“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if 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.” – George Martin
When I read the quote above from George Martin (author of the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, on which HBO Game of Thrones is (increasingly loosely) based on) I had something of a breakthrough moment. It described my writing process (the gardener) in comparison to what I’d always been told the writing process should be (the architect), and quieted the niggling voice in my mind that tried to tell me I was doing it all wrong.
There are some who might say that Martin’s method somewhat backfires on him in exactly the way proponents of the architect approach would predict; his books are dauntingly long, the narrative winds and twists and doubles back rather than follow a trajectory, the characters and points of view are so numerous as to become confusing at times, and the main storyline (five very chunky books in) seems to have no end in sight. It’s certainly a risk you take if you try to write this way. But I personally can’t write to a detailed plan. It’s not that I can’t stick to a plan – it’s that I can’t make one in the first place. What happens in Chapter Seven depends on what happens in Chapter Six, and I won’t know that for sure until I’ve written it. I can’t do character exercises or worksheets either, at least not until after I’ve written the character and know everything about them already, which more or less defeats the purpose.
But I think there’s a middle ground between planning everything and planning nothing, and that’s where I tend to find myself these days. It is a bit like gardening, to my mind, although maybe more like real gardening than the kind George Martin seems to favour. Real gardening requires a bit more than a seed and some water, and it involves not only knowing what kind of seed you’re using but why you’re using that particular seed, and what end product you’re aiming for. This is what I like to call organic storytelling; you start with not only a seed, but also a nicely laid out empty bed, marked with string to separate the carrots from the onions and rich with the compost of your ideas. From there it grows and flourishes in all sorts of directions.
So if you’re like me and prefer to work with a looser structure than the instruction books suggest, but don’t want to end up thrashing your way through a wilderness of weeds unable to find your vegetables in the jungle, here are a few tips that have worked for me:
- Let your ideas rot down nicely. I find that if I try to start straight in with a brand new idea, it’s not usually ready to be written (although there are always exceptions to that). Planners get through that by spending the time on development and character arcs and chapter-by-chapter plot breakdowns. Personally, I just like to muse. I jot my basic ideas down, I follow ideas down dead ends and back up again, I collect inspiration images and consolidate my setting. Rather than use structured character sheets, I write stream-of-consciousness pieces from the points of view of my characters, about their lives and families and problems. None of this will make it even into the first draft. It’s about feeding in potato peelings and eggshells, and making compost.
- Decide what you’re planting. That means more than just deciding whether it’s a fantasy or a mystery – it means knowing why you’re writing this story. What is it that you have to say? Why do you need to say it? What are the themes and moods of the writing?What kind of soup are you really going to be making with the harvest of this plant? (Note: your answers to these can change drastically once you start to write, and that’s okay.)
- Prepare the ground. Plants don’t grow well on hard, unfertile soil, and nor do stories. Do your research, whether you’re writing about a distant historical period or a contemporary experience you’ve never been through personally. Find out as much as you can about your topic by listening to the experts (for the latter example, that means listening constantly to the voices of people who have been or are going through it) and immersing yourself in reading on the subject. I find it much harder to get by with lack of research than with lack of planning.
- Mark out your beds. It helps to have a basic idea of where your plot’s going, and to stay within those parameters (although you can always change them). The basic questions I try to answer before I start are: What is the inciting incident? What is the single basic plot question or problem to be solved? What does my main character want? What is the climax going to be? What are they going to have achieved by the end? There can be different variations of these for different stories, but those are the basics. I don’t always know exactly what the endpoint of my plot will be, but I do like to have somewhere vague to point at.
- Continue to feed it. Pile that compost in. If you haven’t got a detailed point-by-point plan before you start, then your planning process essentially has to be the same as your writing process. Keep feeding new stuff in, absorb new information, add ideas as you go along, find more little bits of inspiration, talk your ideas over with other people and get input. You may find that a far more detailed plan grows naturally within a few chapters, as you get the groundwork down and the characters established.
- Let it grow. Allow it to take root and flourish, grow bigger or smaller than you’d imagined, or into some weird and wonderful shape. Don’t prune too much (until the first draft is finished) but do keep weeding – if your ideas change and that one character or scene no longer has a place in the story, take it out. But then again, even a weed can turn out to be useful or beautiful or both, so keep an open mind about the odd dandelion growing in the corner – one of them could end up as the best thing in the garden.
(Once again, I’m a little late in posting this, but I decided that a late post is better than no post. Anyway, it’s still Wednesday in some parts of the world.)