A month ago I recounted my attempts to find Big Lake, which we knew from maps was somewhere in the state park near our Florida home.
Despite a hiking map and determination, the first time my husband and I tried to find it, we were unsuccessful. The second time we still weren’t sure we were on the right track, but with faith and determination–and a better look at the map–we finally found our lake. Success!
Of course, being a novelist, I compared this to finding a story I really wanted to tell when I set about writing my new book, The House Guests. Not just a story I stumbled on, but the one that I knew all along was waiting just over the horizon.
Today I want to tell you about weeds. And yes, if you make it to the end of this blog, you’ll see how weeds and writing are inextricably linked. I promise.
Most summers at the beginning of June we drive to Western New York to beat Florida’s heat and indulge in exciting programming at Chautauqua Institution, situated on Chautauqua Lake since just after the Civil War. Consequently lots of the homes here are old, including ours, which was built in 1895. But ours is not a lavish Victorian Painted Lady. In fact when we did the necessary renovations, our contractor pulled out the old windows on our sunporch, fully expecting to put new ones into the existing studs, only to find there were no studs. The windows had simply been inserted into holes in a plywood-like material more or less holding up the roof. Just one of many fascinating moments during renovation.
I would have preferred hidden treasure, even a diary or stack of love letters. You, too?
Our house sits on a small lot in deep shade, much of it produced by the oldest elm on the grounds. We have no garden to speak of. So right at the beginning, we had to find plants that would grow with little sun and lots of tree roots. We’ve been moderately successful, relying on different species of brunnera, foxglove, hostas, and ferns. Every year we plump this out with colorful pots of impatiens, coleus, herbs and begonias.
We stayed in Florida last summer, not comfortable making the long drive under pandemic conditions. So this year when we arrived, we expected, and got, a yard overflowing with weeds. I’ll confess to being exhausted as I write this after four days of hoeing, pulling, fertilizing and mulching.
The hardest part of weeding anywhere is rooting out the bad guys and saving the good ones.
Through the years we’ve made some garden errors. When we bought the house I thought the sweet woodruff growing abundantly everywhere was lovely. I knew I couldn’t keep every bit, but I decided to let it have the edges of the garden. Now, each summer, I spend hours pulling it from the center of beds, because boundaries are not in the woodruff vocabulary. On a happier note I did immediately spot and root out crown vetch , knowing it would take over our yard and every other for a mile if I allowed it to. I left the lily-of-the-valley to become a thick groundcover under the trees, and this year we’re removing everything else in its path to give it free rein. (You can see we still have a long way to go.)
You’ve weeded. You know the drill, right? Learn the difference between the plants that “look like” sweet woodruff but seem, instead, to be a kind of non-invasive astilbe. Pry up the “weed” with pink flowers (pink turtlehead?) because it’s trying to take over the universe. Pull some by hand, others with a weeding fork, try to get every little bit of the root. (Ha!)
As I weeded this week I couldn’t help thinking about The House Guests again.
Not only didn’t my “map” for the plot lead me where it was supposed to, but by the time I had found my story, I’d overwritten by 20 thousand words. When you see the book, you’ll wonder how that could have happened? Because the book is still bursting with story. I’ve written novellas with fewer words than I cut from The House Guests.
It turns out editing is like weeding.
The pretty little bits (woodruff) that try to take over the book have to be rooted out, no matter how appealing they are. Sometimes the good stuff comes up with the bad stuff, and it’s impossible to transplant one without the other. Both have to go. Sometimes you think something lovely can stay and then you realize the entire story/bed has been transformed and not in a good way.
But the most important part of weeding a novel or a flower bed? Sorting slowly through every stalk, every leaf, every bit of green and with ruthless determination and a vision of the finished product, removing one word, sentence, even paragraph at a time in the same way a weed or patch of them has to be eliminated. No hoes allowed. No weedwackers. One weed at a time.
Before The House Guests went to my editor, I did exactly that. And by the time I’d finished, I didn’t lament a single word, phrase or paragraph. In the same way that my flower beds are much more pleasing after all that weeding, so is my book.
So, could I have weeded with more abandon?
I could have cut… Well, honestly, what could I have cut? The evolving friendship between Will and Savannah, the two teenage children of the main characters? Nope, because, well, you’ll see. I can only hint that a lot of the story depends on the kids. Could I have handled Mark’s character differently? Poor Mark died and was resurrected several times, changed professions, even changed personalities many times as the book progressed. Nope, Mark as he appears in the novel had to stay. I could have set the story somewhere less interesting or ignored the Greek culture of Tarpon Springs. But wow, do my readers want “less interesting?” I didn’t think so.
Twenty thousand words is a lot of words.
The book is tighter and more controlled, and additional pruning by my wonderful editor–another Emily–controlled it even more. I’m glad I weeded so carefully, and I’m happy to say I think you’ll like the result.
The House Guests is now available for pre-order and will be published on June 29th. My garden is and will always be a work in progress.