If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, talked with friends who also had aspirations to become a writer, or read an interview with some famous writer in the Stephen King/George RR Martin mold, you inevitably come to one point:
Architect (Martin) or Gardener (King)?
This has, unfortunately, nothing to do with exterior decorating of suburban houses to make your daily two hour commute less of a macabre preamble to your inevitable stay in hell for all eternity, but one of approaches to writing a story.
I talked before about my disdain for creative writing classes in colleges and universities, and a lot of that has to with with having to put grades on your work, which leads to many professors and teachers encouraging the creation of outlines.
Writing with an outline is not necessarily a bad thing. It essentially gives you plan, more or less detailed, from which to draw in the creative process. This can be anything from a simple list of characters to full character bios, from short diagrams outlying the relative distance between places to full topographical maps of the region.
When done well, it it s a great crutch in longer projects to keep the draft you’re working on on point. It can most definitely cut down on the time you have to spend working on reworking the story once you are done with the initial draft.
When done poorly, it can lead you down a rabbit hole of world-building from which there is no escape. Guess which experience made me swear of this approach?
Attempts at humor aside, I find outlines most helpful when you are working with more than one person or you are currently so busy that you just physically cannot spend more than half an hour a day or a couple of hours a week on a project. This makes sense, it helps you maintain your vision.
That is, of course, suggesting that your original vision is worth sticking with.
Aside from the problem of getting stuck in perpetual world-building without putting any actual work to paper, it can lead to you restricting yourself to view obscured by blinders. A point where you dismiss new ideas, shaped by new ideas or realizations, because they would ruin all the hard work you put into world-building.
I know from my own experience that it also took a lot of the fun out of the process of writing. If you want to be a writer, you need to want to write, not to only have written. There will be a lot of rejection, especially if you make the mistake I am making for the sake of intellectual purity by going indie. Thus you need to have fun with the actual process.
My personal approach is one that has been called ‘gardening’ by some. I prefer to just go for it and rework a lot of my rough ideas later on. With the longer fan fiction series I wrote as a teenager this approach helped with the episodic nature of the work, but even in current projects like one-off novels it’s helpful in eventually find the themes you want to discuss.
I always have an idea in which direction I want to take a story, so I will know the beginning and ending, but I never know the middle parts. Both the first story published on here on soon to be republished in a “definitive edition” (sigh…) on Amazon, as well as the semi-sequel currently in revision, are good examples of picking up on elements planted early in the story or shaping existing ideas into something new. It has helped with keeping the process organic and the world more natural. As a fan of absurdist fiction, the randomness this brings to the book is also incredibly helpful.
I don’t think it’s something that a writer has to choose between forever. It’s definitely something that depends on the project. I have written a fictitious rant/tirade on future-YouTube with edutainment value and a road trip so far in terms of original fiction. Those work well with lots of randomness and spontaneity. If you are working with a collaborator or have an idea for a long-running series, it is much better to keep a series bible or a strict outline, especially when you don’t want to write the series in one go and edit them all before publishing.
Most importantly though, relax a bit and don’t take it too seriously.