Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

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The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

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Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

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Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.

Repurposed: A New Role For The Barrel

For years, I had a funky wooden rain barrel, as well as a couple of plastic garbage cans that had been modified into water storage devices. The wooden one was more ornamental than practical, but was a fixture of the place.

After new eavestroughs and downspouts were installed, the wooden barrel no longer had a function as a “rain barrel.” For several months it sat there unused, until I decided, coincidentally, to try growing blue poppies (Meconopsis) in containers once more. The soil in my garden is sandy and too full of tree roots for these fussy (but gorgeous) plants. It’s hard to maintain sufficient nutrient levels without also encouraging tree root proliferation.

Several years ago, I tried growing blue poppies in 1 and 2 gallon plastic pots, but that attempt resulted in crown rot and failure. So as a last ditch effort, I decided to try really big containers that will have better internal drainage than the plastic pots. Enter the barrel, in the form of two half-barrels.

After sawing around the middle, each half was furnished with drainage holes.

Half barrel drainage holes

I positioned the half-barrels in semi-shady spots in the garden, setting them on chunks of concrete and making sure they were more or less level.

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Then I mixed up what I hope is a suitable growing medium — compost, sand, manure, peat moss, kelp meal, slow-release fertilizer, some actual soil (also known as “dirt”), and a bit of commercial container mix as insurance. The compost and soil are in the bottom parts of the half-barrels, with the other stuff on top. This is to avoid the prolific crop of volunteer seedlings that always sprouts from my compost.

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Once the soil was in place, I dug up the six surviving Meconopsis plants and removed astonishing mats of maple feeding roots from each root ball. No wonder there have been almost no blooms the last couple of years! The only roots in their new barrel quarters will be their own. I hope they appreciate this by settling in and putting forth some new leaves before going into dormancy.

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The trick will be overwintering the dormant plants. In their native environment, precipitation is lowest in winter, highest in summer — the opposite of what we have here. Watering containers in summer is easy, but keeping excess rain out of the half-barrels in winter will probably involve some sort of charming roof-like structures that will allow air circulation. Covering with (ugly) plastic sheets, I suspect, would ensure permanent dormancy, otherwise known as death.

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The pea-gravel mulch is intended to protect the crowns from excessive wetness and fungal evils, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s a good idea. That’s the thing about gardening — you do something that seems like a great idea, but as soon as it’s done, doubts creep in. Trouble is, you have to wait for months to see how things work out.

I’m hoping the barrel method will work. It has been done, in a garden just across Juan de Fuca Strait.

90% Eclipsed!

Okay, it wasn’t as big a thrill as in the fabled Path of Totality, but Victoria BC was the best place in Canada to view the Eclipse of 2017.

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Homemade solar eclipse viewer in use.

 

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This is as close as we got to totality.

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The dimmest part of the garden at 90%

The weirdest thing for me was the 3 degree (C) drop in temperature even though it was technically sunny. It’s also amazing how much light the sun emits even when it’s 90% obscured. I suppose that’s why so many people travel to zones of totality.

Time to make plans for April 8, 2024!

Fictional Details: Timing and Chronology

Approaching the halfway mark in the first draft of my work in progress, all I want to do is forge ahead, laying down the road — or trail, or path — to the climax and conclusion, in which the big, important themes that are the whole point of the thing will shine and resonate in the brain of the delighted reader. Clanging gongs and fireworks, that’s what I’m aiming for.

So why am I agonizing over whether something happened yesterday or the day before? Or how long it takes to get from point A to point B? Wouldn’t that dinner last a lot longer than the conversation that was its entire purpose? And aren’t those characters having way too many drinks in too a short time? At this rate, they’ll be incapable of the action scene that follows.

Why agonize over these details? Because it matters, damn it! If to only one reader, or only to me, the author.

Especially in genres such as mystery and thriller, but even in semi-literary, quasi-supernatural, adventure-type opuses such as the one I’m working on, it’s necessary to pay attention to matters of timing and chronology.

Consider, for example, the word “minute,” meaning sixty seconds. People use it all the time in conversation with no expectation of accuracy. “I’ll just be a minute,” you say, when you know darned well it will be ten. Or, “It was here a minute ago,” when it was actually five seconds. That’s okay. But when a narrator uses that word, as in, “He stood staring at me for a minute without speaking,” just visualize it, and count those seconds. A minute is actually a long time. If someone stood silent and staring for an actual minute, you would be asking them if they were okay, and maybe calling 911. “Moment,” “second,” or “instant” are much better words here.

At some point before pressing that “Publish” button, a read-through for timing and continuity issues is definitely in order, either by the author or an attentive beta reader.

