Saturday, April 28, 2007

Pruning Back The Deadwood

The weather in Dallas the past couple of weeks has been great. Highs in the mid-seventies and lows in the low fifties. So Rocky, the seventy-five pound wonder dog, and I have been puttering around in the garden. Okay, I putter. Rocky lays on the grass like an imperial sultan keeping an eye on his domain.

Armed with the new set of pruning shears my husband bought me, I attacked my rose bushes. It was a daunting task as I'd let them go last fall and now had numerous branches nearly seven feet tall. Yes, things grow bigger in Texas. Working as my father taught me years ago, I clipped back the branches over my head first, then selectively cut those limbs that crossed over others, as they would prevent the best growth from coming through.

Finally I stood back and studied my work. I wasn't happy. This was going to require more pruning to get the desired results. I continued cutting through the thorns and thicker stems until I'd cut the bushes back to within five or six inches of the soil.

As I knelt and worked the dead leaves from around a root ball and turned the soil to mix in fresh peat moss and fertilizer, my husband wandered over to see what I'd wrought upon the thorny bushes. "You've killed them," he said, shaking his head.

"No. This pruning is a sort of tough love for my plants," I explained as I spread the new mulch. "I've simply cut out the deadwood to allow new, fresher plant life to grow. It will give us a more abundant supply of flowers and healthier plants in the long run."

Sometimes that is how a writer must view their work. The characters or the plot can get so cumbersome that it grows way past the manageable stage. At this time the writer must put aside their trepidation and pick up their pruning shears to try to tame the mass before it withers and dies from neglect. This task can appear daunting to the novice and cumbersome to the more experienced.

Occasionally only a small pruning is needed to tame the work back under control. Chopping off the wild shoots to center the plot. Trimming back those secondary characters, no matter how much we love them or their quirkiness, whose cross purposes deflects from the story's core. And sometimes a simple trimming will not finish the job. Then the writer must gird her loins and do a full scale cut back in order to restore the story's central theme and produce a final book that thrills both the reader and the writer with its passion and beauty.

So today Rocky and I were back out inspecting the roses. Dozens of new shoots with their red furled leaves covered all the plants. They'd come alive from the severe pruning and I anticipate yellow, peach, red and white blossoms to fill my house soon.

I get the same thrill when the story I've trimmed back and reworked touches me deeper in my soul than the original mass of tangle limbs.

Have you ever had to cut back a story or wished a writer had done the pruning to produce a better product?


DMacMeans said...

Suzanne -

You're so right. I see the need for "tough-love" pruning in many of the contest entries I judge. It's hard to cut out parts of a manuscript when you know all the hard work that went into putting those words on the page in the first place. But the story is generally stronger for the pruning maintenance.

Donna MacMeans

Anna Campbell said...

Suz, really liked your post. The old gardening-writing metaphor. It's true, though, isn't it? I've never actually had a garden to look after until the last two years or so and the similarities are striking. Especially the bit about working and working and only seeing the results after you've given up hope! Actually I'm a pruning fiend - I find it really therapeutic although I go a bit wild. Currently sporting a bandage because the saw slipped yesterday when I was chopping down the buckinghamia. I always come out of a session out there slashing off thick limbs feeling like I'm ready to take on the world! Good luck with your roses - I'm about to do mine. They don't like the humidity here which is one of the reasons I love the gardens in the Northern Hemisphere. Oh, dear, and none of that was really about writing, was it?

Donna, I agree with you about contest entries. I keep wanting to say, "Cut to the chase!" The undergrowth is obscuring the beauty of the rosebushes! Ha, got it back to writing at last!