Opportunities and Expectations
Why writing and gardening are more closely related than you might think.
That could be Episode 17, since they're opposites too.
Gardening is an important in all of my writing. In fact, it's one of the Three Constants that you'll find in every novel-sized work or longer. But it hasn't always been that way. Gardening and plants are a very recent thing, at least compared to other things like being alive. Which, I hear, is so, so cool.
I used to be quite safe in my role as a city gentleman, unwilling to get my hands dirty and live far away from the wilderness, only visiting there when it was needed. But that wasn't what God had in mind for me at all. I had always enjoyed farming games more than other kinds of games (from Farmville to Stardew Valley, before it became awful), but never really understood why. Something about the nurturing and management really spoke to me, and it wasn't until 2019 that I really started to pay attention to the voice and what it was saying. I saw an article about Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and gave it a read, finding it utterly charming and with such a unique, small-town setting that I'd never really encountered before. I got a few more of his books, and before I knew it, the call of the land was impossible to ignore.
In 2020, we were planning on starting a backyard garden. We lived on a total of 0.25 acres in suburban Nampa, Idaho, and had plans to tear out the grass, put up raised beds, install drip irrigation, all the things. These plans proceeded nicely for the first several months of the year, until everything changed somewhat. Suddenly our seed order was delayed indefinitely, lots of other people were wanting to grow their own food and be more self-sufficient. We felt like such hipsters. Especially since we'd pulled our kids out of public school the year before. So cool...
But we got it done. We ordered a ton of dirt (not sure exactly how much, but it was a lot), good topsoil with fresh compost mixed in. We had any veggie you could think of: radish, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, melons, squash, onions, cabbage, broccoli, leeks, tomatoes, kale, parsnips, salsify, I could go on (and I probably will later). Everything did great from start to finish: the seeds germinated, there were few weeds (just dandelion and bindweed), the drip irrigation which was absolutely necessary in Idaho did its job and the harvest was truly abundant. We had enough to enjoy fresh vegetables nearly every day in the Summer and bring extra to our gluten-free gatherings in the Autumn.
That was the end of 2020, despite all the challenges with shipping and delivery encountered in the middle. In 2021, we scaled back tremendously, only doing peas, radishes and tomatoes, and leaving the tomato plants for the new owners of our house, as we were on our way to Indiana. Packing a four-person household and driving across the country in four days is no joke, let me tell you. We braved the Wyoming desert and Nebraska thunderstorms, and the endless stretches of corn in between. This continent is really big, in case you've never really checked it out. Getting settled in a suburb outside Indianapolis took most of that year's effort, but we did manage to grow some nice tomatoes and Mexican sour gherkins (Mousemelons! Time for supper...) in pots on the back patio of our rental.
At the same time I also started writing Octave of Stars. This was a little surprising even to me, as I hadn't been considering using that story seed for any reason anytime soon, but it nonetheless was planted, sprouted and fruiting before I even knew it. I got the idea about people with elemental powers having a small struggle with one another over 17 years ago, and had intended for it to be a sort of bridge story between the stories set on Earth and the ones on Laviere. It still fulfills this purpose, but in a slightly different way. I started writing it in December of 2021 and spend pretty much the entirety of 2022 writing, revising and readying it for publishing.
At the end of 2022 we moved out to 6 acres of mostly grass and some nice trees in Southern Indiana. As soon as we could, we got to work on setting up our Garden 2.0. Down went the raised beds from before, full of freshly scooped dirt from the soft spot near the pond. In went the peat moss and compost and fertilizer, all good things for the good seeds, some of which we'd recently ordered, and some from our seed collection efforts in Idaho. After planting, down went the wood chip mulch. There's a small sawmill down the road from us that said we could have a few large contractor bags full of wood shavings. Each piece was small, about the size of a Tic-Tac, and I was scooping them up while they were still pouring out of the hopper above me. Reason number 72 to wear a wide-brimmed hat at all times. Unfortunately, it also proved to be our downfall, or at least a large contributing factor to said downfall.
