Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gardening + Writing = same/same

Gardening metaphors pop up often in writing. ‘Seeds’ of ideas. Ideas bearing ‘fruit’. Talent being ‘nurtured’. Blah, blah, blah.

For me, the similarities between writing and gardening are all about the random pumpkin* that appeared in my vegie patch over the last week. (It should be noted that this pumpkin has nothing to do with the inexplicable pumpkins at the ball we attended last month…or does it?)

I didn’t notice the pumpkin at first, surrounded as it was by weeds. But by the end of the week its glorious display of orange flowers was obvious enough not to be dandelions, and it was not to be ignored.

It was not in the best position, being approximately on top of the rhubarb, and so a choice had to be made. Pull the possible pumpkin, or kill it.

What has all this to do with writing?

Let me set the scene with a little more backstory. I’m a bit of a rules girl. Not a Rules Girl by any means (I don’t even remember the last third date I had), but I tend to like a set of instructions. I couldn’t be on MasterChef, for instance, because I like a recipe to follow. My days are planned, my kids like routine, The Builder is of Dutch extraction (enough said).

When I write feature articles and other non-fiction works, there are rules to follow. Things that must be included, styles and formats to address. I work around the information I’m given, whether through research or interview.

The rules go out the window when it comes to my fiction. While I have writer friends who plot every scene and plan every plot point, I am not one of them. I tend to start writing and see what evolves. And what evolves is not always what I expect. Hence the pumpkin.

In the first book I ever attempted, for instance (remember Celeste of the Winter White suit?), I got 20,000 words in and then stopped for months and months. Why? Because my heroine was under a table in a bowling club and the hero had just walked in with a blonde. I had no idea who the blonde was (are you beginning to see why this book wasn’t jumped on by a publisher?) and it took me months to work it out.

Recently I co-wrote a manuscript with my good friend A, an accomplished author whose name you’ll find on books in several different sections of the bookshop. She was in Brisbane, I was in Fibrotown, and yet we managed to crank out 65,000 words between us in less than six weeks, at Christmas time when we were both inundated with other stuff. This was possible for several reasons:

  1. She is a plotter of fantastic capability.
  2. We have different styles but a similar wavelength.
  3. My many years in women’s magazines have left me with enormous capacity for writing ‘naughty bits’.

Whether the manuscript will ever come to anything or not is still to be decided, but it was a valuable experience for me. I have always shied away from chapter outlines and scene plans because I felt they were too limiting. What I learned is that with a framework comes the freedom to deal with the ‘pumpkins’ as they pop up. When you know what your book is about, you know if there’s a place for the ‘pumpkins’ – and exactly which spaces they’ll fit into without encroaching on the rest of the plot.

Today, in the garden, I gently lifted the pumpkin plant and put it up the back of the patch, where they’ll have room to stretch and grow. Will it survive the transplanting? Is it actually a pumpkin? Will it attempt to take over the world?

Stay tuned.

*At this stage, I think it’s a pumpkin. But I am not Peter Cundall. It could yet prove to be a Triffid.


  1. Al, my vegie patch has become a metaphor for my life, too. When it is feral, my life is way too busy and out of control. When you see me handing out bunches of herbs, rocket, spring onions, you know all is back in order. Garden on!

  2. My attempts at vegie gardens have all failed dismally. Let's hope my writing career doesn't end the same way!

    Good luck with your ms!

  3. Fantastic, I love pumpkins. In all their forms. I would tend to think 'why didn't I plant pumpkins in the first place' and start multiplying them.

  4. Lovely analogy. I am one of your writer friends who plans EVERYTHING, as you know- last night I took to my bed at 9pm to plan my next chapter (these are short chapters in this book, about 2-3K words each). When hubby came in at 10:30 pm I was still writing plot points and the odd line of dialogue as it occurred to me. As he said, seeing my pages of notes and scrawl, "This is the PLAN, right? The framework? Sure you haven't just written the chapter?"

    He had a point, but for me I find that it's when I plan, plan, plan that the pumpkins pop up... while I plan, but also when I sit down to actually write. It's almost as if (to extend your anaology) that by scratching around so much in the dirt I've created some room for new things to come through.

    It used to worry me that I planned so much, and it still doesn't feel 'creative' or 'artistic' to work from pages of notes, flowcharts and meticulous outlines... but what can I say? My garden may be a formal one but there is still room for the odd pumpkin. :)

  5. Al I LOVED reading this. For lots of reasons. I hope your pumpkin relocation bears fruit, or something. You know what I mean x

  6. Earlier this year our backyard was under threat from a feral pumpking plant. I say feral because this was a plant that appeared from nowhere, and took over the one part of our backyard that was used for sitting out in the sun in, i also left it because although I have expressed a desire for a vege garden many times, I never actually get around to doing anything about starting one. Anyway this pumpkin plant was huge, I was excited imagining homemade pumpkin soup from my very own pumpkins, even had thoughts of making pumpkin pie - I have never eaten it but I was going to make it!! I watched my pumpkins grow over several weeks/months - then one sunday I was cooking a roast and thought, right today is the day..... i chose the biggest/heaviest pumpkin and started to cut..... to say i was disappointed would be an understatement, the flesh of the pumpkin was no more than a centimetre thick. So right there and then I had my son my over the rest and reclaimed my favourite bit of lawn!!! Jo

  7. My head hurts from just thinking about how rules work...I think I'm a rule anarchist! But hey, thankfully my husband is of dutch extraction too, otherwise we'd never make it out the door in the morning!!!

  8. I sit down to write with am empty garden, too. Um, I mean, blank screen. I like to think the words are always there, spreading roots in the back of my mind, while I change poopy diapers all day (poopy diapers = writing compost??). =>

  9. This is just what I needed to hear today, thank you.

    I have been meticulously plotting. I read this book which is all about sections and how you have to have the first reveal at the end of section one, and the biggest surprise at the end of section two, and then the turnaround halfway through section three but not too close to the end, and bring in another character's viewpoint at pg 180 and I was just so overwhelmed. I've been stuck on minutiae - does this make sense, should this go here, when really I just need to write.

    So thank you with your old pumpkin analogy. I've been like Linus sitting in his pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear. And he's not coming is he?

  10. @deer baby - I love Linus and The Great Pumpkin. He'll appear when you least expect it, and then you'll need to work out what to do with him. A good friend of mine once told me that the best plan is to bang out the first draft. Then, at least, you have something to work with. Come on Linus, you can do it!

    I love that everyone has had 'pumpkin' moments. You guys rock!


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