Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Architects

As I mentioned last week, there's a general belief that writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or architects, and discovery writers or gardeners. I'm not convinced that the distinction is real. In fact, I argue that the camps are simply approaches that can be used as you would any other tool.

That said, it is easier to illustrate some ideas with dichotomies like architect vs. gardener.

An important part of writing intentionally is writing confidently. Last week I made the case that gardener is a better model for discovery writers because gardening involves preparation, and preparation is a fundamental part of writing intentionally.

So, the architect, as the epitome of someone who plans out every detail in advance, is the poster child of intentional writing, right?

Not necessarily. There's such a thing as too much preparation.

I once interviewed with a company for a software development position, turned down the job, and then wound up working for them a year later. During the first visit, they showed me the design for the software package they planned to build. A year later, when I set to work actually implementing the software, I found stacks of paper with increasingly detailed designs, culminating in the pièce de résistance: printed flowcharts filled with code. Had they skipped the flow charts and put the code in source files, they likely would have had running software.

Writers, particularly those who work in the fantastic and need to create worlds with consistent history, economies, religions, languages, and magic systems are particularly prone to a malady that Brandon Sanderson calls, "world-building disease." It doesn't help that the mythology about the mythology of Lord of the Rings makes much of the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien spent twenty years building his world before he wrote the novels.

Computer scientist Terry Winograd's answer to the tendency to over-specify software projects is a new vocation he calls, "software architect." Like real architects, they must be able to work across a range of concerns, going from a meeting with the structural engineer that's all about bearing loads to a meeting with a client who wants a house that says, "Soaring! ... In mauve"

A true architect is more flexible that you might assume.

The writer as architect needs to avoid the trap of forever planning and never writing. Your goal is not to fully specify the story. Instead it comes back to writing with confidence. The challenge for the writer as architect is to have faith that your preparations have been sufficient and that they provide a framework in which you can solve the story problems that will inevitably appear as you proceed.

And then write.

Don't fall into the trap of inserting your code into flow charts when you should be building running software.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing Intentionally: Gardners

Continuing last week's theme on writing intentionally, what do you do if you're a discovery writer? How do you write intentionally if you can't really figure out your intentions until you've written the story and can look back over the ground you've covered to see the path that ties it all together?

Briefly, you should know where the story is going. There are certainly writers who start with an intriguing character or an interesting setting and develop a story around that nucleus. But if you don't have some idea of where the story is headed, you're more likely to meander.

Brandon Sanderson says he prefers the labels gardener and architect instead of discovery and outline writers. I think there's something important in the occupational analogy.

Calling discovery writers, "gardeners," addresses the fallacy that you don't have to plan ahead but can simply jump in as start writing. Gardeners don't simply throw seed out and wait to see what comes up. Based on their understanding of varieties and growing conditions, they plan which things to plant in different parts of the garden. Similarly, there's a fair amount of forethought that goes into deciding what kind of garden you want to grow. Is it a flower garden that will offer a changing canvas of shapes and colors as the season progresses? Or is the produce you'll harvest the main purpose of the garden?

Of course the gardener doesn't know whether a given seed will sprout and grow as intended. So they plant more than one. And they cultivate the garden, weeding, watering, and fertilizing, to make the desired outcome more likely.

So if you think of yourself as a discovery writer, try approaching your project as a gardener, accepting the fact that there's preparatory work to do. And even though there's a lot you don't know, if you take a little time to  plan your garden and prepare the soil, you'll find your ability to write intentionally grows--like your garden.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Single Most Important Author Characteristic Insofar as Readers are Concerned: Confidence

There's an amusing old episode of Red Dwarf in which Lister, the space bum, catches a mutated flu that brings his confidence and paranoia to life as distinct individuals: paranoia as a sniveling hypochondriac and confidence as an American-style DJ.

Confidence is a funny word because though we associate it with personalities and emotional states that range from quiet fortitude to bravado, its Latin roots literally mean, "with faith." In its original sense, the word means someone in whom we can put our faith.

As readers, the single most important factor in our willingness to suspend our disbelief is the degree to which we trust the author, believe they have the story firmly in control, and have faith they will take us somewhere wonderful and worthwhile.

A confident author is like the nautical pilot, hand firmly on the tiller, who knows how to guide a ship through the reefs and safely into port. Nothing that happens in the story is accidental. And everything the author brings to our attention contributes to the ultimate aim of a satisfying story.  

So what do you need to do to be a confident author?

It's not about bravado, but about control--and not the control of a commander shouting orders, but the control of the expert dancer or musician who makes what they do look effortless. Similarly, the confident author writes intentionally but with such craft that the reader is swept into the story and almost forgets it has an author.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mind the Gap

Confession: I've never been to London. But I understand that the Underground is filled with signs encouraging passengers to, "Mind the Gap."

It turns out that this subway signage is particularly good advice for writers.

By Arz at Wikimedia

Jeanette Ingold taught me about the narrative gap:

  • Plot arises from the gap between expectations and results. The protagonist does something but the result is different from his expectations so he's forced to do something else (and so on up to the climax).
  • Keep surprising the character: What does the character want? What would he do to get it? Then show the gap that propels the character to the next scene.
  • You can bring characters on stage to pursue a short-term goal that is related to the long-term goal.
  • Story structure is about choices; choices lead to the next scene. Plot events force your protagonist to make decisions that he thinks will move him toward his goal but instead lead to more gaps until the final conflict.

You may have heard the gap called the character's driver or motivation. Those are fine terms, but the gap better-fits the structural terms in which I like to think.


Because story can arise from many different kinds of gaps. For example, I once heard Brandon Sanderson explain how setting can be another character (e.g., the landscape of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings). Brandon argued that the most interesting settings are those where different biomes, topographies, or cultures meet, creating gaps at the point of transition (think oasis and the different desert people who want or need to control the water).

Put another way, if everything is continuous and predictable, characters know what to do and so there's no story. It's only when there's a break in continuity and predictability, a cause with an unanticipated effect, that we have a story to tell.

So writers, mind the gap.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Image: Simon Howden /