Writing

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #1

In November 2000, I started writing the first novel of what would become the Herbert West Series. This November, I have set myself a goal to finish writing a collection of stories I intend to publish in 2020. Call it my own version of NaNoWriMo. So, I’ve scheduled posts for the next four weeks featuring each of the four books of the series. Oh, and November 7th was Herbert West’s 133rd birthday!

First up, The Friendship of Mortals.

Herbert West can revivify the dead – after a fashion. Miskatonic University librarian Charles Milburn agrees to help him, compromising his principles and his romance with Alma Halsey, daughter of the Dean of Medicine. West’s experiments become increasingly risky, but when he prepares to cross the ultimate border, only Charles can save his life – if his conscience lets him.

The novel was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Don’t ask me why. Something about the premise (scientific reanimation of the dead), the setting (HPL’s fictional Miskatonic University), and the nameless narrator kept niggling at me. I wanted to create something using those elements, with a few of my own added. I gave the narrator a name (Charles Milburn) and a profession (cataloguer at the Miskatonic University Library). In November 2000, those sparks turned into a blaze.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3


Alma lived in a curious little apartment at the top of a house on French Hill Street. Although only a short distance from Arkham’s best neighbourhoods, the area was showing signs of decline. Many of the houses had been turned into apartment buildings. Paint had faded and peeled, and efforts to conceal small blights such as ash cans and laundry lines were flagging. It was as though the waterfront slum to the north had thrown out a tentacle and induced a subtle decay.

Alma’s place was furnished in a style which could be described only as eclectic, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. No less so was Alma herself, wearing a kind of smock over her skirt and blouse, her hair tied back with a ribbon.

She motioned me to a cushion-laden sofa and went to make tea while I admired the way she had accommodated the comforts of life in the small space at her disposal. Her home resembled a ship’s cabin, afloat on the sea of leaves visible through the windows.

Once she had furnished me with a cup of tea fragrant with honey, Alma lost no time in pressing me for more details about my dinner with Herbert West.

“What did he want from you, anyway?”

“What makes you so sure he wanted something? Besides someone to share a meal with, I mean. He’d just finished exams, he said, and wanted to celebrate.”

“Hmm. From what I know of Mr. West he is not usually given to such spontaneous conviviality.”

“He didn’t seem to want anything much, really, just to talk about… well, his studies and that sort of thing.”

Alma looked unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s softening you up for something.”

“What do you have against Herbert West, anyway?” I asked. “It was quite plain to me from the moment we met him at the concert that you don’t care for him.”

“You’re quite right there. I don’t like him. I think he’s unscrupulous and devious. And a real manipulator. Look at the effect he’s had on you, for example.”

“What effect?”

“Well, I think you’re quite impressed. I do admit he is very attractive. But make no mistake, he’s entirely self-centred. And cold as ice.”

I was beginning to think that Alma’s aversion to West was rooted in nothing more than some sort of romantic connection gone wrong. She quickly dispelled this notion, however.

“Oh, don’t think I dislike him because he rejected my charms, or something silly like that. He’s not my type, for one thing. I’ve had very little to do with him, but I’ve heard quite a lot, from Papa and others at the Med. School.”

“So what is it you’ve heard?” I asked.

She looked serious. “That’s why I asked you here, actually, Charles. To tell you what I know about Herbert West so you have something to counterbalance your romantic notions. Because I still think he sought you out with some purpose in mind.”

“Sought me out? But he just happened to be at that concert – ”

“Never mind all that. Just listen.”

I listened.

Herbert West had gained admission to the Miskatonic University Medical School some three years previously, Alma said, having first obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. In short order he began to make a nuisance of himself by proposing wild theories about the reversibility of death, and worse, carrying out bizarre and unauthorized experiments on animals in the Medical School’s laboratories. It was this latter habit that had caused the college authorities to step in and threaten to restrict his laboratory privileges.

“Why?” I interjected. “Was he breaking the law – stealing people’s pet dogs and cats, for example?”

“Well, no,” Alma answered, “but there was something undisciplined and unstructured about his carryings on. They weren’t part of a program of rational study, which is what first and second year medical students are supposed to be engaged in. They aren’t expected to do original research at that stage, for God’s sake.”

