Killing Darlings and Weeds

A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. I’ve got hundreds of chives growing the the cracks a place where I don’t want anything to grow in. Herbacides do nothing to them – at least not the ones I use. The only way to get them out is by hand. A tedious job but one that needs to be done.

 
I also have a character that needs to be extracted from my novel (and my worldbuild). The character is Lilith. The reason is overexposure.

 
As much as I’d like to keep my Lilith character, there are far too many incarnations of the ancient demon/demigod/first woman etc… She appears in video games, comic books, everywhere you look. She’s like a teenage vampire, so… steak through the heart, rip her out of every scene in the book and come up with something more original or – in the case of the garden- nothing at all.

 
If you are like me, when you write, the story takes on a life of its own and sometimes gets away from you. More characters want stage time, sub plots begin and go nowhere. Sometimes it’s best to just yank out the mess and get on with it. In my case I dredged up an older character that just mucked up the plot even more.

 
I try very hard to make my antagonists empathetic. I give a reason why they act the way they do. I want their ‘evil’ to be logical and obvious. But sometimes, evil is just evil, the way a weed is just a weed – even if the same plant is fine so long as it grows twelve inches to the left. I don’t care if the chives are perfectly normal and doing what chives do. I don’t need them there. I have more than enough chives dried out to last years. Just as the world has enough supernatural Liliths.

 
Time to weed them both out, darlings or not, they have to go.

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Letting Go

A garden in October is like a submitted story. There’s not much you can do to improve on either. The story is in the slush pile, the garden has given up what it’s going to give up.

Since I’ve started my new novel the yard has been negelected. The book is coming along great but the garden has gone feral. I can still get some tomatoes and onions out. But anything I get now is like republishing a story in an anthology.

Letting go of a garden means pulling the plant out by the roots and tossing it in the compost pile. It is a final act, an action that says this this is done and I’m not getting anything else out of it.

Stories are done when we know another edit isn’t going to make it any better. It’s time to send it out when our alpha and beta readers don’t have anything else to say about it. But all too often writers will hold on to stories way too long.

I’m guilty of that.

I’ve held on to stories until they go bad. Whay I mean by that is my writing has improved over the years and the early stories are not salvagable. If I had sent them out back when they were written, I’d have a few more notches on my belt. So now I’ve got a backlog of good sotries, great stories and some meh.

It’s easy to let a garden go. Nature tell you when to do so. Stories do not have natural cycles, they can’t tell us when they are ready. Only the writer knows when a tale is finished and know when it is time to let go.

Rats!

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.

Pots and Plots

 

So, a week ago I was sorting through the new seeds and stuff that I ordered this winter, getting all the ducks lined up when I came across a plastic bag filled with roots.

“What the…?  Oh crap!  It’s the strawberries!”

I totally forgot about the 25 strawberries I ordered.  They came with some other live plants that I rushed to get potted and the strawberries languished in a sealed plastic bag next to the seed potatoes for nearly a month.  Opening the bag, I saw they were still viable but not looking too good.

How was I going to plant all those strawberries with the weather as wacky as it has been?  Sure, strawberries are a hardy plant, but these were young and distressed.  Then it hit me.  I can make paper pots.

You see I picked up this pot maker real cheap. pot maker

And making starter pots with it was simple. pot maker 2pot maker 3pot maker 4

I made 25.pot maker 5

Then I tried to pot the strawberries.  The roots were way too big to fit the little paper pots.

Fortunately I had just ordered 23 larger pots and they fit perfectly.  But I didn’t have any soil for the plants at the time.  But I did have coconut coir, and lots of it.  But I didn’t need much, just one brick of coconut coir was enough for all 23 pots.

strawberries 1strawberries 2 coconut coir

Tragedy averted, but what am I going to do with all those paper pots?

I find that in my writing I tend to do too much work on a draft getting it just right.  A few pages later I find my character going down a totally different path.

“Hey stupid!”  I want to call out to him.  “What about that town I just created, it’s over there!  You’re going the wrong way!”

