Preparing the ground (writing)

You can walk into a piece of virgin bushland and scatter your seed. You can, but other than achieving some snickers at the double entendre, that’s about all you’re likely to succeed at.

Trust me on this: as one of those skilled gardeners who can make one plant struggle to survive where ten flourished before I attempted to grow them, I know. I tried this method in earlier years…

It was a great reason to learn to forage for bush-food, because you can’t feed yourself like that. Not even on plants that are little more than glorified weeds.

And it’s not just the domesticated weeds we eat that need prep to have a better than pure luck chance at success: From engineering to writing the same applies. Different people do this in different ways – my gardening is rather more like letting the war materiel catch up with the advance column as and when it can. This is not a great way of fighting wars and it isn’t too crash-hot for gardening either. I do get results, we feed ourselves and sometimes produce a bit of surplus of life’s essentials, like zucchini.

Oddly, it’s not the way I build (or write) where I tend to spend a lot of time assembling the materials I will need, making sure I have the necessary tools and skills… and then getting it all to go together in double quick time… or at least until the careful planning hits reality and things fall apart. Either new plans and unexpected ingenuity comes into play, or I find myself paused again while the next essential bit that I should have anticipated but didn’t gets bought and delivered to our remote island, because, no, you can’t just nick out to the shops. It tends to color your way of seeing the world. I have not yet learned to build with zucchini, but I am sure it is just a matter of time.

Now this probably hasn’t bypassed those you who have military or disaster-response experience, but that is just about the key feature of any real (or realistic) story. Just as in life, there are unexpected consequences, and no plan works quite as you hope it will (in all too many situations – whether it is a pick-up in a bar or open conflict, or both, as can happen) the other players aren’t pawns and won’t think like you do, or do what you expect them to do. Hell, even the waves and weather don’t.

That doesn’t stop it happening in a lot of books. There are no hard and fast rules for writing, but clockwork plans I would say chuck me out of a book faster than the open-conflict pick-up line does. The problem is, the author is, de facto, playing God for his characters, and of course God being omnipotent could actually have his plans work. It’s a very tempting line to follow.

But this wasn’t actually what I wanted to write about. Preparation is more than just one thing. Ask me. I am trying to do at least 11 different and largely unrelated tasks with our house building project, ranging from tractor repairs to scavenging red ironbark posts, to dealing with expensive and mindless bureaucratic crapola without losing my cool and vaporizing the legislators and administrators, to learning a whole bunch of new skills, to trying to play chess with the effects of each of the steps I take (take down a tree. It will take 20 years to replace if you find you need it there), put in an orchard without clearing the ground properly and allowing room for large machinery – and curse yourself for 20 years). Books are creating a whole damn world, not just a property. You CAN wing it. Many do. I spend a huge amount of time on research. It’s terribly useful at times. I now know for example (as a byproduct of reading about a shipwreck for the WIP) that in 1835 British surgeons’ were treating syphilis with large hypodermic syringes with which they would inject mercury up the patient’s urethra. How could I possibly write without this valuable information?

I think I kinda made my point. That way lies madness, and not just from mercury poisoning and tertiary syphilis.

There is a huge temptation –because you have prepared for a book by doing a Master’s thesis worth of research – to put it all in. Once again I speak with the voice of experience: research is like zucchini plants. You may feel it wise to put in an entire row of five varieties… but you can’t actually use all of it – not without turning your entire family in zucchinophobes (and doubtless the PC police will persecute them for that. You must love the entire alphabet soup, A to Z.).

However, the key here is the same as with disaster-management or when a battle plan meets the enemy: you won’t have prepared right, but in my opinion you will have a better chance to adapt your plans.

Which leads me into the truism that preparedness is a state of mind, not just a stock of canned goods. And this holds true IMO with writing too. The characters, if they’re worth having, WILL stray from the plan (if you have one, which is why sometimes not having one has plusses.) and their interactions with other characters. You have to be prepared for that change. Otherwise you run the very real risk of the reader expecting the change inevitable from the shift in character (often with the 20:20 vision of hindsight) and not getting it. It’s a profoundly unsatisfying experience – and that is something you never want your reader to have.

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32 responses to “Preparing the ground (writing)

  1. paladin3001

    Proper planning prevents piss poor performance…. Stalled with one WIP, because I don’t know exactly where they are going, not to mention how they are getting there. World building is part of the issue, which I have been working on and thinking about. Another WIP is stalled as well since I need some information I can’t seem to find online. Going to be rectified soon at least. Ah research, research, research. Bright side is that “this is a cool idea” and discovering it can’t work, which leads to other paths that do work for me.

    Needless to say I have to stop pantsing and start planning properly. Starting to at least.

