Of Gardeners and Architects

Let me preface this by saying there is no one true way to write. There are various paths to success, and not all will appeal to every type of writer. Each path is a tool, to be kept in a box until needed–or discarded if unnecessary. That being said, many writers do tend to fall into one of two camps, both of which engineer their stories in slightly different ways. These groups consist of outliners and discovery writers.

Discovery writers, or pantsers, as they are sometimes called, work best when they are free to create on the fly, without a pre-established structure to restrict the spontaneity of their imagination. To them, the joy of writing lies in discovering the story, and so creating an outline beforehand removes much of the pleasure they feel in the craft. A clear sign you are a discovery writer is if you finish an outline and find you have completely lost interest in the story. After all, at least to your mind, you already wrote it!

Discovery writers tend to have very vibrant characters, as their approach to writing leads to a very organic, almost self-imposed character growth. This poses yet another frustration in outlining, as outlines often confine the character to the requirements of the plot, resulting in what, to a discovery writer, is little more than a cardboard cutout.

Outliners, on the other hand, are crippled by the very thing that discovery writers flourish on. Complete freedom, to an outliner, results in nothing being accomplished. Outliners need direction, they need to know where they are headed before they even put that first sentence down on paper. Knowing their end goal allows them to break the rest of the story into smaller pieces, which they can then tackle one at a time. In other words, if a discovery writer writes one huge story, an outliner writes several smaller stories that are only complete when finally joined together.

Due to their systematic approach, outliners tend to have explosive endings to their stories, as they have been quietly building towards them throughout the entire book. Discovery writers’ endings, however, seem to do just that, end. They are often abrupt, almost as if the writer decided, “well, here’s a good place to stop,” and don’t provide much in the way of resolution. (Often this can be fixed simply by knowing where the book will end, then completely discovery writing the rest of it.) Additionally, the outlining approach usually results in fewer revisions, simply because any major problems have already been cut out of the book back in the outlining phase. To discovery writers, the first draft is the outline, and so they tend to revise constantly, never making much progress. They often require that push to just go ahead and finish the book, with the promise that they can then go back and revise once everything has been completed.

In contrast, outliners tend to fall prey to world builder’s disease (we’ll talk more about this later.) They can spend years creating the perfect world, but never getting to the heart of the story, which are the events that take place within it. The enjoyment they get from tweaking the finer details of their fictional world blinds them to their inciting goal, that of writing a novel. Alternatively, outliners may find themselves ripping through their first draft, completing it, and immediately moving onto something else–without regard to revisions. Both writing approaches carry with them their own strengths and their particular weaknesses, but both have methods to cope with either when necessary.

George R. R. Martin has a great way of explaining the difference between these two types of writers, whom he has compared to architects and 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 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.”

In practice, most writers fall somewhere in between the two ends to this spectrum, with very few being true gardeners or architects. Some discovery writers create very general outlines, covering the broad strokes of their book, or jotting down the major plot points, but never confining their eventual creativity through overly detailed planning. George R. R. Martin has counted himself among these, claiming he is “very much more of a gardener,” but that he does have an overall goal in mind. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, avoids the inherent dullness of outlined characters by outlining his plot and setting, but discovery writing his characters. This blend of the two methodologies, tending towards on side or another, is far more common in the writing world than one of the two extremes.

Interestingly, it is nearly impossible to find out which of these approaches works best for you without trying them both out. Even then, you may find that a balance of the two will aid you most in your writing. As you can probably tell, I lean more towards the outliner, or architect side. However, one problem I frequently encounter is that I finish an outline, then find that most of my interest in the story is gone and I want to move on to another of my ideas–a distinct call from the discovery writer within me. I’ve learned the only way I can be productive is if I stifle that urge and force myself to write this story. More often than not, my interest is piqued again after writing for just a short time.

And of course, all writing is actually discovery writing. Even the most detailed outline will not go down to the sentence or word choice level. If it did, the book would already be finished. It all comes down to finding which of the two mindsets–which exist in every writer–is stronger when it comes to you. Which makes you a better writer? Answer that, and you are well on your way to improving your writing skill.



Storytelling Engineers

The word ‘engineer’ is derived from the Latin words ‘ingeniare’ and ‘ingenium,’ meaning “to contrive, devise” and “cleverness,” respectively. An engineer must design a structure–one that is both beautiful and practical–all while considering the thousands of complex factors and conditions that must be fulfilled at the building’s completion.

In that he is not so different from a writer.

Marc Wolvesheir opened my eyes to this comparison in his own blog, Engineers Do Write. Writing, and, in fact, most forms of art, is widely viewed as a talent rather than an acquired skill. This leads people to believe there is no road to improving one’s natural writing ability, and ultimately results in an almost metaphysical vibe to the entire art. Even worse, new writers are expected to immediately ‘hit it big’ or risk being criticized for wasting their time, writing for ‘fun.’

I once heard this phenomenon exemplified by contrasting it with the expectations placed on a person, say, playing a sport. Most would agree that playing basketball in your backyard is a perfectly acceptable, even healthy pastime. No one would go up to someone casually shooting hoops and ask, “So, when do you plan on playing in the NBA?” Yet, when it comes to writing, this reaction seems to be considered not only the standard, but even the expected response.

Much of this, I assume, comes from the remnants of the past generation’s mentality, during which writing was a vastly different beast, to be tackled in a vastly different way. Writers were taught to write from within, channel the Muse, etc. While much of this still applies, the art seems to have, at least in my opinion, evolved into something much more structured, with several differing approaches that have all been shown time and time again to result in success. The work of the previous generation’s greats has been analyzed, picked apart to find exactly what gave them the ability to withstand the test of time. Tried and true formulas have arisen, strategies that, when used correctly, can effectively produce the same effect in your own writing.

We live in the time of the engineer. Stories can now be intentionally made to play on human emotions, resonating in ways that were often seen as accidental in years past. Today we can structure novels down to the level of word choice, choosing carefully what we know will prompt the desired reaction in the reader. This was all available in the past, and was undoubtedly utilized by many successful authors, but only recently has it become the general mindset of storytelling.

This shift in our approach to the writing craft also serves as a rebuttal of the widespread beliefs mentioned above. Writing is an art like any other, and yet it is also a science. Just like one wouldn’t expect to sit at a piano for the first time and produce a Bach-caliber symphony, one shouldn’t expect to master the art of storytelling without putting in several hours of hard work. Talent does play a part, but it is by no means the whole of it. True writing skill can only be built through continuous practice of doing just that: writing.

Even if you can only spare a couple of minutes a day, every word written is another stone added to the structure of your storytelling ability. The feat is all the more attainable now that we have the ability to learn precisely what it is that makes a story sell. We can maximize those few minutes by focusing on the writing aspects we feel weakest in. We can dissect our story’s many layers to discover exactly what is dragging it down. And, above all, we can use this information to successfully build the story we want to build.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing simply as a hobby, and if that is what you wish to do, what are you waiting for? Go to a room, sit down, and get that story that’s been stalling your sleep down on paper. As a general rule, however, I will assume that most of you are, like me, on the path towards being a published author. That doesn’t mean those of you writing for fun will find nothing to learn. Ideally, this advice will resonate with writers for fun and writers for profit, newer writers, and experienced ones–and all those in between. Hopefully, I can share with you some of what I know, learn from your comments, and together we can travel the paved road to becoming true storytelling engineers.