Discoveries in outlining

The three gentlemen (and lately a lady, too) over at Writing Excuses often talk about how some writers are “Discovery Writers”, people who just start writing and let the plot come to them as they go, and others are “Outliners”, people who need to sit down and draft out the structure of the novel before they begin. Up until I started listening to their podcasts I was a discover writer. I didn’t know there was any other way to do it. Somehow planning out a book or story just never occurred to me.

The first draft of my latest novel was more or less discovery-written. I had a very rough outline sketched out, but not only wasn’t it useful, but it didn’t even last for more than couple chapters before I’d already veered off on another tangent altogether. I had no idea how the novel was going to end until I got there–and I wasn’t satisfied with it anyway.

So on the second draft I decided to give outlining a try. I’m still working my way through the outline (it’s about 6000 words at present), but based on what I’ve experienced so far, this is how I will be working from now on.

However, it’s also occurred to me that all writing is discovery writing. It’s just a matter of when you do it. For the “pure” discovery writer your first draft is the discovery writing phase, and everything after that is revision.

For outliners, though, I would suggest that the world-building and outlining is your discovery writing. That’s where you try your brainstorming and deep thinking. The actual writing of the novel from that outline and prep-work is actually just hanging prose on the skeleton, so to speak. Yes, you’re writing something that’s technically new, but it’s all growing out from what work you already did.

Not that it matters. The trick is finding the method, or mix of methods, that works for you. What I find I like most about outlining so far is that it gives me a chance to discovery-write my novel with the minimal amount of waste. If I decide aspects of the plot aren’t working I only have to change a few hundred to a few thousand words to fix it, rather than throwing away entire chapters of a novel.

It’s like working with a blueprint instead of the framed structure of a house. Changes to the blueprint take only a few minutes to make. Re-framing a house takes a lot  time and expense. With a blueprint you may not be able to picture the completed version of the house, but you can picture it well enough to identify potential problems.

My outlining has already helped me identify characters and settings that I haven’t developed yet. Now I have time to work on those missing pieces before I get to where they need to go in the story, and they can be fully-developed ideas when I get there instead of improvised skeletons that hold their place in the story, but really will need to be fleshed out in a later pass.

That’s not to say I expect to get this draft right the first try. I’m sure there will be more drafts and revisions. But hopefully the work will be less than if I continued to launch myself at an empty file and start writing the first thing that comes into my head.

Of course only time and practice can really tell me what works. I’m not done with the outlining experiment, and won’t be until I finish the second draft. I’ll report back then with thoughts and stories about how it went.

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