Aug 1 2011

Barren to Bountiful

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Not even a month ago, this is how the desert looked: barren, brown, but still quite beautiful in its mocha-colored hues.

Train trestle view behind our house. Notice the vast amount of “tan” seen on the desert floor. Click to enlarge.

And this is how the desert looks now, aided by a few short weeks of desert monsoon rains.

Notice how much “green” is now on the desert floor. Click to enlarge.

Just weeks ago, you may recall how stressed I was about the stress of the desert vegetation. It had probably been a good six months since we’d had measurable rain. The prickly pears were wrinkly and hardened like leather, every hill around our house was painted in brown brushstrokes, and even the hardy saguaros were starting to show their limits with rippled trunks and squishy skin.

After one rain, though, things started to grow. And today – a few more storms under our belts – this is what the desert looks like:

Before these gorgeous Devil’s Claw flowers erupt, the first hint of their arrival is a trail of lily-pad-looking leaves formed into roving clusters. Click to enlarge.

This hill on the south end of our property was hot-cocoa colored not too long ago and studded with only an occasional glimmer of green: a creosote bush, a cholla cactus. Look at it now, as Arizona poppies enter the scene. Click to enlarge.

Close-up view of the Arizona poppy. This poppy almost always makes its appearance during summer – not springtime, like the brighter-orange Mexican poppies. Click to enlarge.

I’d been checking the area all spring and summer, looking for this desert four o’clock that I’d discovered last year. I figured it wasn’t going to bloom. Surprise! Flowers open fully when the sun comes up (I took this at 5:30 a.m.). Click to enlarge.

I love the furry globes that form on the whitethorn acacia. They're so geometric and such a great replica of a bursting sun. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: When I think of the Sonoran Desert’s monsoonal transformation, I think in layers. The first week after rain is the first layer: a few sprouts here. The second week, a few more sprouts. The third week, a few more. Then suddenly the green growth that seemed nothing more than pesky ugly duckling weeds transforms into a variety of flowers. Another layer!

And with each week comes another set of greens I don’t recognize. Another layer! And with that, more flowers, more color. More layers!

Our novels are the same as the metamorphosing desert. We start out with the “tan” base of our plot. Then we add our flora – our layers – characterization, subplots, setting, emotional arcs and collisions.

I think the most profound writing lesson that nature offers, however, is a reminder about the value of surprise. I love being surprised by the new things that pop up week after week, layer after layer. Sometimes the desert provides subtle hints as to what will emerge from the cracked earth. Other times, Mother Nature doesn’t provide a clue. I like my fiction the same way.

How do you feel about “surprises” in the works you read and write? Can an author overdo the surprises? Conversely, can he spell things out in too predictable a manner? What about red herrings? Like ‘em? Hate ‘em? And, finally, does “barren-to-bountifull” trigger any other reactions for you?


45 Responses to “Barren to Bountiful”

  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    First of all…beautiful wildflowers, Melissa.
    I don’t like things spelled out too much. A big fan of subtle, and I just love to be surprised.
    I like your analogy of layers, because we do go back and add more and deepen and enrich our novels…a layer at a time.
    Well, except for those rumored brilliant folks, who do it all at once.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    I’m like you – I LOVE when an author can convey meaning with subtlety. It really is a gift not to “tell all” or “explain” too much. We always need to be reminded that our readers are intelligent and will pick up on our trail of breadcrumbs. But it’s HARD to do as an author, don’t you think?

