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