Do you write by design?

When interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald, George RR Martin said [There are] two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.  

After living through renovations for the past four months, I find this reasoning, well, flawed. We spent months in the planning stages. We looked at many 3D models of our kitchen design. I’ve spent more time in plumbing shops than I have in the library in the past year. Ditto flooring, lighting, and tiling.

We measured. Our builder measured. Suppliers measured. The electricians consulted on all aspects of light and power supplies. We handed our ideas back to our designer. She revised and we forged ahead.

Now, as we move into the home stretch on this extended process, I hope the words, “Excuse me, do you have a minute” will occur less often in my life. Because no matter how much thought was put into every step, how many blueprints were drawn of each room and hallway, there were many decisions that really couldn’t be made until the project was underway. Building is an organic process.

Likewise the architect-vs-gardener thinking implies that a gorgeous garden is an accident of randomly-placed seeds. Also not my experience. The most beautiful gardens are the result of years of experience, lots of planning, continuous hard work, and an element of luck.

I suspect the best approach to writing is a hybrid, an architect-gardener mix. All disciplines have to be creative to solve problems and capitalize on unexpected developments. As Stephen Hawking put it, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Planners revise their course when new events arise. Gardeners have to plan so the seeds and bulbs are sown at the optimal moment.

This is the old plotter vs pantser question, isn’t it? Do you fall firmly on one side of that dichotomy? Do you outline your work with slide-rule precision? Or do you write by following whatever evolves as you type? 

What is holding you back?


I understand why people live with peeling wallpaper and ancient kitchens with drawers that jam and stick. It takes courage to venture beyond the planning stage. Once a renovation starts, there is no turning back. The old bathroom gets ripped out, but what looked good on paper may not proceed according to plan. Electricians, plumbers, and builders come into the mix. They each have an opinion and they often contradict each other. Maybe it’s easier to live with the crack in the bathtub and the toilet that flushes away 13 litres / 4 gallons of potable water with each use.

Word count: 327                                                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Is an unknown result the reason some people fail to finish the big artistic projects they start? How many outlines of stories have I scribbled into my notebooks over the years? I love that playful stage. So I write the first scene. It’s satisfying to see the characters come to life, say and do things exactly the way I expected.

Deep into a manuscript, I often find that a story is not unfolding the way I expected. The electrician arrives on the scene and says that my protagonist has no spark. No one is getting a charge from her. The plumber informs me that my throughline is jammed and needs to be reworked. I need to rip out half of what I’ve written.

Sometimes the weaknesses are beyond repair. Better tear the old house down and salvage the parts. Other times I just need to pull out the rotted wall and replace it with something  more substantial. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge according to Picasso.  So really, when unexpected obstacles pop up in the narrative, isn’t that the time to muster the creative courage and smash what needs fixing?

Do you avoid writing your great novel because you know hard it’s going to be? Or do you have the perseverance to get through the project, so you lay out your blueprint and get started?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bedroom and sitting room of the White House during the Renovation 2/27/1650 by Abbie Rowe from the US National Archives & Records Administration

Best laid plans

 Work count: 234                           Reading time: 1 min                 

Abraham Lincoln once said: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe.” How long he had to chop down that tree and how long he’d spend sharpening that axe varies from source to source but you get the idea.

Many creative writing experts advocate sharpening the axe before starting page one. So in January this year I took my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel and applied the snowflake method to it. Over many hours I distilled the story into a single sentence and then expanded it layer by layer. At the end of the process, character charts and spreadsheets gave me a detailed flight plan of where I was headed.

That exercise taught me one important thing: the part of my brain that imposes structure on the world is not the part of my brain that unearths the stories and finds the characters.

So I started this month’s NaNoWriMo with a character, a vague plot idea, and the determination to finish. I’m up to 34,000 words now and every time I sit down to the keyboard it’s another day in a kayak. Some days I paddle in still, boring water. The rest of the time – most the time – I’m shooting the rapids, wondering where I’m going to end up next.

How do your stories emerge? Through careful planning or by a leap into the deep end?

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Photo: Joe Michl