    I try to incorporate all my layers at once while writing, but I am NOT one of those brilliant folks. Inevitably, at revision stage, there are still things that need to be added. More layers!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Kelly Garriott Waite Says:

    Beautiful blog! I love your pictures and really appreciate the concept of layering a novel. It reminds me of something I read years ago about essay writing, and twisting new themes in like individual strands in a rope. Fascinating concept.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for the wonderful compliment, Kelly. I love the analogy of themes being woven like individual strands in a rope.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    Great post, Melissa. I’ve lived in the desert almost my whole life and I’m still surprised and awed by the color explosion that seems to happen within just a few hours of one decent rain… even after I was certain, once again, that all my plants were dead beyond resuscitation! I love experiencing the same surprise and awe when reading; love it when an author is able to take even the most predictable event and somehow surprise me. And it’s what I strive for in my writing.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    It never gets old, does it … that intense metamorphosis that occurs in the desert? And you’re really NOT kidding. It does seem to green up within hours.

    I agree with you; I am always thrilled when an author can turn predictable plots upside down.

    [Reply]

  • avatar K Says:

    Once again, your photos are spectacular. Catching these plants blooming is tricky unless you are out in nature daily. Appreciating your home and the uniqueness of the Sonoran desert is a great gift….thank-you. I love that this place inspires you and that you are able to see the layers or change of the seasons. Change is the key word for the desert and for a great story. How dull it would all be if the desert never changed or a story was dull and boring.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    As a fellow desert-dweller, your comments mean so much. I’m so happy I now have a tiny camera and running belt so that when I jog every morning, I can snap things as I see them. The problem: yesterday I think I did more photo snapping than running :-). So excited to see that Desert Four O’Clock!

    Ah … change. It’s the one constant in life, isn’t it?

    [Reply]

  • avatar Leah Says:

    Isn’t it so amazing what water will do? It’s one of nature’s great miracles, don’t you think? I know even in our front lawn where we haven’t been watering as frequently because of rising water costs, when we do give it a good soak, it perks right up. Water truly is nature’s elixir. It’s sometimes hard to imagine the desert with vegetation. But it’s just so beautiful when it’s there!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    What a great observation, Leah … Most people think of the desert as it is seen in my first photo above. And ONLY that way. But at times, it is so lush, I swear the hills in front of our house look like Ireland. I LOVE that time of year. Such a transformation.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Nina Says:

    This is timely for me, Melissa. I want so badly to outline everything or at least plan the major plot points. I try–then I end up changing things as I go along. I don’t mind it after all–I LIKE the surprise, the new layers!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    I’m just like you. My personality won’t let me NOT outline … it’s kind of like a security blanket that allows me to move forward without any mental road blocks (even though, in the back of my mind, I know things may veer off course). But that surprise IS the fun part … when a character does something you had no idea she would do, or a plot point evolves that you simply can’t ignore. Love it!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    I love the layers of the desert and I absolutely love looking at your view of the wildflowers then comparing it to mine in the comparatively-drenched northeast! So fascinating! As for my writing, I’ve thought a lot about the elements of surprise — one of my WIPs has a “surprise ending” that I have stressed about, wondering if it’s too contrived or not surprising enough. I am very sensitive to this because I don’t like books where I see this happening.

    “Barren to bountiful” — when I read this, I think of the feast or famine writing moods or project availability: either I can’t write fast enough or I simply can’t write anything at all or have no projects to work on! I often feel like it’s flat out running or full stop!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    I was amazed by the wildflowers when I visited my parents last year; so many of them so different, but so similar!

    Ugh … I hear you about stressing over the surprise ending. In the end, the only way to “know” if it worked is to have some beta readers give you their thoughts. Let me know when you need my beta-eyes :-).

    Oh – and YES – I can totally relate to the feast or famine of writing moods as I type.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Ingenious post, Melissa. I love the comparison between a desert floor and the writing life. As writers, I believe we should always prepare for those parched times by outlining and plodding through until we’ve reached that creative oasis once again. On the other hand, I also love when those monsoons come streaming down and the writing takes on a life of its own. Love this idea!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    The post isn’t ingenious. Your interpretation of it is! I love the comparison of parched writing times and monsoons of creativity!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Hi Melissa… great pictures. I love surprises in stories and also the red herrings. I am trying to create the surprises in my story. When a writer gets predictable, its really boring.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Yep. Predictability will kill a novel for me.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Pam Asberry Says:

