What Type of Story Gardener Are You?

How often have you answered the question, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” with “I’m a bit of both” or “I’m somewhere in the middle”, or something along that line?

In this video, at around the 50:30 mark, you can listen to Carrie Vaughn and Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) author George RR Martin discussing their approaches to writing and referring to “architects” and “gardeners”, which is an analogy Martin has used before instead of “plotter” and “pantser”. Presuming Martin is referring to landscape architecture (as opposed to building architecture, which would make less sense used as a metaphor alongside gardening) this analogy gives us a spectrum of different writing approaches, rather than the more dualistic argument of pantsing versus plotting.

The Landscape Architect

Like a professional landscape architect who has to produce an extremely detailed blueprint of their proposed design, sometimes down to the actual species and number of plants that are to be planted in each section, the author on this end of the spectrum first plans out their book in great detail. This might particularly apply to a non-fiction author who has to get approval from a publisher, or a traditionally-published fiction author sending in a proposal for several books in a series. Authors of fantasy, science fiction, and historical novels might also be in this group due to the world-building and research aspects of these genres. If you enjoy developing character profiles/biographies, in-world encyclopedias, and what I like to call fictionaries (fictional dictionaries) pertaining to the world of your book(s) then you might fit somewhere in this section.

The Landscape Gardener

A little more hands-on from the beginning, this author creates a relatively quick sketch before digging in to the work itself. This author probably has a lot of experience and now knows where they can take shortcuts. Like a landscape gardener who takes soils samples in order to work with or alter the pH of the soil or the drainage conditions, authors in this column continually analyse their market and know their genre extremely well.

The Sculpture Gardener

Like the artists in charge of beautiful public and private manor gardens which require a great deal of vision and a lot of time pruning and shaping and attention to symmetry and elegance, these authors spend a lot of time on rewriting and editing to create a true work of art.

The Botanical Gardener

These authors pay strict attention to themes and/or accuracy. They might collect notes on, or write about, a bit of everything, but they are well organised and logical in their output.

The Farmer

Working hard to produce a large volume of nourishing work that brings in an income, writers in this field might be producing articles, text books, early reader books, quick chapter book series, or even what was called “pulp” fiction in the past. To be this prolific requires a solid system, professional tools, and commitment to regular high-quality writing that needs as little editing as possible. Farmers cannot operate without the back-up of their families or paid staff since this kind of workload leaves little time for distractions such as holidays, leisure time, or even housework.

The Vegetable Gardener

Perhaps less prolific than the farmer, these are authors who are working to produce books as quickly as possible, but they also have pesky loads of laundry to deal with. Concentrating on getting the words right as much as possible in the first draft can help to cut down on time-consuming rewrites, getting those books out to harvest on a regular cycle.

The Constant Gardener

This is the writer who must write, who cannot breathe without writing. Daily “morning pages” are like fresh air. Getting words on the page is the only goal. But with all this time immersed in the work, this author notices everything that needs attention and the necessary pruning and shaping happens organically. Just as new projects arise out of this gardener’s awareness of how their garden is used and enjoyed by others, so the author using this approach understands what their readers want and need and tries to bring joy and usefulness into being by the way they shape their works.

The Weekend Gardener

Like the average person with a day job who escapes into their garden on the weekend, these authors have other commitments that leave them only a very specific window of time in which to write. These authors would benefit from keeping detailed notes and a solid planning system so that they can easily pick up where they left off and get writing. It also pays to aim for clean copy in the early drafts to avoid spending precious hours on rewriting and editing.

The Cottage Gardener

The cottage gardener doesn’t do much planning, instead choosing plants mostly on a whim or through long experience and trial and error. They may be set in their ways, or willing to plant anything once. They might take cuttings from plants in a friend’s garden. Likewise, the cottage author is attracted to a variety of different genres, doesn’t plan much beyond the initial idea and perhaps the ending, may abandon a work-in-progress in favour of a new idea, and usually prefers to let the characters and story develop organically through the writing process. Some might enjoy writing fan fiction, or building upon classical stories and motifs, or collaborating with a co-author or illustrator.

