Tag Archives: practices

Gardners, Architects, and... Excavators?

Gardeners, Architects, and… Excavators?

Last night, Kari-Lise attended a conversation with Erin Morgenstern focused around the launch of her new novel, The Starless Sea. I didn’t go—had too much on my plate—but after chatting with her about it, I wish I had made the time. (Isn’t that always the case?)

Based on Kari-Lise’s recounting, during the conversation, Morgenstern hit on something that I strongly feel more writers need to hear. We’ve heard of the term “Gardeners,” authors who plant their stories as seeds and follow those seeds as they grow, and we’ve heard of the term “Architect,” writers who extensively plan their work and follow a tight outline. Both get mentioned all the time. However, Morgenstern doesn’t see herself as either and chooses instead to call herself an “Excavator.”

What that means is, like an archaeologist, she exhumes the story from a mass of writing. She allows herself to fully explore a narrative and then whittle it down in edits. She finds the story by writing and writing and writing. For example, she mentioned that for her bestselling debut, The Night Circus, she wrote pages and pages describing specific locations in the setting, then forced herself in edits to pare things down to a single page. In her most recent book, The Starless Sea, Morgenstern talked about a character who barely gets mentioned in the final manuscript, but one she had written an entire journal for—it let her know the character to their fullest measure. But, in the end, it didn’t serve the story, so she cut it.

She’s mentioned this before but recently explained her approach in an interview with Rachel Barenbaum for Dead Darlings. (I’d encourage you to read the full article.)


“Sometimes it feels more like excavating than building because it’s all there, I just need to figure out how to translate the space into words. I had this sprawling underground library-esque space in my head and it took me a long time to figure out how to wind a narrative through it. I end up writing a lot more than I’ll ever use just to flesh out the world.”


This really resonated with me—what a refreshing approach to creation! So often, we’re reminded to be efficient. We are told throwing away work is a waste of time. Industry-wide we see everyone declare that your next book is what’s more important. It’s the Facebook mantra of “most fast and break things” but applied to storytelling. The Excavator ignores that dogma and serves only the story. It works against the tenets of hustle culture and allows one to fully realize a place, a person, or an event, and it gives permission to take time and to cut what is unnecessary. We say write for yourself, and this is taking that maxim to its furthest reaches. Working as an Excavator—while slower—allows an author to explore a story to its limits, and in the end (based on the quality of Morgenstern’s work), I can see how it makes for a better book.

Maybe we need more than two schools of approach? Perhaps it’s time to add the Excavators into the conversation as another equally valid strategy in writing.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: John Atherton, 1975


William Gibson

A Shopping List

“I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list – the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it.”

William Gibson


From Conversations with William Gibson edited by Patrick A. Smith. While I love this quote, this particular interview conducted in 2011 by David Wallace-Wells is excellent as a whole. An extended version of the exchange is below but you can read the whole thing over on The Paris Review, “William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211.” (Paywall.)


David Wallace-Wells: How do you begin a novel?

Gibson: I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.

David Wallace-Wells: You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?

Gibson: No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes, shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.

E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why Me story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images


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Ursula K. Le Guin's Writing Schedule is Very Relatable

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ideal Writing Schedule Was Very Relatable

“My life is very ordinary, common place, middle class, quiet and hard-working. I enjoy it immensely. I do not find it appropriate to talk about it very much.”

The schedule of famous writers and creators has always been a fascination of mine, and I know I’m not alone. Despite what social media tells you, there’s no right or wrong way to create. What works for one person won’t always work for someone else. Glean what you can. Reject what doesn’t work. Part of creating is learning what works for you. Be kind and humble enough to let others follow their own path.

All that said, I find Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing process relatable, delightful, and somewhat enviable—well, except for that 5:30 AM wake-up. (Who does that?) While Le Guin’s ideal schedule is nothing compared to the alleged Hunter S. Thompson routine, you never know what happens after 8:00 PM, for all we know “middle-aged Portland housewives” go hard.

5:30 a.m. - wake up and lie there and think. 6:15 a.m. - get up and eat breakfast (lots). 7:15 a.m. - get to work writing, writing, writing. Noon - lunch. 1-3 p.m. - reading, music. 3-5 p.m. - correspondence, maybe house cleaning. 5-8 p.m. - make dinner and eat it. After 8 p.m. - I tend to be very stupid and we won't talk about this. I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If I'm at the beach there would be one ore two long walks on the beach in that day. This is a perfect day for me.

It’s easy to see the appeal. I too am a fan of thinking in bed, breakfast foods, reading, and taking time to be stupid. (The graphic above omits her 10 PM bedtime, for some reason. So it’s only two hours of stupidity despite what we all hoped.)

Le Guin’s schedule originally appeared in a 1988 interview with Slawek Wojtowicz (you can read the full transcript and see a scanned image of her response at the link—it includes some wonderful handwritten notes as well) and more recently in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview. Want more? I’d encourage you to check out Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a phenomenal documentary from Arwen Curry.

Octavia E. Butler

Forget Inspiration

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

Octavia E. Butler


Hey, I’m back! I’ll have a trip report coming soon, along with more Raunch Reviews and a few new brush sets for your fantasy maps. Oh, and I’m still plugging away at Gleam Upon the Waves. I think you’re going to like it.

The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself

The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself

“…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

William FaulknerBanquet speech


I came across this quote when looking through some old posts and I wanted to share it on its own. Earlier this year, I referenced it when discussing how ‘Your Fave is Problematic—That’s Okay’ and it works well in that context. That said, it’s still wonderful separate from the point I was making about challenging fiction. If we’re not writing about that central conflict, then why are we writing? (FWIW, I recommend reading the whole speech.)