    What a wonderful analogy, Melissa. Thank you, as always, for sharing your beautiful photographs and a dose of inspiration.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    You are so welcome. Happy to share this wonderland with writers and nature-appreciaters! Thank you for stopping by.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    Barren-to-bountiful tells me I need a add a subplot Toot Sweet!! I’ve been so focused on getting my characters in position, I’m only telling one story. Yeep! As for red herrings, unless you’re a skilled mystery writer, I hate em. As for desert photography, keep it comin! =) Hugs!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    There is always time to weave in subplots; you may find that they come naturally the more you get to know your characters. All is not lost! Hugs back!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Leif G.S. Says:

    Wow, what a great pictorial analogy to the efforts one puts in for writing (or anything, really). It is true, you must be ready to see it in layers but it is also true that change comes sudden and quick as the storm that brings the rain and you must accept it for what it is since you have no control over it either (or at least this is what I think when I see these pictures). Great post, now I feel all motivated (ironically, my manuscript is set in a desert… spooky!)

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    SO true about the suddenness of change and the lack of ability to stop it. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

    Do tell: what genre are you writing? My WIP is set in the desert, too (literary fiction with a women’s bent). So glad the post motivated you. The desert is such a great backdrop for setting – with all its harshness AND beauty.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Leif G.S. Reply:

    Fiction fantasy (somewhat darker) that has a large portion of female protags (just realized this a few days ago when rereading a few parts) that has a coming of age/dealing with loss message to it.

    The desert can be challenging to write about, much like existing in it. You have to know every in and out to survive, you must be aware others reside with you and there must be some form of camaraderie to exist and survive. Those who know where to find the beauty are rewarded forever.

    Now that I finished the seemingly canned portion of this response, I would love to hear more about your world one day. Sounds like we are headed toward oases with lovely dates, trees, clean water and maybe a camel… if I’m lucky!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Sounds like you understand the hardships of the desert very, very well! My real world and the setting for my novel are quite similar – lots of comparisons to the life/death cycles of the desert and their parallels to life. Camels … not in my Sonoran desert – though that could add quite a jolt to the story!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Leif G.S. Reply:

    Just imagine if there were though, oh the stories that could be told! There goes my brain, thinking again! heh

    [Reply]

  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Oh, Devil’s Claw–is there a better name out there!? And what a beautiful flower. Beautiful pics, all.
    I think surprises are so remarkable in writing. Even those of us who claim to be pantsers must still admit that true plot surprises are rare–an for me, they can often come in the rewrite/editing phase. I find for myself it takes a certain amount of comfort with a manuscript, in other words, having a draft, before I can truly experience the “surprises” and when they come they are so wonderful–even if they don’t pan out to work for the plot.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Erika Marks Reply:

    As soon as I write this, I thought I had misinterpreted the question so I went back and sure enough! THOSE surprises–gotcha! Oh those surprises are a doozy for me. Maybe it’s because I am of the Scooby Doo genre, but I tend to go overboard with the red herrings. I love them so–and have to pull back often.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Isn’t the name “Devil’s Claw” just wonderful? I wrote a post about this plant last year (http://melissacrytzerfry.com/2010/09/devil’s-claw/). When it dies, it actually leaves behind these crazy looking claws/pincers that look prehistoric!

    By the way – I thought your first response was perfect. That’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it – that you can interpret a different meaning from my words that I possibly didn’t think of. I agree that those surprise revelations during revision are heavenly!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    I love how the layers relate to writing, not just because of the surprises but because if we get enough rain, and if we keep writing consistently, we can often surprise ourselves with what results.

    I try to give readers surprises in my fiction, and I try to be subtle about it. Sometimes I can be too subtle–I figure if I already know what’s coming, won’t everyone? So it’s always a balance between giving them a surprise that makes sense once it’s revealed, and revealing something completely out of left field!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Ah, you’re making me feel guilty. I have NOT been writing consistently due to an overload of freelance projects. But I love the parallel you’ve drawn to rain and consistent writing=surprising results.

