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We Only See the Weeds


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One of the great pleasures of spring and summer is cleaning up the garden and planting new things. At the end of a vigorous session in the backyard I look at the big tub of weeds—or the overflowing bed of the pickup truck if I’ve been really busy—and gauge my progress. At this point, one might admire one’s flowerbeds or vegetable patch and say to oneself, Hey, super good work, woman! This looks fabulous. You definitely deserve a chilled beverage. Aperol spritz?

 I don’t do that.

I mean, I do drink the Aperol Spritz, but I don’t allow myself that positive self-feedback.

I only see the weeds.

Progress, for me, is gauged on the pile of ugly, invasive, stubborn weeds I’ve removed. Instead of admiring the beautiful plants that remain, or patting myself on the back for blending shades of purple and synchronizing bloom times, I immediately look for more weeds.

So, it has occurred to me that although it is important to control the weeds, it might be equally important to control one’s focus on the weeds.

When we’re writing a draft, it’s easy to get stuck in that overgrown, weedy place. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed, unable to see the beautiful blossoms or wildflowers mixed in with the bad stuff. Sometimes, when we’ve pulled the metaphorical weeds from a draft or else heard constructive criticism about what might get chucked out, we don’t stop to appreciate the work we’ve accomplished—that really good idea that inspired us and got us started. Don’t get me wrong, it’s helpful to self-edit and not just plow ahead like one is the greatest thing since the power lawn mower, but sometimes we don’t see the garden for the weeds.

I asked two questions of four fellow novelists. Here’s what they had to say:

What are your writing weeds, and how do you deal with them? 

“Oh, how many writing weeds there are in the novel garden! Self-doubt. Scenes written into corners. Characters who don’t behave and go so far off track you wonder what story they’re trying to crawl to. Impostor syndrome (My God! I have no idea how to write a book!) The blank page. The anxiety and dread that THIS story will be the one that well and truly stinks. For me, the only way through all this is through. Figure out the word count you need to meet for each week. Visualize the consequences of not making your deadline, because that’s enough to keep your seat in a chair, I think. A good word count day is a positive day. There will be something that blooms in what you wrote. And PS – I love to kill my darlings! In fact, if I find myself with chest puffed out because I’ve just written a beautiful or clever line of dialogue or prose, I know it needs to be snipped out immediately.”
Kim Taylor Blakemore, author of the recent novels The Companion ( Lake Union, 2020) and After Alice Fell ( Lake Union, 2021)

“My personal writing weed is overwriting. In particular, I’ve never met a prepositional phrase I didn’t like. While drafting, I often use prepositional phrases throughout. In editing, they magically disappear. The reason for this is that I never want to stifle creativity. Although I’m notorious for revising as I write, I still give myself room to explore. Then, in revision, I finally listen to the voices around me, commencing the hard work of killing my darlings. Ultimately, I think it’s important to own your weeds but not be owned by them. I open myself up to write my way, knowing that I will need to repair most of it in revision.”
Edward A. Farmer, debut novelist, author of Pale: A Novel, (Blackstone Publishing, 2020)

“I write fast, messy first drafts. For me, the first draft is all about generating the clay, and each subsequent draft is about shaping that clay into a sculpture—the novel. Making every part of it contribute to the story, to the end. I am not efficient. I write far more than I will ever use. My process probably looks insane to an outside observer. Sometimes this frustrates me, especially when I listen to interviews with John Irving, who is aghast that anyone would write anything without knowing the ending. But every time I have tried to outline, or create any sort of structure before writing, my soul dies a little. Discovery only happens for me in the act of writing. Editing is where the art comes in. I am always tempted to send something out immediately after finishing a first draft, when I am flush with that triumph, and I have to sit on my hands to keep myself from doing it, to force myself to at least sleep on it and edit once more, because it will definitely need editing. So one way I deal with my messy first drafts is to give myself time before returning to them with fresh perspectives. It’s amazing how much just time away from a draft allows me to see when I return. I suppose the hardest thing is knowing when to stop editing and rewriting. I can’t read through any draft of anything without editing it. I never think it’s perfect. When I do readings from my finished novels, I often edit as I read aloud. I can barely stand to read my books in print because I will want to change things. I keep getting new ideas for books I finished a decade ago. So, thank god for editors and deadlines who tell me when it is time to stop tinkering. Otherwise I would go on forever.”
Jennifer Steil, author of the novels Exile Music (Viking, 2020), The Ambassador’s Wife , and the memoir, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen. (Broadway Books)

