Why writing a book is like planting a garden

Recently, it occurred to me that writing a book is a lot like landscaping. You start with an empty lot, brimming with potential, but still lumpy and muddy, with iffy soil. (With a book, this is idea stage, where you tell yourself that your options are unlimited, and that you, being you, can do anything.)

Screen shot 2013-01-04 at 9.41.00 AM
Screen shot 2013-01-04 at 9.41.00 AM

With a garden, before you can even think about planting, you have to study the territory, learning where there is plentiful sunshine, and which corners are too dark to support life.  (This is the proposal stage.  The book proposal – a detailed marketing document required for the sale of a non-fiction book – goes out to publishers. If a publisher falls in loves with it, you’ll get an advance, so you can begin to pay for what comes next.)

With basic requirements in mind, you figure out where to put a fence, a retaining wall and a patio. You determine where and how the sprinkler system will be buried. (With a book, you determine whom you want to interview, and start to think in terms of large topics and chapters.)

In both gardening and publishing, this is often where things start to go wrong.  The retaining wall, you learn, will cost three times as much and take twice as long as expected. (With a book, you discover that everything is six times more complicated than you imagined, and because of the controversial nature of your project, half the experts you planned to interview will not be seen with you in public.)

With a plot of land, once the hardscape is in, you can choose your plantings, but you cannot just drive over to Home Depot and grab adorable four-ounce pots of baby’s breath.  You’re looking for the major stuff, the 15-gallon shrubs, the trees -- balled and burlapped – requiring deep, deep holes -- that will form the bones of your garden. (With a book, it’s much the same. In this stage, you make enormous decisions, generally irrevocable. It’s easy to get sidetracked and tumble into what is known as “research rapture,” where you decide nothing, but instead, spend enormous amounts of time on Google.)

When landscaping, selecting the big plants amounts to a lifetime commitment:  Will you still like that cute little fern when it’s five feet tall and evokes Jurassic Park? (When you’re drafting a book, it’s really hard to know how big some aspect of a story will turn out to be. What starts out small – a couple of device company executives under the scrutiny of the Justice Department – can turn out to be huge, when they go to prison.)

Some of your decisions will be right, and others will be tremendously wrong, demanding correction at considerable expense. The fun part arrives when the bones of the garden are in mostly in place (the structure of the book works, and you know where everything belongs), and most plants are flourishing (you don’t have anything boring, irrelevant or gratuitously litigious in the manuscript).

Then, you can fill in the gaps with some of those four-ounce pots of baby’s breath, and plant all the bulbs you want. (You can do those bits of research and writing you forgot about the first time, and look up more stuff on Google.)

Like a garden, a book is never really finished. There’s always something else you crave from the seed catalogues in the dark of January and February. (And there’s always something you absolutely must add to the text, before the publisher gets a hold of it.)  But after a few years, the tasks that remain involve weeding, fertilizing and moving a few things around. (With a book, this part is called editing and polishing, and compared to writing, it’s a pleasure.)

Both jobs require unceasing dedication and obsessive attention to detail. But they are tremendously gratifying.  When spring finally comes, and you can pad around barefoot in the springy grass, (or stand before an excited audience of future readers, telling them stuff they really need to know) it will be nothing short of glorious.