Hop Aboard and Go or Map the Path First?

Chart the path, or just go?

Every writer asks this question at some point or another:

Should I fly by the seat of my pants or should I create a map so I know how to get where I’m going?

We all take to the internet or email other writers we know. Or we attend writer’s conferences/workshops or book signings in the hopes that those before us will enlighten us with the definitive answer to which is best.

We are less than thrilled when we realize one method is not better than the other. The only method that works is the one that works for us. The first time I started a novel I decided: I am a by-the-seat-of- my-pants kind of person. There was no rhyme or reason for this decision…no wait, that’s a lie. I based it on my desire to do things spur of the moment.

I wrote one rough draft of a YA novel by the seat of my pants and with no time limit on when it should be done. Most of that novel is the beginning and the end. Everything in between is still a work in progress nearly four years later.

I wrote a mystery novel by the seat of my pants during NaNoWriMo of the same year as the above- mentioned YA novel. I completed the 50,000 word goal with two days to spare. This novel had a beginning, a better middle, and an end.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I need a time limit. A goal that I can propel myself to meet.
  • Revising a novel that I wasn’t sure how to reach point B from point A sucks.
  • Revising a novel that has no chartered course and which was rushed doubly sucks.
  • I am a planner. Things in my life have taught me this. I just needed to open my eyes.

So, here I am beginning novel three. I am not ditching the other two, well, at least not the YA. I consider those learning experiences under the belt.

This time around I’m plotting a course. However, there are two obstacles:

  1. I am directionally challenged.
  2. I rebel at the mere idea of an official outline – you know the kind we learned in school.

I have reason to believe I can overcome those obstacles:

  • A. I may not always know where I am, but I usually find my destination.
  • B. I don’t have to do an official outline. No one is grading me. My outline is getting ideas on paper and answering questions as they pop into my head. No A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, a, b, c, I, II, III… bottle of Excedrin.

I poked about the internet looking for outline ideas. I love the index method. However, I can’t jump right onto those spiffy colored cards. I have to write out all my ideas and questions first. My outline is going well. I have to interview some characters on their problems tomorrow, but otherwise, we’re doing well. Once I have an answer to all my questions, I am going to line up the story on index cards. Once that is done, I can pick up an index card and write that scene. Knowing that I have a map to help me along makes me feel much better.

Even though I have a path to get from Point A to Point B, it doesn’t mean I can’t meander off course to check out an uncharted island. That island may harbor the perfect climax.

That mix of semi-paved, semi-wild is perfect for me.

A few more opinions on the Plot or Fly idea:

To Outline or Not to Outline by Jane Friedman

6 Secrets to Writing a Novel Without an Outline by Brian Klems

Have you figured out what works best for you? Share your method in the comments.

About the author
Diane DeMasi is a freelance writer and author. As a freelancer she writes articles, blog posts, newsletters, web content, catalog copy, and more. As an author she writes dark, twisted, creepy short stories and novels.