Discovery Writing

I am a discovery writer.  I have both a great love for and great frustration with my writing process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, discovery writing is figuring out what happens next in the story as it is written.  It’s writing with little-to-no outlining.  Writing by the seat of the pants, writing reflexively.

What I love:

  • Discovery writing is fun.  It’s all of the thrill of creating something awesome, plus the thrill of experiencing a new story, being along with the ride’s twists and turns.  It’s writing a book while reading it for the first time.  I must say, that is the biggest part of why I don’t outline or the like.  I love not knowing what is ahead.
  • The story quickly takes a life of its own.  Because it becomes its own entity (though one living in my head), it does things that I wouldn’t come up with if left to my own devices.  I don’t feel like I would be able to come up with the twists that the stories I’m putting into text form have on their own.  I know this seems like a weird idea– I am creating the story, after all, but I feel like if I’m trying to get it to conform to a plan, then I would miss out on far too many interesting arcs and directions that have happened organically in my writing.
  • My characters take on lives of their own.  One complaint I’ve heard from people who outline is that their characters frequently want to do things that they didn’t have planned for them.  Because I take the planning out of the equation I don’t have that issue, and they frequently surprise me in wonderful ways.  I feel that I don’t have the trouble of my stories being awkwardly forced into a storyline because my characters are making their own decisions.
  • My first drafts tend to come pretty quickly.  My first draft of Dark Art took, in total writing time, probably a quarter of the time I’ve put into it.  The story just kind of happened, and there’s hardly anything more thrilling than to have a little story world that’s taken form.  It’s the quick gratification that brought me into writing.  Now I just need to love the long haul more…

What drives me crazy:

  • Drafting.  As I’ve said, I don’t outline, but by the fact that I’m dealing with an existing story, writing later drafts of a story is very similar to writing with an outline.  In fact, it’s often more constraining than a list of points I want to hit in a story.  I love writing my first draft as a discovery writer, but when it’s time to buckle down and make my writing good I am out of practice in developing existing ideas and plans further.  Also, it becomes really difficult for me to jump from section to section, making changes early on to tie into something I’m fixing for late in the story or the like, because I’m in the mindset of writing a story from beginning to end, not sporadically as needed.  I’m experiencing this problem right now, as I’m working on a later draft of my horror novel-in-progress.  How I’m doing the drafting is inevitably going to result in several drafts more than I otherwise would need to do, so I’d better find a way to fix my approach at this point.
  • It’s really easy to get writers block.  Really, really easy.  I’ve found that because discovery writing is so much fun, whenever I hit one of the tricky spots that isn’t just “flowing right,” I stop working on a story/essay/blog post for much longer than I should.  Notice the time gap between this post and the previous one?  Yeah, things weren’t flowing, so I found it harder to make myself sit my butt down and write.  Ultimately, I’m letting my discovery writing process create excuses, and that clearly needs to stop.
  • It makes it easy to forget that writing is work.  This is both a blessing and a curse– I love writing, and much of the time I spend doing so I enjoy so much that it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life to make my living.  It’s wonderful to have that level of passion for something that is a viable career.  But, to actually make it a viable career I need to treat it like one.  I need to make myself work, so pushing through the rough spots, making myself write come hell or high water, is part of the gig.
  • I don’t know what’s coming next.  I’ve already mentioned that I love being surprised by my stories, but it also sucks in that I don’t have goals in writing.  I don’t know what to write toward, what to move my characters toward.  I feel like all too frequently my characters can fall into meaningless action or dialogue because, even if they have goals, I don’t.
  • It’s hard to pack in more after my first shot.  Because my story has given me surprises all along the way, it’s very tricky to make future additions fit in as well.  I do make interesting discoveries, things I missed, while I’m revising, but adding compelling subplots, side characters, compelling dialogue– it doesn’t come quite as naturally to me.
  • Prewriting and worldbuilding is more difficult.  I’ve recently found that I really enjoy writing things that don’t go into the finished text– writing the things that make their way into the story subtextually.  Since I tend to discover things as I go along, it’s hard to get to know my characters and world as much as I really should before I dig in to the storyline.  I need to make myself do a lot more of this while I write that first draft, because doing so to help color later drafts is helping me a great deal, and I love it.

Now that I’ve written this all down, this seems like I’m really just saying that writing is hard work sometimes.  For discovery writers, the bulk of the hard work comes after the first draft or where ever the story slows down.  For outliners, the hardest work seems to come with the planning process, then with ironing things out to work with the plan, or figuring out how to adapt the plan to make a better story.  Either way, it’s worth the effort.  There’s nothing quite like putting a story to paper.

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Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I love how our brains have the capability of creating a story without us. All of our synapses working together with our conscious and subconscious. Discovery writing is like a brain exercise. Great post!


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