Gardners & Architects & Bugaboos, Oh, My

Are you an outliner or a plot-on-the-fly kinda person? Is one harder than the other?  Here’s one take:

GRRM makes pantsing (or gardening as he calls it) sound easy. Lazy, even.  This irks me. (He considers himself a gardener by the way.)

He is doing his own work a disservice by belittling the effort that goes into his creations. This comparison is nothing more than architectural snobbery. The implication that architects plan first and gardeners do not — it’s not even true. Worse, the comparison leads to the false impression that some writers work harder than others.

Gardeners are architects. Gardening is exactly like planning and constructing a beautiful  home that must last as long as any building, and more than that, it’s creating a work of art that must retain its beauty and complexity despite changing on its own year by year as everything in it grows and dies back in inherently unpredictable ways. Discovery writers — the more accepted label for the process GRRM compares to gardening — have to be as structured and as meticulous as any work done by those who follow the architectural Outlining tradition.

It’s all about where and how that structure occurs. The outliner puts all that rigor on the surface where it’s visible. A discovery writer is putting down deep roots long before the first seedling shows.

Also, a gardener who only puts something in a hole to see what comes up isn’t going to get results without fertilizing, watering, trimming, weeding, and pruning. The writer who sits down and starts writing to see what comes out onto the page is manipulating a million incredible concepts and issues all at once.  Discovery writing is messy and muddy, but under the surface it’s a hard discipline. It’s a process of waiting for ideas to mature and rise out of the deep subconscious and then capturing epiphanies as fragile as soap bubbles (or dandelion fluff, to hold the vegetative analogy) within cages of words. Then each idea must be weighed and trimmed to fit in with all the other existing words and ideas.

Downplaying the effort required to pull off discovery writing  plays into the myth that Real Art is all talent and no work. Not only is that myth insulting to all the people who spend thousands of hours perfecting their craft, but it’s also used to excuse devaluing the product of all that work.

I’m disappointed to see someone as prominent in the public eye as George R. R. Martin propagating the false image of discovery writing being imagination put to page as easily as digging a hole. Self-deprecation is all well and good, but it’s misplaced humility that harms everyone who chooses to dig for stories rather than build them on a scaffold.