I reflected that for whosever sake West did his experiments, it wasn’t God’s. Aloud I said,

“It sounds to me as though they were out of their depth with him. Did it ever occur to anyone that he might be the medical equivalent of a prodigy? Like that young fellow we heard playing the violin the other night.”

“Oh Charles,” Alma said, shaking her head, “it’s quite obvious that West did a good job of impressing you. I’m probably wasting my breath. But he didn’t stop at cats and dogs, however legitimately acquired.

“He got a dead human body from somewhere. Probably one of his father’s mortuaries. This would have been the fall before last – October or thereabouts. He’d been told to stop his animal experiments by a certain date, or else. So I guess he got desperate and decided to try a human being.” She shook her head again. “Such a waste of his talents. Papa says he’s really very competent at his normal studies.”

I refrained from pointing out that this could be another indication that the good professor-doctors of the Medical School simply didn’t know what to do with the cuckoo in their nest.

“Anyway,” Alma continued, “he got this corpse into the lab somehow, late at night, of course. He’d bribed the night watchman not to report him. First and second year students aren’t allowed into the labs at night, you see.”

West had also smuggled into the lab some sort of apparatus which he had connected to the corpse. He was engaged in pumping a fluid into it when he was discovered.

“It was bizarre and horrible to see, apparently,” said Alma. “It looked as though he’d had an accident with the equipment. A tube had burst, or something. When Papa and Dr. Hobson got there the place looked like a slaughterhouse – blood everywhere – the ‘patient’s’ blood, of course, and all over West too. There he was, blood all over that pretty face of his, but cool as can be, and laughing! That’s what really bothered them.”

I nearly laughed myself, realizing that this description of the scene neither surprised nor shocked me. In fact, it was exactly what I would have expected of the Herbert West I had begun to know. I wondered what had prompted his laughter. The experiment had failed, of course, so it must have been ironic amusement at the outrage of those whom he believed to be willfully ignorant.

“How did your father happen to know that West was in the laboratory that night?” I asked.

She looked uneasy. “I think someone tipped him off. Another student, maybe.” She didn’t go so far as to suggest that West had been watched, but I remembered what he had said about betrayal.

“Anyway, the next day Papa called West on the carpet and told him he had one chance to redeem himself. And he was forbidden to use any laboratory at the Medical School except under close supervision, for his course work only, for the remainder of the year.” She paused. “That seems pretty lenient to me, considering that he was already under threat of suspension. I wouldn’t be surprised if West senior weighed in with the senior college administration to smooth things over for his boy.”

“Yes, what about Hiram West?” I asked. “His son seemed rather ambivalent about him.”

“Really? A point in his favour, there. Hiram’s a typical businessman, in most ways. Into every kind of enterprise, and filthy rich. But none too scrupulous, if what I’ve heard is true. The thing is, he’s the sort of person that could be persuaded to be a major benefactor of Miskatonic. So it’s not really in the interests of the college to discipline his son too harshly. And in your case it’s another reason to be careful.”

“I hardly think I’ll ever pose any threat to Hiram West,” I said. “Really, Alma, you’re taking all this much too seriously. I admit I find West a rather interesting type, but our paths aren’t likely to cross very often, after all.”

“I hope not, for your sake. I have a bad feeling about that young man.”

“And this young man?” I asked, feeling suddenly playful. “What sort of feeling do you have about him?”

She regarded me with her head tilted to one side, a little smile on her lips. “Oh, I think he’s a very nice young man. I quite enjoy his company. Seriously, Charles, I do. I’m glad you came to Miskatonic.”

We went on then to talk about other things, including Alma’s ideas about the ‘new woman.’ She felt very strongly that young women should be encouraged to leave their parents’ homes and support themselves for a while before they married.

“Otherwise the poor things are perfectly helpless, aside from housekeeping and looking after children. And so dull, too.”

“You are surely an example of the other kind of woman, then, Alma. There’s nothing dull about you.”

“I hope not,” she said, looking pleased.

