Let me be clear, I am a truly rotten gardener. It’s not just plants; whole trees have died under my care.
To be fair to myself, I’m a Brit transposed to California, in the middle of the worst drought on record. It’s seriously hard to do well here and save water at the same time; you really have to know what you’re about, and I really don’t. Even after ten years, I’m still busking it.
And, of course, every gardener kills a lot of plants. It goes with the territory. Sometimes it’s even deliberate.
However: “I don’t know what I’m doing” is a confession, not an excuse. I’ve had plenty of time to figure things out. There are books, there are YouTube videos, there’s a whole worldful of media willing and eager to help me out and make me better informed; there are official accredited Master Gardeners of my acquaintance locally, and other people who have simply been gardening here a long time, and are always happy to share their wisdoms; and there’s the simple expedient of trying and failing and learning from experience. I guess I have done a little of the latter, but it’s been much more a case of trying the same thing again and hoping for a different result. Which—yeah. Not so much, really. It’s like having not ten years of experience here, but the same year repeated ten times.
I water my plants reluctantly (it’s the gardening equivalent of washing up the dishes: necessary but inherently uninteresting, and sufficiently lengthy a process that by the time that’s done it’s all too easy to feel that this particular slot in my day has now been filled, and it’s time to go and do something else altogether), irregularly and not enough. I feed them pretty much on the same schedule, which is to say irregularly and not enough. I neglect early signs of disease, for in all things I am the very opposite of proactive. I love having freshly gathered fruits and veggies in the kitchen, but I put off the actual harvesting because I want both to have my cake and to eat it, and thus the rats and squirrels and other raiders often get to pick more than I do.
[About now, if you read the subtitle above, you should be thinking “Oh glory, he’s going to force this legendary ineptness into some kind of writerly metaphor, isn’t he?” You bet your ass, babe. I hope you’re ready. Here it comes now.]
Writers are by very definition accustomed to rejection. Even the most successful can still find themselves being told no; even after forty-five years at the wordface, and despite being incredibly well-connected across numerous genres and both sides of the pond, I still hear “thanks, but no thanks” rather more often than is entirely comfortable.
However, we’re not here to talk about that, about editorial rejection. Today we are interested in the opposite phenomenon, when the story rejects the writer.
It can be, very much, like the plant rejecting the gardener: you’ve done something wrong and it refuses to fruit, or it goes entirely into stasis, or—as so often—it just curls up and dies right before you.
Perhaps you’re under-researched, and you realise twenty pages in that you have no actual idea how an airship is powered, or what your protagonist would be wearing, or where her accent places her, and these are all details crucial to establishing the suspension of disbelief that fiction demands. Or else you’re over-researched, and the book judders to a halt beneath your hands as you realise that the last three chapters have been nothing but one tedious infodump after another, as you struggle to bring in every single fact that you’ve uncovered.
Perhaps you’ve underplotted, and the last fifty pages have led you unerringly down a blind alley to absolutely nowhere; or else you’ve overplanned, and you find the actual writing either excruciatingly dull or else simply meaningless, worse, unnecessary, when you’ve already worked out every fragmentary moment of the story in your copious character sheets and spreadsheets and the like. Post-it notes. You know who you are and what you’ve done.
Not so many now, not quite, but I couldn’t tell you how many half-finished stories I used to have in my files. To be fair, some were simply waiting for the second lightning-bolt to strike (all my best short work tends to come from two separate moments of insight, two angles of reflection, that could sometimes come years apart), but most had simply petered out. Either I wasn’t sufficiently interested to follow through on that first bright spark, or else the vein wasn’t rich enough to support the weight of a story, or I’d got all my metaphors so muddled I’d lost any particular notion of what I was trying to say. There are so many, so very many ways for a story to die beneath you. And of course it’s your fault, a consequence of misjudgement one way or another, a failure of craft.
And of course, as with gardening, there are three obvious branches of remedy to pursue. There are books and videos and courses, scads of advice online: all generally contradictory, of course, but that’s the nature of the game. Try what makes sense to you, keep trying till you find what works.
There are craftsmen and apprentices galore, out there in social media, many of them frantically eager to share advice, suggestions, recommendations for the bewildered; there are beta readers for the asking, critiquing groups, coffee shop meet-ups, all manner of available help and guidance. (It wasn’t like this in my day; I’m the last of those for whom writing was a lonely business, pursued by mail, knowing no one in the business until you started making sales. These days it’s a wholly social activity, or can be if that’s the thing you like.)
And there is that eternal standby, the root of all craft: practice. There’s more than one reason to use that word. It’s weird how that works, but the more you practice, the better you get. It is actually possible for the alert writer to learn from their mistakes, to vary their practice, to try another approach.
Now all I need to do is transfer all those wisdoms to my goddam gardening.