The Arsonist’s Guide to Creative Writing


I have heard a lot of terms, heard even more descriptions, about how people write. I’m gonna run through a few of my favorites.

Pantser: These are the writers that fly by the seat of their pants. They have no idea what they are going to write before it is on the page. The most extreme cases of these are the ones that literally have no idea what they are typing until they look up at the screen. This has happened to me.

I was writing the book Eastgate and I had a word quota of 3,000 words a day. I had not written anything that day, and I had no idea how I was going to get it done. See, I had this problem. I had a character who had to get inside a stronghold undetected with two other people, find a prisoner from that stronghold’s dungeon, and break him out. They had to be able to get out safely and all the parties had to survive. The stronghold was heavily guarded. Well guarded. There was no sneaking in, no grappling-hook-thrown-over-the-wall kind of business here. He had to get in there. I had to write it right then, and I had no ideas. In a fit of desperation, I started typing and looked up at the screen, praying  something worthwhile was coming out. Much to my surprise, it was.

The character actually said on the page that he had four ideas. If he did, he was not sharing any of them. He said to himself that he had to throw out one and two, and four was too bloody, and then he started running. He had not talked to me about any of this. I had no idea what his plan was until he executed it.

By the way, it worked perfectly, luckily for me.

The next type of writer is the Planner: they plot it all out before they get into any of it. They have maps. They do extensive research. They make outlines and even do focus groups. They know their genre, they know their target audience, and they have a plan before they put any of it to paper. Planners are intense.

They are a special kind of writer. They will not trust the winds of whim. They have far too much discipline to wander into pointless dialogue. They will not follow the rabbit into its hole. They know what they want. They know how to get it. They are impressive, they are relentless, they are a thing to watch.

Don’t get in the way of a Planner.

The Architect: Oh man, these guys are precise. They build a story from the ground up. They approach a book the way a person will approach building a house. They have the foundation of a premise. They have the walls of character, the floors of descriptions. They wire the house with symbolism and plumb the pipes of action. These people have it figured out. Much like the Planner, the Architect goes in with a plan. They have their story well in hand and leave nothing to chance. Architects are all business. They do not play around. Everything has to work and everything has a place and a purpose. The Architect is a force of order and balance.

The Gardener has also been described to me: This person will “Plant Seeds” of story in their books. They start a plot going and water it to let it grow. They plant things like character development and action, description and analogy. They groom a book the way a gardener grooms a crop. They have many things growing at the same time. Many different flora make their story what it is. The garden has a wild feel to it, as if it is growing itself. Each chapter is allowed to develop its own life. Each seed allowed to grow might bring to fruition a story idea, fresh and new, or a staple that gives the garden balance. Gardeners allow their story to go. They water and support, and often have no idea what a seed may bring.

A Gardener is a truly beautiful thing to watch. It may not sound like it, but it takes a great amount of discipline to do what they do. It would be easy to pull a plant that seems not to belong, to prune back a character that seems to have no place. But they trust that the garden will work itself out. The Gardener is about faith, in their ability, in their natural development.

The Train Master: This is a writer that runs everything in balance. Imagine a train yard riddled with tracks and filled with cars. These cars are stuffed with action, description, character. They are loaded with symbolism and analogy. Now imagine that when the book is done, the writers have to have all this cargo at one given destination. They will move one car a bit down the line, then another. They dedicate a chapter to character development and a paragraph to description. They move everything down the track a bit at a time because it all has to arrive together. It all has to be at the end destination at once. So they move one car down a bit before allowing the next to make headway. These writers are methodical. They have all the elements of a book in motion, and they move it all carefully to get it all where it needs to be.

I am none of these things at all. I used to think I was a Pantser. In fact, I used to be one. I decided a while ago that I was more like a Gardener. Yeah, that is not me either. If I had to describe my own style of writing I would call myself:

The Arsonist: These people enjoy the chaos of writing. They set the story idea on fire. Splash the gasoline of deadline on the premise of the book and throw a match. They accept that they cannot plot out a story and make it work. Instead, they just watch the fire burn out of control. Their plots run fast. Their process is very chaotic. A fire has no master. It will catch and burn everything in its path. This is the plot that they form. The book is out of hand in its creation. It gets everywhere.

The thing about a fire is that it does it all at the same time. Imagine the flames as action, the smoke is character development, and the heat is description. None of these things are happening separately. None of these things can be portioned out individually. All of it goes up at the same time.

I used to know this guy, this terrible, frustrating monster of a man. We will call him Prince. The thing that was so diabolical about him is that he had two reasons for everything he did. If he said something to you, he had the plain reason and a hidden manipulative reason as well. Every argument I got into with him, he pounded down every point I had, because he had two reasons for doing what he did. That very notion is monstrous. To live like that is to invite insanity.

But to write like that is the goal. Am I right?

Every word does one, two, or three things. Every bit of dialogue not only helps define character, but moves the action along as well. Every description is written in a way that helps promote the plot. Like a fire, the smoke of character cannot be separated from the plot at all, because the plot was moved along by the character development.

Fire, smoke, heat, all issuing from the book at the same time. None of the elements of story telling are discernible. You can’t point to one scene and say, “This scene is about action.” Because the action furthers the character.

This is how the Arsonist writes. It can be out of hand, with wild writing hours and exploding ideas, or it can be a slow, steady controlled burn.

I am an Arsonist. What are you?


2 thoughts on “The Arsonist’s Guide to Creative Writing

  1. Love those descriptions. Hmm, I’m probably a pantser, always jumping in the deep end of a half thought. I try trimming the hedges but tend to miss bits and will accidentally set fire to parts of the garden behind me when 3am beckons, burning with out of control words and ideas leaving us to pick the glowing embers from the soil in the morning.

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