When my novel is an unweeded garden that grows to seed

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

In actual fact, I am now on 81,000 words and coming to the part which should make a really good denouement for the reader: if my novel is un-put-downable, then it follows that my writing is incessant  because I am so engaged with my characters and their situations that I have to keep writing.

It is there with me when I go to bed: it wakes me up at two in the morning and it is there at breakfast when I drink my tea. So what is this blog post really about? Not the inability to write. As Orwell said, and Orwell is a kind of writers’ God:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

At the moment I am certainly driven. It is seldom that I can’t think what to write or can’t be bothered. So, why the Hamlet reference about the unweeded garden? Exactly that: it is full of stuff which needs pruning, sorting out, editing and of course the seeds are sprouting out in all directions.

That doesn’t worry me: I can tame this garden and I l0ve the challenge of editing. The problem is deciding which is the best edit. A wonderful tutor on my MA course told me to follow my instinct and , of course, that instinct has to hold me up when I am not sure whether what I am creating works well enough.

The instinct also has to be there for me when I disagree with a reader’s comment. The vanity Orwell mentions, a kind of arrogance, lies between the writer thinking she or he is right, the instinct saying so and the crushing dismissal of a reader who says ‘I would do it this way.’or ‘I think you should do it that way.’

I have a lot of feedback on my writing. I welcome it. No, I really need it. I take it seriously. I always think about it and I mostly act on it.

I have lovely writer friends who always offer me an intelligent and balanced critique: mostly I listen to what they say because they are great inspirational writers and also honest, intelligent friends.

Sometimes, I ignore what they say because it’s not right for me to take on their ideas but it is always something to consider, especially in terms of my own intention and the ensuing clarity – have I got my point across, does the character behave or act how I intend to portray them on the page? Have I been accurate and clear and used the right words and the right amount of them? Will the reader get it?

I have submitted a couple of short stories recently and had them accepted for publication. One editor actually went to the trouble of annotating my story, and I agreed with every comment. I like concise writing and the editor had pointed out a place where I could have cut a line or two.

I am never on the side of indulgence and I am always ready to cut. But I also have had a reader who suggested that I need to evoke all the details of the place: the reader can’t see it, so I need to paint the full picture. I disagreed with him: I had already created the ambience of the location and it was active in the reader’s mind – I checked with 3 readers – and I didn’t want to overegg it by interfering with or dictating to their personal imagination.

I like to create an idea but let the reader fill in their own details at times.

The same reader then went on to say ‘I would make this character more attractive…’ It was at that point I stopped listening to him. Vain and selfish I may be, arrogant too, but add discerning and wilful and you have an author who is writing her own stuff, not someone else’s.

I’d never preface any critique with ‘I would…’. All you can say is ‘You might consider… because…’. This is something else entirely, because you are offering a rationale and sharing ideas, not trying to control someone’s keyboard.

Worse still, the critic who doesn’t read the writing properly. The one who  says ‘You could have told the reader that…’ when I have blatantly said it once, maybe twice and don’t need to say it again. At this point I tell myself again, not every reader will like my books.

And that is ok: writers don’t seek widespread popularity, although it is great if people like your stories, but we seek to please some people a lot of the time. After all, I’m not an Austen fan and she is really good: I love Cormac McCarthy, but not everyone finds him as uplifting as I do!

So back to the unweeded garden. I am about to do something quite amazing with two of my protagonists and it is going to change the flower arrangement in my plot quite significantly; the weed killer is out and the rotavator is digging deep. I am not going to find this section easy and I’d like to thank a the brilliant author Matt Haig for a superb piece of advice, which I will gladly share.

He told me to face up to tough moments like this for the reader’s sake: don’t pussy foot around but crash headlong, make a mess of the garden, throw it all in the air and watch the soil settle. You can’t avoid the carnage of tension, and so I will be making a really big deal of the scenes I write this week.

It would be safer to not write them; it would be more comfortable to skirt around them but these scenes are not subtle and hinting won’t work – thanks, Matt – I am up to my neck in brambles in this one and I will dig my way out. It is so exciting to be writing action and emotion and I am well up for it.

So, the latest update on my novel is that I am going for some seriously powerful scenes at the moment then it is time for the big edit, where I will have to strip out sentences and upgrade whole sections. I am looking forward to it.

Then what: when it is all done and the story is over? I have a few seedlings ready to germinate in another plot in my allotment of ideas.


2 thoughts on “When my novel is an unweeded garden that grows to seed

  1. I agree with you on this Judy. It’s really good to hear about your process. Having feedback is essential to making sure we are communicating with our readers. Choosing the right people for the feed back is even more essential. No good having someone who doesn’t like the genre you write. Good advice is precious, being told how to change your story or your character’s is not, that’s someone else’s story. But I really appreciate advice on making sure it’s clear and if not I can go back in and give a little more away. 🙂


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