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This Writing Life: My Discovery Writing Experiment

15 January, 2011

As I talked about in my last post, this week I finished the first draft of a novel. In that post, I also alluded to something that I want to talk about in more detail: my experiment in writing a novel without an outline.

Now, this wasn’t something I set out to do in the beginning. Before I started the novel, I had dutifully begun making notes and formulating the start of the plot. Somewhere in the midst of all that though, I decided to just start writing. What I ended up having was a middle and an idea for an end, but little clear idea of anything that would happen in the middle. I generally planned just one or two scenes ahead, deciding what would happen next based purely on how the previous scenes turned out when written.

In one way, this was clearly a success: I finished the novel. I’ll freely admit that I frequently struggled though, both to keep myself motivated (having no major set-pieces or exciting scenes that I was writing toward made getting through the middle of the book hard work) and to decide what would happen next. This latter was confounded by the sheer number of characters and plot strands I’d saddled myself with. Deciding which one to return to at any one time was mostly arbitrary and several of them petered out before the end of the book (or suddenly reemerged at the end, after having last appeared in the first 30k words).

However, I’ve come to the conclusion that using discovery writing wasn’t the reason that I struggled. In fact, for the first-person POV that I was writing, it worked very well. The problem was my lack of planning before I started writing. My world was hazy and, more importantly, so were my characters’ motivations. That second point was my real problem, as it was difficult to know what to write next when I didn’t know what my characters wanted.

Will I use discovery writing again? Probably, because every book demands to be written in a different way. However, next time I’ll make sure to have done a lot more background planning and world-building first, to ease the story along its way.

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