We parted in this mood of friendly bantering. But walking homeward, I knew that my mind was operating on two levels. On one, I was developing a closeness with Alma that I found pleasing and gratifying. On the other, I was ready to throw myself heart and soul into whatever adventures I could find in the proximity of Herbert West. It was as though I stood in a house looking out through two different windows. From one I saw a warm and sunlit meadow, humming with bees, from the other a black sky blazing with unknown stars.


What readers have said:

  • “Herbert West alarmed, enchanted, and terrified me all at once.”
  • “An extremely clever and skillfully written reimagining of Lovecraft’s episodic Herbert West stories.”
  • “Driscoll weaves a believable and intriguing tale, with sympathetic characters despite their skewed moral compass.”
  • “Wordy but good. I thought I’d never get through it, but it was worth it…even though it sets you up with a cliffhanger at the end!”
  • “It starts off slow and builds and builds and builds until it’s a wild affirmation of life and love.”

The Friendship of Mortals is available from:

Amazon: US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.

The Network: Myths of the Mirror November Writing Challenge

Written in response to a challenge at Diana’s blog.


A big old one is down. We knew it was ailing. It had given up part of its substance to the Eaters and Dissolvers, and for long its messages had become faint. It went down hard. The whole net shuddered. The Burrowers trembled and Stompers scattered. Now the entire flow shifts and jiggles. Water has backed up through the nets and mineral transport has halted. Our hyphae tingle, for we know what is to come.

We’ve been through this before. The fall of a big one tears a rift in the fabric, laying the matrix open to That Which Is Above. The whole network redeploys, full of flurries and judders. Messages vibrate through us. Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus—hold those supplies! Protective compounds, a flux of nutrients—more, more, more! Make chitin, build new tubes, shut down useless sections. Pump and transmit. That old one existed for many lives of our kind, many cycles and thrummings of the World. Its mass—everything it built in its long life—will have to be divided, managed, mobilized for All. Transformation commences!

The crawlers and wigglers, burrowers and borers, they’re at work already. The matrix vibrates with their chewing, grinding, and jabbing. Water comes down from Above. Some of our kind are brewing solvents to squirt down the holes and cracks, loosening the bonds, freeing the elements—to us. We absorb liquids and shunt them from tube to tube, to the ends of our net, to where it mingles with other nets. Our tubes will take the stuff of the Big One and turn it into the stuff of Life.

Life. For the Big One made seeds. We know where they fell, descending soft into the matrix, swelling, breaking open, extending roots and stems. We surround them, cradle them, feed the tender rootlets, make substances to tell them of others of their kind. We transmit wisdom, help them grow and stretch, so they will fill the rift and seek That Which Is Above. We are always here. We endure. We sustain. We dwell in the matrix, and the matrix dwells in us.

Forest

Resurrection of Monster Maker Fun 2019: Creatures Donated by John Howell & Audrey Driscoll #October #Monsters

Read and see with your mind’s eye these fantastic creatures created by Charles and inspired by made-up words contributed by bloggers. In this case, author John W. Howell and me.

Legends of Windemere

Stein’s Lab in Soul Eater

Here we are again at the lab.  Going prehistoric for some of these.  Enjoy!

The first three monsters have been donated by John W. Howell:

Prehenseltaurus

Thought to be extinct, this ancient bison was recently rediscovered in a small valley that is surrounded by a volcanic ore bubble.  They have been living here with minimal predators, so they have thrived without destroying the restricted area.  Not as large as a bison, but still bigger than a human, the Prehenseltaurus lives among thick forests.  They are capable of getting into the trees thanks to their long horns, which they sharpen on the many chunks of quartz found in the region.  Their horns are usually hard and immovable like one would expect, but they are actually made of muscle instead of bone.  By relaxing, these parts can be turned into prehensile appendages that allow them to…

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blog, stars, eastern north america, northern south america, blue, purple, green

A Little Discussion Spices Up a Blog Post

After nearly 10 years of writing blog posts, reading blog posts, and commenting on blog posts, I have a pretty good idea of what I like in a blog post: an interesting (to me) topic, well-written, and relatively short. Good comments by other bloggers are a definite bonus. They can elevate a post from statement to conversation.