When I’m reading someone else’s book, I don’t look for stuff like this. I’m fine unless things seem seriously out of whack, such as going from July to Christmas in the turn of a page, or a if a character without supernatural abilities whips up a five-course dinner in half an hour. Readers give writers a kind of license about chronological details if they can follow the plot. But they do matter to me, the writer, as a matter of principle. When I’m working out plot details, I need to know that when I begin a paragraph with, “The next morning … ” the one after it doesn’t make a sudden jump into the following week.

Which is why I’m wrestling with moon phases, distances in and near Luxor, Egypt, the steps involved in launching a hot air balloon, and the chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trust me, it will all make sense when I’m done. With luck, that might even be in the present decade.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

Summer Reading Roundup

I’ve been catching up on a virtual TBR pile of ebooks I acquired in the past couple of years — most (but not all) from Smashwords, and mainly during Read An Ebook Week and Summer/Winter Sale events. Many of them were free.

Free ebooks are considered problematic by many. Rumor has it they are picked up by persons deficient in morals whose purpose is simply to amass hundreds of ebooks — electronic hoarders, in effect. And, rumor adds, these books are never read. Indie authors are advised never to give away their books for free (except as part of KDP Select’s five free days, of course. Oh, and Goodreads giveaways, in which case you give someone a free print copy, and often pay for shipping it to them).

End of digression. Now, where was I? Oh yes — free ebooks. I have deliberately acquired quite a few, mainly from Smashwords. And I have read most of them. One thing I’ve found, though — it’s really easy to forget ebooks, free or otherwise. Unless I download and start reading an ebook right after I buy it, it disappears into the universe of electronic blips that live in my computer. Unlike physical books that accumulate to form tottering piles on the bedside table (or the floor), ebooks easily vanish from sight. And you know what happens then.

Anticipating summer reading time, I had a look through a file called My Digital Editions. I was happily shocked to find half a dozen titles I had completely forgotten about, sitting there unread. I copied them to my e-reader (yes, I still have one of those) and proceeded to read.

Here are my impressions of some of those ebooks. These aren’t in-depth reviews, just superficial observations. The titles are listed in the order I began reading.

 

The Crime Cafe 9 Book Set. A boxed set of nine stories by crime fiction writers featured on the Crime Cafe podcast with bonus interviews!

A perfect accompaniment for a long flight, bus ride, or any situation that may involve lengthy waits. These books were originally published some years ago, but are still worthy of attention. Hard boiled to cozy mystery, novel to novella-length crime fiction by nine different authors. Quality ranges from okay to excellent.

In No Particular Order: a memoir / by Kevin Brennan. It’s true that life is linear, but the living of it is all over the map. In this memoir-in-vignettes, novelist Kevin Brennan (Parts Unknown, Yesterday Road) examines his life the way memories occur in the wild: in no particular order. Whether it’s recalling high school humiliations, ups and downs in love and romance, or unique interactions with the human race at home and abroad, Brennan both entertains and moves the reader with moments of unexpected poignancy and full-tilt humor. In No Particular Order is a deconstructed memoir, like no other because it looks at life as it really is — a kaleidoscope of individual moments.

Plucked from Kevin Brennan’s blog, this bouquet of vignettes and anecdotes presents a poignant picture of growing up and coming of age in the America of the 1960s through to the new millennium. These are thin but tasty slices of life to be savoured anytime. After reading, I find myself thinking, “Yeah!” or, “Oh!” or, “Hmm.”

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part One: Eagle Ascendant / by Lorinda J. Taylor. Robbin Haysus Nikalishin was born on 31 October 2729 and became the first starship Captain to make contact with extraterrestrials. This book recounts the early life of this man who became one of Earth’s greatest heroes. All heroes are human beings and all human beings are flawed, and the man the Earth will come to know as “Capt. Robbie” was a very human man.

Combining hard SF with a coming-of-age story, this is an engrossing read. The future society in which the book is set is methodically constructed and fascinating. The fictional science sounded plausible to me. Step by step, the story builds to a gripping climax, ending with an irresistible situation that compels one to read Part Two.

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part Two: Wounded Eagle / by Lorinda J. Taylor. In this second part of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin’s biography, the responsibility for the space disaster in Part One is determined and Prf. Eiginsh’s mystifying behavior is explained, while the Captain attempts to recover from the devastating aftereffects of the disaster. The resolution is bittersweet; will the Captain ever become capable of coping fully with the damage that was done to him? 

Exploring the causes and consequences of the catastrophe that ends Part One, this book is slower but equally interesting. Less technology and more psychology than the first volume.

