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Novel writing Workshop 2, Mapping the Territory

*Sorry if this post is a little scattered.  I’m having stomach flu.  This to shall pass.  It just makes concentrating HARD.*

Mapping the Territory


The map is not the territory. How many times have you heard this?

And yet in writing many people are wholly sold on the idea that the map IS the territory and that if you don’t have a map, you’ll never find the territory.

There are two general ways of writing a novel – and right there, you should throw something at me for lying, because it seems with every book I find a new way. But there are two general paths, which then bifurcate into a multitude of paths.

Look, it’s like when you come to a completely new city. Dan and I, who did quite a bit of moving around when we were young. There are two ways of dealing with being in a completely different city, where you don’t know where to buy a cup of flour. Or there were two, back in the day (now there’s GPSs but they’re not part of this metaphor.)

The first one is to buy a map first day out, get out the phone book, figure out where each place you’re interested in is, and then go to those places using the map. You’ll end up knowing your area of the city really well, and branching out from it little by little, to know other areas that come up: a new bookstore, the other library which has the book you want, a place to buy rugs. That sort of thing. After two years or so, you’ll know the city really well, anyway, but you’ll spend some months knowing only where you’re going.

The second one is to drive around erratically until you get lost, then try to find your way back, all the while taking note of interesting things along the way. This will occasion many moments of sheer panic, but not only will you get to know the city in no time at all, but you’ll discover many places you didn’t know were there and would never think of looking for, because it was just not logical. (For instance, would you ever think there would be a Portuguese bakery in Columbia, SC? And yet, there was and we found it.)

Dan and I used a modified method to get to know a place relatively fast and without too many panic attacks. First thing off in a new city, we bought a map and went to a phone book and made a list of places we were interested in. We learned to hit the essential ones easily. Like “Where’s the nearest library.” This is particularly good since I hate driving.

(“Went to a phone book” – we often didn’t yet have one. Fortunately there were phone booths with books hanging from them. Another way was to go to a hotel and ask if they’d recycled the old phone book yet. Often they hadn’t, so we got one. Until recently we had the Denver and Colorado Springs phone books under the seats of my car.)

But in addition, when we had a free hour or two we had a pastime called “Let’s go get lost.” This is where we drove around randomly, taking note of good and bad areas of town; finding places like the Portuguese bakery (“Portuguese? Did we read that right? Yay. We did. Rolls and Semea and Broa and…”) until we were thoroughly lost. Then we whipped out the map.

So, what does this have to do with writing a novel?


The process is surprisingly similar.

There are two camps when it comes to the wisdom/unwisdom of plotting a book in advance. There are the plotters and the pantsers.

The plotters will tell you it’s impossible to write a coherent book without plotting. That is not true. It’s impossible to write a coherent book without plotting if you odn’t revise extensively afterwards AND if you’re not experienced enough.

This is like going out without a map or a phone book to find that grocery store you really need. We’ve done this too, usually the middle of the night the day after arriving in town, short on sleep and trying to find either meds for the baby or cat food. You end up totally lost and screaming at each other, and it’s all a mess.

BUT this is not a controlled “let’s get lost and find neat places.” It’s a “Need to find this fast.”

If you’re writing a novel really fast – say three days – you’d best know that whole plot in advance, by heart.

Then you can write it and ship it with no revision.

The pantsers tell you that plotting in advance robs the books of interesting side trips. This tends to be true, unless you’re someone who is really good at taking the side trip anyway.

However some books (thrillers for instance) are mostly focused on the main point and side excursions are obnoxious.

So, it depends on the type of trip you’re taking, whether you should stick to the map or not. It also depends on how well you know the territory. These days in Denver, even venturing to little known areas, we don’t need a map. The map only comes out if we did something wrong and get confused. “Wait, what are we doing on this side of Wadsworth? Weren’t we supposed…” (These days the GPS comes out, of course.)

So on whether to plot or fly by the seat of your pants, it’s your call. If you’re inexperienced it’s possible you’ll choose a method that ends up not working for you. Give it a try anyway. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up needing it later on. Or maybe you’ll never do it.

I advise having a general idea of how the story is going to go, even if you don’t plot. You know, sort of “we’re driving around aimlessly, but I’d like to hit a grocery store, the library and ooh if we pass that place with the cat furniture, I want to look at it.”

OTOH I’ve had plots that only let me see a chapter ahead. (I hates them my precious.) So I’m not going to say you MUST have a list of places to hit. I’m just saying it makes it easier.

Next up: Something Must Happen! – what plot is and isn’t.

  1. L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright) #

    Nice article. I love your map analogy.

    I would like to see an article at some point (Maybe I’ll write one) warning new authors on the dangers of plotting. If you are imagination driving, you will stop writing when you know the plot. (Kind of like mapping out a few locations and never going anywhere else…but more like mapping out a few locations, deciding you know that city, and never leaving your house again.)

    This is a danger no one talks about…but I have seen it happen to friends over and over, and I have had it happen to me.

