I used to be a timid gardener, willing to plant but reluctant to weed or prune or replant. Who was I to say which growing things deserved to live, once growing, how far they could extend their reach or where they were rooted? Live and let live was pretty much my motto. The result wasn’t pretty.
Well into my second full summer here in Rhode Island, I have found my horticultural heuvos. I pull weeds with a vengeance and prune branches with confidence. And I’m beginning to get into the idea of digging up specimens and tucking them back into the soil somewhere else.
Just this afternoon, I took up those three flowering tobacco plants whose leaves turned out to be way larger than I’d expected, and I put them behind the impatiens they’d upstaged. Then I took one of the impatiens plants and slipped it into the space where the tobacco had been. And then I gave the plants a nice soaking to help them settle into their new homes.
The whole operation took less than fifteen minutes. It was enormously satisfying. The corner of the bed no longer looks stupid, and I feel that much less like a helpless bystander in my little plot on earth. I’m feeling the same way about my writing.
For the last little while I’d been anticipating my agent’s editorial notes on Little Grandma’s Mirror. As I waited, too distracted to work on any other project, I started imaging worst-case scenarios. Sure he liked the book enough to take it on, I reasoned, but now that he’s gone over it more carefully he’s realized he made a mistake.
The edits arrived in my inbox on Sunday. They were very thorough. The cover letter stretched over six page – about three times as long as I’d expected. And the attached copy of the manuscript was covered with the electronic, track-changes equivalent of red ink.
Of course he said nice things. He told me how much he loved the book and assured me that I could pull off the revisions it needed to be really great. But those words barely registered. All those questions and comments had thrown me into defensive mode.
I worked as an newspaper editor for several years, so I’m familiar with red ink. But not from the receiving end. Never before has anyone had so much to say about anything I’ve written. Then again, never before have I written a novel of 300+ pages.
I spent a day “processing.” That is, I forced myself to read the comments carefully enough to summarize them in my own words, and I got used to the idea that my ambition to be a writer was ridiculous and unnecessary. Plenty of people live perfectly happy lives without ever trying to publish novels. Without all that pesky composing and revising I’d have more time for less stressful pursuits. Like gardening. All I had to do was work up the nerve to tell my agent when we talked on the phone this morning.
Of course, that’s not what happened. It’s not as if I wimped out. It’s that two minutes into the conversation, we were discussing my book’s structure and themes and characters more seriously and productively than I had ever discussed them with anyone. Having to explain my characters’ motivations made me understand them better. That made me see which of their actions didn’t make sense, and how incidental details could be better used to further my themes.
Yes, my agent was asking me to do a lot more work. But hearing the enthusiasm in his voice convinced me that the effort would pay off. And that made me eager to get started.
I’ll be creating new scenes, weeding out those that don’t belong, pruning those that do, and moving others around. Before I dig into the manuscript, though, I’m going to take a couple of weeks to get some perspective on what I need to do. I’ll do most of that away from the computer: jotting ideas down in a spiral notebook and mulling things over as I muck around in the garden.