On Architects and Gardeners
Maybe the most reductive and common question about writing, outside of ‘where do you get your ideas?’, is ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ For those who don’t know, a ‘plotter’ is somebody who meticulously plots every single aspect of their story, a pantser is somebody who discovers it as they go, flying by the seat of their pants. This is also known as the ‘architect vs gardener’ binary, and it’s annoying because in most cases it isn’t a binary at all.
Even famous ‘gardeners’ like George R.R. Martin vaguely know where they’re going, while I can’t think of many plotters who don’t at least consider some of the different potential directions that become clear as the story goes. Personally, I think being entirely one or the other is dangerous unless you’re a special kind of genius – stick to a pre-existing plan too closely and you don’t allow for the kind of organic discovery that can make a story truly surprising and special, don’t plan at all and you’re very likely to get lost in the reeds (or spend eleven years and counting trying to finish The Winds of Winter).
I’ve always seen myself as somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning a little more towards the ‘plotter’ side. I almost always have at least a vague idea of where I’m going, but I don’t like to be too rigid or specific with that because it can trip you up when those magical moments happen and you go ‘wait, what if this is how it’s supposed to go?’ But then, even that isn’t a universal description of how I write. I started The Inheritance, for example, with no real clue of how it was going to go other than that Maggie would return to Melbourne and grapple with her father’s legacy. I started writing, got swept up in it, and then at about the halfway mark realised I had no idea how it was going to end, who the antagonist was, or what the point of any of it was. I limped on and made up an ending, only for my publisher to point out none of the second half worked and I had to entirely rewrite it in the space of a couple of months. I was happy with how it landed, but I never want to repeat that experience ever again.
And now I seem to be having the opposite problem in Andromache Between Words, the new middle-grade book I’m working on for HarperCollins. I’m not going to say much about what you can expect from the book (saving that for my next newsletter – subscribe!), but I will say that it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, one I’ve been idly developing over the past few years until I knew pretty clearly what all the major beats were. As such, mapping out a rough shape when Harper gave me the go ahead to write was pretty easy. Starting to write, even easier. Andromache has flowed like a dream. It’s vastly different to the thriller stuff I’ve been working on recently, and that has been enormously refreshing. I hit 40,000 works the other day and, given the book is middle grade, figured I was no more than a couple of weeks away from being done.
I was an idiot.
See, I didn’t feel that Andromache was all that intensely planned, but nearly a decade worth of thinking about it has meant that certain moments, images, characters and twists are pretty rigid in my mind. I’ve thought about this book a lot. But the flip side to that is that I’ve been happily writing along, following my by-now ingrained understanding of how the story was going to go, and then the other morning it suddenly struck me that the entire third act does not work, at least not in the way that I’d envisioned it. Too much of it is just repeating beats from the middle of the story, but changing either would have a domino effect that would throw motivations, thematic points and big reveals completely out of whack. Basically, if I change the run up to the ending now, the ending no longer works. And if I go back and alter earlier scenes to avoid that repetition, the run up doesn’t work either.
I probably sound like I’m being super vague and to a point I am – obviously I want people to buy and read the book when it eventually comes out and I don’t want there to be a hint of behind-the-scenes problems when it does. And look, I’m not panicking; it’s literally my job to work these issues out and it’s far better to stumble on them now rather than weeks from publication (that has happened to me before and is another experience I am not keen to repeat). But I’m realising that for all I don’t consider myself a meticulous planner, the only way I’m going to solve these issues is by letting go of convictions I’ve had about the story for a long, long time. Basically, following the number one rule of writing; to kill your darlings. Except, of course, the longer a darling has been around the harder it is to kill.
I have always believed that stories teach you how to write them, but you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught, or to put it another way, you can’t make new discoveries when you’re desperately clinging to old ideas. Which I guess brings me to my ultimate take on the architect vs gardener binary – don’t define yourself by either, or even by a specific place on the imaginary spectrum. Some stories need meticulous planning, others need to be found as you write. Most are in the middle and that’s where, I think, it makes the most sense to start. Veer left when you should have gone right, and it can take you a long time to realise you’re heading in the wrong direction.
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