    This is not to say that those who can outline and write should not…they should! Outlines are wonderful…so long as they don’t turn you into shut-ins!

    October 22, 2014
    • Absolutely. I write with a general idea of where I’m headed. But once I write down a list of what needs to happen in what order, my brain goes “Ah! That was a nice story, what shall we write next?” Getting back into the book and actually writing it is tough.

      I find it much easier to write the whole thing, and then put on my editors hat and go back to bash the story into coherent shape. :: Cough :: And try again after the Beta Readers have shaken their heads in dismay and made comments all over the place.

      October 22, 2014
      • Holly #

        I have the exact same problem. Which is why I have um, upwards of 150 started-but-not-finished. Yeah, I had to go look. There’s only the one that I’ve managed to slog through to the end, and it needs a lot of work. But the one after that is *much* more interesting than fixing the first.
        At some point I’m going to have to sit down and fix it, or admit that I’m only amusing myself while waiting for real authors to finish books so I can read more.
        Also, is there any chance of a equal to Fancy Free? I really want to know what Bey will do next.

        October 22, 2014
        • I don’t have any ideas for a direct sequel to FF. The characters aren’t talking to me. I’ve got a draft of a story in the same universe, but Bey isn’t in it, and Fancy is just a silly show in the background.

          October 22, 2014
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        Yes. Too much outlining sucks the life right out of my work. I need to know where I’m going, and a few of the places I need to visit, but I also need some flexibility.

        October 22, 2014
    • I do that. I finally trained myself to plot and still write the novel, but then the novel is bloodless.

      October 22, 2014
      • Laura M #

        Here’s a question: is the novel really bloodless, or is it just the writing of it that lacks a certain excitement?

        October 22, 2014
        • Well… people buy more of my pantsed books. You figure it.

          October 22, 2014
    • Yes, please write that article.

      I find it odd that new writers are often told ‘Don’t talk about your story, because then you won’t have any reason to write it,’ but they’re not told that this can also happen if you just tell YOURSELF too much about the story.

      October 22, 2014
      • Laura M #

        Yes. And when you’re new, don’t give a half-finished manuscript to someone to read. You won’t ever finish it.

        October 22, 2014
  2. Laura M #

    I feel very lucky if I know the ending. I don’t always know the middle so well, Honestly, I can’t figure out what happens 12 steps in until I reach about step 10.

    On the other hand, I’m about to write the climax of the WIP, and I’m so froze up scared and unclear on what is going to happen (which is usually the case, but I’m willing to just start writing and find out), that I’m doing long-hand notes on how it’s going to go.

    October 22, 2014
    • Dan Lane #

      Long hand notes and I are drinking buddies at least by this point. Some things, they only come out longhand. No other way. Others, random typos turn into story bait.

      The current idea-splatter for NaNoWriMo as a great big “And Then Something Awful Happened” in the middle, right before the climax and ending. And it has an only mildly awful beginning. Well, awful for the characters involved, that is.

      Much luck on the current WIP. Maybe sleep on it a bit, see if the things mesh better when the stress has wound down?

      October 22, 2014
      • Laura M #

        It’s going better now. I was having commitment issues. Once I scribbled out what appeared to be the bad idea I was having, wrote up why it was bad, and then argued with myself that, obviously, that could be fixed and lead to thus and so, which was good, I entered a state of Zen-like serenity and am writing again. Things that are Perfectly Dreadful are about to happen, which is, of course, good.

        Part of me whispers that if I walk away for just a day it will become clear. This is not wrong, but it will take weeks. It’s better to start scribbling and work through it that way. I need this draft done by the end of the month because NaNo!

        October 23, 2014
  3. I long ago discovered I can’t plan other than in long form prose (I’ve tried) so my first novel draft turns out to be my outline. Efficient? Certainly not at first, but every draft zero gets more coherent. Now if only I could achieve the same in the revision stage… that’s still a mess!

    October 22, 2014
  4. The WWI book is turning into a hybrid, half-mapped, half let’s-get-lost, because, well, we pretty know how the story ends, even in this secret/alt history world. But within the basic frame work there’s all sorts of rabbit tracks, details, at least one literal side-trip, and a time-span shift, so the book will cover 1913-1920ish, rather than June 1914-November 1918. So I, the lowly writer, know what the end point is, but how the characters are going to get there? They’re not saying just yet.

    October 22, 2014
  5. Eamon J. Cole #

    I’ve got the one I’m banging my head against, currently. I’m inclined to broad outlines, plotting, but I can’t see the steps on this one. I’ve got a solid beginning in mind, I know the general layout of the end (though it keeps morphing) but the middle is unknown country.

    And I don’t have the experience to be a wild pantser!! I just don’t. I’ll be wandering around in a bog ’til the lights go out!



    October 22, 2014
    • Dan Lane #

      I must confess I have a secret weapon. I do have this friend who tends to run into the most unusual and awful things on an almost daily basis, and another whole circle of acquaintances whose lives would make Jerry Springer seem quaint and simple.

