This post first ran on Friday, March 16, 2012
When it comes to working methods, what kind of a writer are you?
Broadly speaking, writers fall into one of two basic categories. On the one hand, there are the Map-makers. On the other, there are the Trail-blazers.
The Map-Maker Method is a highly disciplined way of writing. A Map-maker does a lot of thinking up front: you plot the central story arc from start to finish. At the same time you assemble a body of support material: character profiles, narrative timelines, maps, etc., so that when you finally sit down to write, you know how the story is going to end.
Using the Map-maker Method has the following advantages:
- Working the bugs out of the plot in advance helps you avoid plot-holes and narrative inconsistencies during the writing process.
- Having a comprehensive overview of the story enables you to recognise and exploit opportunities to play with foreshadowing, build suspense, and highlight important themes.
- Knowing where the story is going and how it’s going to end helps you keep the book on track. I.e., the Map-maker finds it relatively easy to avoid including gratuitous sub-plots.
But there are also liabilities:
- Map-makers tend to be slow, careful writers. They can get hung up on revising a single chapter for weeks when they would be better served forging ahead and damn the torpedoes.
- Having produced a narrative blueprint, they’re often reluctant to alter it in favor of any interesting possibilities that may come up during the writing process.
- In the worst cases, a Map-maker can get so caught up in deep structure that it becomes an end in itself.
The Trail-blazer Approach:
The Trail-blazer Approach, by contrast, is intuitive rather than analytical. You take the seed of a story–a plot concept, a central character, an intriguing opening scene, whatever fires your imagination–and simply start writing, the aim being to let the story unfold and develop organically.
These are the advantages to using the Trail-blazer Approach:
- By not imposing too strict a structure on the story from the outset, you’re free to welcome new ideas as they present themselves.
- By not ascribing to anyone’s rules but your own, you leave yourself free to experiment with different writing techniques. This can help you develop your own distinctive narrative voice.
- Best of all (especially in the case of novice writers), the Trail-blazer Approach lends itself readily to generating text, and completing a first draft. Completing a first draft is the essential goal on which everything else depends.
There are also corresponding liabilities:
- The Trail-blazer approach offers no built-in safeguards against the unchecked proliferation of sub-plots. Too many sub-plots can wreak havoc with your narrative continuity and give you galaxy-class migraines when you try to tie them up.
- If you’re using the Trail-blazer Approach, characters, incidents, and situations are going to crop up at intervals during the writing process that you didn’t foresee when you started writing. This forces you to interrupt the narrative flow to explain how/why this element is relevant, which makes for clumsy exposition. It’s no big deal when you’re working on your first draft, but if you don’t go back and disguise the info-dumps, you might as well be smacking your reader in the face with a newly-landed flounder.
- The Trail-blazer Approach doesn’t lend itself to pre-emptive trouble-shooting. If you prefer to use the Trail-blazer Approach, you may find you’ve got a substantial amount of work to do during the revision process to rationalise your setting, plot, characters, and themes.
Although I’ve treated these two methods as if they were mutually exclusive, most writers utilize aspects of both. This is because both approaches are equally valid in their own way. That said, if you can recognize and understand your prevailing tendencies, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble in the long run.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.