Are you a gardener or an architect?
There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect.
That’s George R.R. Martin talking, and if my experience this weekend at Worldcon is any indication, the distinction between literary gardeners and architects may be Martin’s most lasting contribution to the way we think about writing. Of the ten or so events on writing I attended, either as a viewer or a panelist, I’d say that the gardener/architect distinction came up in at least half, usually to appreciative murmurs from the audience. Either approach, the speakers were quick to say, is perfectly fine, depending on the writer’s methods and personality—which is certainly true. But I also noticed that nearly every writer who brought up the distinction identified himself as a gardener, with an implicit sense that architects are slightly inhuman technicians whose left-brained approach can deprive them of the happy accidents of character and incident that lie at the heart of writing.
Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m an architect. My first blog post was called “Nails and Houses.” My favorite book on storytelling of any kind, David Mamet’s On Directing Film, abounds in architectural metaphors, and I seized every chance I could to recommend it at my panels this weekend. (I have a feeling I sold more copies of Mamet’s book than any of my own work.) I’ve used a lot of different metaphors to describe outlining, which I’ve called a stealth first draft and compared to the relationship that a screenplay bears to a finished movie, but perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the outline is a blueprint. At this point, I wouldn’t dream of starting a substantial writing project without an outline for at least the first major section, and I still believe that having an outline often makes the difference between finishing a project and ending up with a few tantalizing fragments. And while I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for everyone, it works so well for me that I’ve discussed it at length, both on this blog and elsewhere.
What needs to be emphasized, however, is that a novel is not a house, however seductive that analogy may be. It’s easier to remodel, for one thing. And it can be planned and built in increments: I never outline an entire novel at once, but always leave a residue of plot and character problems unresolved at every stage. In some ways, the architectural approach to writing is less like building a house than like city planning: it involves many connected structures, built over time and for different reasons, each one of which subtly changes its neighbors and the surrounding landscape. Just as a healthy neighborhood consists, according to Christopher Alexander, of the coordination of patterns scaled to human needs, writing a novel is about orchestrating many self-contained pieces—beats, scenes, chapters—into a harmonious whole. And the result, if you’ve done it properly, is less a city like Brasilia, with its structure imposed from the top down, than London, which makes sense on the ground but also reveals surprising patterns when seen from above.
And what I’ve discovered about these architectural habits is that they’re very much like what Mamet says about his own methods: applied correctly, they set the imagination free. As a blueprint, an outline helps you organize materials and find places for elements that otherwise might be lost. I’m much more likely, for instance, to remember and utilize the free-floating fragments of inspiration that come at odd moments—while shaving, showering, or taking a walk—when I have a larger structure in which they can fit. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, of course, and a willingness to revise in light of new developments. Even when I’m working out a carefully structured plan on the page, I’m often surprised by unexpected plot or character turns, which emerge, not in spite of the pattern that surrounds them, but because of it. That tension between structure and serendipity is one of the great joys of writing. And fortunately, with a novel, it’s always possible to remodel, rebuild, and, when necessary, demolish.