Sunday, February 22, 2015

How an Intuitive Gardener (Okay: Pantser) Creates Conflict & Outer Motivation

I'm lucky to have my crit partner and good friend, Carolyn Crane, visiting me for a few days. This involves much time spent writing, drinking and talking about writing. Perfection!

She's even going to help me plot my next series, which is awesome, because she's WAY better at plotting than I am. As in, she actually *does* it instead of my weirdly organic gardening method of plotting.

By this I'm referring to George R.R. Martin's analogy of how different writers work - either as architects or gardeners, or somewhere in between. I discussed this in detail a while back on Suzanne Johnson's blog. The TL:DR is that some writers like extensive blueprints before they start building the story, while others work more by planting seeds and coaxing along what grows from that.

I am really far down on the gardening end of the scale.

So much so that, when I see a topic like this week's - Development of character outer motivation and outer conflict - a kind of hysterical flutter burrows into my gut. This is akin to asking a gardener what will happen over the summer to keep her flowers from blooming lushly. Sure, I might have ideas - drought, then insect infestations due to drought stress, that sudden hailstorm, maybe a freak early freeze - but I don't know exactly WHAT it will be until I get there.

Yes, this is totally how I write and I know that it's the least helpful craft advice ever. Surely our more architectural Word-Whores will have THINGS to say about plans and scaffolding and so forth.

Meanwhile, here is the gardener's take:

My seeds are my characters. I know pretty much who they are when the story begins and I learn more about them as I write and they reveal themselves to me. Let me spend a moment on that. When I say I "know" who they are, I mean in a visceral way, more of a feeling for the person than anything else. For me, when I think of people I know, they're kind of an amorphous tangle of feeling and impressions for me. I'm not good at remembering faces and I sometimes think this is because I remember how a person *feels* to me on a non-physical level. Does that make sense? This is no doubt a huge part of the Intuitive aspect of myself that feeds into the INTJ.

I plant these seeds into the soil of my story - the general idea of where my characters are going when I enter their lives. I start slowly, watering, fertilizing, waiting for the first shoots of story to push up. Much like with actual gardening, it rarely takes long for trouble to arise. Those early challenges hint of the conflict to come. Which it inevitably does. I never feel like I have to develop the conflict because it rears up as inevitably as aphids, floods and flower-devouring wildlife. The world provides plenty of conflict - it always turns up, whether we want it or not.

Yes - I do go back and tighten my beginnings. Inevitably my major revision time will be spent on the first third of the draft. I move up the inciting event, I amp up the stakes and weave in hints of the conflict I discovered as the story spun out.

If I have any useful advice to offer for this method it's this:

Don't back away from the dark side.

This is really easy to do - in fact, I find myself doing it all the time and having to correct. I think we're programmed, as essentially nice, well-socialized human beings, to back away from the harsher aspects of conflict. We avoid ugly confrontations when possible and turn away from tragedies to poignant to bear. In fiction, we must do exactly the opposite.

Delve into the ugly, the awful, the extreme.

Let your characters suffer. Then intensify and make them suffer more.

Resist the urge to rescue them from the storm. Watch while the hail batters their blossoms into mud-soaked shattered petals, then go out and coax them into life again. The great gift of the gardener, the true miracle, is that ability to bring the destroyed back from the brink and make us all believe in the bloom at the end.


  1. Oh, I needed that. I'm bad about protecting my characters.

    1. It's easy to do - we love them so! Glad this helped. :-)

  2. This sounds like your 'natural writer type' thing coming into play again...but you still managed to put together a decent blog post on the topic! And it looks like you and Carolyn are doing it right, cheers!

    1. LOL! Right? Just proves I can BS my way through *anything* :-)