Outlining vs Discovery Writing pt. II

Outlining vs Discovery Writing pt. II
Photo by N. / Unsplash

A little bit more about how I developed...

The previous post I gave a macroscopic view of how I shifted throughout the course of my novel from being a discovery writer earlier on, to an outliner later on. Today I thought it would be useful to dig a little deeper into what my discovery writing looked like, to give a more holistic view of what it was I was doing/how I was writing. Hopefully this will give insight to you to compare and contrast where you are, and you can take or leave things you think helpful.

There is a quick aside I want to take though, and it has to do with clarifying what outlining is actually doing in practice. A common conception I've learned from outliners when discussing their craft versus discovery writing is that outlining is in fact a form of discovery itself, but it is done so in a more parceled fashion. Where the discovery writer plods through their story, at times with brilliance, at times in a haphazard dash, the outliner does this in a smaller, more controlled fashion.

I think it is useful to see both styles in this respect as two ends of a continuum of creativity. In many ways, the outliner is just doing discovery writing in smaller bits, biting off pieces of the story inch by inch. The discovery writer, on the other hand, is very much then writing out their outline but doing so in a more fluent, singular swoop. They may be writing what they think is a story arc but in fact are just getting out the kinks in their outline, which has taken on a fuller scope than the one the outliner has fashioned, but is no less an outline itself. This was the case for me, in modified fashion. I can't say my first draft was an "outline"... but it served as such in practical use, and I grafted a more formal rubric onto it later on, using it to dissect and diagnose the plot.

I thought it was helpful to clarify this, as both the outliner and the pantser are "discovering" their story, but the difference is in the way they approach this discovery. The planner does it in methodical, patchwork fashion... and the pantser tries to swallow it whole. Their is something to be gained by each, I think. Whereas the outliner may have a much cleaner time in writing their first draft from their outline, the discovery writer has the added benefit that a whim of creativity can splash on their page.

This isn't to say that either is right or wrong, but is hopefully just some useful clarification.

Not a real image of me writing...

Back to the coffeeshops and diners, the time was somewhere in 2016-17. I had mentioned the ample amounts of free time I had, and I was using these hours with abandon. I had set my world down pretty much, having spent the better part of six months "world-building." For those that aren't fiction/fantasy writers, this is the art of fabricating ones own reality, the excuse of the man with leisure to humor his fugue states and his minds' eye in creating a world and cultures and histories (yes... because false histories have their uses too...) to inhabit it. I had set down many of the foundational pieces of Nishtar (my world), I had created characters with rough personality sketches, I had an overarching history in place, and I had a still-cloudy-but-approaching-crystalized view of what I wanted the great struggle of my world to be.

And so... I set to writing.

I've mentioned previously how Draft 1 was part discovery writing, part outline, and I think it is a safe approximation of the truth to say I likely completed most of this draft through discovery.

Writing this first draft was probably one of the more challenging things I've ever done. There were so many times where I didn't know where I was going on the small scale, but I knew where I wanted to get on a larger level. I knew my story from birds' eye view. I had an idea of the end of the book in mind probably after about 1/3 of the way through the first draft (after I scrapped those 70 pages I've mentioned before). That was always the battle for me, was knowing where I wanted to go on a macroscopic level, but not knowing the minutia that I needed to get the story there.

"Most of the time when I looked back on these passages, I realized that either it wasn't as bad as I'd thought, or if it was, that I had a much better idea of what I was really going for when I was struggling through."

Much of the kinks in Draft 0 (the 70 pages) allowed me to get some of these smaller ideas down. I'd worked out where I wanted one of my two main characters to come from, who he was, his backstory, and how he got dragged in. I also knew how I wanted the other character to intervene, what he was about and why he was involved. Getting the two characters together gave me some of these smaller events, and the smaller events I knew would serve as the narrative touchpoints I needed to get me to the bigger events.

There was also what I will call now a sort of "narrative gravity" of the bigger events of my story that drew the story forward. I knew that certain variables in my story (events and places and characters and motives) had to act in such a way for the big events to actualize, and so I wrote these accordingly...

But "wrote these accordingly" is hardly a statement that serves to explain. Much of this was me writing by feel, figuring out the details of what and how characters acted and functioned as I went. Always I had a constellation of story pieces in my mind that I used as a sort of narrative north-star, and I rubbed the sticks together of event/theme/setting/character... seeing what sparked.

No plots were harmed in the process...
no plots were harmed in the making of this blog...

This was immensely challenging, but after about a year or so of pushing, I had a stride. There were bits where I would stall, not sure how to write through, not sure what I needed to write in order for the story to progress. In these pieces I forced the story to continue, getting words on paper (some of which were next-to-useless, some of which are my favorite parts of the book). This "the show must go on" mentality is what drove me, this... and the beforementioned larger themes/events of the book. Once I knew how the ending was going to play out roughly, it drew me on inexorably, the characters pushing me to write them to it. It was almost as if they had grown their own motives, of their own accord. They had their own devices they were about, and the events in play had taken on movement of their own, and I had to only fill in the words according to what needed to happen.

This wasn't how it began initially, but I think that in writing--as in many areas of life--there is an amount of "faking it until you make it." It was almost like I was making heat with friction, my hands were cold, but once they got moving, things began to warm, the story began to open up. A lot of how I started was like this... I had some form of vague idea that I felt pulled to write to, but I had to ad lib my way there, the movement of my pen and my mind growing the story into place.

I think too a lot of what I felt was "forced" was really just my own insecurity and doubt in my ear, telling me that things weren't going to work as I was writing. Most of the time when I looked back on these passages, I realized that either it wasn't as bad as I'd thought, or if it was, that I had a much better idea of what I was really going for when I was struggling through. I would say that in hindsight, there would probably have been a benefit of outlining... but for me, my process evolved very much organically, and I think that is in part due to how my brain works. I have to externally process a lot of things, and so me going through draft 0 and a lot of my 1st draft before I implemented an outline makes sense. Others are able to think with more foresight, whereas I needed to hazard the story itself before I got my sea legs.

If you are somewhere in the doldrums of your first draft, my advice for you would be, KEEP GOING. Make the story happen, force yourself to write each day, and force the story to continue. What you write may be total trash, but it is at least a practice run. Don't let your own doubt outweigh your drive for what you see, what you know in your mind is something you want to create to. Doubt may fill an idle mind, but an active hand will silence it. Get that pen on that page, and make the story you see become a reality.

Make it happen!

-Jeff Beaupre