“I cannot stress enough how much I struggle with the blank page. The entire first draft process sends waves of crippling anxiety through me and three novels in, I still don’t find it any easier. In all of my books, I’ve had fully baked ideas, so it isn’t that I suffer from writer’s block or don’t have a plan, it’s just pure terror of execution. Since I know this is a mental battle, I always start with a two-page, single-spaced outline and I will literally cut and paste sentences and put them into chapter headings and then make myself have 1,000 word per day sprints. Literally, I have to challenge, cajole and reward myself to finish a 60-70k first draft. As a result, my first drafts are rough, raw creatures. But after that step, I can finally settle into drafts two and three which, for me, is where the bulk of my true writing takes place from peppering the historical details to the layering of imagery. I’m a different person after my first draft, like I’ve wrestled with a beast.”
Constance Sayers, author of the recent novels The Ladies of the Secret Circus (Redhook, 2021), and A Witch In Time (Redhook, 2020)

In reviewing your own drafts or in processing criticism, do you dwell on the weeds (what’s not working) and forget to appreciate the flowers? If so, how do you deal with that?

“I am not a big dweller, but that may be simply because I am too impatient and restless to dwell. I want to move on. But I do encounter new problems with each draft. One rule I have is that if my choice of words in a section bothers me on three read throughs in a row, I change or delete it. When I get to a problem I don’t immediately know how to fix, I either go for a walk, or mark it somehow and move on to a different part of the manuscript. Most of my problem solving and pretty much all of my ideas happen when I am moving. I guess I don’t spend too much time admiring the flowers, because if something works and doesn’t need fixing, I can leave it alone and move to the things that do need my attention. Knowing me though, I would look at the flowers and think, hey, those could be even prettier and bigger and brighter and more significant and maybe they could actually bear fruit and maybe I should add fertilizer or water them more or cut them down in the prime of their life for dramatic effect…. (not a gardener, so running out of metaphors!) Maybe though, those flowers might inspire me to plant more of them in the next draft.”
Jennifer Steil

“For me, writing a first draft is a lot like believing in Santa. I approach it with childlike faith and let nothing return me to reality. I simply allow myself to write. This includes permitting my story to drag through the weeds a bit, if that means it takes shape organically. As much as possible, I put my doubts aside, including critiques, in order to create. While it’s impossible to completely forget about writing pitfalls and crutches and overall criticism, my objective is to avoid letting them rule me. This is not to say I don’t find it helpful to learn from prior mistakes and valuable feedback, but I consider these voices secondary to the main goal of completing my vision.”
Edward A. Farmer

“I’m pretty good at reading my work impersonally as I review and revise. I’m a novel and story coach, so I try to apply the lens I use when working with other writers. Does the story make sense? Do the character’s actions make sense? Is the tone consistent to the genre? Am I turning the pages and if not, why? So, it’s not so much a good/bad lens, but a working/not working lens. This seems most constructive to me.”
Kim Taylor Blakemore

“As I start through the revision process, I’ve been surprised at how much I keep my most loyal readers in my head. I’m always worried that my current novel-in-progress will let them down, so I spend a lot of time in drafts two and three making sure the characters have good arcs. Readers are forgiving of a lot of a lot of things, but not poor character development. I also spend a lot of time trying to pull up on theme. Is what I’m writing about ultimately “large” enough as it relates to the human condition. About this time, my editor, Nivia Evans, sends me a paragraph of brilliant marketing copy and I spend some time really recalling what I wanted this book to be and being honest with myself if the execution meets the original goal. In essence, I spend a draft trying to get it to be as good a story as she has envisioned. I guess if I could sum up the entire struggle for me as it relates to the weeds is just pure execution anxiety. My novels are layered and complicated so it’s a battle (more so at the beginning) to get myself in a place where I can have the time to layer on details in later drafts.”
Constance Sayers

So, even drafting this article had me re-reading, changing words, and deleting before I filled half a page.

I guess that’s how I roll.

Maybe it’s time to have a break and a chilled beverage.

What are your writer’s weeds, and how do you deal with them?

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About Liza Nash Taylor

Liza Nash Taylor (she/her) is a late-blooming historical novelist and self-proclaimed empty nester with attitude. She was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle MagazineDeep South, and others. Her debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS (Blackstone Publishing, 2020) is listed in Parade Magazine’s 30 Best Beach Reads of 2020 and Frolic’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2020. Her second novel, IN ALL GOOD FAITH, will be published in August 2021, also from Blackstone. A native Virginian, Liza lives in Keswick with her husband and dogs, in an old farmhouse which serves as a setting for her historical fiction. Find out more at lizanashtaylor.com.

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