Holly Hell

I have at least three sizable English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) on my modest patch of land. Maybe more than three; they may be multi-trunked or actually two or three plants growing close together. A next door neighbour who moved away some years ago told me his place was surrounded by a holly hedge at one time. Knowing how birds spread the seeds around, I’m betting my plants are descended from that hedge.

Many people really like holly. Gardeners in cold-winter areas bemoan not being able to grow it and wish they could. Having lived and worked with these plants, I’m not so sure.

“Worked with” means pruned them, handled the prunings, raked up their dead leaves or encountered them while weeding or planting.

Hollies can become small trees — if by “small” you mean 25 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide. They have a habit of branching low on their trunks, and unless one makes a point of crawling under and removing the lowest branches, they get up to all kinds of mischief. I have found thin, whippy branches 6 to 8 feet long hanging down and rooting where they touch the soil. Left to themselves, they would become new holly bushes, thickening the thicket, so to speak.

Hollies are, of course, broadleaf evergreens, so a large plant casts considerable year-round shade. Other plants growing near the hollies are susceptible to being shaded out of existence or engulfed by ever-expanding holly foliage. Unless the gardener has space for such expansion, and wants a tall, impenetrable hedge, it’s necessary to prune and trim every couple of years to keep the plants within bounds. The good news is that hollies can endure severe pruning, so a gardener doesn’t have to fret about doing it wrong. Lop away!

And now the bad news — holly leaves are intensely prickly. Each leaf has several spines along its margin. Even fallen leaves are a menace to the leaf-raking gardener wearing thin gloves or no gloves at all. Burrowing into a holly thicket or crawling under low branches to cut out any with rooting ambitions is an exercise in masochism, as is gathering up and lugging the cut branches. I have little pink prickle marks all over my hands and wrists — and I was wearing gloves!

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Skeletonized holly leaf, with spines intact!

Despite all this, hollies are undeniably attractive, in a dark, prickly way. The red berries borne on the female plants add a festive zing (and, of course, birds love ’em and distribute the seeds far and wide). A gardener without a holly bush who wants one should probably acquire a named variety rather than go with the species, which tends to be overly vigorous. Many cultivars are available, offering a range of sizes, colours (including variegated) and degrees of hardiness.

A large holly can support climbers such as clematis, whose blooms — especially the lighter colours — look good against the dark foliage. One of my hollies hosts a Clematis armandii, which looks wonderful when in full bloom. Of course this complicates the pruning business considerably, so a clematis that can be cut down every spring, such  as one of the Viticella types, would be a better choice.

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Clematis armandii and holly

 

 

 

Read an E-book Week (2)

Read an Ebook Week continues at Smashwords through Saturday. Here Edeana Malcolm tells Kindle owners how to load Smashwords books. Don’t miss out on all the great books available (including Edeana’s and mine).

My Writing Eden

How to download a Smashwords book to a Kindle reader

Don’t be held captive by Amazon. Sure it’s more convenient to buy e-books direct from Amazon, but this week you can get some really good book deals at Smashwords. For some reason, Amazon won’t take books from Smashwords. They prefer exclusivity, so writers have to publish directly.

Don’t worry. You can still benefit from the Smashwords promotion. As I promised yesterday, here are the instructions on how to download a Smashwords book to your Kindle or Kindle Fire.

First find the book you want at Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com

How do I download books to my Kindle or Kindle Fire?
You’ll find links to all your purchased books in your Smashwords Library. There are two options for loading Smashwords ebook content to your Kindle or Kindle Fire:

1.  USB Connection.  Plug your Kindle into the USB slot (small rectangular slot)…

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Forging the Draft

In a recent post I moaned about how hard it is to undertake the enormous job of imagining a novel and turning it into readable prose. Since writing that post, I’ve also written several thousand words of my work in progress — new, freshly imagined stuff. At this stage, forward motion is crucial. This isn’t the time to worry about choosing the right words and avoiding the wrong ones, the niceties of grammar or whether elastic bandages were used in 1962. I have to keep that pen moving, writing down what I see my characters doing and saying, as though I’m transcribing the action in a movie, while maintaining the intended narrative voice. Anything I need to check or go back and work out later, I note as such and keep going. Quick, dirty and fast.

