Gardeners and Architects

image from spamula.net

image from spamula.net

When I plunked down to write my first book, Myths of the Mirror, I was on a mission of discovery, led by the muse and sheer inspiration.

I had no plot in mind beyond a mental sketch of a couple things that could happen maybe sort of somehow. It was all incredibly vague, but what did I know? Nothing. I wrote like a woman obsessed, relishing every moment of my creative forage and traipsing along behind my characters down whatever path they chose to wander.

Halfway through my journey, a secondary character whom I was in the midst of killing off stood his ground. With the unwavering support of his companions, he argued that he should not only survive but should become a main character. Oh, okay, I said, and skedaddled back to the beginning of the book to start over. That happened a lot.

A year later, once every character had their say and did as they pleased, my masterpiece was almost 190,000 words long. Ta da! Ready to celebrate, I enlisted a couple courageous readers.

Uh oh.

For the next two years, I peeled away words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters! Deleted. Recycled. 60,000 words forever gone. I felt as though I’d been flayed.

Then an editor wielded a red pen and lopped off another 4,000. After all the anguish and suffering, I had to finally admit it – I had a much better book.

Nature-Multicolor-Flowers-Garden-Summer-Bees-Depth-HD-PhotoGeorge R. R. Martin separates writers into Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners are discovery writers, planting seeds and digging around in the dirt of writing because they can’t wait to see what grows. They thrive on a process that is full of surprises and let their stories develop organically. To them, outlines feel like straitjackets, stifling the natural unfurling of character and action.

images (22)At the other end of the spectrum, Martin’s architects are outliners. Structure is key. Charts, graphs, and spreadsheets abound. Every step is planned in advance: the story’s try/fail cycles are mapped, the hero’s journey arcs through its phases, the turning points and pinches are set in stone. For outliners, the steps of each plot and subplot form the stairwells in a skyscraper. An architect has an eye on the penthouse and knows how to get there.

awesome-tree-houses-to-live-in-plextm4bAfter my trials and tribulations as a gardener, I brushed off my hands and applied a bit of architecture to my stories. I wouldn’t say I engineer skyscrapers – that’s still too much concrete for me. In my mind, my method is more akin to building tree-houses, leaving plenty of space for nature and play.

I plot out the story threads and set the characters off on their journey, letting them be who they are. Occasionally we have to negotiate and backtrack, but overall they cooperate. It’s collaborative; they know their goals and I know mine.

My guess is that most authors engage in a little gardening while they construct their cottages, fortresses, and stone towers. How do you bring stories to life? Are you a Gardener? An Architect? A builder of tree-houses?

43 thoughts on “Gardeners and Architects

  1. […] from my “comment chat” with Carrie from The Write Transition on one of my posts Gardeners and Architects. She astutely noted that one key to breaking free of formula-writing is great characters. And […]

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  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’m a definite architect. I plan everything out. I think with thrillers it’s important to have the structure laid out ahead of time. That helps ensure escalating tension. That being said, it doesn’t mean things are set in stone. As I work through my outline in a pseudo-first draft phase, I can change things or take new directions. In fact, I often do. I find new ways to up the ante. But it’s much easier to make changes at that stage than after a thorough draft is completed. It’s more painful to have to delete sentences we’ve spent a lot of time creating than those we’ve just dabbled with in loose form. For me, anyway. I’m sure others would feel too constrained by this method.

    Great post!

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  3. CC Hogan says:

    I think I try and become whatever my story demands of me. I am writing a huge fantasy saga (10+ books) and without very, very precise planning it would fall apart – not least because I need to remember a huge amount of names of people and places.

    But I also find that architectural approach limiting. As part of the same series I have written a short story. With that, apart from knowing where I wanted to end, I planned not at all and it was a joy to write. This was not even gardening, this was a child building sand castles and it was wonderful.

    So now, I try and mix the two. I carefully plan all the elements that I MUST get in there to keep the story working and making sense, and I plan things like speed of travel, weather and so on that might cause continuity problems later. Then I sit in the sand, get my spade out and within that plan, build my instinctive sand castle. I keep on track and still have childish fun!

    Here is a post I made about the fantasy planning: http://cchogan.com/planning-a-trilogy-or-saga/

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    • Thanks for the comment. A 10+ book saga is spectacular, and I can see the need to carefully plan. That creative piece is important to me as well because that’s were so much of the fun lies. Although I’ve become a committed outliner, that’s all it is – an outline. There is still lots of room for sandcastles. Good luck with your book!

