A wise man once said that writers tend to lean more toward being gardeners or architects.
‘The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another.’
~ George R.R. Martin
I love this way of thinking about it, but recently I’ve been feeling like the distinction might be more foggy than I first thought.
Gardeners tend to improvise more, often relying on their ability to imagine themselves into a scene, into the skin of a particular character, then letting that character lead the way. But what if you do the exact same thing in the blueprinting (or outlining) stage?
After experimenting with the extreme ends of the gardener/architect scale in my younger years, I’ve settled on an approach which combines elements of both, though to be totally honest, I’m still not sure where on the spectrum I am. Hopefully by the end of writing this post I’ll have a better idea.
First, a story emerges gradually out of my subconscious. It takes months and years. After that, one of the first things I like to do is outline the broad strokes – the ending, the key dramatic points, and the small vivid moments which, for some reason, feel important.
After months of broad-stroke outlining, research and worldbuilding, I start to combine writing exploratory chapters with blue-printing the story in more depth, and this is where, for me, the line between gardener and architect starts to blur. The outlining defines the exploratory chapters and those explorations change the outline.
The outlining itself also becomes more gardener like. Often, before starting a chapter, I’ll dream my way into the character and let the reality of their emotions, desires, and surrounding environment guide a different kind of outlining session, which is more like brainstorming different possibilities the chapter or scene could take, sometimes sketching out bits of dialogue, sometimes bullet pointing ideas, but as much as possible trying to do that from the character’s state of mind.
The perfectionist in me wants to find the best possible answer to the question: ‘What should happen next?’ The danger is that I spend too long trying to figure it out, so to get around this I sometimes challenge myself to come up with the answer in ten minutes, which forces an intense burst of concentrated creativity. It’s like my inner realist is trying to make a deal with my inner perfectionist:
Realist: ‘Ok, I know you want this to be a work of stunning brilliance, but if we mess around too much we’ll never get anything finished, so how about we give this scene our best ten minutes, then go with whatever we come up with.’
Perfectionist: ‘Not enough time. No deal.’
Realist: ‘Fine. What do you suggest?’
Perfectionist: ‘Three weeks per scene.’
Realist. ‘But there are hundreds upon hundreds of scenes. Not to mention all the ones you throw away.’
Perfectionist: ‘That’s how you make good work.’
Realist: ‘That’s how you die without ever finishing anything.’
That’s as close to a concession the perfectionist will make, so we give the ten minute thing a try, which turns into twenty five minutes, but at the end of it, more often than not, a solid answer has revealed itself.