Take A Left Past the Bank


I started this writing game as a resolute pantser. I knew where the story was going, but instead of outlining it all, I let it grow as the words hit the page. Sometimes being a pantser means I have to go back and rework sections I’ve already written, but that’s okay by me. When I was in high school, and research papers were assigned, my poor mother couldn’t bear to watch me work. You see, I was a pantser back then, too. The teacher would ask for an outline along with the paper, and I would oblige, writing my outline only after the paper was done. Drove my mama crazy, but I just couldn’t fathom how one might know exactly what one planned to write before it was written.

Secretly I’ve envied plotters, and slowly I think I’m coming to understand how they think. Working out the details ahead of time does seem to make the process smoother and quicker. It’s also much simpler to make the organic changes that pop up from time to time when I’m working within an outline instead of a narrative. My mother and five or six English teachers were right, I guess. (Please don’t call my mama, because she already gets to say “I told you so” enough now that I’m a parent.)

A few days ago, I was busily working on a scene in which my character (let’s call him Sebastien) was sneaking through a frontier town, following a bad guy to his lair. Suddenly I realized I had no idea where they were. It was a dark street, but was it behind the saloon? Near the railroad tracks? And what if I placed it in one part of town and then forgot five chapters later? Readers notice those things, even if the editor somehow misses my mistake. I needed a map.

Some fantasy writers have maps published in their books. I always wondered who draws those things. I couldn’t – I can barely draw a line without a straight edge and my reading glasses. But whether or not my book features a map in its pages, I had to have one. My husband’s oversized whiteboard happened to be standing in the corner, so I grabbed it and the pen, and started drawing. The streets were too wide, and the buildings weren’t to scale at all. I ended up erasing and starting over twice, and I moved the jail, the church and one person’s home several times before everything was where I wanted it to be. It was not at all an artistic masterpiece, but as soon as I was finished doodling, I knew exactly where Sebastien was. I knew what he could see, what he could hear, and how he was going to get into the bad guy’s house without being seen. I knew a whole bunch of the town’s inhabitants, people who won’t make an appearance in the story but live there nonetheless. I knew where the railroad tracks were, and the best route for Sebastien to take out of town. It was all so simple with a map to follow.

Oh dear…my inner plotter is laughing right now.


22 comments to Take A Left Past the Bank

  • I had maps in Act of Will and I drew them myself!

    I was also a confirmed pantser, but it’s changing. Partly because of the way contracts work in multi book deals, but also for the reasons you outline here, I’m finding the need to have a clearer sketch of the whole projevct when I sit down to write. I used to worry that this would make the project “inorganic” (whatever the hell that means) but it really doesn’t. The story can still evolve as my characters change or behave in ways I hadn’t expected, but I still have my over-arching shape and a much clearer sense of what the story is. I’ll still adjust and polish as I go, and there’ll be plenty of problems to solve and discoveries to make along the way, but the editing process is less brutal and arduous now.

  • Maps are a wonderful world-building tool. I’ve also found that with a well thought through map, I discover new plot points, new obstacles, new dangers, and even new solutions just by understanding where everything is located in relation to my characters and their situations.

  • I’m a plotter, but I’ve never drawn a map. (Okay, maybe never is incorrect . . . just never in my adult life and my ‘professional’ writing career.) You make it sound so useful–I think I might just go do that now. LOL. Congrats on figuring out Sebastien’s frontier town!

  • As a reforming pantster, I beginning to believe in outlining. One thing I hate… ok two things… is spinning my wheels in constant revision and writing large blocks of text which will end up in the rubbish bin. I my WIP, I pants’d it. Now I am facing having to do major rewrites and the certainty of chucking around 10,000 words of text. *gggrrr*

    Needless to say, I will be outlining to some extent from here on out.

  • Funny you should bring this subject up now, because a few days ago I finished my first map ever for the YA novel I’m working on. It was a blast to do, and so helpful. I knew certain events were going to happen, but having the map makes much of the action clearer in my head.

