Brenda Cooper

Post #2: A novel that started with zen gardens

Post CoverThis is tale #2 related to Post, which is being Kickstarted (along with The Sister Paradox, by Jack Campbell) by eSpec Books.  For those following along at home, just as I’m getting ready to publish this, the Kisktarter is two days in, and it’s reached $1135 dollars, or about a third of what it needs to fund. Over a month left. The last post was me talking about the Cynthia Radthorne cover, and now I’m going back to the very beginning.  So here is the origination story for POST…

I was just a week away from a short story writing workshop on the Oregon Coast. There, I planned to see  Sheila Williams (the editor for Asimov’s Science Fiction) and get pushed hard by workshop leaders Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.  I count Kris as one of the best craft teachers out there, and even though I was selling work regularly by then, I wanted to do an impressive job going into the workshop. Kris had given exercises in the past about specificity (The black mutt with the crooked tail and the broken tooth is better than the black dog).

The night this story started, I was in San Diego at one of the hotels vaguely near the convention center. I wandered up the street to a bookstore, which seemed like a good place for  writer to go think. I decided to find a book on a topic I knew little about. I browsed. I browsed some more. Finally, I picked up a book about zen gardens. I’d always enjoyed them, but I had no idea how they were created. It was a little green how-to manual, the kind you mightJapanese gardens find a Home Depot or any other garden store. How to Plant from Seed, How to Raise Goats.  But this one was Creating Japanese Gardens. This cover is actually the book that started it all.

I went back to the hotel room and I read about zen gardens. Twice.

Then I created a zen garden on the page. I gave it a character – an old man who likes gardening naked (not in a creepy way – in a 1960’s natural human way). Then I built a botanical garden around the zen garden. I gave it a character – a young woman who wanted OUT of the garden. I made her someone who noticed details, so that I had a plausible way to describe the zen garden.

I finished the first draft of a short story in about six hours over two days. It was quite specific.

The story generated a heated discussion in the workshop. Kris wanted more. She said it was the first chapter of a novel. Sheila liked it. She eventually bought it, and came out in Asimov’s as “In Their Garden.” David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer included it in their “Year’s Best 15” anthology. Clearly, it succeeded.

But I always remembered what Kris said, and at some level, it must have rung true. After all, here is a full-blown novel that grew out of a little story about Japanese gardens – the one written as specifically as possible.

Watch this space for three or four more stories about POST across the next few weeks. If you have a question, feel free to pose it in comments.