How to Grow a Novel

By Barbara Graham

Graham_MurderBySunlightProbably because I’m in the midst of trying to get my garden to produce something other than really healthy weeds, and my next book is in the formative stage, the comparison between gardening and writing a novel seemed ideal.

After all, they both start with high hopes and big plans. Each beginning I think—this will be the garden/book that won’t have “issues” like weeds, blight or repetitive phrases. The characters will be fascinating and the tomatoes won’t have blossom end rot.

Before beginning such a fabulous project, there is some studying involved. I peruse the seed catalogs and gather ideas for the best vegetables for the sunny end of the garden. Can they grow in our short season? For the book, what will the story line be and because I write mysteries, who should I kill this time? The first book in my mystery series, Murder by Serpents: The Mystery Quilt was inspired by a headline in the newspaper. It simply read, “man found dead in car.” No snakes, no other tie to the storyline. I began playing with the scenario. Why would a man be dead in his car? Any number reasons. You pick one of your own and write that book.

So, we plant a seed and soon there is a sprout. The seedlings go into the garden on the recommended date but I like to cover the tender sprouts. I often use plastic milk bottles without lids and the bottoms cut out. They form individual greenhouses. Also too tender for early exposure, ideas and characters being developed now should avoid the early critique situations. Let them get some roots and a good strong stem before hearing from the critics. Something fabulous could wither and die from early exposure to the world.

Pull the weeds and throw on some fertilizer. Add more words, maybe create a world with murderous garden gnomes. This is the waiting game. Slog through the pages adding on. Fix the dialogue. Protect it from outside intruders like deer stomping the tender leaves with their sharp hooves, making a mess, it is your world to save.

The garden is planted, out of human control, except for watering and constant weeding. Heavens, some weeds are taller than the desired plants. Every first draft of the next book, I find myself wondering “who wrote this mess?” Is that a weed or something worth keeping? Sometimes in the early stages, they look the same. There is much work to be done. Peering at the vegetation, you see emerging baby carrot tops. They look like fine parsley but sharing the same spot is some nasty broadleaf weed. The weed must be carefully extricated without killing the carrot. It is the garden equivalent of excising the wrong word in a sentence, a writers’ weed destroying the intended meaning.

Is anything worth keeping? Yes. Throw some more fertilizer in there, use better words. Plants and story are both improving at last. The plot has only a couple of small holes now, easily mended, and your hero is worthy of the name. There are small, dark green tomatoes on a plant. Green peppers on another. The potatoes plants are tall and covered with small purple flowers. There are jewels in the dirt.

One more rewrite. A walk through the garden again. The ripening tomatoes are even more gorgeous than expected. Maybe you should enter them in the county fair. Let the judges see what a real tomato smells like. As for the novel, a few more rewrites, queries and maybe a contract, all yours for the picking.

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Barbara Graham began making up stories in the third grade instead of learning to multiply and divide. A native Texan, she later lived in Denver, New Orleans and East Tennessee. Inspiration for Silersville (home of her imaginary friends) comes from her Tennessee period. An unrepentant quilting addict, she lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and the spoiled dog. Her motto is “Every book needs a dead body and every bed needs a quilt.”

Her most recent book, Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt is book five in her Quilted Mystery series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quiltmaker wife, Theo. Visit Barbara at her website.

Barbara is giving away one copy of Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt to a lucky U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, September 12. The winner will be selected using random.org and the name posted here on Saturday.

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10 thoughts on “How to Grow a Novel

  1. You are right, Barbara, writing and editing a novel is very much like gardening. Our garden is a jungle right now of cherry tomatoes going to waste. Like a lot of stuff in my first draft that is unnecessary. Whoee, a job to do!

  2. I came home from Writer’s Police Academy, exhausted but more educated, this morning. It seems we are now expecting freezing temperatures on Wednesday. (it’s currently 90 degrees) Gardening is as volatile as writing.

  3. Hi Barbara,

    WPA is both exhausting and extremely worthwhile, or at least that’s been my experience. I loved your gardening to writing analogy. One of the most difficult tasks for me is the waiting time between sowing and harvest. You know you’re tending the garden and making sure it has all the right nutrients, but you don’t know if the vegetables will be worth a darn. Having the patience to see it through, to know it can’t be hurried, that’s the sign of a good writer. Best wishes with your new book!

    Maggie Toussaint

  4. What an apt analogy, Barbara! I love all my baby flowers, and it’s such a joy to watch them mature and reach their potential. May all our novels be so lucky! –Janet Lane, author of the Coin Forest historical romance series

    • That was entertaining. We already own your mysteries! Forgive my TBS (Tiny Brain Syndrome). One new piece of data comes in, another falls out… Alice

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