What are good comments? Ones that add something to what the blogger said, even by arguing disagreeing a bit. Remember what we’re always being told about our fiction writing — conflict adds interest. No one likes vitriolic troll-spew, but when every single comment is blandly positive (Great post! Thanks for this! Got to bookmark!), or there are no comments at all, the reading experience falls flat.

For example, a while ago, I read a reblogged post advising writers to use “sensitivity readers.” I knew from elsewhere that this topic is controversial; some writers see it as bordering on self-censorship. Several bloggers “liked” the post, but no one had anything to say about it. I’ve seen this happen often enough to wonder. Did all these readers just think, “Oh, okay,” and move on to the next thing? (And did I put in my 2 cents’ worth? No, actually. Being in the Far West of the world, I’m often among the last bloggers to read a post, and there’s not much point in formulating a comment only the original poster will see.)

Some posts lend themselves better than others to discussion-type comments. If someone is announcing a new book or sharing a milestone of some sort, no discussion is needed. On the other hand, posts offering advice to writers, or strongly worded screeds taking a particular position on an issue, are vastly improved by comments.

I’m not advocating flat condemnations or being argumentative for the sake of it, but sometimes I wish people wouldn’t appear to swallow all advice with a bland affirmation. If you have reservations or questions about advice given or opinions expressed in a post, articulate them! If you’re a published writer with any measure of success, you have a ground from which to comment and question.

Perhaps bloggers are reluctant to differ with or question opinions in a post because they fear being labelled as negative. In the culture of “positivity,” an apparently negative attitude is perceived as a major flaw. I agree that whiny, bitter screeds full of self-pity, or personal attacks are never acceptable, but a bit of civilized discussion can add dimension and interest to a post.

We’ve all heard this piece of advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” I suggest modifying it to: “If you don’t agree with something, turn your disagreement into an opportunity to discuss.”

So, fellow bloggers, what do you think? How do you feel about a bit of civilized quibbling? Feel free to disagree!

Thank You Mr. Shakespeare

Writers, here are some rousing words from RJ Llewellyn, channeling Shakespeare.

Writing Despite Computers and Programmes

In my previous blog (Declared a danger to public health & well being by High Priests of Akismet….sometimes you gotta love a cheap-shot). I put this out along the themes of encouraging Writers when the going gets not so much tough, but as Arid. I thought it might be worth putting out again…..

Annnd Take 2!

Sometimes I indulge in a Shakespeare play session in my DVD collection, and there are effects on my writing which insist on being displayed….

Stage directions:

A group of folk are sitting.

Enter:

The Commentator:

They Speak:  

Good-day to you my fellow Wordsmiths

Why these sombre faces?

What halts or confounds your pens?

Have you fallen out to dispute of

Those five particular sisters

Calliope of the wondrous images

Euterpe entrancing with the lyrical dance

Thalia ever humorous and irreverent

Erato sweet purveyor of heart’s feelings

Polyhymnia, solemn in her honouring of…

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Cat eyes in the dark

Seeing in the Dark

The characters in my novels and stories frequently roam around in the dark, often on some sort of nefarious business. Writing those scenes can be tough. If I want a character to see something important, I have to furnish a plausible light source. In fiction set in the present day, there are reliable flashlights and the mobile phone’s flashlight feature. Imminent battery death can supply a bit of tension to the scene.

But what about earlier eras? Much of my writing is set in the past, specifically the early to mid 20th century. I’ve spent a good deal of time checking whether a specific light source existed at a particular time. When did electric torches (otherwise known as flashlights) come into common use? Eighteen ninety-six. What about car headlights? The earliest ones were carbide lamps. Integrated all-electric lights weren’t common until the 1920s.

Sources of Light

Other light sources include torches (the kind with actual flames), camp fires, glowing lava, candles, oil lamps, gaslights, street lights, moonlight, starlight, lightning flashes, and the ability to see in the dark. (The last is not to be bestowed on a character unless they’re really special, because for humans, it’s a superpower.) Whichever mode of illumination I select, it has to fit the situation. No flashlights (or electric torches) before the late 19th century. Lightning bolts aren’t predictable and usually involve other phenomena as well. If someone is close enough to molten lava for it to show details, they may be dead. Moonlight doesn’t show colours or details all that well, so forget about characters seeing eye colours or reading maps by moonlight. Starlight sounds magical, but is even dimmer.

Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the 19th century and personal cigarette lighters until the 1930s. (The match has an exceedingly interesting history, complete with bad smells, explosions, and phosphorus poisoning, both accidental and intentional.) For even earlier settings, it would be advisable to learn about fire starting methods such as flint and steel, and containers such as fire pots for maintaining and transporting the precious results.

Other Considerations and the “Ambient Glow”

Candles and torches (the flaming kind) are fire hazards, a fact that can be useful or annoying, depending on your plot. Light can reveal one’s presence as well as help one see. It can conceal as well as reveal if it’s bright enough to blind. The writer must exercise as much caution with light in the darkness as his or her characters. Unless, of course, the action involves the supernatural. In paranormal situations, the ever-popular ambient glow (sourceless, magical light) may be invoked judiciously, as I did in key scenes of my novel She Who Comes Forth.

Utter Darkness

In other scenes, the main character of that novel must endure absolute darkness — the kind where you can’t see anything, even your own hand in front of your face. That degree of darkness is hard to come by, but it’s worth experiencing if you’re planning to write about it. In fact, before writing a scene that takes place in any kind of darkness, the best research might be to replicate the conditions and literally see what you can see (or not).

Image by Михаил Прокопенко from Pixabay

Reading Like a Reader Is More Fun Than Reading Like a Writer

Last week I posted about too many books and too little time. Today’s topic is the reading process itself.

Years ago, when I was young, there were two kinds of reading. The first one was obligatory reading, usually for school, later for college courses. It was done at a table or desk, with notebook and pen nearby. The second was reading for pleasure. Whether I read classics, trashy paperbacks, serious novels, children’s books, or nonfiction, I didn’t need to take notes or write book reports. This kind of reading was an escape from real life.

Now that I’m a writer, reading is complicated. Thanks to all the “how to write right” blog posts I’ve read, my brain is full of rules and admonishments, things writers should do and many they must never do. For example, overuse of dialogue tags other than “said.” I just read a book whose characters murmured, muttered, and growled way too much. Another had way too many backstory info-dumps. It’s hard to enjoy reading a book if I find myself editing it.

Writers notice things like typos and punctuation issues because they’re always fretting about them in their own writings. Casual readers looking for a diversion may ignore minor issues as long as the story (plot, characters, voice) is sufficiently compelling. That could be why some poorly written books get five star ratings and rave reviews. But readers who also write and publish have trained themselves to find misspelled words and awkwardly constructed sentences. Writers notice even minor problems, and not with delight.

So what does this tell writers? The story is more important than its vehicle, but a vehicle that sputters and stops will drive discerning readers away from the story. They are more likely to abandon it rather than get out and push.

Then there’s the matter of reviews. I know how hard it is for self-published authors to accumulate reviews. I read a lot of indie authors, so therefore feel obliged to post reviews of their books, especially the ones I enjoy. But that means I can’t just let the narrative wash over me while I’m reading. If I intend to write a decent review, I have to remember details. Sometimes I even make a few notes. This reading experience looks more like work than escape.

Reviewing like a writer — is that good or bad? Maybe the person that wrote the book would appreciate reviews containing the kind of feedback they get from a critique group or editor. But then again, maybe not. The book has been written and published, after all. At that stage, all its author wants to know is whether readers like it or not. They may not appreciate another writer telling them what characters should have been removed or which darlings needed killing.

Sometimes I wish I could switch off “writer mode” when I’m reading for pleasure. On the other hand, that’s why it’s so important for published writing to be error-free. Writers, let’s give one another a frictionless, snag-free reading experience!

So, fellow bloggers (and writers): do you notice things like typos and other violations of writing rules when you’re reading for fun? Do you take the time to review the books you read? Do you see your TBR list as a source of delight or another job?

It’s Alive! (Sort of)

Back in May, I heard a rather intriguing and disturbing story on radio. The nub of it is that researchers at Yale University were able to induce brain activity in detached heads of pigs obtained from a slaughterhouse four hours after death. They accomplished this with a technology called “BrainEx.” A system of pumps, heaters and filters perfused the dead brains with an artificial blood solution. After six hours of treatment, the brains showed cellular activity. At least one scientist commented that if the treatment had been continued, some level of consciousness may very well have been achieved .

