“Well, Bernie, time to pack our bags and move on again.”
“I really thought we were gonna be in this story, Art. This time, we even had names, a hair color, an odd quirk.”
“Yeah, well, the author’s burning out this section of the novel. Says it’ll help clean out things that aren’t working and give room for new ideas to grow.”
“Too bad. I enjoyed being a silver-nosed bandit. I was gonna give those main characters a hard time, Art. There was gonna be conflict, suspense, everything.”
“Don’t you worry. Someday, the author’ll write us into the story. For now, gotta move on.”
This is my summer of writing and forest fire.
I spend half my time sprinting to polish the second novel in The Pippington Tales series and get it out to Beta Readers for review before I disappear into the black hole of grad school next September. The other half of my time, I am interning with the Utah State Forestry, Fire, and State Lands Division. My job is to collect information to prove a programs is effectively preventing a ginormous wave of fires from reigning down upon Utah and destroying it off the face of the planet. (There may be some exaggeration in that statement.)
Forests and writing a novel have a lot in common. Each forest is a unique mix of trees, foliage, and animals just as each novel is a unique mix of the writer’s voice, characters, setting, and plot. No one can control which seeds flower in a forest, where new trees take root and grow, where animals will take up residence or graze. A writer might have slight more control over a novel, but the writer tosses out seeds of ideas, letting scenes and moments take root and grow. As the novel grows thicker, more complicated, it takes on a life of its own which the writer didn’t quite expect. Often, just as a forest becomes overgrown, new trees crowding out old ones, a novel will become this dense thicket, the story lost for all the added subplots and extraneous characters.
During much of the twentieth century, the general forest fire policy was to put out fires as quickly as possible. I’m sure many of us picture the forest fire scene from Bambi, and envision all the animals who run, their habitats ravished and destroyed.
However, as ecological science has advanced, a strange truth was discovered: Like the Force, forest fires have a dark side and a light side.
The dark side is the flame, the smoke, the ash, the destruction.
The light side is forest fires have existed for centuries, and create an opportunity for new growth. Fire actually strengthens certain types of trees, as well as opens the pinecones from which lodge pole pines can grow. Fire allows new undergrowth to grow, giving a better feeding ground to small mammals and grazing animals, which then go up the food chain to owls, wolves, bears, and other predators. The fire clears out overgrowth and allows for new, sustainable growth. In fact, various Native American cultures would purposefully ignite fires in order to clear hunting ground, farm lands, and to prevent larger fires from overtaking their community.
As a writer, it is easy to get lost in the overgrowth of our own words. Sometimes, it is better to let a fire burn through our novel, to clear away dull, overlong passages, to cull away unneeded scenes, to tighten dialogue, and leave us space to build new, better growth. The burning process is painful to watch, as we cut away pieces, and then our Beta Readers cut away more, and then a good editor dumps gasoline on a whole chapter and lets it disappear in smoke and ash. However, when we are done, our novel is better and stronger.
*Disclaimer: I do not advocate going out and lighting fires yourself. Lightning strikes actually cause the majority of forest fires, and do quite well on their own.
- How do you clear out unneeded clutter from your life, house, or novel? (Disclaimer 2: I don’t recommend burning your house down if you have too much stuff).
- What is your closest encounter with a forest fire?
- What analogies between writing and work do you come up with during your day job?
- Is anyone else weirded out by the modern Smokey the Bear’s digitally enhanced abs?
- Would Smokey the Bear be a better addition to the Avengers or the Justice League?
Major Side Note: Thanks to Pioneer Books in Downtown Provo for a great book signing a couple weeks ago. Also, thanks to Samantha and James Taylor for their photography skills, Kelsey Kerr for her violin skills, Adele Crook for her ‘hey, I brought my service dogs and helped you sell a book’ skills, and to everyone else who came and supported.