Friday, March 15, 2013

Gardening and revisions

Roseraie a Wargemont, by Renoir (public domain, via Wikimedia)

As you can see from this magnificent painting, roses demand a certain amount of structure. Having never owned any roses before we bought our house, I knew roses should be pruned, but I thought it was sort of optional. A light grooming activity, like dead-heading.

Then I realized one of our rose bushes was falling over.

It's a big, older rose bush, probably dating back to the early 70's (it's an Apollo tea rose, still bearing the metal tag nurseries used to use in the pre-plastic-everything era), and last summer it looked magnificent. It grew--intentionally, I believe--with a decidedly left-leaning slant, its large branches spreading an arch of yellow flowers over the birdbath. It smelled wonderful, and grew to about ten feet tall. It became my absolute favorite plant on the property.

I did some trimming in February, cutting back about a quarter of its height and removing a lot of canes that were dead or criss-crossing other branches. When we cut out one big, awkward cane, we actually saw the bush stand up taller. It was amazing to see, and very encouraging.

But yesterday, while I was weeding around the bush (the whole back yard is heavily overgrown with crab grass, bindweed, and blackberries, which are now beginning to jump into serious spring growth), I discovered what had been hidden beneath the winter's leaves and dead grass: a fissure running most of the way around the rose's root line. On the side opposed to the lean, the fissure is wide enough I can stick my finger down inside it.

Needless to say, I will stake this rose and do some more pruning. I will try to fill in the fissure with enriched soil to protect its roots from the questing weedy encroachers. I will keep my fingers crossed. But mostly I will feel a bit guilty that I didn't cut it back sooner. I know it was neglected for about two years before I came to live with it, but if I had gotten around to clearing out some of the weeds last summer, I might have realized that a serious problem was developing.

I can't help but see a correlation between rose maintenance and revising my novels. When working on a novel, it's important to establish a larger shape that you keep to, but don't allow to become overblown. Secondary plotlines and confused character arcs can weigh down that structure, and if you haven't made it strong, they can pull the whole story down upon itself. But of course, it's hard to see all of this happening when small issues--badly paced scenes, poorly turned phrases and the like--obscure the bones of the piece.

The novel sitting on my beta reader's desk has a big advantage over the novel sitting on my own: its outline was carefully examined by my editor and tooled into a strong scaffolding for the work. That outline went through several drafts before I even started writing. The other novel had an outline that I developed quickly and revised haphazardly as I wrote the first draft. It has lots of structural problems because of that, although a lot of awesome actions scenes hid those problems from me as I was writing. (What? Actions scenes can really kick up a book. If there are enough cool fight scenes, I might not even notice the vampires are sparkling and the boyfriends all suck!) Now I have a lot pruning, staking, and restructuring to do as I revise.

But at least that novel isn't going to fall down--or be swallowed up by bindweed, which lives on in the soil for 3-5 years. In this case, writing is far, far more satisfying than gardening.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Let's get it started

I have a silly ritual for starting a new short story. I open a new document and I make it look like this:

Yes, before I even start writing my piece, I want it (basically) in proper manuscript format. Why? Because I am a professional writer, and pros don't write things just to lock them up on their hard drives. Pros send their stuff out in the world. Having my story look professional is a good reminder that my piece is going places.

Another thing I do: I give the piece a descriptive title and I put that at the top of the page. Why? Because in Word 2003, which what I'm usually writing in, it automatically generates a file name when you hit the save button, and I'm tired of erasing the words "Wendy Wagner about xxxx words" all the time. It's dumb, but I love having the computer automatically name my story what I'd like the file to be called.

I also set the title line to "Brilliant Title," or "Kickass Title" every single time. This is because I want my story to have a kickass title at least once in its life, and I'm not always great at titling pieces. When I've finalized the story, I will save a copy in my "Submissions" folder that has the title for a file name.

When I hit a hard spot in my story and I'm tempted to give up, I just scroll back up to that first page and see my official-looking first page. It always makes me write harder to try to live up to its standards.