      Maybe the middle will get easier once the beginning is nailed down. Or, maybe someone will burst into the room with a weapon drawn (to paraphrase Chandler’s Law). Characters get lazy when their lives and fortunes aren’t in danger. *grin*

      October 22, 2014
      • Eamon J. Cole #

        May just have to start throwing things at ’em. See how well they duck (or don’t).

        Hey, if they’re going to be stubbornly quiet they can deal…

        October 22, 2014
  6. Uncle Lar #

    I’m going to plant a small seed in your head and hope it grows into a full blown flower.
    Please consider taking the series of articles you did on short stories, clean them up a bit, and place on Amazon as a $1.99 how to. Same with this series on novel writing when you’re done. Shouldn’t take all that much. For a cover I’d use a hand holding a quill pen or some such.
    If you’ve already considered this, then good on you. If not and you go ahead with it I expect a hat tip in the intro.

    October 22, 2014
    • I always intended to do it, same with “May you Write Interesting Books” My problem is TIME. :/

      October 22, 2014
      • Uncle Lar #

        But surely the Evil Queen of Evil must have minions.
        Or just order Dan and the boys to do your bidding. I’m sure that would work.
        Hmmm, looks to be breezy today with chance of carp.

        October 22, 2014
        • Considering I’m formating Robert’s book too, because he can’t seem to understand my explanations of how to do it…

          October 22, 2014
  7. Wayne Blackburn #

    I look at a plot in two different possible fashions:

    1) As a roadmap with only the major thoroughfares and bigger destinations marked in, which leaves lots of room for random side excursions, but will help you find your way back if you’ve kept track of where you have been, or

    2) Like a fractal – Start with a general shape, then do another iteration adding modifications to the original. Repeat going back and getting more and more detailed, until the whole picture is there. Then just fill in the actual descriptions and dialogue, and you’re done.

    Currently working on the first type, but would like to do the second some time.

    October 22, 2014
    • Wayne Blackburn #

      And of course I failed to check the comments box the first time.

      October 22, 2014
  8. Now I see where I went wrong. My life never had a plot. I did try the ‘go to college, get an education, get a job’. That didn’t work, so I tried joining the Navy, see the world, a girl in every port. That didn’t work either. So I tried truck driving, see the USA in your Freightliner. (Professional tip, NEVER get off the interstate without detailed directions, and NEVER trust the map/gps.), so ya, been everywhere once, sometimes twice, but as a plan, noped didn’t work well.

    Stories to tell? Oh yes, I got stories, they don’t have plots either. There was this one time In Roselawn, Indiana where the county prosecutor wanted to get on TV, so he made a deal with the local TV station. . . .

    October 22, 2014
  9. Angus Trim #

    I’ve done both, though now I probably do a modified plot form than anything else. I’ve found that trying to write part time and get a decent amount of word count done, it pays to have a plan, even if you vary from it a bit from to time.

    I use three laptops in my writing, side by side. To the left, I have character’s names, place names, and important words that will be used in the crafting of the story {even easy things like quiver and surcoat}. After having spent a half a day in the past trying to find what I need, I decided I needed to get organized. I tried notebooks, but then would grab one during the work day and lose it.

    The one on the right is the plot outline. I always use it the first week. Sometimes longer.

    The center one is the novel I’m writing. The problem I have is I’m rather obsessive to say the least. When a story grabs me, and I’m writing 3k words in the 2.5 hours allocated to writing in the evening, I invariably lose track of my plot outline. Once I discover I’m off the path, I either have to find a way back, or follow where I’m going now {becoming a seat of the pantser the rest of the way}.

    Depends on the novel. I started and finished one in September, my first Urban Fantasy, and the story grabbed me. I was off the outline path in the first week, and never looked back. This is the first time a novel grabbed me so thoroughly I got lost completely into it. Odd thing is the two beta readers that have gotten back to me seem to like it.

    The one I’m doing now, I’m still with the outline. However, as much as I’m into this one, its a slog. I’m lucky when I get 500 words an hour. In fact, I’ve nearly put it down to dive into the sequel of the urban fantasy. But the Mongol Invasion of Hungary is begging to be told…

    October 22, 2014
  10. I have rough outlines, a basic plot. So I’m half-plot, half-pantser because sometimes along the way I’ll find a way to get to the next ‘plot point destination’ in a more interesting manner. I had a general outline for Sparrowind and what I wanted to happen, but I didn’t see how to do the ending and some chunks of the latter half of the story till later. And blast it all, Sparrowind -in-my-head and the other characters didn’t seem to worry too much, and I kept ‘being told’ – going with Kate’s recent post of characters living in one’s head – “Don’t worry. It’ll sort itself out. Just write for now.”

    You can’t strangle imagination or imaginary characters, I’m afraid. It doesn’t do any good and they find your frustration amusing.

    Rhys, fortunately, has gotten used to me grumbling at my imagination out loud. He also finds it amusing, but he’ll soothe and pet and comfort with chocolate and listening to me rant/ramble, because he gets a story out of it.

    October 22, 2014

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