Here is a link:
https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/how-late-is-too-late-to-revive-a-brain-pig-brain-study-raises-questions-1.5119913

My first thought: Fans of Frankenstein and Herbert West will love this! My second thought: I wonder what’s in that artificial blood. What colour is it — lurid green? Or maybe purple?

Seriously, though, this experiment raises a lot of disturbing questions, about time of death, when it’s okay to “harvest” organs for transplant, about animal experiments, and when is the spark of consciousness finally extinguished. The scientists took measures to make sure the brains did not attain full consciousness and stood by with anesthesia, just in case. (That was nice of them.)

The intent is to use the results of this study to learn more about post-mortem brain cell death and how damaged cells may be repaired. But there’s always the possibility that the unscrupulous will cite the experiment to prey upon the desperate, promising a form of immortality (for a large fee, no doubt) by hooking up brains to a pump full of magic solution. (This actually reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness.”)

Fiction is a give and take between speculation and reality, the point where they intersect. These brain experiments may furnish material for ethicists, doctors, scientists, and for writers of speculative and horror fiction as well.

Pig Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

open books, grass

Creating and Fulfilling Expectations: Books as Products or Works of Art

The book as product: specific word count, story arc, number and types of characters, type of ending, and a cover suited to the genre. It may help its author make a living. Or it may not.

The book as work of art: whatever gives the writer the feeling of having a hand on the lever of creation. It may or may not become a “classic.” A posthumous one.

This is what happens when I’ve been reading too many “how to do it right” posts for writers. (Snarky aside: Judging by the vast amounts of advice we need, we writers are self-indulgent, impractical airheads, fumbling our way through the real world.)

The author of a recent such post expressed acute distress (“I almost cried!”) when a writer admitted they didn’t know the target audience for their book.

OK, all you writers hiding behind your computer screens, is this you? You don’t write your novels for a defined demographic? Well, I suppose YA authors do, but what about the rest of us? I certainly don’t. I feel a ghostly reader peering over my shoulder as I write, but I don’t know anything about them except they’re reading my book and I owe them a good experience.

I write from a need to embody in written language the stories churning in my brain. That’s what makes me sit down and crank out the words, not a market survey that indicates a taste for a specific type of novel in a particular slice of the population.

“What if they find out that … ?” and “Let me tell you how it happened. There was this thing–” These are the sources of story. Not market studies.

Many indie authors see their writing and publishing as a business. Authors with contracts to traditional publishers are nudged to deliver the correct book-shaped products with cover images accurately labelling their genres. Products must be packaged to match customer needs and expectations. That’s totally fine and logical.

Trouble is, not every writer thinks of the books they write as “products,” even if they publish them using the same platforms as do businesslike, marketing-oriented indies. Today, publishing takes many forms.

As they prepare to publish, writers may find it helpful to examine their intentions and expectations. In private, in secret if necessary. Do you want to sell a million copies? Be #1 on some list? Connect with a few readers, a secret society of people like you? Achieve perfection? Become famous? Just be able to call yourself a “published author”? Produce a printed book you can hold in your hands and post pictures of on social media? Every writer fits into one of these categories, or the infinity of spaces between them.

As in other areas of life, it helps to know what you want and act accordingly, with your expectations set to “realistic.” Then you can read and absorb only the advice that’s relevant to you, and cheerfully ignore the rest.

Despite all the expert advice, there are many indies who don’t conform, whose books straddle genres, or mix them up, or don’t belong to any genre at all. What about all those off-beat or zany cover images? (Airheads, right?) From experience I can say those books aren’t all terrible and worthless. Some are excellent, but prospective readers have to be adventurous and take a chance. Think farmers’ market or craft fair, not big box store. Spend a dollar or three and maybe discover a new and wonderful reading experience.

Until the end of July you can do just that at the Smashwords Store. The Summer/Winter Sale continues until July 31st. My books may be found here.

Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #7: Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities [between gardening and writing]?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose, and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy, and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention, but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone.

In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.

Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.

And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.

While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.

For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress