So I’ve got rats in the garden.

I knew something set up house under the strawberry bed when I saw mounds of dirt dug up around the beds and tell-tale holes.  Still, I thought it might be chipmunks or some other cute rodent living under the strawberries like animated Disney critters that sleep in mini-beds and drink out of thimbles.

But the neighbors said they saw rats.  Then my wife saw one.  And there’s only one thing you can do once the wife sees rats. I put out rat bait.

This morning my wife peered out the patio door at a family of rats feasting on the bait.  At least three of them would dash out of hiding, dip into the plastic tray and scurry off with the green pellets back to their hole.   She felt bad for them, wishing there was a way to get rid of them without actually killing them or handling them in any way.

I didn’t want to tell her that once winter set in, the family of rats might want to find a warmer spot, like our house.

Sure, I felt sorry for the furry vermin.  I get no thrills from poisoning them, but you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere.

I have the same problem letting go of something I have spent too much time writing.  They say ‘Kill your darlings”, but they never tell you how hard that is.  I have held on to characters, plots and novels far longer than I should have, knowing they were lost causes, but just refusing to part with them.  Those are the characters that move in for the winter and live inside the walls of your mind.

No more.

I’m working on a YA novel that not only kills darlings with impunity, it is keeping me in the dark.  I’ve gone through so many outlines and chapter sketches that I don’t try anymore.  Every paragraph I write veers from the proscribed path.  It is the most frustrating and exhilarating thing I’ve ever written.  It’s also pretty good.

So I don’t mind killing a few darlings, so long as it helps the story.  If I keep holding on to old plots and outlines written in stone, I might as well open the patio door once the first snowfall hits and learn to live with rats.


It’s better to look good than to feel good, Dahling.


Billy Crystal’s iconic SNL characterization of Fernando Lamas reminds us of something our culture, and increasingly the world at large, embraces wholeheartedly.  We like pretty, shiny, things.  We prefer beautiful people, big effects in movies and sparkly vampires.

Gardeners are divided into two camps, those who grow flowers and those who grow food.

The flower gardens are the pretty ones, they smell wonderful and the best ones have a water feature in them.  Those are the places where you want to take a nap in the grass, bring a date for a picnic, even get married in.

The veggie gardens will have regimented beds or long rows, they will smell like cow manure and have an incessant buzzing of pollinating insects.  These are the places you take your grass clippings when the trash collectors forget to pick them up or in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

Knowing we were hosting our family reunion BBQ, I concentrated on making the garden as pretty as possible.  And it looked fantastic.  But now all those choices to make it pretty has cost us plenty.  Very few plants has produced much, and aside from getting some jam and some tomato sauce out of the yard, it’s been a meager year.

But it looked so, so good.

IMG_20130914_131005_614This used to be a bare patch of dirt.

Writers are also divided into two camps, literary and genre.

Literary writers form pretty sentences.  They weave intricate turns of phrase.  They use language like paint brushes.

Genre writers crank out mysteries, fantasies and love stories.  They bring characters to life and build worlds where readers get lost in.

I have a feeling that when literary writers grow a garden it is filled with beautiful flowers, and genre writers grow corn.

But every once in a while, if a genre writer has a vision and enough time, they can create a story of devastating beauty that feeds and satisfies the reader.

I’m a genre writer.  I write supernatural horror, a genre that has a long history of beautiful prose.  At the same time I am a veggie grower who wants his garden to be just as beautiful and fragrant as a rose garden.  Just as I want my stories to be as intriguing as they are attractive.

That sort of symmetry takes years and years of writing and planting.  And until I get there, I suppose it’s better to feel good than to look good.



The squirrel sat on the stairs eating my corn.  A small pile of denuded cobs lay about the landing where he preferred to dine.  The stalks I cared for all spring and summer stood empty, as empty as the pear tree the squirrel cleared earlier this month.

No pest has eaten more or done more damage to my garden than one black squirrel.  And if it were just the one, I could live with it, but he brings his buddies along.  Squirrels, rabbits, mice, deer, birds and more creatures do untold damage to gardens and they do the worst right before a harvest.  I read somewhere that when you plant a garden, expect a third to harvest, a third to go to the weather and a third to go to the critters.

It’s enough for a gardener to go Rambo on them.  And believe me, I’ve tried all the tricks, moth balls, spinners, wolf pee, B-B gun, Vaseline and cayenne pepper (works to a degree), live trap cages, nothing works short of getting a watchdog and brings up a different set of problems.  At some point, gardeners simply give up and let the critters do their worst.

Critics can do more damage to a writer than any gang of squirrels can do.  We writers have fragile egos and whatever we produce is always the best thing ever written.  When some bozo tells us otherwise it sends us scurrying beneath the chaise with a box of Merlot and a case of Kleenex.

A good critic, that includes an alpha or beta reader, will point out the good and bad parts of a piece, make suggestions and will even nit-pick if that’s what you want.  Anybody can be a destructive critter, tell you ‘you suck’ and should stop trying to write.  A good critter will show you your errors and help correct them.

Every good garden needs helpful critters.  Bees, ants, ladybugs, cats and dogs can keep the unwanted critters at bay and work for you.

Every good writer needs people who can point out typos and plot holes.  Those are the world’s best critters.

Plots and Plots

No one starts out with planting an elaborate garden from scratch any more than a writer will pen a novel off the cuff.  Both require some planning, a vision.  And as any gardener or writer knows, what you start off with is rarely what you end up with.

I’m in the second chapter of my latest (revised ) novel and I’m hitting the point where foreshadowing happens and the events that kick the plot off have to be done right.  I started off with an idea of how I wanted the book to end and did a brief outline backwards from there to the beginning.  Sometimes that works but in this case I had plot holes big enough to drive a bullet train through.

At the beginning of the year, my wife and I sit down to plan out the garden.  Time had taught us that you have to rotate plants to cut down on diseases and it’s always a challenge placing the right plants in the right places.  After all the planning it still comes down to which plants will take or die, what critter will eat the seedlings, and which plants will survive a late frost.  The garden in September never looks like the one we planned on paper in January.

The novel outline I started chapter one is totally different than the one at the end of chapter two.  I have revised it half a dozen times, closed up the plot holes and resolved the ending satisfactorily.  That’s not to say that changes won’t happen along the way, literary squirrels may chew holes in the plot.  The important thing is to have a workable plan so I don’t lose momentum and so I don’t second guess myself and bring the work to a crashing halt.

Plans are important.  Every aspect of life requires one.  Many of us are ‘seat of the pants’ writers, I consider myself one.  And ‘discovery’ writing is probably the most creative way to figure out a story.  But once the discovering is done, once the seedlings outgrow the starter tray, it’s time to stick to a plan for both plots and plots.