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Monday, December 3, 2018

Discovery Writing: 2 Tripwires and a Pitfall

As probably a lot of you know, I'm a big outliner. I've talked about this before. I'm not a 100% outliner--I definitely like to leave room for discovery writing, but if I try to discovery write more than half, maybe more than a quarter, I end up writing crap (sadly). And I think it ends up taking more work to fix.

If you are just joining us and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain real quick.

Discovery writing is when you start writing your story and "discover" where it goes. (Sometimes people who discovery write are called "pantsers.")

Outlining is what it sounds like. You outline the story before writing it. (Sometimes people who outline are called "plotters.")

Most writers are a hybrid of both, but may lean one direction.

Lately I've really been wanting to do a post on discovery writing. But. I'm not really a discovery writer. Luckily, author Rachel Taylor is! And I asked her to give us her insight on the process. (Thanks, Rachel!)


A couple years ago, I read a writing craft book that made me so mad I had serious thoughts of book burning (metaphorically only as I was reading on my phone). The author taught some helpful writing techniques but interspersed were endless jabs at Pantsers (the prior name of Discovery Writers, ditched because it has some unsavory secondary implications). Here’s just one of his comments about us: “It pours out of their head and basically spills all over the place. Two words: a mess. And it often gets even worse from there...”

I wanted to wrap my hands around Dear Author’s neck and give him a giant, head-whacking shake. Being a Plotter vs being a Discovery Writer (which term I will use going forward), has nothing to do with skills, ability, or messes. It has everything to do with how a writer connects with creativity. I connect by fighting things out on the page. That’s where my best ideas come from. Trust me. I’ve tried to plot. I once forced myself to write an entire book based off an outline, and you know what? It was the most boring thing I’ve ever written, and no amount of rewriting or editing saved it from being shoved under the dusty back corner of my bed.

Best case scenario when I try to plot is that I get a couple of chapters in and my contemporary teenage protag suddenly swishes her skirts, dabs a poison on her lips, and says fiddle-dee-dee to her best friend from the Andromeda Galaxy and my carefully devised plot-sheet also ends up under the bed.

I have no choice but to fight things out on the page. And it’s not just me. This is what we Discovery Writers do. Which means we have a whole set of both tripwires and pitfalls that can be (but not always are) unique to us.

Tripwire Number One: The Blank Page Syndrome

This is me staring at an entirely white screen, a frown on my face, a headache forming as I once again wish that I was a Plotter who always knew what needs to be written next. It happens. It happens a lot.

The goal then is to have a plan for when it happens.

My personal plan is simple. Walk away from the computer and go fold some laundry. (I have four kids; there is always laundry. On the rare occasion there isn’t, doing the dishes, cooking something, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and grooming animals also work.) I take with me a notepad of some sort with the last line I committed to the computer written across the top. As I fold/cook/clean/fix, my mind wanders and inevitably ends up on that notebook. (I see this all as boring-the-right-side-of-my-brain-into-action.) Ideas flare up as I work: Pictures. Voices. Motions. Maybe an entire paragraph of words. I race back to my desk and get it all down. Sometimes I’ll manage an entire scene. Sometimes just a few words, but always something comes. Then when I get stuck again, I return to folding laundry. (My house/life/animals get super clean when I’m struggling with a story.)

Now you don’t have to follow my plan for being stuck, but feel free to try if it helps. If you happen to be a Discovery Writer who already knows how to spark your creativity, let us know in the comments as there isn’t one right way to beat the blank page. The important thing is to have a plan ready when the blank page syndrome strikes.

The second tripwire works the same way.

Tripwire Number Two: The "I Wrote Myself Into a Corner" Syndrome

I’ve conquered my blank pages (and fired my housekeeper in the process). I’m at the 75% mark of the book. The protag is facing a Mt. Everest of a challenge (in skirts, with her alien best friend at her side). The love interest is being skewered (emotionally if not physically). All hope is lost. There’s no way out. They are all going to die (but in pretty clothes).

Err… Now what? This is supposed to be an HEA book after all.…

Being cornered is also something Discovery Writers just have to plan for. It happens to me every book, sometimes repeatedly, generally at the turning points and the climax of the story.

What I do is take my trusty notebook and write out exactly what the corner looks like. Where is the story stuck and unfixable? Why can’t my protag resolve the situation (or just plain old get out of it)? Then below this, I number 1-100. Or (when I’m feeling nonlinear) I write the problem dead center of the page and turn the whole thing into a brain map of bubbles and clouds.

I walk away from the computer (more laundry) and force myself to come up with 100 possible solutions regardless of how ridiculous or unrealistic they are. And they get crazy. And stupid. And so, so embarrassing that I’m not even going to give you any examples.

The goal is to get all the crazy answers out. Then once they are gone, my brain has no choice but to come up with something better.

The physical action of writing it all down via pen and paper is super important too. I see myself as freeing up the same part of my brain that insists I have to be a Discovery Writer in the first place. And it totally works. Good ideas do show up, usually after I’ve listed out 80 bad ones.

But that leads us to the one giant Pitfall that I’ve seen Discovery Writers fall into and sometimes never recover from.

Pitfall: "I’m a Discovery Writer, I Don’t Have to Worry About Story Structure" Syndrome

There are writers who never take a writing class, never attend a conference, never use a beta reader, who still go on to publish. It happens (I HATE that it happens. SO unfair), but the majority of us won’t ever do that. Yes, story structure is so ingrained in our culture and our mindsets that whether we understand it or not we will use it. But that’s not good enough. Story structure (whether you look at it from the perspective of Scene/Sequel, Hero’s Journey, Three-Act-Play (or better yet all three hand-in-hand)) needs to be the best-friend of Plotters and Discovery Writers alike.

Plotters do have an advantage in pre-planning their books around proper structure that Discovery Writer don’t, but there are things Discovery Writers can do to overcome this. The first, of course, is making sure we understand structure in the first place. If you don’t, drop everything and go learn it (I mean after you finish reading this article…) I recommend starting with books and classes written for screenwriters. They do a much better job of explaining story structure than craft books for novelists.

Then after the fun/torture of the first draft is done, Discovery Writers can back up and make sure all structure elements are in the right places, happening to the right people.  We can edit our way to good structure.

Sounds simple. And maybe even a bit obvious. But I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with writers who don’t bother to do this and take a "I’m a Discovery Writer, I trust it will all just work out" attitude. Again, for a lucky few, it probably does. For most of us, we need every advantage we can get. Proper story structure makes storytelling more effective and creates a more intuitive connection for readers.

Now, what I do is take it all a step further. In the corner of my office, I keep a giant white board with the three-act play drawn out in vinyl. I fill in the story with sticky notes as I go. This allows me to be hyper aware of my structure as I write, and I find the labels on structure give me ideas for story as I move forward. (Plus seeing my novel unfold visually is just hugely rewarding to me.)

So, there it is. Two tripwires that I fall over regularly and a pitfall I avoid. I wouldn’t be surprised though if other Discovery Writers have additional stumbling blocks in their way. If you do, please give them a share in the comments and explain how you beat them. Because while our stories do just spill out of us, that doesn’t make them a mess and it certainly doesn’t make them irredeemable. It just means our processes, our connection to creativity, and our related challenges are a little bit different.

Rachel Taylor is a YA Fantasy author repped by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Lit.  She can be found at www.racheltaylorwrites.com.


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