Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ten Gardening Lessons for Debut Novelists

A diehard gardener, I spend at least six months a year battling disease, pestilence, and extreme weather. Gardening in the North Carolina forest--with clay soil, a robust deer population, and hot, dry summers--has given me something of a pioneer spirit. And thank God, because while birthing my debut novel,The Unfinished Garden, I discovered that publishing is not for wimps.

I have fourteen flowerbeds, all of which I started from scratch, all of which evolved over a decade—as did The Unfinished Garden. What have I learned from this experience?

Gardening 101: don’t let the bastards get you down
Deer can drive the toughest gardener to gin, but the damage isn’t permanent. Mauled plants can—and do—grow back. I rant and rave about bastard deer on Facebook, to my friends, to my family—hell, to anyone who’ll listen—but the deer don’t dictate my gardening habits. I grow what I want, where I want, and spray homemade deer recipe when I remember. Bad reviews rip out your guts, but don’t let them interfere with your work-in-progress. Mourn and move on. (Cussing and gin-drinking are mandatory.)

Gardening buddies rock
Gardening is a solitary endeavor, but road trips to nurseries are tons more fun with a carload of friends.  Being an author takes a village, and a huge part of that village consists of other writers. Support them and they will support you. (And commiserate over the bad reviews.) I couldn’t ride the emotional rollercoaster of the publishing world without my sisters- and brothers-in-arms at Book Pregnant. Find a tribe.

Yes, that mulch pile will get spread
Spreading mulch is a backbreaking, time-consuming, soul-destroying chore best done before June brings unbearable heat. But you don’t have to spread the mulch all at once. Ten yards of mulch arrived two weeks before my line edits, and that pile stares at me every day. However, by stealing the occasional hour to spread mulch, I’m slowly reducing the pile. (Although, of course, it’s now full of baby snakes and mutant spiders. YUK.) The work of a debut author can seem overwhelming and can easily distract you from the most important job of all: working on your next manuscript. But if you break the promotion down into small chunks—do a little every night—you will make progress.

There are no shortcuts
With my crap soil and my infestation of voles, planting is slow work. (Unlike deer damage, vole damage is fatal, because these cute little bastards eat the roots.) There is no such thing as bunging a plant in the ground. I have to dig out the stones, work the soil, add compost, line each hole with permatill, add mulch, water in, etc. Finding your voice as an author is slow, hard work. You might not see results immediately, and yet…

Plants grow in unexpected places
My main flowerbed is spilling beyond its bounds. Plants self-seed in the gravel and a chocolate vine has leapt from its trellis to wind around the deck railing. My promotional life as an author has been equally organic. I’ve made connections, followed my gut, and planted seeds. Some of those seeds have grown in ways I could never have imagined. For example, when I drove 25 miles to an author reading one icky January night, I wanted only to hear Anne Clinard Barnhill read from her debut, At the Mercy of the Queen. But we chatted after the event, and Anne mentioned she was part of this group called Book Pregnant. Two days later I was invited to join. (I love you, Anne!)

Natural-looking gardens are planned
You can spend an entire Sunday afternoon tying up one clematis, and not a single person notices. But as you systematically work through the bed pruning, staking, weeding, and transplanting, something magical happens, and one day even your Brooklyn-born husband says, “Wow, honey. The garden looks great.” Don’t assume your book baby will hit the shelves at number one and stay there. Debut novels quickly become yesterday’s news. In those all-important first few months, you will see a direct correlation between your Amazon rankings and your promotional push. Six months before you launch, take an evening to create a promotional plan, aka a long to-do list of reasonable goals. You don’t have to aim for Oprah, but the local media will likely love the story of a hometown success.

Established gardens can thrive on neglect
I started my main flowerbed a few years before the manuscript that would become The Unfinished Garden, and it’s still a work in progress (thanks to the voles). But in the months after my book launch, I ignored my garden completely. And everyone—including the UPS guy—remarked that the main bed had never looked better. I had huge, ongoing promotional plans for TUG, but I had to tend and fall in love with novel two, The In-Between Hour. Four months out, I cut the umbilical cord; I stopped actively promoting my first-born. But TUG didn’t die. No, I no longer enjoyed the Amazon rankings of the first two months, but that novel just kept bobbing along, quietly doing its thing. (Above: exhibit number one, last night’s book club.)

Even in severe drought, plants survive
Gardening can be heart breaking. Severe drought and watering restrictions can ruin years of hard work and make you feel it’s all so pointless. But some plants shut down not to die, but to survive. Leave them alone and they’ll come back when they’re ready. Some promotional ideas need to percolate. As with writing, time and distance can be a blessing. Because The Unfinished Garden has an unusual hook—obsessive-compulsive disorder—I wanted to do a fundraiser to benefit the International OCD Foundation, a not-for-profit group that has helped my family battle OCD. But the plans for a fundraiser fell apart. (You can only cram so much into one day.) Last month I learned that the IOCDF was going to publish an article I had submitted to their newsletter years ago. This inspired me to advertise TUG in the IOCDF annual conference brochure. I’m with MIRA, which means I have the power of Harlequin behind me. My lovely publisher produced a beautiful ad—at no cost to me—and I paid for the space. Then my IOCDF contact asked if the conference bookstore could sell The Unfinished Garden. How fabulous is that?

Plant beautiful flowers and the hummingbirds will come
Book club fiction, which is what I write, can be a slow burn. But if you have an unusual hook, if you have a story that lends itself to discussion, readers will find you. I started by emailing friends to ask if they knew of any neighborhood book clubs, and things grew from there. (Nine months out from my launch, I just visited three more local book clubs.)

Quitting is never an option
Yes, you can have a grand plan for an award-winning garden, but so much of gardening is beyond your control. A true gardener is a master of resilience. A true gardener never gives up, never surrenders. A true gardener knows that despite the plague of white fly, despite the fifth day of 100 degrees, despite the large tree limb that flattened the mature hydrangea, there is no quitting.

As British horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll said, “The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies.” Does that sound familiar, my writer friends?


Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden  a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt (Harlequin MIRA, August 2012)

*Finalist, 2013 Golden Quill Contest, best first book

*Finalist, 2013 Write Touch Readers' Award Contest, mainstream with romantic elements

*Finalist, 2013 New England Readers' Choice Beanpot Award, mainstream with romantic elements


  1. Wonderful post, Barbara, and so true, especially that there are no shortcuts. Writing is hard work, as is the road to publication. I loved The Unfinished Garden, and I can't wait to read The In-Between Hour (great title by the way!)

  2. Ah, Barbara, as someone who has just begun to garden--I'm restoring an ancient garden behind our 1799 Colonial that was left to grow over--AND as someone with a debut novel about to launch in July, I really, really related to this wonderful post--you said everything so beautifully, and I came away from reading it feeling really inspired AND motivated to both spread mulch this morning and start novel #3 (just turned #2 in to my editor, so I was feeling bereft for a few days). Thank you so much. I can't wait to read your book!

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    2. Sorry, Holly. Tried to comment without my reading glasses and typed gibberish. I think we must be living parallel lives, since my big weekend plans include spreading mulch and starting novel three. Maybe some real gardening, too…

  3. If the weather holds out, I'm going to plant this weekend, and keep your wise words in mind as I do.


    1. Happy gardening therapy! I can't think of a better way to balance out the anxiety and excitement of a book launch! And now, I must go back to reading THE GLASS WIVES!

  4. I love the way you always tie garden therapy to writing.