Why writing a novel is like pruning a hydrangea

For me, the first draft of a novel is about expansion – a kind of ‘throw-it-all-in’ melting pot, where any old passing idea is grasped and used – often ideas that do not stand up to scrutiny or pass the test of time.

The hydrangea throws out its spring leaf buds in the same way – haphazardly, as if to say, ‘Will this fly?’ It’ll put shoots anywhere, and everywhere, even on seemingly-dead wood.

And just as it’s disastrous to prune a hydrangea too early, because of the risk of frost, it’s disastrous for a first draft to be subject to too much snip-snippy criticism – it’s supposed to be no good: rangy and a bit out of control. It’s a growing shrub, not a Chelsea show garden.

Then, right about now, the secateurs come out and it is sheer pleasure to snip off the dry husks of last year’s blooms, to cull all the hollow dead stems at the centre, to shorten and neaten. Suddenly, what looked a mess seems to have purpose and shape.

Revision is where all the good work happens in writing. Composing a novel is a serious of negative decisions. The path not taken is as crucial as the one chosen. And omission carries with it a lacing of what the author knows but chose not to put in, still there, like yesterday’s rain.

Also, when you’ve cut out all those dead stems, it’s as if you can – at last – see the centre, and this central nub, the base of the plant, is where the strongest and newest growth can be found. Rich red stems and fat green leaf buds. They’re the ones that need the air and sun to develop.

Sometimes, when you’re in the confusing centre of the plant with your secateurs, you find yourself leaving a strong, healthy stem. It’s so robust, you think to yourself, it’s got so many leaf buds. It doesn’t need cutting out. But good pruning is not only done from the centre of the plant, it is done by stepping back.

When you walk away from your shrub, and gaze at it from a few feet away, you see that the robust, almost brutish stem has to come out. Yes, it’s strong, but it spoils the shape. It’s your favourite scene, your most beautiful paragraph, the greatest description of fog you’ve ever managed. But still you must cut.

So you see, writing a novel is like pruning a hydrangea, and if you’ve never pruned a hydrangea in spring (preferably while ever-so-slightly angry) then you haven’t lived.