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Manuscripts are like Tomatoes

The best ones are juicy, well-rounded, and full of umami...

You can tell I've got my mind on two very specific things: drafting stories and growing tomatoes. If I'm honest, for the past couple of years, neither have gone particularly well. I've been a bit too green myself to have cultivated a real green thumb. But this year, it feels different. Why?


Experience and planning.


I've been writing for a looooooooooong time. Much longer than I've been trying to grow tomatoes. From what I can remember, I wrote my first poem in 7th grade. Inspired by the Eagles song "Hotel California" and all the Poe I was reading at the time, my rhyming poem was about a horrifying beast stalking a town. I thought it was amazing. It wasn't. But still, I kept writing, kept reading, kept taking classes, and kept on the staff of my school's lit mag, Fragments (which actually won awards and is still doing so).


Somehow it dawned on me in my early twenties, as a poetry MFA student, that I probably wouldn't be a good writer until I was much older. I could tell how green my poems were, and - believe me - I was frustrated by it. Most of the great work was written by the older students in the program, the ones who had waited 'til their 30s, 40s or 50s to go for the master's degree. All I wanted to do was ketchup.

You didn't think I'd miss a great tomato pun, now, did you?


I got so frustrated, that I even stopped writing for a good chunk of time. Like 10 years. Instead, I set my sights on becoming the best children's book editor I could be. Which was certainly a great pursuit...


But eventually, I got back to writing. Inspired by the incredible and powerful children's books I was reading and publishing, I wanted to do it again. I wrote picture book manuscript after picture book manuscript. Again, they were terrible. I have folders of bad manuscripts, and I'm still adding more.

ugh, ☝️ but progress.


This time, I was older, and understood a bit better that good writing takes time and planning. And great writing takes experience, stemming from the confidence of having done something hundreds of times already and knowing you can do it again. Now, when I sit down to write, I know what I want from it even if I don't know how to get there yet. And I've made peace with that uncertainty, too.


Last year, I tried growing tomatoes for the first time. What do you think happened?


It was terrible: I started too late in the season, sowed my seeds in the wrong place, and didn't know how to tend to the stem. I let the plants grow haphazardly, and didn't understand that you have to trim and prune as it goes. Kind of like a manuscript.


But this year, it's different. I started my tomato seedlings early, indoors on a sunny windowsill. I bought grow-bags to place anywhere I want in the garden. And I've already started trimming properly, following the advice of the UK's venerable Monty Don. I started with a plan and a teeny bit of experience.


That's not to say I didn't make mistakes. So eager to get my tomatoes going, I planted them outside too early and we had several frosts in April. Those ones didn't make it. But I had planned: many other hardy tomato seedlings still grew on my windowsill, and I could try again when the weather warmed up. Maybe next year I'll have a greenhouse to plant a whole tomato garden inside. A girl can dream...

So what am I trying to say here? Wait until you're a gray, old lady like me before you get good at anything? That in middle age you gain the secrets to success? HA!


No, that's not it. What I'm trying to say is: take your time, tend to your craft like a tomato plant, use your experience, plan it.

Then go ahead and enjoy the fruits of your labor.



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