The Map Is Not the Territory: Beyond Outlining

Last month, I finished the first draft of Etheric, the sequel to my 2014 fantasy novel Orison. Now that it’s over, I can finally talk about it. See, finishing this draft took the better part of two years — I started it immediately after finishing final revisions on Orison in spring of 2014. But it wasn’t a steady two years. If you were to graph out the time spent, it might look like this:

theprocess

The good news: compared to the first book, my time-to-completion is way down. If you count the rewrites, temporary shelving, and other abandoned novels written between first draft and publication, Orison took over six years to get to the market. So I’m shaving four years off the process! Hooray!

Obviously, the past two years have not felt like “hooray.” I ran the whole gamut of anxieties and self-doubts about the sequel. I won’t even get into that, because it’s neurotic and boring. But with the benefit of hindsight, I now see my mistake: I hit a wall in my plot, and for many months, I labored under the impression I could ponder the manuscript into completion.

I’m a plotter and outliner by nature. When putting together a novel, I draw the broad strokes of story and theme, then carve them up into acts and scenes, working from the top down. This approach has served me much better than the “pantsing” approach, wherein I almost always lose the thread of my story and eventually give up. Without an ending or a direction in mind, I flounder. Outlining is necessary to my writing.

But outlining only accomplishes so much. There’s a phrase by Alfred Korzybski: “the map is not the territory,” later popularized by Robert Anton Wilson in Prometheus Rising. Korzybski was talking about the difference between belief and reality, positing that our perception of the world is generated by our brain. It’s only a model, not the world itself.

quote-the-map-is-not-the-territory-the-word-is-not-the-thing-it-describes-whenever-the-map-alfred-korzybski-128-34-76

Wilson expanded to say all models are imperfect, and that to make a truly accurate model of a thing, one would have to create a map identical to the territory: that is, to replicate in every detail the thing you’re trying to model. Perhaps not coincidentally, this idea was later paraphrased by Morpheus in the 1999 film The Matrix: “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

The analogy for storytelling here should be self-evident. An outline or a plan is not the novel itself, and outlining is not the act of writing. You can scribble on the map all you want, but that doesn’t change the territory. An outline, like any model, is at best a decent predictor of what will happen when you actually get into the territory, but you won’t really know until your boots are on the ground.

(Incidentally, by “you,” I mean me. Maybe you’re an awesome maker of outlines and your outlines always go to plan. If so, congratulations! Don’t let me stand between you and your awesome process.)

TW_Anton01_670

So I hit a snag in my outline, and rather than diving into the prose and trying to work it out with writing, I just stared at the plan, hoping I could work out the problems that way. I tried tweaking scenes, moving them around, adding and subtracting item — scribbling on the map, as it were. I stared at the metaphorical map, knowing I was lost and that the map was no good, but hoping it would show me the way out anyway.

Nope. I lost months to this wrong-headed idea, and mistook my flawed approach for any number of other problems (my outline was garbage, my book was garbage, I as a person was garbage, etc.)

Then, one day in February, I just grabbed a metaphorical machete and waded into the jungle. The hell with the map — it was time to venture into the territory. I set a deadline and some daily word goals and just got to work.

As a result, I wrapped up the draft in less than a month. The revisions took me less than two weeks. The book wasn’t perfect — no book ever is — but I at last I had something to work with. There may be more grueling work ahead as I work out the problems that still plague the draft, but a finished draft with problems is a damn sight better than an unfinished draft and a scribbled-on map that goes nowhere.

The moral of this story? It’s the same thing you hear in every writerly advice blog: just write. If this is you, and you’re stuck, get in there and bury your hands in the guts of your story. Don’t stand back and peer at the map. Wade in without fear and find a way through, even if the path looks perilous and imperfect. You may be excited by what you discover.

Daniel Swensen

Daniel Swensen has written everything from cell-phone advertisements to tabletop roleplaying supplements. He blogs about motivation and craft at Surly Muse, and recently self-published the paranormal short story, Burn. Dan lives in Montana, with his wife and two spoiled cats. Orison is his first novel.

Latest posts by Daniel Swensen (see all)

2 Comments

  1. I’d like to see what an outline of your work in progress looks like.

    Reply
    • Stan, next time it’s my turn to blog on the Scriptors, I’ll see about getting into that. :)

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *