The Writer’s Garden

Confession: I have a brown thumb. I admire people who can make plants grow and thrive, who have an instinct for nurturing them and whose gardens burst with blooms and edible bounty. I’m not one of those people. I feel guilty buying plants or starting seeds, because it seems unfair to them when they could have a fighting chance with someone else.

But this… this is MY YEAR!

Maybe. The tulips we planted in the fall are pushing out of the ground (much to my surprise). The pansies in the front garden have somehow managed to keep their blooms all winter, which is both amazing and somehow disturbing in a sci-fi kind of way.

And we’re working on a vegetable garden.

Not a fancy one, of course. Easy things like beans and zucchini, and the kids wanted to try pumpkins and corn and carrots. I’ve got salad mix started, because why not? It’ll work or it won’t, and we’re having fun along the way. It’s actually going well so far. The plants we chose to start indoors (because the seed packets said to) have done well in their brief lives, and last week Captain America helped me move the seedlings from their wee soil pellets to roomier accomodations.

Such a versatile hero!

Such a versatile hero!

So there we were with our tiny jungle of seedlings that we’d started as instructed: 2 or 3 seeds in each pellet. Oh, the bounty!

Ain't that purdy?

Ain’t that purdy?

Now, on to the pots! One problem. It said to keep only the strongest seedling in each pellet.

WHAT? The injustice of it had me fuming. How unfair! Why shouldn’t the smaller seedlings have a chance to live and grow, to enjoy the fresh air and the sunshine, to take their chances in the “will the cats decide that this garden is a litter box” lottery? Yes, I like a good underdog story, and the smaller seedlings were just sitting there like wee green Mighty Ducks, begging for me to be their Emilio Estevez.


I’m not unreasonable. The non-starters went, as did the ones that couldn’t be bothered to lift their lazy heads out of the dirt until the previous day. But a strong-looking plant that just happened to be smaller than its soil-mate? Up yours, Jiffy Pots, they get to grow on, too.


They look less impressive all spaced out, don’t they?

You may be wondering why I’m rambling on about these plants when Tuesday posts are usually reserved for writing. Well, here you go:

I’m allowed to do this with plants. We’re in no danger of running out of garden space; if the smaller seedlings don’t yield anything, we’ve lost nothing but a cheap paper pot.  The same can’t be said for many aspects of stories. When it comes down to the edits, of course the weeds have to go: the passive phrases and “was” clusters, the “how the heck did present tense sneak in there?” moments,  the unnecessary adverbs, the excessive shrugging. It’s tedious, but fairly painless. But the weak seedlings have to go, too.

Sometimes it’s not so hard. That subplot that has nothing to do with anything and never went anywhere? Sure, that can go, it’s just dragging everything down. That cameo by the main character’s boss, who’s never going to show up again*? Cut. Wasn’t attached to her, anyway. A scene walking in the woods with the guy who’s not going to be around for long? Eh, there was important information there, but things will be tighter if it’s worked in elsewhere, and he’s had his moment (and he’ll have more in the future, so I don’t feel at all sorry for him).

But that’s never enough.

Next we come to the bits that start to hurt. A touching scene between the main character and a sibling that tells us so much about that character and her family and works in a good amount of worldbuilding, but that doesn’t really move the story forward? That hurts. Re-working things so that this person never shows up in-story and is only referred to when necessary? Also kind of ouch (and cutting her obnoxious, loud kid actually hurt a lot more; I found that situation amusing).

And never mind characters and scenes; what about entire concepts that have been part of your world since you started farting around with it way back when… what happens when they’re important, but are taking up too much page space when you explain them? If they can’t be cut, maybe they can be pushed to the background until they’re needed…

That one bled a little, but it keeps the first 5 chapters flowing more smoothly and quickly.

And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? It would be amazing if we had unlimited “garden space” in our stories, room for all of our beloved characters, story elements, scenes and subplots to live and grow, even when they’re not adding anything productive to the work.

Well, there is a place for them. But it’s  not in the stories we expect the general public to enjoy.

If our work is going to bear fruit, we have to make tough decisions, identify the weak elements, and do what it takes to make the end result focused, readable, interesting, and well-paced. Pull the weeds, toss the weak sprouts, prune the dead branches.

Do we always succeed? I haven’t read many perfect books, have you? But we do our best, no matter how it hurts, because our garderns– er, stories– deserve no less.

Let’s have it in the comments: when’s the last time you cut something that really hurt? Have you ever felt like you took too much? Any great success stories? And what are you growing in your garden this year?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an underdog team of zucchini seedlings to coach and lead to a hockey championship.**

*very early draft, don’t judge me.

**Metaphors may not be my strong suit…


About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with five cats, two dogs, and just the right amount of humans. USA Today bestselling author of the Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy), Into Elurien, and Vines and Vices. Writing dark, decadent, and deadly Urban Fantasy as Tanith Frost. View all posts by Kate Sparkes

21 responses to “The Writer’s Garden

  • beingcollins

    I really needed this post, thank you!

    • katemsparkes

      You’re welcome! It’s something I struggle with (until recently; now I’m getting a bit too slash-happy), so I thought it might help others to look at it this way. 🙂

  • Charles Yallowitz

    I’ve cut character thoughts and opinions due to my natural use of present tense and some humorous back stories because they didn’t fit. They were put in for a chuckle, but they ended up being out of place as far as the narrative goes. Since I focus so much on character development and relations, the scenes that ‘don’t move the story forward’ tend to stick around. I’m of the opinion that if a scene develops a character even without the main story moving forward then it’s worth keeping because it helps a reader better connect to that character.