The Wildflower Gardener

This author does no planning whatsoever. They arrive on the garden of their page and scatter the seeds that come in the moment. The plants of their words are allowed to grow where they will and the author does little more than the equivalent of watering, nourishing, and any obvious weeding (always bearing in mind that what looks like a weed today might be the prize of the garden in a few weeks). The wildflower author is content to soak up the beauty of placing words on the page and enjoy the surprise of what those words become. Many poets find themselves in this column.

Over to you. Have I left any gardeners out? Where do you fit in such a spectrum? Has this given you (ahem) food for thought? Are you using the most beneficial writing approach for the body of work you’re trying to produce and the time and resources you have to work with? Do you need to consider a different approach?


Are You Leading with Your Weakest Link?

Image by Hernán Piñera

No matter how crucial a scene may be to your plot, if it makes you go “ick”, don’t lead with it.

It seems obvious to me after it was pointed out, but at the time of writing and revising a particular story, it made sense to start at the “beginning”, even though I always found myself thinking and wanting to tell people, “Just wait until you get to Chapter Two. Chapter One’s not really how the story’s going to continue; it’s just establishing the start of the protagonist’s character arc.” Yeah. Lesson learnt.

Start with the first of your good bits (we’ll call this the “Just Wait Until... Point” or JWUP). These days of instant gratification and high-speed everything, an author has much less time than ever before to hook a reader. That doesn’t mean you should start in media res without orienting the reader first. The difference nowadays is that your  orientation (a view of the characters’ “normal” before everything changes) can and should only be a few paragraphs at the most. The inciting incident, which needs to be compelling, must occur in the first page or two, or you risk being put down.

There’s an easy (“easy”) fix way to judge this for yourself: if your Amazon Look Inside sample breaks before it gets to the JWUP, cut your beginning until the break happens immediately after the JWUP.



So, after about a week's work and 6000 words, I've completed the synopsis (4000 words) and character notes (2000) for this new story. Now I'm satisfied that I can leave it to mature and allow other stories to fill my mind and be written, and when I come back to this story I will have all the important details noted down and ready to work for me. I can also, now, get back to working on the writing career course I'm taking, which I put on hold because I didn't want to distract myself while playing with this new idea.  

What fun that was though! Every now and then I believe everyone needs a new idea to inject some fresh energy into their thinking. 

Comments (2)
That's brilliant. Well done!
Posted 20 December 2008


Thank you. Holiday preparations and family visits have taken up my attention now, though.  
Posted 21 December 2008



What do news stories of horrific instances of child abuse in Austria and other European countries have in common with the birth in captivity of a pygmy hippo? 

Somehow the combination has sparked the idea for a new teen novel that my muse has kept me awake over for the past two nights. I spent today on the planning and fleshing out the main characters, and tomorrow I'll knuckle down and write the synopsis. It's a lot darker than what I've been writing for the past few years, but at least it has an uplifting ending.

I always feel wired when I'm unravelling a new story for the first time. Hyper - like I've had too much caffeine and sugar, which is a strange feeling on top of the ultra-relaxed state caused by all the pregnancy hormones floating around in my system. I haven't had coffee since June, either, so this is an interesting substitute.

I don't know how freewriters can sit down and just start writing. For me the thrill comes with watching and listening to the story play out in my head over an intense period of a day or two. It's like I'm seeing double for a while - a movie being played on top of my real life; my attention split between the two. By the end of it, the whole thing is in there in its entirety, in my brain, except for a few transition details and the nuts and bolts of the dialogue. 

And then the subplots arrive, and wind their way into the story, altering slight details and improving motives and adding twists to the ending. I get to make notes at this point, getting the details down while my brain studies the whole. And then I can leave the story for months or years at a time, knowing that I can pick it up whenever the time is right and it will be waiting. As I read over the notes I've made I'll feel like I'm experiencing a story that is both fresh and new and an old friend at the same time. 

Comments (2)
I am very excited about your new project. To take some of the horrible things that have been in the news lately and turn them into something positive is wonderful. Best of luck with it all!
Posted 27 November 2008

Thank you Selma. None of what was in the news features in the story, though - it is just my feelings about the situations that have come out in the themes of the story. 
Posted 27 November 2008