An Appropriate Metaphor

There’s this binary that gets tossed around a lot in the writing community.  Often I’m asked: are you a planner, or a discovery writer?  Are you a gardener, or an architect?  Are you an outliner, or a pantser?

I usually tell people, I’m a hybrid. But what I want to say is, no.  I don’t respond to any of those metaphors.  Believe me, I’ve tried. I plan a lot, but not very well.  I discover a lot, but I can’t write a story without a road map, and a lot of what I discover really sucks.  If those are the only two ways to write, well.  I don’t know what it is that I do, but it’s not that.  I once heard Shannon Hale say that for her, first drafts are filling up the sand box to make sand castles with later.  That one hits closer for me, but it’s still too…pretty.  My process?  It ain’t pretty.

And then yesterday, while I was digging through a piece of crap first draft, I finally thought of a metaphor I respond to.

I am a dumpster diver.

I’m not joking.

I outline.  My outline is a lot like the process by which things get into the garbage in the first place.  I think these things will be useful.  I design them carefully.  And then I throw them into a huge dumpster-sized pile, and let’s be honest.  Most of the things in that dumpster are utter garbage.

But that’s okay.  A good dumpster diver knows that you don’t need to take home half the heap to be successful.  You just have to find the pieces that are truly useful.

So I go diving in my pile of crap.  I leave behind a lot of stuff–sometimes the grand majority of the heap.  I find the things that are truly useful, and then I try to find more things that go with them.

And then I throw out a lot of those things, too.

This is why my writing group is invaluable to me: they are my appraisal team.  Keep this, not that.  Love this, hate that.  Sometimes I can tell they are stressed by the amount of crap in the drafts that they read.  But I’m not stressed about it.  I’m no more attached to my drafts than people normally are to things they’ve put in dumpsters.  It’s not like I have to publish it like that.  Like any good dumpster diver, I know how to leave the crap behind.

And I do.  Somewhere at the end of this long winnowing process I end up with a book full of things that are good and useful.  Things that contribute.  Things that can stay.  But, like dumpster diving, it’s a long, messy, and sometimes miserable process to get my work where I want it to be.  It would be so much cleaner and more efficient to be a gardener or an architect or some other respected profession.

But the good news is, to the reader, the writing process doesn’t matter.  All that matters is the end product.  And my books get there, eventually.  And while my process is a true and utter mess, I still produce books faster than most of the gardeners and architects I know.

Excuse me, please.  I have a dumpster to fill.