By Margaret Lucke
Every time I sit to write a story, I'm entering uncharted territory.
Writing for me is a process of exploration. An idea beckons and off I go, following it into the wilderness, not knowing what I'll encounter along the way. Sure, I may have an inkling about characters or places or plot points that will figure into the tale, but when I reach them, they really turn out to be what I expected. The destination is uncertain, finished story is often very different from the one I thought I was setting out to write.
I'm a pragmatist by nature, and I've always thought it made sense to carry a map if I'm going to venture into wilderness. Of course since my new story is uncharted territory, no map exists. I have two options. I can carry a hatchet to blaze a trail with and a flashlight to help me see where I'm going, and hope I don't stray too far from my intended path. Or I can draw my own map.
It's said that there are two kinds of fiction writers, plotters and pantsers. Writers who use outlines are called plotters, figuring out the plot and other story details in advance of the writing. Writers who don't use outlines are called pantsers, because they prefer to write by the seat of their pants -- they may have a destination in mind for their story, but they have no idea how they will get there. Planning ahead, the pantsers say, takes the joy of discovery out of writing. If they already know what the story is, why bother to write it?
My writing habits fall in between. For one novel, I did a full outline, beginning to end, in advance. For another, I plunged ahead with no idea of where I was going. In a third case, I went back and forth, planning out a few chapters, writing them, and then planning the next part. Maybe I'm a plotser. Or a plantser. Or a plotantser.
But the label I'm liking for my approach is "mapper."
Year ago, when I was first starting to get serious about the idea of being writer, I read an article by the prolific and popular novelist Phyllis Whitney.* It was called "A Map Is Not a Journey." In it she described the system she had developed for planning a book and maintaining her productivity as a writer. The details of the system were interesting, but what stuck with me was the title.
A map is not a journey. I've adopted that as my writing-process motto. A map can gave me guidance but doesn't dictate that I stay on a certain path. If a side road looks appealing, off I go, adjusting my route accordingly. I can march straight ahead or meander. I can check out major landmarks or investigate hidden nooks and crannies. If I wander too far off course, the map will guide me back and eventually I'll end up where my story and I want to go. As I explore, I will make notes, write pages. And eventually the territory will no longer be uncharted -- it will have turned into a book.
* Phyllis Whitney, "A Map is Not a Journey," in The Writer's Handbook, edited by A.S. Burack, published by The Writer, Inc., 1970