This first trip through my plot is like walking a tightrope across a chasm. Standing around admiring the view isn’t going to get me to the other side.

Once I have the bare bones laid down, I’ll go back and fill in, rearrange, add and delete stuff, and generally whip that scene or section into shape. But at this point I don’t intend to get mired in trying to achieve perfection. It’s more important to move on to the next scene or chapter, keeping the goal in mind: finish the first draft.

In On Writing, Stephen King says to write your first draft behind a closed door. Don’t show it to anyone. After it’s done, stash it away for a couple of months before you look at it again. I’ve seen similar advice from other writers and indeed, that’s pretty much how I wrote my first five novels.

For some reason, I haven’t managed to do that with the current work in progress. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer using my subterranean (i.e., basement) writing room. My current writing spot has way too many distractions that make it too easy to avoid the tough work of intense imagining with pen in hand.

Manuscript SWCF

Pen? Yes, I still write the first draft with a pen, on paper. My semi-legible scribble makes it hard to start fiddling with stuff I’ve just written, almost inevitable when the words are displayed in stark clarity on the screen. But I don’t consider a chapter or scene to be properly first-drafted until the completed handwritten pages are transcribed — with changes, of course — into electronic form.

Contrary to King’s excellent advice, I’ve resorted to sending freshly written chunks of my WIP for discussion at my critique group’s monthly meetings. Why? To create an external deadline and a sense of urgency. So far, it’s working. This work has been “in progress” for more than two years, with no progress at all until the past three months.

There are other ways to induce writer urgency — the Write or Die app, for example. I haven’t used it, but I understand you can set it to nuke whatever you’ve written if you don’t keep banging those keys until you achieve a specific word count. (So don’t indulge in too much liquid refreshment during a writing session).

Post header image courtesy of Pixabay

 

Book Rocks

No, not “books rock” (even though they do). This is about stones.

I started reading at meals as a kid. Food and reading seem made for each other — both are at least potentially pleasurable activities, depending on the quality of what is being consumed.

Thing is, it’s hard to read while eating if your book refuses to stay open. (This, incidentally, is one area in which ebooks have an advantage over print). Some sort of weight is required, and pressing tableware into service for the purpose doesn’t work too well. The knife slides off, someone else needs the butter dish, etc.

Rocks, on the other hand, are perfect. And my house is full of them, ranging from small pebbles to large cobbles, due to a habit of picking up attractive rocks on beach walks.

Some rocks are better suited as book weights than others. Flat, rather than curved surfaces, and an elongated shape, are ideal qualities. As to weight, it depends on the springiness of the book, but something from a few ounces to a pound does the job admirably. Of course, you have to be careful; it’s not good to drop a hefty cobble onto a brand new, tightly glued paperback. A carelessly wielded stone may break the spine of a valued book.

Here are three reliable rocks I have used for years to keep books open.

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The topmost one is the heaviest. Placed with care, it gently subdues any book that wants to snap shut when left unattended. The post header shows it in action, making my copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (a thick book with a tight spine) a little more readable. I found it by the South Saskatchewan River, near the town of Borden, in the 1980s. The middle one must have come from some beach here on Vancouver Island. Its shape was what made me pick it up; it’s less than half an inch (about 1 cm) thick, and an inch wide. It’s perfect for books that lazily flip up an unweighted leaf, and looks quite elegant when in use. The bottom one is a piece of greenish stone (possibly serpentine) from Ballenas Island in the Strait of Georgia. (OK, it looks grey in the picture, but trust me, it has a definite green tint, especially when wet. Looking good wet is something beach rocks do really well). I kept this rock on my desk at work, and used it to hold open books I was cataloguing. It’s a bit on the light side, so I’d have to position it in exactly the right spot. Sometimes the page would fight back, and the rock would slip off, requiring recovery and repositioning. Those white marks on the top two stones are eraser residue; rocks are also great eraser cleaners.

