“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
If you read that (and I suggest you do, but just skim the droll languages part in the middle) you’ll find that that is all Tolkien wrote for years before he: drew a map (Thror’s Map) and then wrote the story The Hobbit.
It would appear that Tolkien both wandered while writing, and also plotted out a plot. He did both, over time, weaving an expansive experience of events, landscapes and peoples.
I point this out as many people might believe works like LOTR were planned, designed, architected. It turns out they weren’t (or it wasn’t, and I expect many others were not either).
The idea here is that one must do both, plan and rove, outline and wander. To think that you could write an entire cogent, cohesive story without any form of deliberation is hubris indeed; bumbling along until the end when voila — masterpiece. But in opposition, to adhere to a strict structure A, A.1, A.1.i, A.1.i.a… Ugh! What a bore. Where’s the novelty in that? Where’s the exploration, the discovery?
So you need both.
One way to go about getting both would be to wander, yes, through the telling of your story, discovering the plot, as it were, but to do so in an extended timeline. Write a chapter or three, and then let them sit, marinate, develop in your mind. That way when you come back, a time later, you will have evaluated what you’ve already written, but also dreamed of intrigue or complications, new characters or destinations, and wondered how you were now going to weave these into your story… So you have to then revise what you’ve written early on, to integrate your new plot twists which now allows your mind to develop a larger more expansive storyscape.
I wrote a piece here about Write is War. Writing is strategy and tactics. You have to have both to win. I think Tolkien waged his writing war well. In the end, if you write something that sells, I think you too will have learned that you have to plan AND peregrinate (meander).
Other comments from that letter above I found intriguing…
“I wrote the Trilogy as a personal satisfaction, driven to it by the scarcity of literature of the sort that I wanted to read”
“…find ‘interpretations’ quite amusing; even those that I might make myself, which are mostly post scriptum: I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual, intention in mind at any point*”
“In any case if you want to write a tale of this sort you must consult your roots, and a man of the North-west of the Old World will set his heart and the action of his tale in an imaginary world of that air, and that situation : with the Shoreless Sea of his innumerable ancestors to the West, and the endless lands (out of which enemies mostly come) to the East.”
“Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of ‘romance’, and in providing subjects for ‘ennoblement’ and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals”
“So the essential Quest started at once.”
“But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the comer at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”