Writing: Planning Your Garden w/ Karen Bovenmyer

April 7, 2017

Planning Your Garden with Karen Bovenmyer


I’ve had trouble outlining for years. I took classes on outlining. I attended conference sessions on outlining. I spoke at length with successful authors about outlining. Out of desperation, I even taught a novel outline college-level course three times, hoping I would internalize the lessons. It did not happen until I’d written over a million words. At last, after undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, drafting ten novels, and guiding hundreds of students through the outline process, I’ve finally discovered why I struggle so much with outlining. I’ve learned to lean on my strengths and hybridize the strengths of my writing style (discovery or gardener) with the strengths of the outliner or architect style. First, you must know which is your natural mode, then employ very specific tools to create well-rounded, satisfying fiction.


What kind of writer are you?

The first step is to figure out what kind of writer you are so you know which tools to try. Here’s a short quiz—on a scrap of paper, write numbers of the remarks below that fit you a little, sort-of, or a lot.

  1. 1. I struggle to write endings.

  2. 2. My writing group says they can’t connect to my characters.

  3. 3. I dislike editing a story I’ve finished and often feel lost when it’s time to edit something really big, like a novel.

  4. 4. The blank page is overwhelming.

  5. 5. A detailed outline is overwhelming–I don’t know where to begin, nor do I care about writing the story anymore.

  6. 6. I spend a lot of time researching and don’t ever get around to writing.

  7. 7. My endings happen too fast and my writing group complains that they wanted more processing time with the character at the end.

  8. 8. I had to cut four chapters about two meticulously-researched secondary characters’ families because everyone said they didn’t matter to the main story and were unnecessary.

  9. 9. I had to cut thousands of words because I realized that entire section wasn’t going to work anymore because I had a better idea after writing it.

  10. 10. My writing group says my characters’ decisions seem forced/unearned.


Look at the numbers you wrote down. I believe the odd numbers are observed traits of discovery writers. I think the even numbers are observed traits of outline writers. If you have more odd numbers than even ones, try the discovery/gardener writer solutions. If you have more even than odd, try the outline/architect writer solutions.


Solutions for Discovery Writers

If you’re a discovery writer, you tend to need a character to attach to. You tend to play with different beginnings and find a character’s voice that compels you. You’re not sure what’s going to happen in the story—you spin out the yarn and see what happens, watching the story grow as you go, like a gardener. You tend to edit as you write, to get your words and thoughts in line, and after, say 10,000 words or so, you know the characters well enough that the story gets legs and sort of writes itself. Your critique group is annoyed by your abrupt endings, because, as soon as you think of how to end the story, the story loses all interest for you so you end it and get out quick. Editing a big story is a lot of work—you’re not sure how to begin, you only know something in the story isn’t working, some beat or plot point comes at the wrong time and you’re not sure how to fix it. You know that writing an outline would save you time and help you keep your story on track, but every time you try to write one first, you’re not quite sure how to begin and/or lose interest partway through.


Personally, I’m very much a discovery writer, and I’ve found the following very helpful:

  1. Start writing the story right away, using a prompt or a question you’re asking yourself, or having just read some provoking fiction or watched a movie that left you feeling unresolved. Write until you feel good about what you’re working on and you’ve got a reasonable idea of who the character/what the voice is.

  2. STOP. No, seriously, stop.

  3. Sketch out a very loose seven-point outline (I like to use Dan Wells’ Story Structure https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE). Don’t go overboard. Just write seven general things that form the shape of the story as suggested by the character/voice/happenings of the first few paragraphs. This can be a sentence or even a single word.

  4. Go back to your draft and start writing again. If the story’s a short one, finish it and then look back at your outline. Rewrite the outline to more accurately reflect your story. If the story is a long one, after each chapter/section, take a look at your outline and adjust it to fit what you have written, inserting potential future things that might happen based on what the text is suggesting. DO NOT GO INTO DETAIL. As a discovery writer, going into detail threatens to suck the fun out of drafting. After you have the seven general main points laid out and you feel interested by their possibilities, return to drafting. When you’re done with the whole thing, correct your outline.

