Last year, I worked a small garden in small pieces and wrote about how that was a good metaphor for writing a novel – or tackling any long project, for that matter: a little bit at a time. [Six Writing Lessons From the Garden]. Because my garden was so small, I protected it with a
makeshift fence of wire held upright by ski poles.
My small plot was highly successful, yielding leeks, shallots, lettuce, fennel, endive, cherry and heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers both sweet and hot, green beans, Brussels sprouts and assorted herbs. It gave me confidence to expand, but to do so would require more than a makeshift fence. I needed a sturdy and reliable fence to keep our grazing chickens out.
Other years, my gardens have sprawled across the landscape, often resulting in more weeds than I could pull – and lower yields than I’d hoped for. My husband consented to build the fence on the condition that I grow vegetables only within it: no outlier hills of winter squash, no separate mound of watermelons. In short: no other distractions.
Because the vegetable patch is right at the end of the driveway, I was determined that the fence would not be one of those poverty fences of old bedsprings and pallets, like we’d used for a pig sty years ago. This fence had to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. We designed the fence panels last autumn and built them in the basement over the winter. This spring, we brought the panels up to the garage, where I stained them and painted the gate.
Over the past two weekends, we installed the new fence, and it’s all I hoped it would be – and more. In the process of bolting the panels together, I realized that the fence won’t just keep the dog and chickens out – but it will also keep my gardening ambitions in.
This exactly parallels the work I’m doing on Ellen, the novel I’m almost finished writing. While I’m still adding new scenes to achieve narrative cohesion, I’m also taking out all the distractions – everything that’s now outside the fence of the story. Eliminating these bits and parts adds more torque to the narrative, making for better storytelling.
Some of these bits are favorites of mine and are hard to give up. But if I’ve given up growing labor intensive vegetables, like shell peas and paste tomatoes, whose processing for the freezer inevitably derails me from tending everything else in the garden, I can also take out favorite scenes that helped me discover the story but are no longer necessary to the novel. A good story, well told, is as much about what gets left out as what’s left in.
This process of elimination is what makes a story taut; it’s how a story is shaped into a book so that it fits between the fence rails of its covers.
Deborah Lee Luskin has been writing a novel that in the past year has gone from a rough draft to something approaching finished – with polish – just like the fence around her garden.