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  4. Bridges Stevenson says:

    This was an enlightening post. I used to frown on my own style, but it’s mine so I embrace it. I know the beginning, I know the end. I know the route to the end, my characters must figure that out. Some do, some don’t. My characters write their own stories, but I know the plans that I have for them. It’s up to the characters in my stories to go along with the plan or not. The heart is a dangerous thing. Keep writing, writers.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Bridges. If there’s anything I’ve learned about writing it’s that we each have our own creative style. As long as it’s working, don’t mess with it. I’ve made adjustments, but only because I wanted to. Like you, my characters often lead the way and I’m the one that has to adjust. Happy writing.

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  5. I wish I could say I was either… can we have a 4th category? Road-sweeper, maybe? Drunken truck driver? I’d settle for bass guitarist (with issues).

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  6. bkraine says:

    I am trying my hand at this architect thing for my second book because my first went very similar to your experience and I just don’t want to do that much re-writing this time around. That said, of the 11,000 words of my second novel done so far, about half of them came growing up like weeds in my foundation!

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    • That’s just fine!!! The creative part is the most fun and it seems to come naturally to you. Just go back to your outline and tweak it so it continues to flow gracefully forward. I’m constantly going back to my blueprints to make sure they still work. For many changes I have to make adjustments going forward as well as backward. Good luck with your book.

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  7. I loved this post and your analogy! I’m a bit like you, turns out. A hazy sketch of a layout, then let the characters take the story where they might.
    Now, if only my own writing matched your beautiful prose… 🙂

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    • I’ve been having the same conversation on Linkedin and there are quite a few of us who give our characters considerable free rein. The more I learn about structuring a story, the more I use it – but I do love the discovery process with my characters.

      And “oh please” Nicholas. Your writing is highly engaging. Awesome worlds, characters, and action. I happen to know you have an audience out there that loves your books.

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  8. Builder of tree houses, landscape designer… Something like that. I have never gone into writing a novel blind (pure “pantser”/random gardening), but I dislike planning every scene and making complex lists of character traits before starting to put the story on the page. (I can’t even fill out a typical character creation questionnaire for MYSELF — I honestly can’t tell you what my favorite food is, or what I’m “most likely to do at a large party” other than not be there in the first place.) I know my general idea for the plot, a bit about the setting, something about my major characters… Since I have to coordinate all of my fiction with my twin’s (we have this evil scheme to make everything we write tie together to one degree or another), I do make sure none of the important details conflict with anything else already written or even planned (to the small degree that we plan things), but it’s like that for any writer of a series, too.

    It’s a spectrum, as you said. No actual gardener plants things truly at random; there’s always some thought about what to plant, and where to plant it. (Even someone who grabbed a handful of seeds and just threw them into the air would have to choose THOSE seeds over some others, and how big a handful, and what direction to throw them in.) On the other end of the spectrum, architects plan as much as possible, but there’s always the chance of the site not being exactly as expected, which requires some adjustments to the original concept. Or the weather turns harsh during the construction process, and the choice is to wait out the delays or find some way to work around that problem, too. (A writer who plans TOO much will find that the map is trying to be the territory — the story has been planned so thoroughly that the outline practically IS the story… written before the author thought she/he was writing it.)

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    • I agree Thomas, no one can be pure gardener or architect when it comes to fiction. Funny that you can’t even make a character list for yourself! I think I plan more than you do, setting up character bios, writing mini encyclopedias while world-building, and blocking out the plot. Yet all of it is free to change. Interesting that you are confined by some details – coordination with your twin. I wonder, do you find yourself doing a lot of revisions and editing once you get to the end? That’s the biggest advantage to me in having a plan, even if it changes in the course of writing – I reduce the time I spend in later drafts.

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  9. Dawn D says:

    Well, I have no idea of how to write fiction. Right now, the only thing I seem to know how to write is more akin to journaling. Or poetry.
    One day, maybe, I’ll manage to write my story in an actual book. Or maybe not my story, but the one I am trying to tell. The story of a woman trying to figure out who she is… For now, I don’t have enough time or energy to do that.
    One day maybe. 🙂
    But I am quite sure that if I were to write a book, it couldn’t be the architect way, it would have to be more like a gardener. Though I like your tree houses 😉

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    • I didn’t start writing books until I was 50! I wish I had started earlier, but it was that “time” thing getting in the way. Journaling is a great way to learn about yourself, and I’ve used it many times to dig deep. Keep writing and who know what will show up in your future – perhaps the next great masterpiece!

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      • Dawn D says:

        Well, I have a few more years then 😉
        I have no intention to stop writing right now. I need to. It’s my life saver, my breath of fresh air, allows me to sort my thoughts and decide what I want to do in life…
        And who knows, maybe a masterpiece is in my future, time will tell 🙂
        Thank you fot the support!