    • katemsparkes

      I agree, to a point. Character development is important, but I’m careful about my approach to it. If back-story comes in the first few chapters and slows things down, I cut it if I can; I don’t want the reader putting the book down until s/he’s good and hooked. I get the information and development out there, but it’s through the story, not back-story (not until later, when it means more). I don’t know how many reviews of books I’ve read that complain about these things that slow the pace and lose the reader’s interest early on. If I can get the same character development in elsewhere, in a way that doesn’t slow things down, I cut and rewrite. Character development is SO important, but I’m learning that I can’t expect readers to stick around through many scenes where that’s all that’s happening.

      Now, what I think works for my stories doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s just what I’ve learned works for me. 🙂

      • Charles Yallowitz

        Definitely spread it out, but I was talking more about characters talking and getting to know each other. It’s probably just me, but I have less investment in characters that are working together and barely know each other. For my genre, it would be the heroes getting thrown into the same adventure and fighting side-by-side to the death! Yet, none of them know anything about the other. That’s not friendship to me. It’s a bunch of strangers that shouldn’t get too upset when one of them becomes a dragon snack. I can’t get into a story like that, but again that’s just me.

  • puuuuushie

    I love this post. I really enjoyed reading it after my lunch break. But it makes me a bit uneasy too. My lovely story that is still being built up without any editing allowed so far… it will suffer! I will suffer when it comes to cut away whole chapters because I already know that they are unnecessary, too long or even misleading. The horror. I’ll sleep with my iPad hugged tight tonight.

    On a different note. I only have a balcony, so my garden space is very limited. I plant tiny strawberries, my favourite flowers (snap-dragons) and everything that’s colourful. Everything else will be guerilla planted in the neighborhood. I already have some bags of seedlings ready for dropping “by accident”. Let’s see if I can make this boring bit of lawn in front of my house more colorful. ^^

    • katemsparkes

      Your garden sounds exciting! I need strawberries. Now.

      As for the chapters, yeah, that’s gonna hurt. But remember that you’re not wasting your time writing them. If you’re working out your story, getting to know your characters, building your world and considering things from different angles, everything you’re doing is making your story stronger, even if readers never see it. Hug your iPad tight, but remember that you’re building something fantastic in those words you might cut later (I would know, I’ve been there!).

  • jadereyner

    What a lovely post and a great parallel from gardening to writing. I too have a very brown thumb and have previously begged people not to buy me plants as I just simply kill them – not intentionally. Gosh, I really hope that my writing has better luck than that! 🙂

  • Jae

    Um, whatever, you just made one of the best analogies to killing your darlings ever! I really like this post for another reason. You’ve illustrated that when you start your story, it’s like you’re putting a bunch of great ideas (seeds) into a story (the soil) and seeing what comes of it. Some ideas won’t blossom at all and they’ll be easy to discard. Other ideas will seem great in the beginning, but as drafts go by, you realize they’re the weaker plant that needs to be discarded.

    The “another reason” I like this post is basically you’re reminding/giving us permission to do whatever in that first draft. Toss out as many seeds as you can. Let your imagination run as wild as possible. See what it brings you. And then, through rewrites and edits do we hone things down, pluck out the weeds, and really make a good garden of a story. I believe in this philosophy wholeheartedly. For we can’t just leave a garden alone and expect it will grow the way we want it to. We have to water it, weed it, fertilize it, etc. etc. etc. So should it be with our stories.

    Great post!

  • L. Marie

    Great post, Kate!!!! Love the gardening analogy. This is where I’m living right now. I cut 10,000 words out of my WiP to tighten the story and cut the weeds that slowed the pacing. One of the most difficult scenes to cut was one involving a conversation my main character overhears between her grandmother and her father. The scene shows the bad blood between the dad and grandmother. While touching, it didn’t really advance the plot. And in this instance, my MC was inactive–just an observer. I worked on that scene for days. So when it hit the cutting room floor, it hurt.

    • katemsparkes

      Ouch, that would hurt 😦

      I wish I could cut 10,000 words from mine! It seems like every time I cut something, I have to add to another scene to get the same information out, but in a more interesting way. I guess that’s good if it means everything’s necessary, but 100,000 words is long.

  • Briana Vedsted

    I have that same planter on my back porch. And I too, have a mini jungle.
    But they are starting to wither. (The dog knocking the whole thing to the floor didn’t help much.)
    I wish I could just stick some seeds in the ground and they would pop up overnight. 😉

  • Harvest Moon: A Writer’s Life | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

    […] water it with words, and continue to cultivate. (For a great post on gardening and the writer, go here.) Mining for gold—revision phase, where you search for what’s precious and toss out the dross. […]

  • WFC – Worldbuilding | Lit and Scribbles with Jae

    […] writing urban fantasy, like Harry Potter urban fantasy (I was thinking of you at this time, Kate) you still have to use it. When you are worldbuilding you have to leverage the best of the both […]

  • Elaine

    Wonderful analogy, thank you for sharing!
    Even though I consider myself a planner after reviewing my first draft I realized that was for exploration. I ended up slashing almost half of it and rewriting a better stronger story with the critical concepts that I thought worked.

    I’m now just starting to revise that draft, it feels stronger than the first, but I already sense there are some weaker seedlings hiding beneath the flourishing ones.

  • Two Things | disregard the prologue

    […] even eat vegetables they grew themselves). It’s just a good thing I’m not taking my little analogy too seriously, because I would have t give up writing right now, because OH THE FUTILITY […]

  • One Last Night (WIPpet Wednesday and ROW80) | disregard the prologue

    […] been wishing I’d quit posting about ponies, Newfoundland, and my failed attempts at gardening… well, I’m […]

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