We didn't do our research. Apparently, wood chips are similar to manure in that they have high amounts of nitrogen that will dissipate over time. This would have been helpful to a thriving bed of sprouts and stalks, but not to a bed of newly planted seeds. This, coupled with the heavy clay of the soil here and the abundance of weed seeds that took over the beds, resulted in us getting next to nothing from the first planting. We had some radishes, a few beets, some stunted peas, and a single pole bean. Nothing like the abundant cornucopia that we had planned.
When the true measure of the situation was apparent, it was pretty disappointing, to say the least. Disappointments seemed to come in economy bundle packs as well, for while gardening and working the land I had also been trying to submit Octave to several different marketing opportunities that would've helped increase its reach tremendously. The first one told me that it wasn't up to their standards, and admittedly it wasn't. I'd sent them a version that had a glaring typo on the very first page, so it was no wonder that they hadn't thought it suitable. So I spent several weeks re-reading it and revising it, ensuring that it would be as suitable as possible for the next opportunity. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, it came back as unsuitable yet again. This was, needless to say, disappointing at a number of levels.
One of the biggest struggles in my self-publishing journey is "professional editing." I understand that there are people out there who will read your manuscript over and ensure that it is error-free, rock-solid and as good as it can be. The problem with availing myself of these services is that they are prohibitively expensive. Octave of Stars is not a short book, it weighs about 140,000 words, mostly because it isn't part of a trilogy and I couldn't just spread it out over several volumes. That also means that the cheapest quote I got for "professional editing" was $2700 USD. I could hardly justify spending that much money, especially with a new house and piece of land which both require extensive investments, not to mention rising costs for everything (kids eat a lot of food, just saying). So, we opted for the in-house editing option, with all of its benefits and drawbacks.
You may be wondering why I put "professional editing" in quotation marks, and that's because it is in no way completely infallible. Just because you have someone with an editing certification read over your manuscript doesn't mean that you'll end up with a 0% error rate. I constantly find typos and issues in AAA books from big publishing houses, and I've often wondered if they would award me a bug bounty for finding them. But when you've printed tens of thousands of copies of a book already, that seems like a bad idea. Anyway, getting someone else to edit the book for us sounds like a good idea, but I can't possibly justify paying thousands of dollars for something that I've made a total of $10 in profits on. The return on investment is absolutely not there.
So what did we do? Well, where there is life, there is hope. Right at the end of Spring we got ourselves some good potting soil, spread it out in little furrows over top of our weed-free raised beds, and covered the whole thing with pine shavings for animal bedding instead. We got pretty much all of the newly planted seeds to germinate, and with luck and some prayers we'll have a great crop of melons, cucumbers and beans this Summer. Normally you plant in the Spring and harvest in the Summer, but this time we're doing things a little differently. I'm still trying to promote Octave through other means, even if they aren't the first/best/greatest ones that I had originally hoped. Despite missing out on the opportunity to reach more readers, the readers that I have reached have really enjoyed the book so far. I've gotten lots of positive feedback on how nice it is to find a clean, family-friendly novel that's still engaging. Being flexible is important when it comes to gardening, writing, and just about anything else.
Managing expectations is also something critically important. After such a successful gardening year in Idaho, I expected our first planting in Indiana to be no problem at all. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I didn't have any previous publishing experience to compare Octave to, but I was expecting it to be successful, because why wouldn't it be? It filled so many needs and God had called me to change plans and publish it first, so why wouldn't it be successful? Well, it was, just not in the sense that I was expecting. Readers aren't counting typos or misplaced punctuation, they just want a good story. So in that regard, I have success. And besides, Octave of Stars isn't the end of things. Not by a long shot...
The end is a long way off, for sure, but to find out what’s available right now, visit us at ZMT Books.