What kind of writer are you? Gardener or architect?

I’m always interested in how other people write, so I loved this analogy from Ian Beck, illustrator and children’s author.  He was speaking at last weekend’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference and I was lucky enough to be in the audience.

Ian Beck, author and illustrator, image David Bartlett/FCBG.

Ian Beck, image by David Bartlett/FCBG.

He spoke of writers as either gardeners or architects. An architect makes blueprints and models, and work proceeds from these. Everything is planned in advance, and in detail. The finished building is (fore)seen before construction begins.

A gardener, on the other hands, plants a seed, waters it and waits to see what happens. The seed grows, and changes as it does so. Hopefully, it flourishes.

Ian said that he is gardener, and only discovers what a book is about when he has written a draft.

I’m a writer and a gardener, literally. I’ve been doing both for most of my life, and learning all the time. I tend to think of the imagination as a compost heap. Stuff goes into my brain – all kinds of experience, first-hand and second-hand – and sinks down slowly, mixing and mulching away, turning into something rich and strange. When it’s ready, I can use it. But what comes out will not be easily recognisable as what went in.

Now I have another horticultural metaphor to use, thanks to Ian Beck. As a writer, I am definitely a gardener. I wouldn’t want to read a book where I knew exactly what was going to happen, chapter by chapter, so I wouldn’t be keen to write one either. It would take out much of the fun and all the mystery.

Getting a story idea is like planting a seed. You have to nurture it, but also give it time. What grows may surprise you. You certainly can’t guarantee the outcome from the start, irrespective of the picture on the seed packet.

Pansies vintage seed packet

‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

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22 thoughts on “What kind of writer are you? Gardener or architect?

  1. It’s possible to be both gardener and architect, I would maintain! In the manner of garden designers one can plan some hard landscaping or mark out a winding path between planned beds, and still plant seeds, bedding plants, shrubs and watch the occasional surprise. self-seeded or just lying dormant, emerge from the ground unbidden. The little fiction — short stories effectively — I’ve written have proceeded just like that. To some extent the reviews I post have a similar gestation.

    • Mm…ok (she says, not totally convinced.) In my experience there are often two gardeners involved in a garden, one who likes the hard-landscaping, the other who does the pretty stuff in between. By the way, I’m not talking in metaphors here! Garden designers who are very designer-y limit the number and variety of plants; very cool and controlled. I’m more William Robinson. But you’re right about self-seeding – sometimes the best and most surprising combinations result. Just so long as the gardener is not an over-zealous weeder, too.

      • Yes, I suppose one has to get off the (garden) fence and plump for one or the other. I guess I’d like to be an architect but when it comes down to it I’m a bit of a lazy metaphorical gardener, rather too much the wait-and-see type.

  2. I’m both. First I let it grow, wild, uncut. The result, usually, is less than stellar. Then I architect the whole thing, move things around, put the set pieces and the climax where they belong, correct plotholes, fill in the gaps, make sure that the dramatic arc works, in other words: Rewrite. So gardener during first draft, architect during second.

    • Oh dear, now you’re making me feel much too laissez-faire! I guess I do do that, to an extent, at the final editing stage, but it feels a little more desperate than you sound, certainly. And I write a lot of drafts, editing bits as I go, so even a first draft is never that.

    • If you think of the good effect compost has on plants, let’s hope it has the same effect on our writing. Weird or wonderful, it ought to flourish. I find writing an idea down too soon, without letting it compost, can kill it off. Or I just end up with something spindly and weak!

      • Yeh, I get that. Also I have to clear my head of some ideas before I can start others. I’ve just finished a series and was surprised to discover that as soon as I’d written it down the next book I’m going to work on was much clearer in my mind and the one after, which had been nothing more than a name, three lines of dialogue and a picture of an aeroplane, is growing great guns!

        Cheers

        MTM

  3. Great analogy. I think I am an architect: I plot and plan, and prefer writing screen-plays to novels. Although, I do feel that the initial idea comes from a seed which grows ‘organically’ and which I then have to nurture, clip and train with a structured trellis!

  4. Pingback: What kind of writer are you? Part Deux | Julia Lee Author

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