Discovery Writing

I am a discovery writer. Despite some interesting experiences in the last few weeks, I tend not to do well with pre-planning, extensive outlines, detailed character biographies, and most else that doesn’t involve drafting and revising.

I should qualify that a little bit. I think that there’s a continuum of writing styles, from the heavy outliners to the discovery writers. Most people will hover about the middle half of that continuum, where they like to do a little bit of planning a head of time, and a little bit of figuring it out as they go.

The “figure it out as I go” part of the scale is where I feel most at home. In 2008, I abandoned my first NaNoWriMo idea (which I had done a fair bit of planning for) and started an entirely new novel with different characters, setting, plot, and genre on November 3rd. I still won that year and not only was it a blast, but it was one of the better novels I’ve written – in fact I’m revisiting a lot of the concepts in it for this year’s NaNo novel.

On the other hand, this doesn’t always work so well.

Last year’s novel was the same thing – I let my idea ferment for a bit, but I didn’t do much planning at all. Even though I won again, my story wasn’t nearly so good. The plot seriously got away from me, my epic setting wasn’t very well realized, and many of the characters weren’t as interesting as I assumed that they might be. I felt like I did my original idea a disservice.

So this year, I’m going exactly the opposite direction, and I’m planning fairly extensively. I’m probably not even 2/3 of the way toward the “heavy outlining” part of the continuum (I love that word) but I’m much further from the joys of pure discovery than I would normally be. I’ve discovered some very interesting advantages that pre-planning has, and I think that even if I utterly stumble over my novel it’s been an educational experiment.

And even if I fail, I’ll only have to put up with the shame until March, at which point I can start my next six-month novel, which I’ll know to plan way, way less.

Speaking of which, reading writing blogs and listening to writing podcasts along with planning the development cycle of an entire novel has had the unanticipated effect of settling me in for the long haul. My ultimate goal is to get published, of course, but I think that right now I’m feeling better than I ever have about being able to wait for that experience. If this novel doesn’t make the cut, and it probably won’t, then I will have that extra experience under my belt and I’ll be ready to do another novel, and then another, and so on until I’m raking in the cash.

Because, after all, isn’t that what it’s about?

On a totally unrelated note, if you haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. It’s technically “young adult,” but who cares? It’s an absolutely riveting read for anyone, but there’s a special bonus if you’re a writer:   her book is pretty much a tutorial in how to write a novel: observe her use of language, the ebb and flow of tension, the voice of the main character. It’s fascinating stuff from the perspective of a budding writer. My wife read the book and both of its sequels in four days.

Also, 72 hours until NaNoWriMo!

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