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.
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!
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.
PLANTS, I WILL BE YOUR EMILIO.
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.
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…