Gardeners and architects

Most writers would probably agree that they fall into one of two camps, although I am sure there are exceptions that fit neither. Gardeners are writers who have a seed of an idea and they let it grow organically and essentially write by the seat of their pants.

Dean Koontz is a gardener who has described his writing process as the following. He writes down the core of an idea on an index card when it comes to him and then he puts it away in a drawer with a stack of other ideas. When he’s finished writing one book he opens the drawer and goes through the index cards, picks one out that catches his eye, and then just starts writing with no planning. An unusual quirk is that he writes a chapter over and over again, maybe 20-30 times, until he is completely happy with it, word for word, before moving on, so I suspect his first draft would end up being much further along the editorial process compared to a lot of other authors. Stephen King operates in a similar unplanned way, although he describes it as uncovering a fossil, and dusting off the dirt to reveal the true nature of the bones underneath. Once done he then goes back and revises it, but he doesn’t plan it out ahead of him.

Architects are the opposite. They have most of it laid out ahead of time and they don’t fly by the seat of their pants. They might have milestones, or bullet points, or thinking in terms of architecture, they have the steel frame of the building, and the writing process fills in the interior, the stairs, walls, ceiling, doors etc.

I’ve always been an architect. I once tried the gardening approach and it was a bit of a disaster. The seed of the story was not that bad, but the finished project was fairly boring and disjointed because it wandered off into weird areas that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes connected to the main spine of the story. It was a bit of a mess.

Since then I’ve stuck to my original approach. Build a wireframe, have the start, middle and end laid out, plan beats along the way, create a bit of a bible in terms of characters and where necessary, world building. Parts of the idea develop over a long period of time, others come to me while making notes and transferring scribbles on scraps of paper into a structured document on Word. Other parts and details come out in the actual writing, but I never go in with nothing. Once the structure is ready, then and only then, do I start the process of writing a first draft in full. I also tend to keep going right through to the end before coming back to revise in detail. Although I often go back one chapter, perhaps two, to tweak it before going forward again to make sure it feels like an organic continuation. I’m sure the first chapter still ends up being a fair distance away from the last chapter, but that will come out in the next revision. The architect approach seems to work for me and I’ve been much happier with the final product, something that is more cohesive and tighter.

Another good thing about the architect approach is that I find there is still a lot of room for creativity and surprises. It’s not so rigid that I am simply joining the dots, because that would be tedious to write and therefore tedious to read. I am sometimes surprised how I get from A to B and B to C, and that often requires a rejig of some other parts of the story, so it is developing organically, but it’s always within the bounds of a structure.

So gardening is really not for me. Then something unusual happened a few weeks ago. I recently started co-writing a comic book project with Pete Rogers. I’ve known Pete for a few years and although we share hobbies and interests, and a passion for comics, our backgrounds are quite different so we come to stories from a very different perspective. We both had several ideas, which were seeds, and we pitched them to each other before deciding on one project to co-write. We then had a couple of brainstorming sessions, where we planned some of the main beats, and it was a lot more enjoyable than either of us had anticipated. We were able to head off problems before committing and writing ourselves into a dead-end. We spotted flaws and tweaked them on the fly, dodged clichés, bounced small ideas off each other that were then fleshed out and made bigger and better by the interaction.

This idea would not have been as strong as it is now if I had been working on my own, and although I’ve never received much benefit from a writing group, I can see how wonderful it must be to work in a writing pool on a TV show. The interaction with Pete has switched on other creative parts of my brain that were dormant and it’s spurred me on with my other writing projects and reenergised me. Working on this project has certainly given me a new perspective on gardeners and their approach to the creative process.

At heart I am still an architect but the idea of co-writing projects in the future is not nearly as daunting and is a lot more appealing than it used to be.