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  10. I am definitively a gardener. The only thing I start with is the beginning and the end, the rest just comes. I tried to write a simple story once with the architect method, and it didn’t turn out that well. I found the constraints it put upon me too restrictive, and I ended up chucking it out and starting from scratch.
    Still, I should probably learn, since I plan on writing a weight loss book at some point.

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    • Very cool, Riley. I suppose having the end in mind helps you stay focused and the right track. I didn’t have an ending in mind, which I’m certain contributed to the wandering. Yeah, you’ll probably need to have an outline for a non-fiction. Never to late to learn something new!

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  11. Wonderful post about the intricacies of writing, thank you!

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  12. claytonjcallahan says:

    Diana, this nails it for me. I began as an architect who didn’t know how to draw a proper blue print. We all start somewhere, but yes, I love your tree houses. Keep growing!

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    • I tend to plan a little more with each book. My writing time is used more efficiently if I’m not wandering around on tangents. That said, I don’t want to lose the freedom that comes from a willingness to explore the characters’ natural inclinations. Good luck with your blue prints!

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  13. In my younger days I wrote a lot of fiction, most of which were sparked by dreams I had that I later developed into full stories using the characters I saw in my dreams. There was certainly a plot and story line then, but there room to change things around as ideas shifted in the process of transferring thoughts to paper. Definitely ‘tree house’!

    But now, as I no longer have to imagine what’ real life ‘ is, and have had quite a turbulent one, I no longer have a desire to dwell in fiction for I am neck deep in trying to make sense of what the real world has dished out! My writing now, is mostly for therapy, as I try to heal and put the shattered pieces back together. I am now a ‘gardener’, digging around in the backyard of my life trying to uproot the items of hurt and pain once buried quite hurriedly in an attempt to perform an autopsy as check for reasons why things have gone so horribly wrong.

    The good thing is, for every bit of pain or hurt I unearth, once resolution is found, it is then given a proper burial in a more appropriate place, then I plant new seeds of hope where the hurt and pain used to be. The process can be long and difficult and extremely messy but ultimately it’s all worth it for the peace of mind and clarity it brings.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, it was a very interesting perspective on the writing process. Nicely written.

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    • A beautiful and thoughtful comment. Thank you so much. I used to journal quite a bit and it was almost stream-of-consciousness writing. It was exactly what you describe, rooting around in a garden of feelings, digging them up to be examined, understood, and laid to rest. Sorting the hidden gifts from the weeds. I wish you much joy in that garden when the new seeds grow and blossom.

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  14. I enjoyed this very much. It captured me! I think the reason I have not written anything longer than bite-size memoir bits (except for what was required as part of an academic program) is because I am more of a gardener. Contemplating a large, coherent writing project is too daunting. Even when I was an athlete, I would say: I am great in races up to a distance of X but even thinking about what would be necessary to attempt something longer makes my head blow up. What I am doing at this point is writing those shorter bits so that they may, in time, be bonded to other short bits to create one larger work–a memoir patchwork quilt. That works for me at this point. I can make a discipline of writing, which I enjoy, without becoming overwhelmed. The whole thing is a bit different for me though. I know how my stories end. I just need to find the right lens through which to view them. But the slicing and dicing of my word offspring also makes me wince 🙂

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    • I like memoirs that capture interesting glimpses of a person’s experience. The patchwork quilt is a wonderful metaphor. Keep writing those pieces and you might find yourself with a book. I’m much more of an outliner now. It’s quite a bit easier to write if I know where I’m going and can break it into manageable chunks. At the same time I love the adventure that comes from the discovery side and would never want to lose that.

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  15. In writing a memoir, I have an outline, but I know where I’m going because I’ve been there. I’m taking it from my birth through my school years from K-12. I’m just trying to add as much humor as possible. I’m also writing about all the animals in our life. They were a part of it after all, and there were quite a few. I’m fairly sure I’m going to go Indie or hire a small press. I haven’t got that far. For my flash fiction, I pants it. I sometimes do a little research. 🙂

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    • Good luck with the memoir, Suzanne. Yes, those are quite different as you already know the story intimately! To me, short stories require quite a bit of planning since there’s only so much space. I can see how flash fiction can be much more spontaneous. This writing stuff is all so interesting.

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  16. philipparees says:

    Definitely tree houses for fiction, with a tendency to pull the ladder up behind me! Non fiction has a lot of architecture until I start to write and then I tend to plant what takes my fancy and what probably has to struggle to survive in between those smooth Yorkshire slabs leading the harnessed eye to that pagoda…yes you CAN see it, behind that YEW hoo.

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    • Non-fiction is another whole construction, I agree. And I do like non-fiction with a bit of personality! The tree house metaphor works for me, because as whimsical as it appears, it requires planning and a sturdy foundation so it doesn’t shake loose and crash to the ground in pieces:)

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