456. A Map is Not a Journey

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I don’t outline, and failure to do so has gotten me into a world of trouble over the years. If you don’t know where you are going, you are likely to drive off a cliff.

When I do outline, that gets me into a different kind of trouble. All the fun goes out of the writing. I can stare at blankness for hours, unable to force myself to begin something that, in my heart, is already done.

Someone, Vonnegut I think, wrote about a character that read novels just “to see what happens next.” That makes sense to me. I write novels to see what happens next. If I know too much, too soon, I lose interest.

On the other hand, starting on page one without a fair idea of what you plan to write will result in a lot of uncompleted novels.

All this is very vague and has been said a thousand times before. What a new writer need is nuts and bolts, so let me give you some, first from Phyllis A. Whitney.

Whitney died in 2008 at the age of 104, having written over a hundred novels. She wan’t someone I read, except for one article, A Map is Not a Journey, which appeared in the magazine The Writer and was reprinted in the 1972 Writer’s Handbook. That book was fresh and new in 1975 when I started writing and it is still a good source for learning writing as a humane art. You wouldn’t want to go to it for marketing advice.

Whitney’s article provided the organizational backbone of my first half dozen novels, all written before home computers. It still works. She used a notebook and I used a card file, but the structure was the same. I will give you a tastes of the categories of information she used, then send you to Whitney for detail.

Work Calendar: deadlines and daily progress.

Title Ideas: self explanatory.

Situation and Theme: what is going on and why.

Problem: what is the hero(ine) trying to solve.

Development: a catch-all to write down miscellaneous bits as they are thought of.

Outline: Whitney makes the point that she can’t outline too far ahead. She starts with a rough outline, and refines it all through the writing process. The full outline, in all its detail, can’t be written before the book is finished.

To Be Checked: things Whitney needs to know.

Additional: things Whitney needs to change. Remember, this was pre-computer, when making changes in a paper ms. was no small chore. The idea is, make a note as as you think of the change, then deal with it later.

Bibliography: self explanatory.

Research: self explanatory.

Diary: here Whitney lets recalcitrant characters make diary style entries to help her come to understand them.

Of course, I modified this scheme to meet my own needs. Cyan had sections on Cyan’s solar system, Cyan’s fauna, the Cyl before and after, Terrestrial politics, and Lassiter drive/core ships. It had a biography section with mini-biographies of the ten original explorers. There were also categories that fit Whitney’s personality and genre (mysteries) which I didn’t need and didn’t use.

Stripped to a summary, Whitney’s system doesn’t look like much. My recounting misses the charm of her writing and the details which won’t fit into a short post. You should go to the original.

I tried to find a copy of Whitney’s article online to link for you. No luck. I did find that its title is now one of the great and widely appreciated quotes.

If you want to know more, I do have a source for you. Whitney wrote a Guide to Fiction Writing in 1988. I just found it today. I haven’t actually seen a copy, but Amazon has a LOOK INSIDE which showed me that the article is there in the form of a couple of early chapters. You can get it used for under two bucks, and I’m sure it is worth a lot more than that.

Next post, how I work today.


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