Gardener With Plants… And With Words

News Flash! Interested in an interview with me about the “Artemis” books and a few other things?  Here’s one with New Books in Science Fiction that just went “live” this week.  Look at the bottom of the text introduction for an audio link.

And now we shall proceed with our regularly scheduled Wander…

Back in April, I began a Wednesday Wandering with the following

Early Autumn Produce, 2015

Early Autumn Produce, Harvest 2015


“On Saturday, Jim and I planted twenty-one tomato seeds.  Our goal is to have twelve plants bearing tomatoes by the end of the summer.  We’ll be happy with six, especially if five of them are romas, because romas are good both for eating fresh and for cooking.”  (WW 4-15-15)

I thought I’d let you know how our experiment worked out and, while I was at it, touch on my feelings about a jargon term that’s getting increased exposure these days.

But first, the tomatoes!  Jim and I didn’t expect all twenty-one seeds we planted to germinate but, to our surprise, they did.  We ended up with fourteen “Viva Italia” roma seedlings, and seven “Sweet Million” cherry tomato seedlings.

We’d planted the seeds in a covered “seed starter,” so we figured we’d lose some plants when we transferred them to the small yogurt containers we use as our first series of “pots.”  Often the shock of going from the enclosed environment – even though we’d been slowly increasing the amount of outside air the plants received – has lost us plants in the past.

But, to our astonishment, all twenty-one plants lived through not only this first transfer, but also the second to larger containers.  We nursed the plants along indoors until May 17th, when we planted fifteen in our garden beds, keeping the others in reserve.

This time we did lose a few plants.  Two were broken off by the wind.  We replaced these with the same variety.  A third was killed by a virus, probably curly top.  We didn’t replace this one because, by the time we lost it, the two plants on either side were growing large enough that a seedling wouldn’t have had a chance.

Meanwhile, the four remaining plants were beginning to get “pot bound.”  Additionally, they were stressed by the rising summer temperatures heating the soil in their containers.  We searched around and found space to place these remaining plants behind some Oriental lilies that were pretty much done with their summer blossoming.

So, out of twenty-one seeds planted, we ended up with eighteen plants.  The four that went into the ground late are just beginning to produce ripe fruit.  We don’t usually get a killing frost until late October or early November, so – depending on nighttime temperatures – we may be picking tomatoes for several more weeks.

(And, as the picture illustrating this week’s Wandering shows, we have lots of eggplant and peppers, too!)

So, what does any of this have to do with writing?  Well, here in New Mexico – and probably elsewhere given the source – I keep hearing  new terms for the two very general categories into which most writers fall.  These terms are “gardener” and “architect,” and they are generally credited to George R.R. Martin.

A “gardener” is what I learned to call an “intuitive plotter” and have also heard called a “pantser.”  “Pantser” is short for “seat of the pants” and is usually paired with “planner.”   In case you wonder, “intuitive plotter” is usually paired with “outliner.”

I will say, I’ve never personally heard George use these terms, so I don’t know what he bases them on, but I would like to say a bit about how the term “gardener” is easily misinterpreted.

From my experience, the biggest difference between an intuitive plotter and an outliner is that the intuitive plotters don’t know precisely how the story will progress while the outliners believe that they do.

Since another term for “gardener” or “intuitive plotter” is “pantser,” I looked up definitions of “seat of the pants” and found this one in several places: “Based on or using intuition and experience rather than a plan or method, improvised; Performed without using instruments.”

A key word here is experience.  Outliners frequently seem to think that intuitive plotters rely on luck and/or Ouija boards to come up with their stories.  This is far from the case.  Intuitive plotters do a considerable amount of groundwork for their writing.  Sometimes, they do this preparation far in advance of an actual project – or even before the project exists.   In this way, we are very similar to actual gardeners, since preparing the soil is a big part of making sure the garden will be thrive.

I was hanging out with George R.R. Martin when he was working on Game of Thrones and I saw how much work he put into creating the soil that would be able to support the enormous sequoia he was writing.  I inherited much of Roger Zelazny’s research library.  He was another “intuitive plotter,” but that didn’t mean he didn’t read tons of books about the subject that had current caught his fancy, whether that was computer hackers or Navajo culture or kites.

Gardening – whether we’re talking about writing or talking about putting actual plants in the ground – is not a lightweight excuse to not do the “hard work.”  Every year, Jim and I discuss the microclimates in our yard and decide what needs to be shifted where.  This year we discovered that the catalpa trees now cast too much shade for squash to thrive at the southern edge of one bed, where they’ve always done great before.  Next year we’re going to switch them to the western end of a different bed, where the beans never do very well.

Writing intuitively requires the same awareness of the story, of the shifting environments created by new elements.  You learn to trust that something is important, even when you can’t see where it fits in right away.  Writing intuitively requires an awareness of the pulses and tides of the story.  It involves writing little notes to yourself about the things you suspect may become important.

Writing intuitively involves listening to the Muse.  Your subconscious.  Your inner demon.  It involves coming in for a landing without using instruments.  But whatever it is, it isn’t easy.  It isn’t slapdash.  And neither is gardening… whether you’re growing plants or writing stories.

4 Responses to “Gardener With Plants… And With Words”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I can attest to that. I too am a “pantser”. I tried outlining, but they’ve never lived past the third chapter. Most die sooner.

    But you’re right. I’m hardly doing nothing. For my sci-fi in progress, I have 15 pages of notes, and that’s just for one race (though they are the primary non-human). I constantly bookmark and read things referencing science and technology theories that could turn into real technology in the future. I’ve tried to look up what I could for military tactics, procedures, regulations, and mentalities. I’m also have an interest in military history, which has allowed me to realize the tendencies of military minds.

    So yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes into a story, even for those of us who don’t do outlines. I would even say in some ways, we do MORE work. We don’t have a set plan. So we, or at least I, have to constantly go back and adjust things as they story tells us things we didn’t know. One time I had a minor character I killed early suddenly decide he wasn’t going to die after all. Had to go back and re-insert him into the story line. I’m not sure that’s the end of him either.

    Less work? Nope. Just different kind of work.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Lovely response — both times. I firmly agree with what you said to Paul. The most important thing for a writer is finding his/her own way of getting the story out.

      I think this is one reason that I dislike these tags — especially to those just getting started, who aren’t aware that the subtext is “everyone finds their own way” — the message is “either/or” not ever both!

  2. Paul Says:

    I’ve tried both those approaches and several variations of each. I guess I’m an “approach dabbler.”

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