Awful, Ohio / by Sirloin Furr. Troy Slushy’s exposure to his life-decimating job, depressed wife, and crumbling home encourage his desire for a life in perpetual darkness. It becomes his objective to destroy the bright, menacing beast that removes him from the ecstasy of his dreams, only to expose him to all of these worthless possessions. Troy Slushy declares that his mission is to destroy the sun.

A modern allegory? Experimental fiction? The author has forged a unique monstrosity, beating words into new shapes and meanings. I had to take a break at the halfway point to reset my brain.

A Long Night in Hell / by Jack Stornoway. The ride down the elevator to Agni Mining Station was like a ride into Hell itself. On a planet where you could never quite get warm enough, it quickly became uncomfortably warm, then uncomfortably hot. G. Drew Akers had been in deep mines before, he’d worked in one for two years in Hussy Crater in his early twenties.

This 10K-word story is categorized as science fiction, but the main character is a detective investigating a murder in a mining colony deep below the surface of Mars. Sadly, the tale does not live up to its intriguing setting.

Out of Focus / by Susan Egner. Morgan Grey photographs a prowler at her home 24 hours after her airline pilot-husband’s death. Picking up the pieces of her life, she debuts her photographic talents and features the unusual eyes of the prowler, setting off unforeseen events exposing her husband’s double life. The illusion of a perfect life gives way to the reality of a gifted artist’s celebrity—a life no longer out of focus.

A thriller of the “woman discovers her husband’s secrets after his death” type. Strangely, the reader is informed of the secrets early in the book, so the main question for the reader is when and how Morgan will discover them. Details about flying commercial airplanes, shooting photographs and processing film are interesting, and there are some suspenseful episodes, but the ending is rushed and unsatisfying. Includes a collection of metaphors and similes used to describe Morgan’s green eyes.

Baiting & Fishing / by Meredith Rae Morgan. A newspaper reporter investigates the circumstances of a corporate scandal, and finds the woman of his dreams. Is she his perfect match or a murderess? Is he a heel or a hero?

Middle-aged reporter Ray Bailey is easy to like and sympathize with, as what starts out a potential big story turns into a charming romance. The vanishing lifestyle of Gulf Coast Florida is a big feature of this book — especially fishing, eating fish, and more fishing. Turns out Ray’s mystery woman is a whiz at fishing, and really rich, and great-looking. And a bunch of other things as well, some of them not so good. Kept me reading, and wondering.

The Eternal Librarian / by Meyari McFarland. When humanity went to the stars they took many things with them. Brencis ensured that they took the books. Unfortunately, humanity also took along their greed, their blindness and their short-sighted focus on all the wrong things. The Eternal Librarian is a touching exploration of human nature, determination and the love of learning that is dedicated to librarians and book lovers everywhere.

Well, the description pretty much sums it up. A short story with a sincere message.

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

 

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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Bamfield Revisited

Two years ago, I wrote a post about a visit to the town of Bamfield, British Columbia, to attend two concerts of that year’s Music By The Sea festival.

I just got back from this year’s MBTS, having attended three concerts and spent more time exploring this unique community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Highlights for me included the Sunday matinee concert, which featured chamber music by Brahms and Smetana performed by some excellent young musicians. I was sharper and more attentive than the previous evening, after the four hour boat trip down the Alberni Inlet. The clear light of noon in the superlative performance space made this matinee concert a treat for both eyes and ears. Evening concerts are enhanced by sunsets that create a magnificent backdrop behind the performers.

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Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre

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The view from the Rix Centre’s balcony.

Other highlights included visits to Brady’s Beach near Bamfield, and Pachena Beach, several kilometres away.

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Brady’s Beach on a perfect July day.

Then there were the Gunneras…

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A huge patch of huge plants — the Gunneras that might eat Bamfield?

I’m not sure which species these are, Gunnera manicata or G. tinctoria, but it doesn’t really matter. Apparently they can become invasive, which is a scary thought.

Sadly, the calls of the Swainson’s thrushes, which so entranced me in 2015, were not as evident this time. Apparently, these birds have a short breeding season, and Music By The Sea 2015 was held in early July, so it may be this year the thrushes were mostly finished with the singing which is used by males to claim territory. I hope their numbers haven’t declined; they migrate to South America for the winter, flying by night, so may be killed by collisions with windows, radio and cell-phone towers, and tall buildings. It would be unfortunate if these little singers disappeared from a place that celebrates music every year.

 

The Ultimate Spoiler

When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.

Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.

As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.

When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.

How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once.  Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.

Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.

No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!

This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.

Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.

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Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.