  2. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Started a project as an exercise in meshing a list of concepts in order to entertain my pattern matching sense. Some work later, I’ve had to (probably) drop one of the concepts, and I have a plot about a guy who goes out to do x, winds up in the middle of y, and comes back having done z and incidentally x, but in a different way from the original plan. Plus a character I developed says more about me than I’m comfortable with.

    • Oh yeah. That happens in my writing as well as my projects. Often accompanied by the words ‘leave it now, you’re going to break it any minute.’

  3. Character has great plans, including visions of retirement…. character finds note saying that local magnate has claimed most of the Really Good Stuff for himself, including items character had ear-marked for Really Important Potentate. Character (and author) have a Problem. Because character isn’t entirely certain Really Important Potentate actually exists. And then character learns that he does, and he is coming to collect his due. Oops.

    Yeah, the “one off” book is spawning a sequel. Dang it.

  4. Luke

    My last effort at growing zucchini had me leaving piles of the stuff at the door of the soup kitchen, ringing the bell, and running away.
    More than once.

    Listen to the monkey, he knows of what he speaks.
    One plant is good, two plants if you’re social and like to share, eight is right out.

    • How do you know if a man hasn’t a friend in the world? You see him at the grocery store, buying zucchini.

    • I’ve been trying for years to grow zucchini in South Texas, but the weather, the soil and the local grubs conspire against me, every year.

      • Goodness. So far the grubs won’t touch Zucchini. Worryingly the pigs weren’t keen either.

        • In Tennessee, the cabbage white butterfly catterpillars and two different varieties loves the zuchinni so well I only got 4 of’ em from 3 plants. I haven’t tried in Texas yet.

          This year I tried cherry tomatoes. In a planter. Well, repeated 70-MPH winds will bend the tomato cage until it no longer stands, flopping well over 6 feet of tomato bush onto the lawn. (I thought this was supposed to be a small plant?) And of course, the more it grows, the more wind it catches in a storm, and thus defeats all my bracing.

          • As I learned from growing up in Sacramento, “tomato cages” are only good for smaller plants. You need a frame that’s taller and heavy duty—I’ve seen metal fence posts suggested as a possibility, with mason twine as the horizontal web.

          • We tried cherry tomatoes last year. The weather was not kind to my plants. =/

          • Look for the ‘Fourth of July” tomato. It bears quickly, is a small tomato, and best of all, small, somewhat stocky plant. It was bred for container growing, Cherry tomato plants can get absolutely enormous as they are indeterminate – pinch the top off if you want them to stop trying to turn into a vine.

    • Sam L.

      Garrison Keillor on zucchini: Lake Woebegonians lock their car doors to keep others from putting in sacks of zukes and/or tomatoes.
      Also: How do you know you have too much zucchini? You find yourself making zucchini daiquiris.

      • Yeah, that’s the only time car doors get locked here too 🙂
        A I wish I could unread the thought of the daiquiris…

        • Several years ago, I was giving my team the start-of-shift briefing, while leading them on exercises. My closing remarks were: “And, as most of y’all remember, I was doing physical therapy this spring. That means I didn’t get a garden in, nor did I plant any zucchini. So you know, my car is unlocked. Have a great shift!”

          The shift was rather neatly split between the rural folks who started laughing, and the urban/suburban folks who looked confused. As a mixed team headed for their assignment, I heard “What was that all about?” “Wee-elll, you’ve never grown zukes afore, have ya?”

          Before the week was out, there was a lively farmer’s market taking place in the parking lot & break room. And I got told to go pick up my shopping bag of cucumbers in the break room, ’cause no one knew what my car looked like.

          My boss, the dear man, was mildly worries that someone would think I had been soliciting bribes. He mentioned this to another department head, and was reassured with lots and lots of laughter that no, zucchini does not count as a bribe.

      • The ONE TIME we ever had a flourishing, indeed, massive tomato plant/s, it was one that grew out of seeds randomly thrown there, whilst my mother and her companion were having a snack of salted eggs and tomatoes. So prolific it was, that we didn’t have to buy tomatoes for two years. The plant died during a flood.

        Every attempt to try grow vegetables on that plot of land has failed since. =/

  5. Still, to paraphrase Patton, “A good enough story passionately written now is better than a perfectly planned story written next year.”

  6. There are no hard and fast rules for writing, but clockwork plans I would say chuck me out of a book faster than the open-conflict pick-up line does.

    This might make a good plot device, if you were writing it. A plan that appears to work like clockworks, but not only because some kind of enemy is setting a trap.

  7. One of my favorite movies is “Being There” just because you’re waiting for it to all fall apart . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . Of course, it not a plot, it’s just _everyone_ making assumptions based on appearance. Still waiting . . .