Weeding Your (Word) Garden (aka De-Cluttering Your Writing)

GardenEvery gardener knows that flowers and vegetables won’t thrive if you let weeds take over your garden plot. The same is true of writing. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a short story or hefty book-length project, prose that’s littered with unnecessary verbiage loses its impact.

How do we know what to keep and what to toss out? A good gardener learns the difference between a baby plant they started from seed and an insidious intruder. Before the weeds threaten the desirable plants a good gardener will yank those suckers out of there, allowing vegetables and flowers the nourishment and light they need to survive.

Here are a few tips for weeding your literary garden:

1)      Trim back adjective lists. (The tall, slim, vivacious woman with bright red hair and matching lipstick walked up to him.) Leave one or, at most, two adjectives. Make them the most vivid and specific. Readers only retain one or two details per sentence.

2)      Avoid unnecessary adverbs. Best-selling horror author Stephen King advises cutting all adverbs, but sometimes these colorful words do add to a scene, if judiciously used.

3)      However, be particularly aware of the dreaded -ly form in dialogue tags. (…he said hopelessly; …she commented sulkily.) Instead of tacking on an adverb to label the speaker’s emotion, keep the emphasis on the spoken words, or the character’s actions.

4)      “Would” is often an overused word that clutters good prose. Some writers string together paragraphs full of “woulds”. Search on it and, if you find this particularly persistent weed, substitute the root verb form, which is often more direct and powerful. Instead of “he would often attend the opera,” write: “he often attended the opera.”

5)      Don’t be afraid to use the strategic incomplete sentence. Writers who insist on every sentence following the Subject/Verb/Direct Object pattern often end up creating a stilted, forced style. This is particularly true of dialogue. Real people don’t all talk like college professors, using perfect grammar.

6)      Even a word like “the” can become clutter. (Cluttered: He picked up the hammer, the nails, then the stack of boards and loaded them into the truck. Better: He picked up hammer, nails, and a stack of boards then loaded them into the truck.)

7)      Dig out your “pet” words. We all have them. If you think you might be relying too heavily on one or more words, particularly the sort of word that stands out for the reader, use your word processor to search for it throughout the manuscript. You may be shocked to see how many characters use that same word or phrase in their dialogue, or how frequently you use it as your catch-all word for description. (Frequent weeds: big, large, got/get, just, went, going to…, about to…, etc.)

When I’m editing another writer’s work, one of the first things I do is de-clutter it. Think of it as putting your manuscript on a diet. A slimmed-down manuscript reads with more power, better pacing, and will more likely appeal to a literary agent or publisher. It’s just plain better writing—and that’s something we should all aim for.

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If you’d like to learn more tricks for perfecting your writing, you might want to check out The Extreme Novelist, my book based on the courses I teach in Washington, DC at The Writer’s Center, and for The Smithsonian Associates educational programs. Short story writers and memoirists will also find loads of information to them. You can order the book through any bookstore, or find it quickly here:  https://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Novelist-No-Time-Write-Drafting-ebook/dp/B00WA5FCVK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473169296&sr=8-1#nav-subnav

Germinating Seeds for Stories or…Spinach?

This week I’m writing all about getting seeds to germinate. Plot seeds (as in a story) or veggie seeds. They really aren’t very different.

Hatching a new story requires a writer to search through their mental file cabinet of ideas. Once you decide upon the type of story you want to tell, you need to prepare the soil—so to speak. This might mean clearing your desk of distracting paperwork or craft projects. Ignore your email inbox and phone messages, until you get your day’s writing done. While plants need the proper lighting and right amount of water and fertilizer—the writer’s brain and body require a healthy diet, sufficient hydration, exercise, and a comfortable working environment. We also need to dedicate sufficient time to grow our story into something worthwhile.

In the garden world, I have the more trouble encouraging my spinach seed to sprout than any other veggie seed. All the pros tell me that it can take weeks for those little pellets to sprout. Although you might be able to hurry them along with either a good soak for 24 hours or a cold-treatment in the fridge. It seems they are so temperature sensitive that, when the soil is over 75-degrees, they’ll refuse to germinate at all. Spinach loves cool weather. And on top of that, even in the best of conditions, only about 30% are likely to ever sprout. Stubborn little babies, aren’t they?

