I have mentioned a few times that I’m currently revising a novel. This is the part of writing that I enjoy the least, so, when I can, I have been reading and listening to a lot of seminars on writing and editing to try and learn better methods. While this is not a new topic for me, it has brought the term “Discovery Writing” to the forefront of my mind.
I know people who have said they never use outlines, but I guess I always assumed this was an exaggeration. I thought that what they meant was that they didn’t have pages of bullet points and chapter breakdowns like I use. I was wrong; some people go in with very little prior planning and still manage to have a working story at the end. It seems magical to me, but it does happen. However, is it right for you?
What is Discover Writing vs Outlining
Forewarning: when I describe theses terms, I’m going to do so in extremes. I don’t actually believe in black and white scenarios in the real world, but it is useful for the purpose of definitions.
Discovery writing is free form writing with no pre-planning. Proponents of this style of writing say it is more exciting and it comes out in the writing. If you derive satisfaction from the writing process, this may be for you. However, this method may come with drawbacks such as inconsistency, both in writing style and narrative.
Outlining entails planning out the structure of your narrative before writing. People who espouse the virtues of this style will say that it creates a story with better pacing and structure. If your satisfaction comes from crafting complex plots or from completing works, this may be for you. However, if you are too devoted to structure, your writing can feel stilted and you may miss the hidden gems that come out of discovering something new about your characters and setting.
Again, in most cases, many writers do a bit of both. Like everything else, writing is on a spectrum, and achieving success and satisfaction comes from figuring out what appeals to you. There are no right answers and there is no such thing as normal. You should do what you enjoy.
Why I Plan
Short answer: because I have to. It’s how my brain works. I tend not to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard until I know both the start and the end of the story I’m going to write. Then I write out detailed notes on the structure before I actually start writing.
It turns out, I’m a baker and not a cook. I work best with a recipe. I like structure. Does that make it less of an art form. Hell no. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to be spontaneous to be an artist. That’s just elitist pretension. As you write more, you will figure out what works best for you.
That being said, even with poetry and flash fiction, I need some planning. As usual, I’m going to use a visual medium to explain.
I bought that miniature on a whim and had no plans for it. I started adding paint to it over time with no real strategy. I even tested out paint markers on it as I would new writing techniques. This was the result:
It was very poor, and by the end I decided I had to fix it. To do this I made a strategy for which paints and techniques I would use to revitalize the golem.
Is the end result perfect? No. But having a strategy really helped me in a way my instincts alone could not.
Others people may find better result with discovery writing. As a visual example, here is the first mini my wife painted, no plan, no experience.
How I Have Incorporated Both Styles
Over many years of writing and with my recent introspection, I have figured out I do a bit of both techniques. I plan a lot, but as I write something interesting happens; my characters take on a life of their own.
I find that over the course of numerous drafts, my plot points and structure changes very little. But my characters change a lot. I think that is because it takes writing, not planning, to find a character’s voice. That voice has to come from somewhere, and as it changes, so does their background and characteristics.
This is something I have only noticed recently and I think this accounts for why some of my previous long form projects have failed. I was too attached to my initial plans. This is why my first book failed.
After I wrote my first book, I received feedback I didn’t learn from because I was hesitant to change what I envisioned. I had fluff in parts so that it was the correct length, my intended word count and date range (dates really mattered in this book), even though none of my readers liked those sections and I didn’t enjoy writing them. When my character started shifting into a morality structure I didn’t like I changed it back to the intended frame, even though it made less sense narratively. I removed the spontaneity because it wasn’t the plan and I refused to adapt to changes in my voice.
Regardless of which side of the writing spectrum you are, you need to have flexibility. Devotion to one path will make you miss the strengths of the other. For me, that was devotion to the plan. For you, it might be a resistance to one. In either respect, don’t be afraid to be flexible. Embrace constructive criticism, alter your plans if it makes a better story and, by God, edit and revise your work!
Anyway. I hope that was helpful, or at least self affirming. Let me know what your process is in the comments. Maybe you have a strategy to make revision fun? I’d love to know it. Maybe next year for novel writing month, I’ll take a stab at discovery writing. Just sit down with a basic premise and see what happens. Knowing me, I’ll mess it up by spending my first day charting it out in a spreadsheet…