All the work I put in designing the town square, populating it with quirky and colorful characters, adding a long and diverse history to the place, all gone to waste.  The hero follows some stray dog into the woods instead.

Sure the dog leads him on an adventure that changes his life and he ends up falling in love with the dog’s owner.  But what about the town?  What am I going to do with all those paper plots?

The pots and plots will eventually get used (fingers crossed).  But in the meantime, I’ve wasted too much time on unnecessary projects.  This is why I can admire writers who race through a manuscript, damn the torpedoes.  A first draft is like a starter pot.  Just get it down, get the plant in there and worry about the details later.  Otherwise, if I had waited until everything was perfect, the right pots, the right soil, the right time, all my plants would be dead.  And then what would I have to put in my daiquiris?

 

Update:  As you can see, I did use a few of the paper pots.  I have some smaller roots left over and put them in the paper pots.  I watered all the plants equally, gave them the same amount of sun.  Here are the strawberries 5 days later.

IMG_20130421_174134_609   Here is the only paper plant still alive. IMG_20130421_174210_158So far, the coconut coir is working better than any potting soil I’ve used.  The jury is still out on the paper pots.

Leggy plants and runaway characters

 

Years ago I wrote an urban romance with lots of sex and one-dimensional characters like the bestsellers of the day.  Anyhow, a minor character, a security guard, whose only role was to watch the hero bang a woman in the parking lot, ended up taking over the whole book.  Knowing the story got away from me, I abandoned the novel.

When I tell people (non-writers) this they look at me as if I started speaking Martian.

“How can a figment of your imagination get out of hand?  Don’t you have control over your thoughts?”

The answer to that is, “Not really.”

Sometimes a character takes on a life of its own and can steal the spotlight from the main characters.  Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to be the lovable sidekick.  Steve Urkle from Family Matters who was slated to appear on one episode.  Wolverine, Boba Fett, Elmo, Fonzie, Popeye, Spock, Porky Pig, and dozens of others began as minor characters that took off way beyond what their creators ever designed.

Plants can get like that too.  I’m talking about seedlings that grow too tall too fast.  They get ‘leggy’.  When a plant gets too leggy, the stem can’t support the leaves and eventually fall over, or they wither up and dry out because the thin stem can’t support the leaves.  Either way it’s bad news when a plant gets too skinny for its own good.

Leggy Transplants

Break-out characters can ruin a book or make it a success.  Just as leggy plants can waste weeks of effort and resources or give your garden a head-start on the season.  Both have challenges and rewards.  The key is to know when to give up and start over or when to push through.

When a minor character’s storyline becomes more entertaining than your hero’s story, it’s time to let the hero fall into Mark Twain’s Deadly Well.  You could then be free to tell the better story.  That’s not to say that shifting to a whole different story is easy.  Neither is nurturing and training a leggy seedling.

Honestly, it’s easier to replant the sprout rather than nurse a leggy plant to health.  But the things that one does to get a leggy plant off the ground make it a healthier and hardier plant.  I prefer the resistance method.  I place an oscillating fan over the leggy plant and let the gentle breeze blow that stringy stem.

Fan on plants 2

The air flow release hormones to make the stem stronger.  If they haven’t started standing after a week, it time to bury the stem and give it chance to grow a thicker shorter stem.

But here is the thing.  I almost always baby my leggy plants.  I never toss them out until they are dead, dead, dead.  I know that I can start over, do it better this time, pay closer attention.  I just can’t kill my darlings, just like I let some characters run roughshod in a story, when I know I should bury them up to their necks and see what the tide does.

When you find characters stealing the spotlight, throw some resistance their way.  If they survive, they can take their rightful place by the side of the hero.  But if they thrive, then it’s time to rethink who is the real hero.

Flowers and Foils

Flowers and Foils

 

What good are flowers in a vegetable garden?  I asked this of myself a few years back when trying to get more tomatoes and peppers and corn out of the ground.  Planting flowers seemed a waste of time and effort.  Sure they look nice, but you can’t eat them.  Well, actually you can eat them, but would you want to.

Aside from being edible flowers provide more benefits to a garden than just being dirt candy.  They are invaluable companions to the veggie and fruit plants than most people imagine.

Just like a good character foil, flowers protect and nourish their neighbors.  A character foil is the sidekick whose personality, while different from the hero’s, brings out the best in the main character.  Think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Holmes would still be a brilliant detective, but without Watson to remind him of his humanity, Sherlock would just be a brilliant smartass.

Last year I did some companion planting in the garden.  Peas and corn (the peas adds nitrogen that corn can’t get enough), and the scent of onions growing in your strawberries will deter pests.  But by far the most useful plant in any garden is the marigold.  Those little orange and yellow puffs have kept my patio mosquito free for two years and now they have driven out more pests than Orkin.  The real proof came when I had one patch of greens totally infested with insect eggs while across the yard another patch that had marigolds next to them were bug free.

In my novel, I have the hero pegged, your typical pacifist forced into action.  His companion is more of the burly hero type, quick to act, slow to speak.  In my latest chapter I have tried shifting the POV to the foil to give him a voice.  I have come to discover his voice is thin and tinny.  Now, I have gone over his character sketch, gave a good backstory, have him with his own agenda, quirks, weaknesses, strengths, etc… but he still comes off as two dimensional.

I’ve spent so much time in the head of my protagonist that I have short-changed a great character and the readers as well.

When I plant marigolds, I start them from seed.  I get two or three dozen of the plants going and I nurture them when they are young.  Once they can fend for themselves I just water them and leave them be.  The time invested in their budding weeks pays off dividends.  Even when they wilt and the petals are gone, the marigold leaves behind dozens of seeds at the base of each flower.

So, if my companion plants can do so much and provide many benefits to my garden, why shouldn’t my foil?

If you are planting anything this year, add some marigolds to the mix.  You will love it.

If you have a foil, develop them and put them to work.  Your readers will love it.

Small Potatoes

This last season I watched with anticipation at my potato plants I had growing in containers.  I tried growing them in straw one year and got a good crop of used straw out of the deal.  I tried them directly in the ground and left them too long – out of laziness – and got mush.  My best results were the left over seedlings I tossed in the compost heap.  I got some great tubers from that endeavor and the field mice can attest to their deliciousness as they ate a good portion of them.

So this past year I bought some cheap containers and set them up with grade-A seed potatoes.  The plants flourished. As they grew I heaped more soil on top of them expecting a bumper crop by fall.  But when fall came around all I got were the seed potatoes grown a little bigger and a few more seedlings for next year.

You see, I had so many different things growing, so many beds to weed and water that I left the potatoes to fend for themselves.  Sure I got plenty of peppers, I always get peppers.  I’m good at peppers.  But I suck at spuds.

In my writing, I started off as a novelist.  I love telling long epic stories.  But like most of us, I wasn’t that good at it.  I took a year off to learn how to write Flash fiction, stories under 1000 words.  I got good at writing flash, but I’m still a novelist at heart.  I have a big whooping yarn to tell.

When I went back to writing the book, I wrote each chapter like it was Flash.  Short descriptions, precise dialogue and more concepts were left between the lines than on the page.  So naturally, my epic fantasy Alpha reader kept telling me the chapters were lacking substance (suck Goblin balls).

I realized I was writing my novel like I was growing my potatoes.  I was spending so much time concentrating on the scenes, the plot, the worldbuild, that I left the character to fend for himself.  My hero, who started off as small potatoes, is now medium potatoes.  I can safely say that this draft officially sucks.  I want to scrap the rest of the draft and start over.  Badly.

If I had dug up my potatoes before the end of the season, I would have any seed potatoes for next year.  If I scrap the novel five chapters from the end and start again, I may be giving up some valuable lessons about my ending.

So, even though I currently suck at growing tubers and epic fantasy, I know where I suck at them.  Spring is only a dozen weeks off.  Plenty of time to prepare the ground for another draft and another season.