Pages and Pruning Shears

(This week’s post is a repeat from 2013, but the concept is always, always relevant for me: the parallels between gardening, writing, and editing.)

This is the hot mess that is my beloved butterfly bush, and I can’t wait to set to work on it with my pruning shears. And not just the pruning shears, but the limb lopper, as well. Okay, maybe not the limb lopper, which extends to seven feet long and is generally reserved for trees–but definitely one of the larger pruning tools in the garage.

The first time I owned a butterfly bush was back in Virginia (*sniff* I miss that place so.). We planted three in a corner of the yard, just in front of a stand of impenetrable wild blackberry bushes. The butterfly bushes were a triangular oasis in that unkempt place, a bit of gaudy, fragrant dishabille among the thorns. I had only heard of butterfly bushes, and imagined them to be magical things. And they really are rather magical in the way they attract hundreds of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. The scent! Rich and sweet. If you think of a rose as smelling like a woman’s subtle perfume, the scent of butterfly bush blossoms is like a faceful of flower candy.

Imagine my distress when the landscaper told me that, every year, I had to cut away nearly all the bushes’ limbs, down to a height of between fourteen and eighteen inches. I was stunned. It sounded so brutal. So violent.

Come early spring, my only confidence in the project came from the fact that the landscaper told me that if I didn’t do it the bushes’ growth and flowering would be very poor. On a sunny day, I headed up the hill with my pruning tools and gloves, and our beloved German Shepherd, T.J. (He was there to help me be brave, bless him.) In the spirit of sensitivity, I would love to tell you that I timidly snipped and snapped with the smallest tools, cutting off the old wood with a delicate hand. But I did not. First, I apologized to them for the pain I was going to cause, and then I went after them like I was out for revenge. I had those three large bushes trimmed down to their proverbial nubbins in no time flat.

It was…fun.

Knowing that I’m slicing and dicing those poor limbs for a worthy cause helped my enthusiasm, but that doesn’t really explain the pleasure I took from it. The whole exercise felt very cleansing. Renewing–both for the bushes and for me

It shouldn’t surprise me, I guess, that I’m able to draw a distinct parallel between my now-mania for pruning bushes (and those troublesome clumps of decorative grasses) and my burning desire to hack my current novel-in-progress to bits with my electronic snippers.

Right now my WIP is at about 95 thousand words, headed for at least the 100K mark. It’s big, and floppy, and well-aged at this point. Is it bearing fruit? Well, mostly. Is there dead wood? I suspect there’s plenty.

Many, many writers I know hate the editing process. Me? Last week I ripped out a parallel-plot section of the novel that was about 6K words and rewrote it so that it’s now 11K word, and only re-used about 1500 words of the original section. (If you know my work, you know I’m a sucker for parallel plotting. No distressingly long paragraphs of exposition for this girl. If I want you to know about something I want to tell you ALL about it. Dammit. And you’re welcome : )

My love of editing holds me back, frequently. Everyday I have to stop myself from starting at page one, and rewriting until I get to the end. Didn’t some famous writer like Hemingway actually do that? Madness. That’s the way I write short stories–but we’re talking about an hour or so of editing every day for a story. Writing a novel that way would add months, even a year to my process. So, some days, I futz around with editing a chapter or two before I get down to the real work. Right now, the real work lies in ending the book.

Writing the original story is much more difficult for me than editing what I already have on paper. Really. Writing is painful for me. It’s all tied up with fear and judgement and more fear and more judgment. Now that I think about it, I could be doing a lot less painful things–like editing other people’s work. But, no. I really do like having written. That’s the point. Seeing the thing done. Then I get to play with it. Enjoy it. See it as something new in the world.

There’s a saying that should be tattooed on the forehead of every barista in every coffee joint where writers work. It’s been attributed to writers from Nora Roberts to Jodi Picoult, but it really is just a truism:

You can’t edit a blank page.

Just like you can’t prune the hell out of a bush that hasn’t yet bloomed.

Instead of maundering on about the comparison, I’ll go ahead and set myself a little challenge…to get those 6 or 7 K words done in the next couple of weeks, before I take the shears/pruners/clippers to my favorite bush in the garden. If I don’t get it done, the bush will be a sad thing this summer, with far fewer blooms, birds, and butterflies. And I won’t get to go mad, mad, mad with sharp things. Which, in the end, would be the real shame, yes?







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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

12 thoughts on “Pages and Pruning Shears

  1. Thanks, Laura. I related to what you wrote. The other big challenge for me is reading through that first draft when I finally finish it. It is very tough to stop from rewriting every single sentence in every single paragraph when all I’m supposed to be doing is reading to get a sense of plot and pacing. I find it helps if I take a hard copy and notebook and sit in the library while I do this so I can make notes chapter by chapter. Plus I get to say hi to neighbors :).

    • Yes! It’s so hard not to jump the editing gun on read-throughs. Sometimes I can’t help myself. I agree that printing it out so you can make notes is an excellent way to handle it. It’s too tempting on a laptop.

  2. Okay, that’s twice in the last 7 days that this strange word, dishabille, has come across my path. I guess the universe is telling me to expand my vocabulary and learn the darn word!

    I had to learn not to look at anything but yesterday’s last sentence or else I’d fiddle around trying to edit the previous day’s work and not get anything done today.

    • What a great habit, to look at yesterday’s last sentence. I’m also a fan of stopping in the middle of a sentence or thought so I can just pick right up again.

      Dishabille is such a great word. It’s always made me picture romantic heroes/ heroines after they’ve been loved up, lol.

  3. What a timely post for me, Laura. The book I’m working on has been a nightmare from day one. I wrote 50K words, trashed it and started over, which did add months, btw. I don’t recommend it. That said, the story turned out way better the second time around. Then I got the first round of edits back, and the nightmare continued. I added 10K words (still cringing on how my editor will take that) and subtracted whole paragraphs, but I’m finally happy with it … I think. 🙂 Even though I love editing/rewriting, I’m so brutal on myself. There’s nothing anyone could ever say to me that I haven’t said to myself a hundred times. Final edits start tomorrow. I’m taking a little me-time today before diving back in. It’s the last chance I’ll have to read it ONE MORE TIME, and that always makes me crazy. I hope you’ll post pics of your butterfly bush in bloom!

    • Hang in there, Sue! You know the words your ms needs.Trust yourself.

      Enjoy your one last time. Comb its hair and brush its teeth and send it out into the world like a proud mama!

  4. I thought I was the only one who hated writing the first draft..I mean, isn’t that unwriterly? Maybe hated is too strong a word, but I do keep telling myself I can’t edit what I haven’t written.

  5. Boy, can I relate to this, Laura. I love gardening. I would rather be doing this than anything in the world, even writing. I probably should have done it for a living. I love putting baby plants in the ground and waiting for them to sprout. But I REALLY love hacking the living hell out of things…or as gentler souls call it, pruning.

    When we moved here to Tallahassee, I had to get re-educated on the local flora, especially the beloved azaleas. My first week I hacked all the bushes down to the nubs. My lawn guy was appalled. This spring they came back in full glory!!

    Going back to working on that blank page now…

    • We lived near Lake Jackson for about 20 yrs. I remember pruning the heck out of azaleas, too, to have them come back prettier than ever. I don’t have a pruning problem with my stories. Instead, I have to use bags of fertilizer to make them grow. I’m very stingy with my words in the beginning. I think it’s from all the yrs I spent writing short stories. I

    • I’m so with you, Kris. Gardening results are that much more immediate, and I love the feeling of having worked until I’m grubby and tired.

      Let’s hear it for hacking. I bet your azaleas love you. They’re hardier than they look!

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