Idea Farming—growing your plot #5—The South Forty – The Novel
This is the next in the series of blogs on story farming. In this one, I’ll discuss the third farming method—The South Forty (the novel).
For decades, comedians, cartoonists, and comedy writers have included jokes about “writing the great American novel” in their material. The truth is that a many people do have such a desire lurking within them. Of the many with that desire, only a few ever act upon it—and even fewer complete a manuscript that might legitimately qualify as a novel.
Assuming you are among the small percentage of those in the final category, what does it take to get more than the cows out of the south forty?
At the most basic level, writing a novel is an expansion of the process required to write a short story. An author must have an idea, a willingness to edit judiciously, and be committed to investing the time required to finalize a manuscript of 80,000 to 100,000+ words. However, the process for developing and writing a novel has many, many more levels than even the most tightly written short story.
We’ll look at plowing, planting, irrigating, fertilizing, getting rid of pests, and harvesting as steps in growing your novel.
Plowing. It’s a good idea before starting your novel to have the field plowed—what concept was there before put out of sight and mind. Most likely, your idea for a book has been around a while. You’ve come and gone from thinking about the idea over months or years. While this may have provided a well-focused view into the idea, it also allowed the ground itself to compact.
You need to plow the old idea under in your brain’s field so the necessary light, air, and water won’t simply run off the surface. You want light to be able to access all parts of the idea, allowing you to seriously evaluate what’s there. Air is required for the idea to develop into a full-fledged storyline—loose soil gives live to nuances of the idea. Even the best-turned soil in a brightly lit field will produce no crop without water—your sweat and tears during this entire process. And water must be available to all parts of the back forty to produce a maximum crop—so plow all the way to the corners!
Planting. Once your field is ready, it’s time to get started. I’ve mentioned a variety of strategies in earlier blogs. For a novel, however, you must develop a detailed outline before you get too far into your story.
I don’t know a single farmer who plants only one plant in a field, expecting to get a significant harvest. Think of each of the points and sub-points of your outline as individual plants in the South Forty. Without a filed filled with viable seeds, crop yield is negligible. Without an outline, your novel will be no more than a field where random ideas grow unchecked.
A non-farming way to look at this step is: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
Planting is impossible without a plan.
Irrigating. Once the South Forty is planted, a farmer has to water the seeds to cause germination. Once you have an outline with an endpoint, you begin the work of writing. In some climates, irrigation is not normally needed—rainfall is frequent and abundant enough that no outside water source is required. Chances are that your brain is not such a paradise—you need to plan on irrigating. Think of words as water to the storyline.
Remember the air from above? If a plant is go grow, the carbon dioxide in that air must combine with water to produce sugar. That sugar is the basis for all plant growth and development. You have to combine your words and your ideas into a viable manuscript in much the same way a plant combines elements from air and water to make sugar.
Fertilizing. Next time you buy a bag of fertilizer, check the label. You’ll see three numbers—like 10-20-10—on that label. Those numbers refer to the amount of three essential nutrients that are required for healthy plant growth found in the product.
The first number is the amount of nitrogen (N), the second number is the amount of phosphate (P2O5) and the third number is the amount of potash (K2O). These three numbers represent the primary nutrients (nitrogen (N) - phosphorus (P) – potassium/potash (K)).
Nitrogen. This nutrient is mandatory for making chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is responsible for capturing the energy stored during photosynthesis during sugar production—it also is the green color in plants. Healthy plants have adequate supplies of nitrogen. You must add believability to every aspect of your plot or your story will die—in the same way that an inadequate supply of nitrogen leads to plant death. Even in science fiction—where things that just can’t happen do happen—requires a preponderance of believable parts. Without a basis of belief, your reader will be unwilling to suspend that believability when necessary in a sci-fi novel—your novel will die before producing fruit.
Phosphate. While also critical for photosynthesis, without phosphorus, plant root growth is inadequate to support a growing plant. And, blooms formed in low phosphorus conditions are small and dull. You as a writer want “flowers by phosphate” moments throughout your story—times when your plot points stand out, are thought-provoking, or provide insight or a clue. On the other hand, when you provide backstory or hint at times not described in detail in your book, those are “roots by phosphate” moments.
Potash. Potassium is essential for fruit production. Without fruit, plants can still be functional—but not usually on the back forty. The back forty is for cash crops. While there are markets for some root or stem plants, most money crops—corn, wheat, cotton and the like—produce seeds and fruit. You need to make sure your story bears fruit—resolution to issues and an ending that people are willing to pay for!
Pest removal. Pests can be animal, plant, fungus, bacteria, or virus. Regardless of the type of infestation, good farmers need to rid the field of the problem before the crop is ruined. This isn’t a forum for chemical vs. “organic” pest control. What pest removal means to a writer is the excision of material that doesn’t belong in the crop. That means editing with an eye for “keeping the story moving forward,” not simply satisfying your love of detail.
You may need to call in an expert in pest control. In fact, if this is your first venture into writing and publishing, you need to have a professional editor look at your manuscript after your second serious edit is complete. There are many services out there that will do this. I have a strong recommendation. Her name is Shelley Greene. She provides feedback (good/bad) and suggestions as well as helping with wording, grammar, and typos. Shelley’s email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shelley.greene.566. She doesn’t work for free, but her rates are VERY competitive. You will be glad you contacted her. Amazon offers editing as option for a fee as well.
Pray for bees! I know this isn’t in the list above, but the idea just kind of flitted into my brain. (Thanks go to Sherry Frazier, my publicist, who wanted to be called an immune pest—an idea I’m still considering.) After you’ve done all you can to get the crop growing, you still need to pollinate those flowers to get fruit. While many flowers are wind-pollinated, that’s a hit/miss chance for your fruit—you want more than chance to determine your final product.
Bees are very specific pollinators. They search out flowers that have what they need and want. Once they find a field of flowers that fit their need, they spread the word—dancing their way into the GPS systems of all the other bees in the hive.
Think of your pre-readers as bees—looking for ideas they like based on past experience. Have your manuscript pre-read by someone(s) who like and know your genre—they provide specific feedback on how your book fits the model. But also pray for “new-bees” who generally steer away from your genre—those bees provide a much better eye on the storyline because that’s all they really care about.
Harvesting. When the crop is ready, you need to get it in—and quickly. True stories abound of farmers who waited a day too long and had their crops ruined or the field made impassible by torrential rain. On the other hand, harvesting before the peak of crop development cuts the yield significantly. Read your story again after letting it “grow” a week or so without any involvement by you, the author. Have someone else read the story—but ask for specific places of like or dislike. Better yet, provide a list of places you’d like feedback. A review who says, “I really liked it,” or “It’s kind of dry,” is not of any value—except, perhaps, to your ego in the first case.
At some point, you have to stop writing and publish, or it’s not a novel. Robert Heinlein, a sci-fi writer of considerable renown had five rules he followed. While they aren’t a “hand in glove” fit in this analogy, they are excellent to keep in mind as you work.
Of course, even if you carefully follow all the above steps, your crop might not sell. But, if you do take the time and effort to grow your novel; and if you are willing listen to critique and act to correct legitimate problems, you should harvest a novel to be proud of—one that others like enough to purchase.
So, what happens after someone reads your novel and likes it asks, “When’s the next book with this main character coming out?”
Next blog: Idea Farming—growing your plot #last Mega Farming (the book series)
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