You don’t want to build a house from my blueprints. The house would not stand. You would not want to write a novel from my outline, because I am a gardener.
During his interview at Worldcon last week, George R. R. Martin gave us something to think and talk about as respects a writer’s process. Alec Nevala-Lee blogged on it earlier this week. You should read that post here for what Martin said, and what Alec says, to get the context:
The gardener/architect contrast was brought up several times in various panels, and it seems to me all but Alec identified as a gardener. Is no one else brave enough to identify as an architect? Does it seem less artsy or cool to build your story in a linear fashion, brick by carefully considered brick, than to toss a ton of seeds onto your bed, stand back, and hope something beautiful flourishes?
Whether Martin made all the gardener-writers feel suddenly more cool is unimportant, but knowing who you are is of the utmost. I do know being a gardener is not all that much fun. We can’t-write-an-outline folks are branded early on, in school. We are taught outlining, and are expected to be able to do one, and then write a paper based on the outline. Like one Chicon panelist, whose name I can’t recall, I too wrote the report first, and then did the outline, and then turned in the paper. Yeah, I got the grade, but I also got the sense of being different, of being fundamentally flawed, because of my inability to do something so simple as to create in a linear fashion.
Many of us humans have the tendency to do this very thing: model the format that is against our nature, because we are given to understand that it is the “right” way. When the “right” way doesn’t turn out so well, we feel the failure. We can freeze up and get blocked.
I prefer–my brain prefers–to construct a story by coming up with a situation. A bit of contemplation, and I have a beginning. I may know a bit of the ending; at least, I decide if it’s mostly happy, or mostly sad. The tone of the ending is clearly contained in the beginning, although the details may be fuzzy. The middle is a dense fog that will not burn off for quite a while. My first-draft middles are usually hideous. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. The characters all flatten to two dimensions, and perform stupid, pointless, completely uncharacteristic tasks. Then, suddenly, they come alive and have a satisfying ending.
When I’m writing a short story, I can get through this okay. I only have to slog though thirty pages or so, and when I go back and reread that first draft (an excruciating experience), I can nonetheless find one or two paragraphs in the middle that don’t suck. Little tiny bits that are true, and not dreck. I build on those. Somewhere around the third draft, I get the flash, the revelation, of what the story is really about. The fog lifts from the middle. By the with or sixth draft, I’m good to go.
The process, scary enough in short story form, becomes an author-killer at novel length. I lose track of the tertiary characters. I am unsure enough of the main plot; subplots are therefore impossible to conceive. My main characters go all bland about chapter 5. Secondary characters threaten to take over, as it is clear the author isn’t doing her job. The middle third of the first draft is more than bad; it is unreadable, even by me.
Over the years, and by this method, I have watched my pile of unfinished novels grow and mock me.
I am determined not to die like this, and I believe I have stumbled on the solution. None of us can expect to work in ways against our nature. On the other hand, none of us can be 100% gardener, or 100% architect.
When I redesigned our back yard, I measured out three rectangular raised beds vaguely reminiscent of cloister gardens I had admired. Cloister gardens tend to be square, and our yard was a flat rectangle, but so what. No need to be literal here. I measured badly, and then I brought a contractor in to measure properly and build it. Those rectangular beds were my structure. Within those beds, I planted whatever I wanted. I placed a few rocks here and there, and a few garden ornaments. I knew I wanted roses for color, succulents for form and texture, and perennial herbs for background and hummingbirds. That was it. I loved the result. The trick was that I needed structure, but only the simplest plan I could get away with.
When it comes to the novel I’m working on, I finally realized, after decades of despair, that I needed to measure, however badly, however simply. I needed to take my situation and guess at what kind of plot structure it sounded like. I have a convent in a space habitat. Hey, that could be a closed door mystery, where we get to know the vicim a bit, the victim dies, an investigator is brought in and finds the situation to be quite confusing and the witnesses/suspects difficult. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to break through. I had found my three rectangular raised beds.
Left brain/Right brain is another way of saying Architect/Gardener. We can place ourselves on one side or the other, but we can’t be all one way. We need both sides of the brain. I will be mindful to respect both my sides in the hopes that both, working together, will serve me and my project well.