Of course, I’m mostly writing folk-inspired music or trad-style dances, which is already an “oral” art form, rather than written.

    My gardening lately has been pretty much non-existent. I’ve been mostly living in rented places, and haven’t had much the opportunity. I’ve got a shelf full of houseplants–all succulents (because they’re cool and low maintenance), several of which need to be re-potted or have the pups thinned out.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Just finished the rough draft on a book with 42 chapters, and I had that sucker outlined from early on. Not that the outline survived contact with reality (fortunately!) intact, but since it’s, erm, non-fiction, the structure of the book is as important as the contents in making it understandable. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that if I want to make something understandable, there has to be an order to it. The ol’ factoid blunderbuss approach simply doesn’t work if there’s a bigger point you’re trying to help people understand.

    Of course, for fiction, sometimes the ol’ factoid blunderbuss is just another form of exposition.

    As for real gardening, I’m keeping things going with water from my shower, since I live in South Droughtistan. The local creek’s running dry, first time since I’ve lived here. Guess all the people upstream really have stopped watering their lawns.

    • janelindskold Says:

      We collect our kitchen grey water and use that. I’ve never figured out how to comfortably collect shower water. How do you manage without, uh, kicking the bucket?

      • Heteromeles Says:

        I’ve got a low-flow shower head (1 gal/minute), and it takes a bit over 1/2 gallon to get warm. We just hold a 1-gallon bucket up to the shower head and wait until it’s warm. I’m tall enough to hold it on my head, although it looks completely ridiculous.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        Interesting… I’ll keep that in mind!

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Regarding different ways of doing stories, the late Nelson Bond had this to say, quoting Kipling: “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    “And every single one of them is right!”

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