Writing At Speed: Pathfinding vs Going By The Map

In this post I discuss the merits of Pathfinding and Mapping as methods for creating fiction at speed and ask can we write at super-high speed without losing quality?

At the moment I’m reading a book called something like “How to Write 20K words A Day”. I’m not quoting the exact title because I haven’t finished it yet and I won’t be reviewing it until I have given all of its methods a fair crack of the whip. I think this will take me at least until the end of the year to reach a verdict so time’s out on that one. However, I can explore one of its suggestions below in the next paragraph. This suggestion raises an age-old conflict of impulses we can find on any long creative project (like novels, in my case) : are we going to follow the instructions on our Map or find our Path as we go? (This is also known as Plotting and Pantsing ).

A Map Shows The Way


The book suggests that to create words at this vast speed (20K a day) you can’t be doing it without a solid map. Therefore, before you slap the start on the word counter you need to make a very detailed study of the territory and a route through it which is clear, with all the relevant waymarkers and checkpoints. In terms of a novel this would mean knowing pretty much everything about it before cranking out word number one. To avoid the dreaded ‘clung!’ sound of coming up dead against the white screen of doomy nothingness you require a plan which is articulated down to the beat.

A beat is one dramatic unit of a scene: a worm appears, a wizard feels a tingling in his fingers, a soldier witnesses a moment of tenderness between two rescued refugees, a woman notices a dog without a collar under a park bench. A scene is a larger dramatic unit in which some major moment of the story happens: the worm turns, the wizard rediscovers his powers, the jaded army sergeant realises his love for his mother is an undimmed light that allows him to take action and find a new life for himself outside the forces, the sad wife finds a lost dog on the street and a new outlet for her creative talents for making dog coats out of basketwork. Beats make scenes. Scenes make acts. Acts make a story.

You need your novel itemized down to the beat level to be able to reach maximum warp with the words. After that it’s just a question of generating each moment in your imagination and setting it down as vividly as you are able, limited only by your body and your energy. As with all marathons, some training will be required to get up to the 4 hours per day minimum you’re going to need to get that word count down on some kind of recording device.

In order to generate a beat-level map you will have already taken the creative journey of the story without writing a word of the actual text. Being at the Mapping level gives you a certain kind of power. You’ll be able to manipulate ideas and connections at much higher speed than you can when you’re meandering along, Pathfinding. However, because you’re not meandering through the fields at your leisure, you will not be able to notice interesting things happening along the way, so you won’t be able to knit these discoveries into your work as you go, unless they are relatively minor and don’t change the entire course of the journey. What you gain at high level, you lose at low level.

NB: level here just means the focal level of the story. – At high level we can see that Red Riding Hood goes to see Grandma, is met by a wolf in Grandma’s clothing and gets the better of him, the end. – At low level we can see that Red Riding Hood might find the wolf rather attractive which would lead us to think maybe she has a certain wolfish quality of her own which leads her to assert her dominance and liberate Grandma whilst keeping her ignorant of the fact that Red Riding Hood is running the local werewolf pack. Or any other variation by which you can go through the high level story arc without altering it.

The above high level storyline was created by Mapping. Bing, bang, bong. Beginning, middle, end. And I used an existing Map – Little Red Riding Hood. The details at a lower level were discovered when I started to focus down. The first notion – RRH’s wolfy quality – led to me mapping out the rest of the consequences of that very quickly. As I did this I noticed that I’m using both methods. It’s never one or the other. It’s always both. Hah, I contradict my own thesis. How juicy.

Anyhow, back to the book and the Path vs Map/Pants vs Plot situation. Creatively people really differ in how much they enjoy these two ways of creating fiction. I’ve always been a Pathfinder, by habit rather than choice, as when I started writing I had no clue about any of this, I just picked up my pen, or switched on my typewriter and got cracking with whatever came into my head next. I made no effort at all to structure anything. I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do, or should do. I was happy and oblivious and I could easily sit and write for hours at a time, no problem.

A Path Finds The Way


I created some really, really long, meandering novels, full of interesting bits of stuff which made almost no cohesive sense whatsoever. People who criticise my work now still notice this tendency – you can check out my reviews on amazon if you want to see for yourself. When I read these notes of frustration at my lack of clarity I feel sad. In my mind the stories aren’t confused. In my mind they’re quite obvious. I sometimes worry that they’re so obvious that people will think I’m patronising them when I connect up the dots of the story.

