The seed of a story

One of my favorite authors, Hank Phillippi-Ryan, shared a picture on Facebook recently. It was a tiny pot in which she’d planted a few seeds. Days later, you could see the thin, green shoots. “I have a story idea,” she wrote. “Will it grow?”

She’s used this metaphor before. Last year, it was an amaryllis plant. Every day, she posted a new picture so fans could track the progress from bare dirt to lovely flower.

The comparison to a story idea is inevitable. Well-worn, but inevitable.

That’s what we writers start with. A seed. We put it in the dirt, water it, shine a little sunlight, and hope it grows. Sometimes it does. Sometimes we get the pretty amaryllis blossom.

Other times, the seed starts to grow. We get green things and we get excited, so we pour on some fertilizer, maybe some more water, a little more light. And we get too excited. We drown the poor thing. It withers and dies.

Still other times, we seem to get it right, but the shoot gets to a stubborn phase and just. wont. grow. No matter what we do. Eventually, it withers up and dies.

And finally, there are the times that the seed won’t sprout at all. No matter what, regardless of all the tender, loving care we slather it with. The pot remains a barren patch of dirt, nary a green shoot to be found.

All of these could be story ideas. We’ve all had ’em, at every stage. The ideas that work from day one. The ones that give us grief at every step of the way. The ones that die before we even get started. I told a co-worker who wants to write a novel (but he doesn’t have an idea) that ideas are cheap. I have more ideas than I could write in a lifetime. It’s what you do with them that counts. I don’t think he believed me.

Ideas are seeds. We can buy an entire packet of them at our local gardening spot. Inside that packet are a LOT of seeds. Know why? Some are gonna die mid-sprout. Some are never going to sprout. And some are gonna give us fruit – or vegetables, or beautiful flowers. But it’s gonna take a lot of work. A lot of care, a lot of fretting that maybe we’re giving it too much water, or not enough. Do we have the balance of fertilizer right? Is it getting enough sun?

So with our stories. Some write themselves. Some need an extra helping of work (from an editor, or trusted friend). We appear to kill them – but someone helps us find the right balance and they spring to life. Some start off hot and then poof! die. And some never go anywhere.

But finally, there is that moment. When the dirt is right, the shoot is strong, and the flower appears. Tightly wound. Will it open? Will it be as beautiful as we imagine?

And it opens. And it is beautiful – it exceeds our expectations.

And that, my friends, is as magical as any blossom in my garden.


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

12 thoughts on “The seed of a story”

  1. What a beautiful metaphor, not to mention post, on writing. I think my problem is that I have too many seeds and not enough time to water them all. I need a gardener.


  2. Ideas are cheap. Do you remember the Dick Van Dyke show (even if you saw it in re-runs). I always thought it’d be great to be one of those writers who went to work every day to make each other laugh, tossing out jokes all day long. I went to law school instead.

    Was that funny?


  3. Wonderful post, Mary! Love this metaphor. I read Stephen King’s On Writing when I first started writing and remember him saying that ideas were the easy part. Ha!, I thought, how could ideas be the easy part? Now I have too many ideas and too little time 🙂


  4. Exactly. And what I think is interesting is when–months later–that barren pot suddenly sprouts something that wasn’t depicted on the packet of seeds. Where on earth did that come from? What will it look like when it grows up?


  5. I love this and it made me think of something I saw in my front yard this morning. You saw the picture I posted yesterday of my hardy and prolific little grape hyacinths? I was out chasing away a bunny who was teasing poor Nala and nibbling the flowers. But I couldn’t remember having hyacinth in the area it was feasting. I looked closer and saw they had taken root in the middle of a rabbitbrush that hasn’t sprung forth for the season yet. That, too, is a metaphor for my writing. You think you’re writing one story, but POOF, it becomes something entirely different.


  6. Hey all! Was a little longer at the doctor than planned this morning, so forgive me if I don’t respond to each of you individually. Cynthia, you’ll get the ideas now you have a book out. And ah yes – the mislabeled seed packet. “I thought I was planting cucumbers and instead I got tomatoes.” Like this blog post, that started out in my head as one thing and went in it’s own direction. And I did see the Dick Van Dyke show in reruns, but I don’t think I was ever funny enough for something like that.

    And the blossom that spreads to a completely new area. I love that, too.


  7. Great post, Mary. Hank Phillippi Ryan is one of my favorite authors, not just to read but to hear in person. She tells such great stories that I think the audience would listen for hours. I loved her pictures with the amaryllis — growing a little each day. (I thought it would be red.)

    A good book is SO like a plant — starts from something so small, then changes, grows, and sends off shoots in all directions. It fights off the weeds as it grows, and eventually blossoms beautifully at the end. Then, being finished, it prepares for the next cycle (or sequel ).

    And tending my book garden does not ruin my manicure.


  8. Love this post!

    If you’re not careful, weeds can get in the way of the plant you’re trying to grow. I love reading and writing a nice turn on an idea. A sentence that is strong for the story but also might be worthy of a second-read. One or two in a novel is a good number to aim for. One to a chapter, not so much. That’s where I must get out my gardening gloves and do a lot of weeding.

    And yes, Keenan, that was funny.


  9. 3 no 7, Hank is an absolutely lovely person. She has forever earned my adoration not only because she writes great books, but she so genuinely kind, warm, and supportive of other people. And yes, I could listen to her tell stories for hours, which is probably a hallmark of a great reporter/writer.

    Peg, yes, the weeds! Those lovely turns we just don’t want to yank out, but we must.


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