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.