Imagine that you are a gardener.
You want to grow a particular plant from a seed, and you read up on how best to do this. Carefully following the instructions, you plant the seed deep in rich soil and nurture it until its first shoots appear. Working methodically and with due care, you raise the plant until it is tall and strong and ready to bear fruit. From that first fruit, you then have the miracle of more seeds and you can repeat the whole operation on a larger scale if you wish. Over time, you could have a whole garden full of flourishing plants, garnering you crop after crop of fruit plus the seeds necessary to maintain the crop into the future.
Each part of the process is important if you want the plant to survive at all, and especially if you want a good yield from it: acquiring the right seeds, finding the right soil, reading and following the instructions, proceeding step by step through the nurturing process, and then taking care of the resulting seeds and fruits accordingly. An important part of the whole procedure is to be aware of time frames and expectations: your initial seed will take time to mature.
Now treat the whole thing as an analogy: instead of being a gardener, be a writer. The seeds are the ideas which come to you for stories; the instructions are the books of craft which you need to study to be successful. The soil — and this is as crucial here as it is for the plant above — is both the internal and external writing environments you need to ‘cultivate’ the book, but also the right place for your book to grow and attract attention. Plant your seed in the wrong soil and it will wither; plant your book in the wrong environment and it will also fail.
Then, just as with the plant, you have to care for the book — writing it until it is a mature piece of work, then marketing it until it bears fruit. That fruit, in book terms, is vital: it is not only the cash you need for a successful writing career, but contains the seeds you need for future ‘plants’. Unless you are Harper Lee or less than a handful of other very well-known authors, you’ll need more than one book to build up momentum and gather together a viable readership.
This gardening model of a writing career makes a lot of sense on many levels, but it’s quite different to the model that is sold to new writers every day through a bombardment from social media and the culture at large. Today’s culture is largely based on the dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all model of the marketplace, in which authors battle like gladiators for the precious attention of a worldwide audience. That’s all part, as I have argued, of the wider and general framework of thinking of the last century or so — the Ironic Age, which tends to interpret things existentially and rawly. Gardens are foreign to its thinking — industrial farming with genetically modified seeds would be a closer analogy.
But the gardening model throws up many questions. If we accept that we, as writers, receive the ‘seeds’ of ideas and are astute enough to convert these into potentially successful stories, how exactly do we find the right ‘soil’ in which they might grow?
Similar to gardening, finding the right soil is largely a matter of understanding the seed. What kind of seed is it? What sort of seeds does it resemble, and what soils do they normally require?
If we understand the nature of our own work, we should also be able to tell which already existing works in the world of fiction ours resembles. Seeking out a similar environment to those works in which to survive would seem then to follow. Using the same or similar soil which has yielded growth and harvests to others would be the natural course to take. This might be a trial and error process to some degree: some soil may seem suitable but the seeds find no foothold. Eventually though, using some common sense and husbanding resources carefully, it should be possible to find the exact soil in which our own work will flourish.
The modern Ironic model drives writers ruthlessly towards modifying their ‘seeds’ in order to suit existing consumers. You’ll find dozens of mass-produced novels on Amazon, each catering for its own narrow taste, each written with that particular taste in mind, each having its own superficial and ephemeral success. Writers can make a lot of money if they travel far enough down that ‘genetically modified’ route. But for writers who want to write their stories their own way, a gentler approach is needed. And more patience.
The gentler approach is what this is all about.