  5. Write a summary of your story. This will help you figure out where your story is going wrong so you can address that in edits. Call a friend and tell them your story’s plot. Write down any inconsistencies between what you said to your friend and what you actually wrote. This can guide you toward stronger choices in revision.

  6. Force yourself to write a long enough ending. Remember your reader loves your character. They want to know how the character emotionally reacts to what happened to them and have a sense of what happens after the story ends.


Solutions for Outline Writers

From what I’ve observed in friends and students, outline writers feel lost without an outline, just like discovery writers feel lost without a character—just starting a story and seeing what happens can be overwhelming and feel alien. For readers, an architect’s characters can feel flat and disconnected, or worse, unnatural, because there isn’t enough growth happening for the character while the architect fills in the events around the bones of the outline. Another danger of too much outlining is to continued structuring and world-building until the story is “perfect” which keeps you from starting writing at all. Also, a meticulously-researched world is tempting to use in ways that are boring for readers or too much information that distracts from the main story points.


My outliner students have found some of the below useful:

  1. Write down five things you know about your main character. Resist outlining these five things into story-form.

  2. Write down five events that have happened in your main character’s life before the action of the story. Write down how the character reacted to each of those events. This helps you start connecting to and understanding who your main character is.

  3. Stop the outline you just started that places those events in time and turns them into story. You won’t need them, they are just to help you understand your character’s reactions.

  4. Pick a very strong emotion: Joy, Anger, Love, Grief, Surprise, Fear, Trust, Anxiety—anything that is easy for you to picture and feel. Have your character describe one of the settings or an important object in your story while feeling the emotion strongly without mentioning the emotion. This will help you attach your character’s emotions to the world and the story.

  5. Don’t let yourself outline too deeply. Get down the main story points you need to feel comfortable starting, and then go ahead and start writing. Adjust your outline as you go. If you start to wonder if your character is nuanced and natural, stop and repeat step two and step four.

  6. Don’t add in world-building details you researched that distract readers from the main character’s emotional journey—only use the ones that feel relevant and fit well with the character you now know so much more about.


Learning what kind of writer you are, discovery or outline, or a mix of both, can help you learn your strengths and hybridize the discovery/gardener and outliner/architect styles. If you’re testing somewhere in the middle of the two, try using tools from either list and see what results. Pay careful attention to when you are bored or getting bogged down and anything that makes you stop writing. It’s important to listen to your muse—write what you enjoy in the way that keeps you productive, but use tools to head off problems your critique groups have reported to you. As you master this balancing act, you’ll be able to plan your garden to grow in natural and beautiful ways and create nuanced, satisfying fiction and save yourself a lot of time editing.


Check out Swift for the Sun today!


Swift for the Sun by Karen Bovenmyer


Benjamin Lector imagines himself a smuggler, a gunrunner, and an all-around scoundrel. A preacher’s son turned criminal, first and foremost he is a survivor.

When Benjamin is shipwrecked on Dread Island, fortune sends an unlikely savior—a blond savage who is everything Benjamin didn’t know he needed. Falling in love with Sun is easy. But pirates have come looking for the remains of Benjamin’s cargo, and they find their former slave Sun instead.

Held captive by the pirates, Benjamin learns the depths of Sun’s past and the horrors he endured and was forced to perpetrate. Together, they must not only escape, but prevent a shipment of weapons from making its way to rebellious colonists. Benjamin is determined to save the man he loves and ensure that a peaceful future together is never threatened again. To succeed might require the unthinkable—an altruistic sacrifice.


About Karen Bovenmyer: 

Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She currently serves as the Nonfiction Assistant Editor of Escape Artists’ Mothership Zeta Magazine and is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer’s Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her science fiction, fantasy, and horror novellas, short stories, and poems appear in more than twenty publications. Though she triple-majored in anthropology, English, and history for her BS from Iowa State University in 1997, Swift for the Sun is her first published work of historical fiction.

Website: karenbovenmyer.com
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/karenbovenmyer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/karen.bovenmyer
Twitter: @karenbovenmyer

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