Most fiction writers are familiar with the concept of plotter/pantser for getting a story onto the page. The term is shorthand for describing those who write extensive outlines (plotter) organizing each plot point, character development, and twist, before beginning the actual writing of the story. Proponents of this method point to its efficiency. Knowing all the important points ahead of time speeds up the writing and lets the author keep a tight schedule.
The pantser (flying by the seat of your pants) has an idea about a story and plunges into the writing, trusting that the plot, character and surprise twists will appear as she tells the story. Proponents of this method say it keeps the writing fresh and keeps the author engaged as she discovers the story along with the reader. Jo Beverley described this method as “flying into the mists.”
Now I’ve heard a new term for someone setting out to write a novel – gardener. The term is attributed to George R.R. Martin.
“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. . . . The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. . . .― George R. R. Martin
Many writers who consider themselves “gardeners” object to the “drop in a seed and water it” analogy. As we all know, writing is much harder than that. Still, the notion of gardening or growing a story inch by inch is a definite contrast to the plotter who lays out every twist and turn before putting pen to paper.
So, here are five principles I’ve learned as a writer who grows her story and keeps a garden.
1.The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.
Visiting a garden centre last week, the clerk behind the counter said “I love this job. I’ve been here five years and I’m still learning more.
For writers, the learning never stops. Read — books, articles, blogs — about writing. Listen to podcasts. Attend workshops. Read widely. There is always more to learn about the art of storytelling.
2. Know the soil.
In gardening, knowing the acidity of your soil, the amount of sunshine it receives in a day, and the drainage it receives helps you to choose plants that thrive in such conditions.
In fiction, the expectations of the genre are key to a successful career. If you write romance, readers expect a happily-ever-after. If you write mystery, you’d better reveal “who dunnit” by the last page. If you write thrillers, we expect justice to prevail. If you disappoint readers in these basic expectations, they won’t buy your next book and they will discourage others from exploring your list. Know your genre. Understand your readers.
3. Thin — kill your darlings.
I hate thinning my plants. I sew thickly because that’s the way to ensure good germination . Yet when all those tiny seeds sprout, I have to thin to make room for the remaining plants to mature. Did I mention I really hate doing this? It seems so unfair to take a happy little carrot and throw it on the compost so its brother can have more room. But thinning is necessary to produce healthy plants. Hint: sometimes I’ll transplant the extras to my neighbour’s garden so the chore isn’t so painful.
The same applies to writing.
In the first draft, throw down all your ideas, worry about sorting them later, just get it all on the page. Once you’ve written “the end” it is time to start thinning. Some of your best prose may not advance the story one little bit, so it has to come out. If you can’t bring yourself to throw it on the compost, save it in an “outtakes” file. Saving it will soothe your feelings, but, warn you, my outtakes file is full to bursting and none of that beautiful writing has proven useful in another manuscript. However you do it, you must “thin” your seedlings.
4. Trust your process
George Martin to the contrary, there is more to gardening than dropping a seed in a hole and adding water. Gardeners plant, water, weed, support, fend off predators, till . . . the list is endless. But gardeners also know that the nature of plants is to grow. Even when we are not in the garden, nature is nudging our little seed to produce a perfect, red, ripe tomato.
Sometimes a writer needs to get out of the way and let the story take shape as it wants to. She needs to trust her muse and her instincts. She needs to let her subconscious drive the story, even when she is on her knees digging out crab grass, or staring aimlessly at the clouds. Those random thoughts and sudden inspirations are gold in the writer’s creativity bank.
5. Do it for joy.
Gardeners grow flowers for their beauty. They spend money on heirloom tomato plants that don’t produce enough fruit to repay the purchase price. If a gardener were in it just for the money, she’d put down paving stones and buy her produce at the farmers market.
Writers can’t focus on the money alone. Of course we’d all like to have fat royalty cheques rolling in every month. But if dollars is the only motivation, there are easier and more lucrative ways to earn it. Seek the joy in your writing. Can money match the satisfaction of writing “the end” to a story you’ve created from your own imagination? Hours at the keyboard will make your back ache, your shoulders tighten and your bottom spread. Who would risk that for mere dollars? But many thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world suffer the pain, and discouragement, and loneliness of a writing life because nothing else can match the joy they feel at spinning a tale and sharing it with others.