Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Writing with a Road Map

by Valerie Comer
2004, Valerie Comer

To outline or not to outline, that is the question.  The answer?  As varied as the writers themselves.

Consider that you have decided to go on a road trip.  Where do you want to go?  Usually, we desire more than a general direction, such as 'East.'  'East' or 'South' can mean so many things, near or far away.

Are you the kind of person who stares at a map, measures the mileage, and makes all your hotel reservations in advance?  Do you search out the internet to discover all the local attractions you could stop and see along the way, figuring out their hours of operation, and budgeting in their costs?  Do you check to see which towns along the way will have a Burger King so your kids can collect all of the Cat in the Hat figurines?

Some of you will be the kind to plot out your trip by where your friends and relatives live, so you can stop overnight with them.  Others still hop in their car, switch drivers along the route, and drive straight through to their destination.  And yet others will have a general plan (be there by Friday), but be willing to veer off the main highway if an antique store or amusement park sign catches their attention.  If the road goes past a lovely lake, you may well stop for a swim, and maybe unpack the tent and stay for a day or two.

Very few people would take two weeks of vacation, and flip a coin at every intersection (heads means turn right) in order to figure out where they were going.  You do need some sort of a plan to have an enjoyable trip.


There are a lot of ways to get from Point A to Point B, both in driving the highways and in writing a novel.  The super structured planner mentioned above will always know where they are stopping for lunch ahead of time. ("No, kids, it's still 37 miles until BurgerKingVille and lunch time...") And in writing a novel that same type of person will want to know virtually every detail about the story long before they type "Once upon a time..."

Is it wrong to plan a trip, or a book, in this fashion?  Of course not.  This type of organizational planning suits some people to a tee.  Making all the decisions about which way the plot will turn ahead of time gives solid working parameters.  You need not worry about writing yourself into a corner, the writer's variant of finding themselves on a dead end road!  Most of the surprises are discovered and solved in the planning stages.  They are not likely to discover, 75K into a novel, that the only logical thing to have happen next is for their main character to die.  Does this take all the fun out of writing?  Not for the type of people who write in this style.

Totally organic writers are the kind of travelers who sit at each intersection and turn whichever way looks amusing at the moment, so long as it will generally head them in a somewhat easterly direction. Quite possibly, at some point in the journey, they may find themselves on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, with a decaying bridge the only way across a deep ravine.  The big question is whether to trust the rotting timbers, or to turn around and backtrack. 

The delete function on a computer works wonderfully well, and when this writer discovers just where they made the wrong turn, they can eliminate sentences or even chapters, and merrily go on their way again, once they have found the place where they went wrong.  And if they find out they're in the Deep South instead of approaching the East coast, what's so bad about the south?  Surely a great finale can be had, even here.

Most writers (and travelers) land somewhere in between these two extremes.  If you liken the length of a trip to the length of a novel, you can see that it is a good idea to understand ahead of time where you want to spend the bulk of your time, or words.  Having a clear idea of the route one wishes to take, whether on the interstate or the back roads, and pre-selecting a few towns or parks you would like to stop in, are also helpful ideas.  In writing, this is like knowing the plot highlights ahead of time.  In between, though, you can choose to take a side trip to see that old abandoned mine if it will enrich your vacation, so long as you keep in mind how much time it will take out of the rest of your trip.

The hours, or pages, can only be spent once.  To get it all in before Friday (or one hundred thousand words!) requires a certain amount of pacing.  Don't be afraid of exploring the back roads on your journey through your novel writing.  Just make your choices while keeping your destination in mind, and remember that you promised Aunt Pat that you'd stop in on Tuesday.  Whether you like to travel fully organized, loosely planned, or by the seat of your pants, make sure to keep the compass and the road map out where you can see them, and have an enjoyable road trip.  Let the words tick by, and have fun!