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? 

Do you conform?

In this week’s stack of junk mail, a window-and-door company’s brochure offered ‘an amazing deal, especially prepared for Current Homeowner.’ Was that supposed to make a customer feel particularly honoured? I felt more like I'd been caught in the splatter field of a marketing shotgun. That technique may be fine for selling doors and windows but I doubt it would work in trying to flog a book.

Word count: 327                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Diluting your product to make it more ‘commercial’ will just make people like it less according to Hugh MacLeod. Worse than that, it may make you like it less. What is the point of undertaking any artistic venture if there is no pride in how it evolves?

Not persuaded? Still want to know how to please everyone so you can churn out the next must-read book? Then surf over to this Huffington Post article by John Blumenthal. He offers invaluable tips on how to write a bestselling novel. Follow his formula and, please, let me know how it turns out.

If you’re still with me then I’m guessing that you’re a serious writer, working on producing the very best story you can. It has a good plot. Your writing skills are honed. The work has been edited, edited, and edited again. Beta readers have given their feedback and you’ve rewritten it once more. Through all its shaping and changing, the story has remained true to your original inspiration. It hasn’t been bent to please one person or another. You haven’t diluted it hoping to reach the lowest common denominator of reader to assure its success. You’re secure with what it is and who you are as a writer. Now you can hope for remarkable sales but there are no guarantees.

Are you tempted to load your writing shotgun and to try to hit a greater audience? If so what changes are you prepared to make? Conversely if you’re standing your ground, telling your story your way, what editorial arguments have you had to win?


Picture from WikiMedia Commons: Men Marching by thegoldguys

Theoretically speaking


Word count: 318                                                                                       Reading time: 1 minute +

When I first confided to a photographer friend that I had started writing fiction, he shook his head.

“An accountant? Writing fiction?” he said. “I don’t know about that combination.”

I was confident enough to ignore his doubt and charge on through. I figured out back in grade 8 or so that math demands a lot of imaginative problem-solving. Furthermore, anyone who has ever tried to tame the complex tendrils of a business operation into the few thin lines of a balance sheet knows how much creative thinking is involved.

Recently I watched Constraints and Creativity in Mathematics and Fiction, by Dr. Hannu Rajaniemi author of The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi says that mathematics and writing both create something out of nothing. He urges writers to consider the parallels. Both mathematics and writing:

  • are not about the numbers,
  • conceive of different realities,
  • look at the relationship between the imaginary things and draw conclusions from what is studied and
  • should create something beautiful.

After I watched the video I lost myself down a rabbit hole, looking at relationships between mathematics and art. I discovered that because mathematics is the basis of all sound, music theorists often use it to understand music. Mathematics and visual art have a relationship that dates back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks who defined the golden ratio to describe something that was aesthetically pleasing.

I’m not saying that all mathematicians can be writers (or painters or musicians) or vice versa. I’m suggesting that creativity is a force that once unleashed in one area of our lives will spill into all others. And let’s face it, a huge part of creativity is just hard work, lots of practice, and a mountain of perseverance.

What outside, non-core skills have helped your writing? Were you a midwife or a soldier before you picked up a pen? How have creative habits from another discipline advanced your development?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho


Do you think it's sexy?

Word count: 326                               Reading time: 1-2 mins

In her blog Discover Your Inner Geisha Leslie Downer advises that the kimono should be worn low at the back, to reveal the nape of the neck. Because almost every other part of a woman’s body was concealed, the nape of the neck was held in high regard in the Japanese culture. In this portrait, Powdering the Neck, by Utamaro the poem in the upper left corner compares the graceful line of the courtesan’s neck, her hairpin and her white powdered face to snowy, moonlit landscape[1].  It’s an erotic work from a pre-eminent artist of the Ukiyo-e movement.

Years ago I scuba dived with a guy who always walked behind me as I clambered up the beach with my tonnage of gear. We dived together in spring and summer and I invariably wore clunky European sandals because they were like 4WD at the end of my legs. On our last dive together my buddy confided he had a foot fetish and I had a particularly good pair. Shortly after that we went our separate ways but the foot fetish comment stayed with me for a long time. For one thing it made me realize how varied sexual preferences can be.

Then along came E L James and her admitted mid-life crisis which she turned into the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. It’s billed as erotic romance. I’ve also heard it called bad writing with lots of excellent pornography. Maybe this fetish-based literature is just the 21st century equivalent of the nape of the neck, one of the last few taboos that remained, and has now been revealed to mainstream readers.

If your work involves characters over the age of thirteen, you probably need to know something about their sexuality. How do you know if your character has a nape-of-the- neck tastes or salivates at the sight of certain body piercings? Does he or she have a chest in their bedroom full of ropes and riding crops?


Print: Utamaro


[1] Wendy Shore, Ukiyo-E, (Shorewood Fine Art Books 1980)

Three Days to Save Planet Earth!

Word Count: 320 words  Reading time: 2-3 mins.

Last week I tossed a pile of junk mail onto the kitchen table and these words jumped out at me: Three Days to Save Planet Earth. I blinked and looked again. The flyer actually read: Three Days to Save. I don’t remember what was being advertised because I was too busy catching my breath from the false alarm that the entire planet was three days away from annihilation. I know it’s polluted and overcrowded but I mean, really?

At times my imagination seems to be the most active part of my body. Jules de Gaultier said, “Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality.” By those standards I guess I’m well armed.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry thought a rock pile ceased to be a rock pile the moment a single person saw in it the image of a cathedral. As a child I passed many hours building castles on the gray sands of Kye Bay. They housed magical creatures that carried me far away from my dull, earth-bound existence. Those creatures deserted me for a while when I grew up. I’m glad they found me again.

But when I misread that flyer, I immediately started wondering what I should do with my last 72 hours. Very quickly, reality slapped me down with a thud, as it often does. I don’t mind though; in fact I’m grateful that my imagination still launches itself in random directions like this. Without it, that pile of mail would have been nothing more than a stack of paper on its way to the recycling bin. Instead it was a rich opportunity to contemplate an alternative reality.

That flight of fancy wasn’t all that unusual for me and it made me wonder: is this a form of mild dyslexia? Do other writers see things that aren’t there? If you’re one that does, has your distorted reading, hearing, or seeing ever led you to a great story or plot twist?


Photo by: Len Green

Digging in

Word count: 267                           Reading time: 1-2 mins. 

A ridge of high pressure slipped over Vancouver earlier this week and I groped my way into the sun-drenched garden, as blind as a mole. I raked the leaves from around the Japanese maple and found a buried treasure of vibrant crocuses and snowdrops pushing through last autumn's litter. Earth teach me renewal as the seed that rises in the spring says the Ute prayer.

I’ve uttered similar words more than once when lifeless prose filled the screen in front of me, when I felt stuck in an endless writing winter. It’s still cold outside but I’ve got a handful of story seeds to throw into my writing garden. Unfortunately I have little idea which will grow to dandelions and which to brilliant flowers. I’m in the conflict part of my creativity cycle  so I remind myself of the words of Madeleine L’Engle: “Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it.” I will sow them all and work to see which one grows to that magic beanstalk.

If I invest some sweat equity into a few ideas that don’t pan into anything interesting, it won’t be the first time. I have an entire folder of deleted scenes, unfinished short stories, and even a couple of stillborn novels. Every one of them has helped me hone my skills in its creation but sometimes a person has to ruthlessly cull the random growth, even when it’s the product of much loving labour.

What is growing in your creative compost now? How do you choose what to keep and what to dig back into the soil?


Photo: Leonidtit