  • Can I add that though maps aren’t included, Terry Prachett’s Ankh-Morpork feels absolutely real because he knows the city inside out. He must have vast, detailed maps. Each area has associations, a sense of deep and embedded history such as you would find in any real, old city.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Um. I sort of feel like panstering is a sort of learning mode for some people, myself included. My current WIP is also my first and so a lot of it has just been feeling my way around how all of this stuff works. Now I’m on my first set of rewrites I’ve been able to put together an outline of how I want to change things to be, but I’ll have to rewrite at least a third of the whole thing. It’s slow and I’d like to move on to new things, but I’m also learning a lot this way, getting a feeling for what’s back-story that *I* need to know and what’s the cool stuff that makes fantasy stories fun, so that’s a really good thing. When I’m done I want to have something I’m proud of, rather than something that can only be pointed to as a learning piece, but that’s just me. I always have trouble putting down something that’s broken if I have ideas about how to fix it.

  • I’m moving slightly i n the other direction. I used to be a dedicated outliner; now I wing it a bit more, though I still do make some plot notes to start. As for maps, I love them. Absolutely love them. I drew the original maps for the LonTobyn books, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands, and I once had George R.R. Martin tell me that my maps were good. One of the proudest moments of my career. For Thieftaker, I have several maps of Boston that I consult all the time. Turns out, knowing where you are is good thing.

  • And geographical and city/town maps aren’t the only thing that can help you keep a scene straight. A well thought out building plan, like a tavern or some other locale, can help as well and further draw the reader into that scene. I once drew out the layout of a room just to keep tabs on where everything was, which helped the writing of the scene a lot. The reader never has to see those minor maps to feel like it’s a real place, but they’re good for the writer to keep things clear in their head.

  • I found maps / blueprints /floorplans / detailed histories helpful when I (AKA) wrote my first series. Never looked back. Before that, my co-writer, Gary, was a pantser. Totally. And since he handled the plotline, I was at his mercy. Now that I write alone, I keep a pad beside my desk and on it are all sorts of things, from maps to notations of things to add in later, to the grocery list. For Jane Yellowrock, not me. 30 pounds of raw steak and a bag of catnip…

  • The plotter v pantser has always amused me. It’s not a versus thing really, you are what you are. I’m a plotter, but I can change what happens in my plot as the story develops. My business partner is a pantser and she says knowing the end of the story causes her to lose interest in writing it.

    I think it’s more important to figure out your natural approach then learn all the tools and techniques you can of all the approaches. This is how you find your style.

    This year for NaNoWriMo, I’m going to have to be a pantser because of life getting in the way of plotting. So, I know that I need to know minimum, who the protagonist is and who the antagonist is (as in their character profiles), the crisis points so I can writer towards them, and where the valium is because I don’t have a successful pantsing history.

  • Beatriz

    It sounds like approaches may shift and change a bit as your needs (and the needs of the work) changes. Huzzah for adaptation and growth!

    Misty– before your DH or DS decide they need the board, take some pictures of it. This way you’ll have a record for yourself regardless of what happens to the white board.

    (I know where Sebastie was. In the pub, with Rage, drinking. 😉

  • I recall reading some westernish sort of novel where the protagonist left town, passing by the saloon, the bank, the hotel, and Miss Kittie’s house.

    In a later chapter, he came back into town, passing by the hotel, the saloon, the bank, and Miss Kittie’s house.

    Even if Miss Kittie had somehow inexplicably moved in the interim, I more seriously doubt that the other businesses had as well.

    Obviously, a map would have obviated this problem.

  • I’m definitely a plotter, but maps always seemed like a futile exercise to me. Your post just might change my opinion, though… Often I’ll reach part in my novel where I only have a fuzzy idea of the surrounding (“random alley” or “some sort of park” is a bit generic). If it’s not real to me, it certainly won’t be for the reader. Maybe a map could help me be more specific and actually visualize those fuzzy area. Time to try something new! Thanks for the suggestion 🙂

  • Hi Misty! Thanks for this. I feel better about my own “process” now…

    I started out as a 100% pantser with just a character and a beginning in mind, but as I progressed, I needed new tools to keep things straight in my head. I’ve used a blank calendar to create a timeline, a blueprint of the house and surrounding area where a good chunk of the story takes place, plus a map of the nearby town.

