How Writing is Like Charting Undiscovered Lands

mapI’m a plotter. Like a serious plotter. I write up character maps (I literally figure out their personality types with the help of the Enneagram and Myers Briggs), a historical outline, and a scene outline. I create a waste document and a bibliography.  I know, I know. I may be a little bit of an overachiever, but without these tools, I feel adrift on a sea of words.

But I’ll tell you a secret. I often stray from the map. That’s when I find some of my most incredible discoveries; discoveries that are world-changing for my characters, thus, my books. Because despite my planning, I’m an adventurer deep down. I love taking risks–that leap of faith into the void to see what will happen.

I’m learning in this publishing process, writers aren’t so different from iconic explorers of yore. We love adventure—though we experience it on the page—and we will always be seeking new, uncharted territory. New exciting lands, new characters that challenge us to dive into our emotional well, new plot threads that weave through the body like rivers.

There are lots of unknowns in the writing process. With new territory come the inevitable questions:

Is my character sympathetic?

Is there conflict on every page?

Did I pull all of the plot threads together?

Will this book sell?

Will people like it?

These questions we can count on like a constellation map—they crop up book after book, night after night. To challenge us, to propel us forward on our journey, and to help us SAY SOMETHING MEANINGFUL. So despite the vast and frightening undiscovered territories before us, we can count on our yearning to “go there”, even when it’s hard. For we have many tools and, more importantly, writer friends (ahem, my Deb girls), to guide our way. Together they propel us toward creating the best book we can and to conquering the next foreign land.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? How do you conquer your undiscovered lands?

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Heather Webb

Writer, Editor
Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, her debut historical (Plume/Penguin 2014). A freelance editor and blogger, she spends oodles of time helping writers hone their skills—something she adores. You may find her Twittering @msheatherwebb, hosting contests, or hanging around RomanceUniversity.org as a contributor to the Editor's Posts. She is also the Twitter mistress for the popular Writer Unboxed. She loves making new reader and writer friends. Stop on by her website, Between the Sheets!

9 thoughts on “How Writing is Like Charting Undiscovered Lands

  1. With me, it varies from project to project. It mostly depends on how concise I want to be (the more I plot, the shorter the book — in general). I never go total pantser anymore; I really don’t want to write another 170,000+ word novel.

    But, left to my own devices, I’m always winging it. That’s how I got to the semi-discovered land I’ve been writing about, and gradually mapping, for the last 23 years. I’m writing a story now that I have no idea where it’s going (well, I have a really cool ending I thought of, but I have no idea if the story is going to go in that direction or not). My last story was pretty tightly reined in (at least for me), so with this one I’m allowing a lot more leeway.

    • It’s great seeing you here every morning, Anthony! 🙂

      170,000 words! DUDE, that’s a long book. But I guess I’m not that far off. When I “finished” my first round of revisions for Becoming Josephine, it was 135,000. Published, it will be 98k. So I definitely learned a lot along the way…I’m glad you have, too. Good luck with your semi-discovered land! I hope you conquer it soon.

  2. I am trying to be a plotter. Using Scrivener has helped. Once I have a first draft, I’m big on using notecards in revisions. I write down a few bullet points for each chapter about what needs to happen, what needs to be fixed, and what the point of the chapter is.

    • I’m thinking about trying Scrivener for my next novel. I’m in too deep with my current WIP, but I like the idea of bulletin boards, etc. Definitely tempting.

  3. I’m kind of a hybrid. When I initially start a rough draft, I just kind of jump into it with little more than an idea, a scene, and some characters. But usually by the end of the first chapter or two I have a better idea of what’s going to happen down the line, so at that point I’ll start outlining. My outlines are never too detailed…they’re more like timelines, really, with intersecting, weaving timelines if the book is told from alternating POV or storylines. But like you, my favorite part is straying from the map. It’s the moments when the story totally surprises you when you know you’re onto something!

  4. I’m a hybrid too….I get really anal about my character development tasks. I’ll end up with pages’ worth of material about my main characters. By the time I get done with that, I have a pretty good idea about plot points too. I just start writing, and then about 50 pages in I stop, kind of like Natalia does, to see what I’ve REALLY got. Do a little revision, and a little more planning ahead.

  5. I’m a pantser from way back, and wrote The Black Hour that way. I’m trying a hybrid method this time and I feel as though it might not be as exciting a way to go. But it will probably result in a tighter first draft. Jury is out yet. By the way, your map photo looks like the map from The Goonies, and I say that as someone who has seen the Goonies at least over 100 times.

  6. I love reading about other writers’ methods — and yours sounds thorough and so fascinating. I always start out with a fairly complete outline and other notes, but once I start writing, I never look at them. When I finish the first draft I go through to see if I forgot something I once thought was important. But, like you, I love the unknowns… and the M-B test, may have to employ it on future characters! Great idea.

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