    Unlike you, I think I tend to want to spell things out too much and not be subtle ENOUGH. There’s a happy-medium balance in there somewhere for both of us!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    I LOVE THOSE FLOWERS! Nothing like orange in the desert…

    As for writing surprises– I can’t get enough of them. As writers, however, we do have to watch out for trying to surprise the reader just for the sake of cleverness. Remember– be believable!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    The oranges and yellows right now are breathtaking!

    Great point that we can’t surprise the reader just for the sake of being clever. I think that also relates to not withholding “too much” information from the reader, either. You can’t write “in code” in an effort to be subtle and clever; in the end, as you say, it has to be believable and you have to give enough info for it to make sense!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Amanda Hoving Says:

    Beautiful pictures! I’m constantly surprised by all that actually grows in the desert.

    And, yes, I like surprises in books too…although…I *am* an end reader. When I just can’t take it anymore, I skip to the end, get my reassurance, and then go back to where I left off. Don’t hate me. 😉 And I think there must be some sort of surprise/pay-off in the end when we write. Otherwise, what is there to keep the reader turning those pages?

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Wow. You may be the first “end reader” I’ve met. I knew your kind existed 🙂 … But doesn’t that ruin the surprise for you? Oh my! I admit that I’m kind of fascinated by your approach.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Amanda Hoving Reply:

    Posted my answer down below by mistake…

    [Reply]

  • avatar Tracy Mangold Says:

    Gorgeous. Love the beautiful subtlety of the area and how profound the color is when the flowers bloom. When writing, I love when I myself am surprised by a turn of events I didn’t see coming until the moment I write it and I’m like, “where did THAT come from!” I think then I know I’m on the right path and it is most delicious. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does – what a feeling!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    I’ve had those same “where did THAT come from moments.” They’re so surreal, aren’t they? And so exhilarating.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Brandee Says:

    I am trying to explore different layers in my writing. I find that I am often surprised at the direction I go as I work through a post and find different pieces that can be tied in. This post has given me much to think about.

    As for the desert & the dramatic changes that rain can bring, I love that explosion of life that bursts forth after even a quick shower. We have desert sage in our front yard, and they are the quickest of any traceable rainfall. They pop out in a riot of color almost immediately.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Oh yes, the desert sage – such a wonderful smell, too! I will never stop being amazed at the astounding difference that just a little rain makes in the desert. It’s like all those little seed pods were just patiently waiting beneath the surface for the “right” time to emerge. Kind of like our writing ideas!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    That is a pretty dramatic transformation! It reminds me of Death Valley a little; how that area only needs rainwater, and it would thrive similarly (although your area is far prettier!)

    I like surprises in my fiction if they’re not done for the “WTF factor,” you know what I mean? I also like being surprised as I work on my own stuff, it shows that my subconscious is earning its keep, 😉

    Great metaphor once again, 🙂

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Why thank you so much for saying our area is prettier than Death Valley. That’s not too shabby an area either for us desert lovers – with its harsh beauty.

    Love your comment about the subconscious earning its keep. So true – and so amazing the way the subconscious works. I awoke this morning with the first line for a new blog!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Amanda Hoving Says:

    It doesn’t ruin the surprise for me, if anything, it enhances it. Here’s a post I wrote on this “touchy” subject 😉 about a year ago. Maybe it will help explain my reasoning…
    http://amandaswrinkledpages.com/2010/06/15/on-being-an-end-reader-and-other-confessions/

    [Reply]

  • avatar Bryan Says:

    I love how green green looks when it’s something rare to see. I find myself repeatedly trying to take down the saturation on my photos from the Huachuca mountains last weekend and have to remind myself that that near-nean hue is accurate.

    [Reply]

Leave a Comment