The reason this happens is because when I put the story down in my Pathfinder way the time it takes to complete the job means that by the time I arrive at the ending all the various threads are clear. To me. I’ve lived with my ideas a long time, I’ve woven the story out of them, I’ve made all the connections. I think they’re clear in the text. But, as my editors can testify, this is not usually the case for anyone coming to read the story. I have to do quite a lot of work during the editorial stages to fix this.

My experience of Pathfinding is that it provides many (possibly too many) rich connections and ideas as the novel progresses.  These are ideas I have because I am mulling and dwelling and exploring as I go. I’m up to the ears in the undergrowth. It’s a fascinating place. But it isn’t a place of great clarity. I’m down in the grass staring at the ants, whereas if I were operating the other way and creating by Mapmaking I’d be looking down on the landscape from my hawk-eye view.

What’s obvious about these two methods is that you cannot do both at once. We have only one focal point of our awareness and that means one thing at a time. However, with practice most authors of any calibre have learned to zoom between these viewpoints, pausing at whatever magnification is required to allow them to do necessary works. An interesting point to note here is that as they use energy differently, this switching is a very useful way to pace yourself.

Writing the actual text (Pathfinding) is high energy usage, draining; your inner movie theatre is at full power, creating everything and you are at the limit of your ability all the time in the effort to capture everything that’s happening in your story world. However, planning the routes and making the connections (Mapmaking) is energising. You can see the ideas, the motives and the story arcs without all the delays caused by rendering your vision into actual words. By doing first one, then the other, you can extend your ability to keep going by orders of magnitude.

What actually divides these methods is only this – at which point do you make the map? Before, or after? (You don’t have a map after Pathfinding. You have territory, which you then have to prowl about on in order to map it. You can do this en route, at your rest stops, but you’re still prowling the already-extant ground.)

I think it is possible that the best outcome would be Pathfinding, followed by ten years off to Forget, then a Mapping session and then a Remastering session. When I look back now at my most Pathfindy book, “Living Next Door To The God Of Love” I think – pow, what I could do with that sucker if I could only map and remaster it! Although it has a certain weird charm to its waywardness that I might destroy and which I really like. I digress. The point is that in the publishing industry you can forget the ten years off bit if you are at all concerned about Career Paths and Money. If you’re not a career track author you have the leisure to experiment and you definitely should.

Pathfinding probably generates better Art, is my guess, because great art lies in bringing together connection and comparison between subtle elements and ideas which are non-obvious. You’re more likely to encounter opportunities for that by taking it slow and meadering around in the woods. Pathfinding is much more time-heavy. It may be that genius rolls out of you like a red carpet unrolling at the feet of a legendary princess, but most Pathfinding of any serious territory can be a very long job and you will find yourself discarding a huge amount of material as you master the thing. Worst case you have to throw out the entire ‘novel’ and start it again because you’ve found a great story but it’s invisible in the mess you’ve made doing it. (There should be a T-shirt for this.)

Mapping definitely gets you better-structured fiction as long as you know how to structure your fiction in the first place. It would be the go-to method for commercial projects which have strong pre-loved paths (like Red Riding Hood) which have audiences who only like minor variations. Mapping is fast, as fast as your ideas can go. Then it’s followed by execution, but as you have already been through the whole thing in your mind you may feel really flat and bored at the idea of ploughing through it all again. In order to gain the energy required for the generation of the text you take the confidence given by the great map in your hands and focus on the joy of imagining everything in its most convincing detail – what a treat your readers are going to have!

The question for me is, will aPathfinder story be better, juicier, more aware than a Mapped story? This is the story I have told myself about it, but if I’m honest I’ve never written a book by Mapping first, not really. I’ve only ever done mini-maps en route. I am now about to write a novel for the first time by the Map The Hell Out Of This method. It is, suitably, Hell’s Ditch (Glorious Angels 2) and I will notify y’all of how it goes.

On a really good day I can do 10K, so far, before the quality starts to slide out of sight and I begin to fall out of my seat with exhaustion. But I can’t do that every day. I’m hoping the things I learn from this 20K book thing will help me turn out novels of great marvellousness with speed and flair. But if I am going to get to 20K a day I will have to change a lot of how I work.

