Architects, Gardeners, Schemers and Dreamers
“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. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George R. R. Martin
The first question that usually comes to mind for a writer reading the above quote is: I wonder which one I am? The question that should follow this, but never does, is: Why does it matter? After all, everyone does it their own way. If you’re one kind or another, who cares? But as I’ve learned in recent months, it does matter, and it does help to know where on that spectrum (and another, which I’ll get to in a second) you lie.
The reason for this is that if you are a gardener and you work like an architect, or vice versa, you will crash and burn. And I don’t think it’s a matter of choice, either – it’s not as simple as deciding which one you want to be and then doing it. It’s more that you just are one or the other and you have to discover which so that you can then act accordingly. And once you do know where you stand, the process becomes a lot easier. If you have a natural talent for the piano, in other words, maybe you shouldn’t be trying so hard to play the trumpet.
So which one are you? It’s not so easy to know. I’ve always thought of myself as more of an Architect, but once I started experimenting with novels I found I tended to do better work when I took the ‘Gardener’ approach. My short stories tend to come out better when I ‘blueprint’ them, but my novels are better improvised.
I noticed also that there were some authors, in both of the groups mentioned above, that liked to write things down, and others that didn’t. There are authors out there, for example, who won’t even think of starting a book until they have the beginning, middle and end written out in detailed summaries, with character analysis and backstory material on the sidelines in case they have relevance to the story.
There were two problems that arose when I did things this way. First of all, I found that because I wanted the book to follow the blueprint, I kept forcing the characters to do the things I’d planned for them, an approach which makes for flat characters. Author Scott Sigler gets around this problem by tearing down his plans and rewriting them as soon as his characters develop in a way he hadn’t expected. That just sounds like too much work to me. Besides, life isn’t predetermined, so why should writing be?
But I can’t criticise one method over another, because the truth is that your choices of method depend on who you are as a person. Sigler prefers his way, and his characters aren’t flat at all. His methods are simply aligned with his personality, and so it works.
There is a dark side to being a ‘Gardener’ too. Once, I had a great idea for a book. I wrote the first fifteen thousand words, and then realised I’d done it all wrong. So I deleted everything and wrote eight thousand words of something that was closer to what I wanted. And then deleted that because it still wasn’t right somehow, and instead wrote a chapter of something else which was almost there, but still fundamentally wrong in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. Stephen King apparently wrote something like eighty thousand words of The Dome, realised it wasn’t working, and then deleted it, only revisiting the idea many years later. In On Writing, he talks about hitting the wall at the five hundred page mark while he was writing The Stand. Imagine being five hundred pages into a book and considering throwing it all away because it was wrong.
Then there are those I like to call the Schemers and the Dreamers. At first glance, it seems that these are really the same thing, because Architects are usually Schemers and Gardeners are usually Dreamers, but I believe there are in fact two different intersecting spectrums and that you can even be on opposite ends at the same time.
Let me explain: A Schemer, by my definition, is someone who writes everything down. They have detailed storyboards, they have character backstories, geography, world building details, ‘treatments’, alternative endings, etc. By contrast, the Dreamer writes nothing down, and keeps everything in his head, except for the actual work itself.
Of course, Architects gravitate to the former method and Gardeners to the latter, but it’s not always the case – it’s just a common theme. The obvious question then is: if you’re a gardener and therefore don’t like planning ahead, then what is it you’re writing down if you’re also a Schemer?
Plenty. You could write detailed biographies and character outlines. You could create maps of the geography of the place your story takes place. You could record the chapters you’ve written, and detail what each consists of. There are a million ways you can use writing and drawing to better illustrate and understand your own book for yourself without actually planning ahead. Then, with all the information you have created for yourself, you can go ahead and improvise.
Alternatively, you might be both an Architect and a Dreamer. In this case, you’d write nothing down, but you’d plan and blueprint everything in great detail. It may even be complete, in your mind, and all that remains is for you to translate to paper what you see inside. The path is clear and you have only to walk it.
The trick with the above spectrums is not to try to be one or the other, but to figure out what you already are. How far along each line do you feel comfortable? Write in that place. In any case, it’s unlikely you’ll end up solidly in one corner or another. Maybe you write some things down, imagine others, outline characters but not plots, and improvise just a little.
If there is anything to be gained from the list of ‘Rules’ that I put up in my last post, it’s that every one of those writers arrived upon their lessons through trial and error with their own writing. In other words, a large part of what they did was not to figure out how to write so much as how they write.
So if you want to know what you are – Gardener, Architect, Schemer, Dreamer, or any combination of the above… well, I can’t help you.
You’ll just have to find out for yourself.