    But yeah, next time I think I’ll start with a better outline. Oh, and I might get myself a white-board too.

  • Ryl

    In my writing room are hanging two maps for inspiration: a repro of a map of the Mediterranean created during the reign of James II, and a recent one of Puget sound. On the opposite wall is an 8’x4’green chalkboard — salvaged from a local school that was transitioning to whiteboards — and buckets of sidewalk chalk in various colors. Yeah, I dig [and need] the mapping thing, too.

    As for Plotting vs. Pantstering, I constantly switch gears between them as needs dictate — though I tend to think more in terms of ‘story arc’ than ‘plot’, since that gives me greater wiggle room for changes.

  • Shawna

    I always used to be a pantser. I would come up with an interesting element (Never a whole idea, mind. Just a character, or a world quirk, or a magic system), throw together the barest amount I needed in my head, and run with it. It was fun.

    Of course, I always stalled out somewhere around chapter 3, and never finished anything. 😉

    I envy people who can pants it effectively, but I’ve discovered that I’m not one of those people. Last year for NaNoWriMo I put together my first, full, honest-to-god outline from start to finish. It kinda sucked and it took forever. I also finished the story, which was definitely a first.

    So I’ve had to sort of accept that it isn’t in me to be a pantser. Now if only I wasn’t so awful at outlining!

    Also, maps? Are awesome. Not something I’ve ever really used as a tool because I’m a bit of a derp like that, but I definitely recognize how useful they can be.

  • You know, after seeing everyone else’s thoughts on the subject, I’m beginning to think that neither plotting nor pantsing is the ideal way, but rather a delicious gooey blend of the two is something to aspire to.

    And Beatriz, I have copied the map onto paper for just that reason. 😀

  • I absolutely have to have a map! It’s a spatial awareness thing, or so I like to justify with my geography degree. I like to know where things are happening so that the route makes logical sense.

    So now I can draw nice maps … but describing what’s in my head on the page is the hard part.

  • Young_Writer

    I used to be the worst pantser. I remember in one of my manuscripts, my character changed cars three times. (No, he was not sixteen. Just had an unruly friend.) I didn’t know much about editting back then, so every time they switched they either stole it from the antogianist or rented one beacuase *he* stole it from them. That was a sad book, but I loved writing it.
    Now, I outline my novels, but I tend to change them once my character throws a fit and won’t do what I want him/her to.

  • Ooh! Maps! For my own current WIP I don’t need a map because it is set in the town where I live and I know the town well enough. 😀

    But for my WIP with Sarah… oh lord. I remember pulling up a map of London (to see where the Underground stops were!) and then trying to figure out what our Winter Court looks like–it is sort of based on it, some landmarks are the same, but not entirely. Then there was the “okay, so she’s walking north, towards campus so she’ll enter the…” *thinks really hard* “south gate of the university! Right!” *sighs* I have serious issues with spatial relationships. If I drive somewhere, I can, 99% of the time, get back, but visualizing takes a ton of effort. Thank goodness Sarah can read maps! I tried drawing some, but, well, I guess you might have been able to tell that the squiggly lines were a river. Maybe. If you didn’t get them confused with the squiggly lines that were roads.

  • Something that helped me was my visit, a couple of years ago, to France and Germany. I went into so many castles and châteaux that I was able to get a really good feel for the sort of layout they used. It amased me how so many fantasy novels describe castles as having halls with doors and intersections and people getting lost in them. Most of the old châteaux from medieval times, rather than the far more recent late Renaissance ones had no halls at all but were a long box divided into a series of rooms with doors between each. So in effect the “throne room” had a door that led into the kings bedroom which had a door that led into the kids room. The other side of the throne room would have a door that led to the dining room with a door to the chapel and so on. No corridor at all! (see Ambois).
    You can get maps of castles which I’ve done and it helps no end.