To be fair, there is another tool for holding books open — the “book snake,” an elongated cloth bag filled with dried beans or peas or similar stuff, or a weighted leather thing you can buy. I have no experience with either. Book snakes are said to be superior to rocks in that they are softer and shape themselves to the contours of a book, so will not mar pages. But you have to buy them or make them, whereas a suitably shaped stone is instantly ready for use. And it costs nothing.

Book rocks may also be used to crack nuts, or as weapons or missiles, should your dining situation deteriorate to the point that such items are required.

Making Mind Movies

I’ve started writing another novel. Along with short bouts of actual writing, I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff and peering at images and maps on my computer screen.  I’ve been dumping the facts, ideas and impressions harvested from books and other sources into the brain mixer and sketching out scenes.

This time I’m paying attention to the process of novel-writing, as well as the substance. Scenes are the key elements of a novel. A novel is a series of scenes, in which characters and situations are introduced and developed, leading to a climactic scene or scenes in which the situations are resolved and the characters transformed in some way.

Writing goes best for me when I envision compelling scenes — just like a good reading experience, curiously enough. I need to see the elements of my story like a movie in my mind before I can render them into words that will invoke a movie in the minds of my readers.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it!

It sounds easy. But just try it! Especially when the scenes don’t arrive ready-made from some magical studio of the imagination.

Deliberate, sustained imagining is hard. It strains the brain. Like physical exercise, it’s too easy to quit before much progress is made. There are so many elements to be created and/or assembled — the over-arching theme of the novel, the characters with all their quirks, characteristics and emotions, their actions, their thoughts, the setting, and possibly external facts and realities that must be accurate. The writer has to juggle all this stuff in the brain, and then select words to convey it — the right words, and enough of them to do the job, but not too many.

That’s to create one scene — a few thousand words at most, possibly less. Many more scenes will be sweated out to trace the entire story arc. And all those scenes will have to be put into order and glued together with suitably sticky words to make a complete first draft.

No wonder writers procrastinate and agonize, writing blog posts and looking at free images on the internet instead of buckling down and making mind movies from fleeting ideas they got in the shower.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Campion Cull

I have often mentioned the rose campion, Lychnis coronaria. It’s one of the easiest of garden perennials, practically a weed, in fact. It resists drought, tolerates shade, comes in white or what I call “magenta” (a dark purplish red, anyway), and seeds mightily.

That, of course, is why my place has more than enough of this plant. In the first flush of summer bloom, the white form is visually dominant in the back garden.

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Multiple clumps of white-flowered campion

The thing is, I find it impossible to yank out or dig up a plant that looks healthy, especially if it’s in full bloom. L. coronaria manages to look too good to kill most of the time, especially if deadheaded. This extends the bloom season and delays the onset of seediness. By July or August, deadheading 3 dozen or more plants gets to be a pain, especially those that are hard to get at. I resort to cutting the flowering stalks down or removing them altogether. That minimizes seed production, but does not eliminate it. Which is why I have so many plants.

This winter has been relatively tough, and one effect of that is that the campion plants look distinctly shabby.

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Noticing this, I seized the opportunity and a digging tool, and did a bit of a cull. Of course, there was no way to tell which plants were white-flowering and which were magenta, but I concentrated on spots I recalled as having way too many of the white form.

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Results of the massacre — a pile of pulled up campion plants.

At its best, the white-flowered form is as cool and elegant as many difficult perennials.

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Euphorbia.

 

After the massacre, I started feeling some regret at the number of plants I had removed. Looking around, though, there is no shortage of Lychnis coronaria in this garden. And if I feel there is, all I have to do is let a single plant produce seed and scatter it around. Repopulation is guaranteed.