Why bother with planting spinach at all? Maybe it’s for reasons similar to why I spend so many hours writing stories. Just as I love spinach for all of its marvelous benefits to my health, I love producing fiction because it’s healthy for my brain. Writing a novel encourages me to exercise my imagination and fully engage creatively. And I’m convinced that, like growing vegetables, we write better depending upon the seasons.

I tend to write more fluidly and with greater energy in the spring and the fall. The air feels fresher where I live in the Washington, DC area during those seasons. I seem to breathe easier, think clearer. Spinach, too, grows most happily (once you get it started, that is) in both the early spring and the late fall. In fact, some varieties will winter over so that you have lovely fresh greens without any fuss at all, as soon as the snow melts. If you forget to do a fall planting you can even sprinkle seeds over the frozen ground. As soon as it thaws in spring, I’m told, seeds will sprout for a carefree crop. It’s apparently only when you’re trying to force the little darlings to sprout in less than optimum conditions that they won’t send up shoots.CoverFinalSM-TheExtremeNovelist

That’s one thing that’s magical about writing, which we talk a lot about in the classes I teach at The Writer’s Center in Washington, DC (and in The Extreme Novelist). If we scatter story seeds then let them develop organically in our mind before starting to write…and then take the time to draft a working synopsis. If we then give these ideas the attention they need by writing daily and not letting the craziness of everyday life crowd out our writing time–that’s how we  grow as writers and begin to produce quality, publishable  fiction.

Write daily, my friends. Write with focus. Nurture yourself as a writer, just as a good gardener tends her garden. You’ll harvest an amazing crop.

Harvesting Our Crops: Veggies & Stories

Summer GardenIt’s a sunny, hot-hot-hot August day in Maryland. In the fullness of summer I find it hard to keep up with the tomatoes. And it’s almost impossible to write. Every other day I pull plump, ripe Romas off my vines and bring another 5 pounds or more into the kitchen to turn into sauce to freeze for the winter. It almost seems too easy, growing these ruby-red babies. My eggplants, cukes, squash and beans…well, I guess I’m not as good at cultivating those because we have no trouble eating them as they appear. Not even any leftovers to pass along to neighbors.

Whereas spring and summer are planting, cultivating, and harvesting times—the cold winter months are for writing. I finished a novel during a particularly intense blizzard, sent it off to my literary agent in early February. Knowing I’d need to wait to hear from her—first, as she waded through her submission pile, and then as acquiring editors at various publishing houses needed time to read the manuscript—I filled the time writing a short story. Sent that off to an appropriate magazine. And now I wait…and wait…and hope for good news and a contract.

Unlike with gardening, there is no guarantee these days that even a well-written novel will bloom into a published book. Competition is stiff, to be sure. Over the years, I’ve had as many stories rejected as published. What publishers perceive of as desirable to their readers often limits what they are willing to buy. Yes, self-publication is an option—and a very good one for some writers. But in my experience, the authors who fare best at creating their own books from scratch are those who are savvy (and tireless) when it comes to self-promotion. Sometimes, you can even find them at the top of bestseller lists—and I applaud them! But I admit that I feel more comfortable with a commercial publisher on my team—providing editorial guidance, designing a stunning cover, working with me to get my novels noticed by readers. To date, I can say I’ve been able to work with some of the best publishers and editors in the industry. I feel very fortunate. But I know that with each new book project I must again “audition,” and prove my worth.DSC_0003

It’s hard for new writers to understand that, unlike most other businesses, publishing fails rather miserably to offer authors a stable income. There will be no weekly paycheck. Ever. Signing with an agent doesn’t insure your book will sell to a publisher. Six-figure deals are daydreams tantamount to winning the lottery. But none of this will dissuade a real writer from telling his stories. We’re risk takers. Dreamers. And we have tales to spin, fantasies to weave.

I often compare gardening to writing in my blogs. Each pursuit is a creative endeavor in its own way. If there’s a drought or a flood that wipes out my seedlings…I can usually replant (as I did this year, twice) and still be rewarded with a decent crop. It’s a little harder emotionally for an author to come back from a round of rejections for her novel. But we can still replant. We will write another story because the imagination and talent that produced the story that didn’t harvest a publishing contract is still there, inside of us. The muse is just waiting for us to shake off the disappointment and begin again. So we shall.

It’s persistence that wins out. Never give up. The next story you write may be that very special one that captures readers’ hearts around the world.

 

What I’ve Learned About Writing While Gardening

Inspiration

Inspiration

I garden at a community plot. One of the advantages of tending my veggie plants in a shared area—there’s nearly always someone else working on their plot at the same time. Usually, they are far more experienced then I am, so it’s a great opportunity for asking questions and learning something new. Moreover, I find that I can often apply a gardener’s wisdom to other facets of my life. Like writing.

My latest lesson involved sweet red peppers. I’ve never succeeded in growing them, but I so love their colorful, crunchy addition to my salads that I keep on trying. This summer, my tomatoes are growing in abundance and baseball-bat-size zucchini magically appear under nearly every leaf. But I’ve again watched helplessly as my pepper plants produce promising green globes that turn mushy and rot on the vine even as they start to ripen. Breaks my heart. <Sob!>

I’ve asked my neighbor gardeners what I’m doing wrong. They shake their heads in sympathy. One says: “Peppers like consistent watering.” Another is more philosophical. “Gardening is an experiment.” A third suggests, “Try putting them in the ground instead of a container.” But I planted in the ground last year; same catastrophic result.Summer Garden

I take away two messages from my failure at pepper growing. Don’t give up—that is, be persistent. And, if one thing doesn’t work, try something different.

What does this have to do with writing novels and short stories for publication? Or with life in general? Everything.

We often believe that, if we have a goal and work hard at it…we should expect to succeed. But in life, as with gardening, events over which we have no control may either enhance or stand in the way of our success.

For peppers, if the soil or weather aren’t right (or disease, vermin, or insects attack the plant), the plants may not develop healthy fruits. I can try to solve the problem, if I ever discover what it is. But I also might be wise to vary my crops in the hope of coming across another vegetable that I can successfully grow with a lot less trauma.

New writers often start out having a vision of a particular story. If that completed novel, novella, or short story doesn’t get snapped up by an agent and immediately sold to a publisher—the author may be tempted to either give up on writing altogether, or spend years agonizing over revisions of the same story. (I hear of this scenario from many of my students and clients who say they can’t move forward with their writing until they get this first book sold, even after working on it for as many as ten years.)

A senior editor at a major New York publisher once told me that her best advice to novice writers was to, yes, be persistent—work on your craft daily and keep submitting—but experiment with a variety of genres and styles of writing. Because we just don’t know what we’ll be good at. Aside from that, it’s impossible to predict trends or publishers’ buying patterns. What might not sell today could be the hottest property in four years!

Book shelvesSo…my thinking is this: I’ll endeavor to find the red pepper-growing technique that works for me, but I’ll also experiment with alternate varieties of peppers and other types of veggies. I’ll find more that I’m good at growing. And, if you’re writing stories but not having much luck getting publishers to notice you, I’d encourage you to continue pursuing publication of that tale that just won’t let go of you. But, every once in a while, experiment with a different genre. Instead of historical fiction, try a contemporary tale. In place of your usual literary style, try your hand at a fast-paced thriller or swoon-worthy romance. Play with a Western or science fiction or frolic in a paranormal world. Let your imagination and talent run free. Time and again, I’ve seen writers surprise themselves when they took a leap of faith and ventured into unexplored literary territory.

Besides, we can’t stand around forever, mourning those rotting peppers or underappreciated stories. We’re gardeners of words. We need to fully cultivate our creativity, our minds.

Happy writing, all! (And gardening.) Kathryn