Back to the 20K a Day thing then. I think we could do 20K a day if we were either uninhibited Pathfinders romping in ignorant glory or if we were Orienteers zooming along according to the instructions on our map. Neither of those people has a block in sight. They’re rolling. Rollers are happy. (But Rollers could not do it 7 days a week. It’s only in exceptional bursts though if you can burst through 5 days you’ve got a book).

Time will tell. I will be blogging here about my experiences with this experiment and other writing issues as I go. I hope you’ve found something useful in this to take away.


2 thoughts on “Writing At Speed: Pathfinding vs Going By The Map”

  1. Hello

    I´m more of a pathfinder.

    The first bigger story I finished, I created a detailed outline for and the writing process itself was hell, because it was so boring. I had already lived through the story when I wrote the outline. It was a painful process and since then I haven´t used outlines/guides anymore. I respect people who can create outlines and have the discipline to write it all down without the boredom killing them first.

    It is interesting that you mention that people criticize the lack of clarity in your work. While it could be valid critique from one point of view, another point of view, mine, is that it is very stimulating to the mind, when I have to think about what is going on. It is an enjoyable process of having to figure out the symbolism and thinking of various ways to interpret a certain scene. I personally don´t like it when things are too clear. I prefer the nebulous beauty that “less-clear” writing has.

    Anyways, i just wanted to drop a comment. I have wanted to do so for a while but I never had the guts to do it.

    I started reading your stories 10 years ago. More specifically the “Quantum Gravity” series.

    I was very young and went into this huge bookstore in what back then was my hometown in Germany.

    I discovered the second part of the series, not knowing it was the second part, and started reading it. I didn´t understand a lot of it (only realizing after a while that i got the wrong volume) but I really enjoyed how different it was from most of the other books in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. A fresh breadth of air and the intelligent ideas behind it. It has influenced my view on the genres and storytelling so much, that I always fail to understand why nobody else comes up with similar ideas. There probably are some but what i am saying is, that there are far and few in between. Most fall into the same old, same old recipe. Especially in my country Germany, i am sad to say. The same stuff gets recycled over and over again. Fantasy authors only read other fantasy authors, and won’t even take a peek of what’s on the other isles, which leads to something i call “literary incest”, so all the bad stuff multiplies and doesn’t get kicked out of the genre gene-pool. And all the newcomers only read these guys so most of the new stuff coming on the market is the same iteration of the old and so on and so forth. But I digress.

    Unfortunately only the first three books of the series were ever translated into German. I waited desperately for the 4th book to come out in German but alas. So it took some time until my English skills were good enough to tackle the last two books in English. I was really happy when I was finally able to continue reading the series.

    The books inspired me to create artwork, most of which haven´t been to my liking because I lacked the necessary illustration skills (and still do) back then but it kind of inspired me to create more art and I think the books helped me discover what I really wanted to do in live. Storytelling, whether through writing or images.

    Best Regards

  2. Hi Naomi,

    Thank you so much for leaving such a long and thoughtful message. I was so delighted to read it, particularly that you are forging ahead with your own art and writing. I feel very happy to have been of some use on your journey.

    With regard to the lack of diversity in the genres – that exists here also to some degree. A lot of people are writing great stuff which doesn’t fit into the moulds already made and they do struggle to get themselves published. I’m reading a friend’s book right now which is so dazzling and inventive, but it hasn’t found a home so far. I’m not sure where the difficulty lies, but somewhere in the received wisdoms of the past, I suspect, which were never very wise to start with. Anyway, now that self publishing is so much easier than before there are ways around that, so maybe things will begin to change.

    Pantsing/plotting and the lack of clarity. I’m glad you enjoy the disorientation effect! I really like it in other people’s work myself. It makes it seem like I’m getting into something new and I don’t want it all laid out for me because that spoils things a little bit. I think the real clincher is whether or not you can find a strong narrative flow and trust in it when you don’t really know where it’s going to end up. And then there are all the games you can play with unreliable narration of course. It’s fun, but as the complexity goes up I think the commercial factor probably sinks in proportion. But hey ho, if it was money we were after we’d be in banking.

    Again, I’m overjoyed you wrote in. Thank you. Wishing you the best of travels in your imagination!


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