Help, Mr. King! My polytunnel needs editing


I have written elsewhere how gardening and writing become mixed up in my life. But just see what happens when you don’t rein in your gardening writing, when you let your setting run riot. Words, like plants, need a certain space to perform well; to be the stars of the show; to say their piece effectively.

I never intend to over-create. In fact my internal critic warns against it, whether gardening or writing. The polytunnel mayhem is of course easily explained: I simply had to  plant out every last tomato seedling. How could I not, when I had nurtured each one through the cold spring months that seemed never ending?

All I can say if you write like this, and then don’t engage in some ruthless excision tactics, you will not be able to find the tomatoes for the overgrowth.

On the fiction writing front, Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir) would call this kind of chaos “a thicket of description”. It’s what happens when writers become too attached to the minutely researched details of their setting, and then feel they can’t sacrifice a single beloved element.

It can also happen when you start a story in the wrong place, and then flounder about trying to write yourself to the right place. It’s like planting all your tall-growing tomato plants at the front of the bed, and then wondering why you, or anyone else can’t see what’s going on behind with short varieties. This, then, is also a setting problem: you have not planned the planting scheme and stuck to it (more or less).

All of which is to say, there comes a point when you have to take out a whole batch of words and shoot them – this so the survivors have room to expand and thrive (the excess tomato plants you could of course give to someone else.)

Stephen King explains the situation further (pp 138-9). He gives an example of using a real location as his setting for a piece of narrative, in this case the Palm Too restaurant in New York. It is somewhere he knows. As he starts to visualize the place, he summons the first four things that strike him. These, he says, are likely to be ‘the truest and the best’ details. He also says he can  make up a few other things too, but there is really no need for more:

“This isn’t the Taj Mahal we’re visiting…and I don’t want to sell you the place…it’s not about setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”

Put another way, you could say that fiction writing is never about the writer. To create, you need to GET OUT OF THE WAY. And the better you succeed in this, the better the story. This is not to say that the writer’s experiences and cast of mind do not inform/infuse the narrative, but think conduit and transit time, rather than compendium drag.

Words are fiction’s conveyance to transport readers out of themselves and into the lives of others in new/penetrating/exciting /inspiring ways. The words need lift, energy, vivacity. Anything that snags transition must be cut.

This is probably the hardest lesson for the starting-out writer to believe, let alone put into practice. But it is a truism: less is almost invariably more. Not believing this is one of the reasons we have slush-piles, and why publishers now mostly shut their doors to unsolicited submissions. It’s the reason why I have too many tomato plants in my polytunnel, when I could have made the best of, say, half a dozen of the strongest plants.

But then as Stephen King advocates, practice (lots of practice) will yield improvement. So I vow to improve in my prose and in my planting. For now I leave you with Mr. King’s brief words on the means to create viable settings:

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh imagery and simple vocabulary.”

100_6937 N.B.: use only the brightest and the best tomatoes, and not too many.

Happy writing!


Related: Errant muse? But there’s still life at the allotment

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy

– a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales

set somewhere in East Africa

29 thoughts on “Help, Mr. King! My polytunnel needs editing

    1. Trouble is, Sue, I think my green thumb is overdoing itself – I’m turning all over green like the Jolly Green Giant, though hopefully NOT emulating the Amazing Hulk, though that could have its uses…

      1. He is the mac Daddy, as I might say in the States. And that is a very fine book on writing — saw him on a tour of it when he came to the Starbucks HQ a while back, and I was surprised (and not) by how odd he looked, in person. Cheers, Tish.

  1. Very interesting post…..with painting, I find that when I ‘get out of the way’ the best results occur….for me it’s about not trying to make things happen. Less is more can be so often the case….hope you are enjoying this autumn like bank holiday Monday…..Janet.:)

    1. Thank you for your painterly perspective on this. The ‘getting out of the way’ is the big ask. As for the Bank Hols weather, it’s poured for 2 days now. We will soon be floating, Janet.

  2. Love it.

    I also like Elmore Leonard’s take:” I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”.
    ”Using adverbs is a mortal sin”, and : ”If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”.

  3. I am in recovery. I cut everything to the bone, sometimes too much. But you know, a lot of the fun has gone out of writing, too. Leaner, meaner, but so much less spontaneous. We need to be careful what we wish for.

    1. Well, I guess it is a balance. Too much cutting can indeed take the heart and spirit from a piece. But then, like a cabinet maker, it’s knowing how to apply one’s chisel judiciously, and knowing, too, how it will be.

  4. I love the extended metaphor and the post title and the sentiments, and always the splendid photos. I’ve had recent experience of thickets in non-fiction, where the temptation is probably even greater. The author, Bill Gammage, wants to prove Aboriginal land management in Australia pre-invasion, and I swear he quotes every explorer who ever commented in his journal on the shape of the land he was passing through. A convincing collection, but less could well have been more. It became a jumblous jungle.

  5. Mhhhhhh. I have read this twice. We could say that I have identified a bit of a problem, that which bugs me about myself, to a degree.

    I jumble and jungle and shush and pile.

    I can’t select, cut out words hurt me, even here – good photos that I don’t post haunt me. I want to give me. I want to give it all.

    Ah well. That’s why I live and love well, and write – not so much. Yet.

    Thanks for this. Will think about your tomatoes for quite a while.

    1. Absolutely, but a bit like Jack’s Beanstalk they so have a habit of getting away from one. That’s a thought though. I could do with a chicken that lays golden eggs 😀

  6. I loved this post, Tish. It’s one of the best writing lessons I’ve ever read. And in answer to Marilyn’s comment, I would add, all the rules and the good advice are like ‘learner’s wheels’ on a first bicycle. Once you’ve learned to create images and action in words, what matters most is what you have to say. And by the way, I love both Leonard and Chandler, but I find King hard to stomach. Still, I agree with much of his thoughts on writing.

    1. I totally agree with you about Stephen King. His thoughts on writing are spot on, but you need not to be squeamish about ‘horror’. You are right too about the honing of one’s craft. Once you have mastered the effective construction, then what you have to say is absolutely the most important aspect. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this post.

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