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  • A.K. Lee

Architect or Gardener?

Do you structure your entire story or do you let it grow?

I've been pretty quiet this month because I jumped headfirst into NaNoWriMo 2017. It's the first time I am doing this while not working full-time, but oddly enough I wasn't able to write any faster than when I tried the challenge in 2013. On the other hand, I didn't write any slower. Yay me!

This year, I took an idea I originally intended for a comic book series and converted it into a novel. It's a lot harder than I had anticipated. What I could picture as a series of framed images didn't necessarily lend itself to being expressed in words. I did, however, plan it out in detail, so while I didn't complete the entire novel during NaNo November, I did churn out 50,000 words. And that is 50,000 words closer to the next novel!

(A segue: I used to think this was Kermity Frog. It wasn't until I saw the name written down that I realize he is Kermit the Frog.)

Anyway, back to the actual purpose of this blog post. I used to scoff at the idea of planning my writing. After all, I used to churn out chapter after chapter of fanfiction with minimal planning. "Just go with instinct! Be open to new developments and ideas!" I'd have said. This approach works for me when I write fanfiction, primarily because I don't have to do any worldbuilding, and readers are generally more forgiving of plotholes than of character authenticity. (More on that in another blog post sometime later.)

This approach is that of a "gardener" writer: you sow the seeds or ideas, and you watch them grow. How the ideas germinate, where they grow towards, what they look like at the end... It's all up in the air. You don't know until you sit down and write it.

As an amateur novelist, however, I am 100% convinced of the value of planning out a story, especially if the story involves multiple plots and points-of-view. It is easier to write after I have plotted it out. I know what I'm directing my characters towards, and I have a pretty clear view of how the story should unfold. I don't plot in too much detail - I know that my characters are likely to rebel if I constrain them too much, and they do like pushing the story in different directions - but I have specific purposes for every scene. In this way, I am closer to an "architect" sort of writer.

How do I plan? I use a table or a spreadsheet, and create this:

  1. The very first column is the number of my scene. It's just a reference for me when I begin writing.

  2. The second column is my Scene Summary. The main action of the scene is listed. For instance, I might write: Joshua argues with Ming and storms out of the office.

  3. The third column, Scene Essentials, is where I state the actions that must happen or observations that I must include for the reader. For instance, for the scene above, I could decide that I needed to direct readers at Joshua's bad leg, or Ming's ruined family photographs. I could also indicate how those observing the argument are reacting to Joshua and Ming's blowup, or if there is a third character who is important to the story later on.

  4. The fourth column is for notes that I have for myself while I am plotting. I find this really useful in silencing my inner editor, whom I have no use for until I get to the editing stage.

  5. The final column is where I place the one sentence/detail on which the entire scene rests.

I planned all of The Kaedin Secret and my current NaNoWriMo project this way. So far, it's working for me. I like seeing my novel laid out in a certain amount of detail, and since my plan is on a spreadsheet, I can add or delete scenes as my characters flesh out and they start influencing the plot. I'd say I am 70% architect, and 30% gardener when it comes to planning a novel.

Do you plan your stories? Are you an architect or a gardener?

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