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Have you ever had one of those moments when you read something and immediately think, “Oh, that is totally me?” Recently, I had this experience (who else had never heard of gardener writing?), and it might just change how I approach my writing life from now on.
I’m a latecomer to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. In fact, I’m just now reading A Dance with Dragons. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not already looking ahead to the end of the epic fantasy series. So you can imagine my concern when I read that it’s been over six years since the last book in the series was published.
Now, I don’t want you to think that this blog post is going to be a string of complaints about how long it’s taken Martin to write the series. I happen to subscribe to the belief that writers don’t owe us anything or, as Neil Gaiman so eloquently puts it, George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.
But I was sniffing around the Internet, looking for the smallest hint that finishing A Dance with Dragons wouldn’t send me spiraling into a Westeros-induced withdrawal, when I found a recent article from Insider: George R.R. Martin’s friends explain the complicated reasons his next book might be taking so long to write.
Between explanations of Martin’s involvement in the HBO series and his friends’ interpretations of his particular style of writing is an eye-opening quote from an interview Martin did with The Guardian in 2011. In it, he separates authors into two camps: the architects and the gardeners.
The architects are your J.K. Rowlings. They plan out their storylines ahead of time, create beautifully detailed outlines, and know exactly where the characters are headed before they start to write out the first words. I feel like we’re all pretty familiar with the idea of architects, whether you use this term or plotter or something else entirely.
But when Martin began describing gardeners, I had the big aha moment. I’ll go ahead and include his exact words:
“The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if [they] planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”
At this point, my mind was in denial. Hmmm, this sounds a bit like my writing style… but is this really something I should worry over?
And then I hit this quote from a letter Martin wrote to his publisher:
“As you know, I don’t outline my novels. I find that if I know exactly where a book is going, I lose all interest in writing it.”
Oh dear. That definitely hits home.
Guys, I’m currently at the beginning of my third WIP (the first two are currently unfinished), and once I saw this concept put into words, I realized why. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve buckled down and forced myself to do some hardcore outlining only to lose all interest in actually writing the darn thing.
It’s been a huge struggle for me and a source of consistent disappointment. It’s no fun to put in all that work on a story and then not be able to motivate yourself to write it. I can only imagine what it must feel like when you add on the pressure of millions of readers waiting impatiently for the next installment.
So how can we embrace gardener writing instead of letting it paralyze us?
I’ve put a lot of thought into this question since I first read the article a few months back, and I’ve nailed on a few ideas that I’ll be trying out while I write the first draft of my WIP. I’m hoping they might also be worthwhile for you!
Gardening doesn’t mean you can’t use any kind of outline
I do all my outlining, writing, and editing in Scrivener (at least I do now), and I’ve started creating simple outlines for myself that I fill in as I write through different pieces of the plot. Just because you tend to garden instead of architect doesn’t mean you have to shy away from outlines completely.
You probably have a rough idea of 1. the type of story you want to write (genre, audience, etc.), 2. word count based on your intended genre, and 3. the basic journey of your main character(s). I like to piece together a very open-ended outline in Scrivener, including short synopses for any scenes that I’ve begun to flesh out and placeholders for scenes that I think will take place in between those. I go into the outlining process knowing it’s just a guideline, and that helps keep the pressure off. (If this outlining process in Scrivener is something you guys would like to see in a later post/video, let me know in the comments!)
Try writing the parts you’re most excited about first
Chances are good that the lack of intense outlining means you’ll need to go back and do more overarching tweaks to plot structure and character arcs during your first round of edits. And that’s okay! In my mind, I’ve embraced this eventual hurdle as a free pass to give myself permission to write what I want, when I want.
If I have a great idea for a scene, even if I know it won’t happen until the second half of the story, I’m going to start writing that scene. If I have to go back later and make it fit seamlessly within the book, so be it! When a plant starts to sprout, you have to water it before it shrivels up and dies. Water away.
Don’t lose great ideas before you have a chance to write them down
The concept of a writer’s notebook has always intrigued me, but I think it’s especially important for gardeners to keep some kind of note-taking apparatus on them at all times. When you don’t force yourself to connect all the dots during the outline phase, it means ideas can creep up on you at any moment. And sometimes those moments happen on the bus, during lunch, or even when you’re in the shower.
I jot down chapter ideas, character quirks, and even little pieces of dialogue using the Evernote app on my phone. Then I pull the notes into my Scrivener outline once I begin writing that day, and if I’ve finished fleshing out the latest scene that I’ve felt particularly passionate about, I might even transition to writing this new scene.
Let go of expectations
And finally (and probably the most personal point on this list), I think part of the difficulty behind gardener writing is fear. Once I know exactly how I want the story to go, I worry that it’ll never sound as good on the page as it does in my head. And you know what? That’s true! It won’t be the perfectly formed, beautifully flowing prose that I crave, but it also won’t be out in the world, available for readers to buy from bookstores or download on their e-readers.
Gardeners have to learn to banish these fears and write the story anyway. That first draft will be the very worst version of your story, but after edits, peer reviewing, more edits, and lots of love, your story can transform into something you’ll be proud to query to agents and publishers.
Just like with the whole plotter versus pantser debate, I don’t believe that a writer has to be either a gardener or an architect. Don’t let fear keep you from fulfilling your writing dreams, no matter where you find yourself on the gardener-architect spectrum.
P.S. If you’re looking to keep track of your writing during the NaNo off season, I’d definitely recommend using Pacemaker.