Discovery Writing vs. Outlining

I am a discovery writer.

What does that mean? Well, to put it bluntly, it means I’m making shit up as I go along. Yup, I’m a fly by the seat of my pants, pull a plot twist out of my ass, outline-less kind of girl.

I don’t know which process is better, but there are famous writers who use both methods. Jim Butcher told a podcast interviewer that for years he refused to write outlines and so kept writing crappy books. Once, to prove to his writing teacher that an outline wouldn’t help, he made one and subsequently wrote the first book of the Dresden Files. Eleven books later, he still seems to think that’s the right way to go. On the other hand, we have Diana Gabaldon, another wildly successful novelist, who has famously said that she skips back and forth over a scene, writing scenes in any order, and doesn’t put them together into a narrative until she reaches the end of the book.

I follow something more akin to the second process, though at this stage I’m writing vaguely in chronological order. I hate outlines. I do have a timeline, however, which provides milestone scenes for me to aim toward.

So, how do I write? Usually when I start writing a scene, I know what I’m trying to accomplish with it, but I don’t know exactly what will happen, line by line, unless I’ve been obsessing about it for awhile.  I had a very rewarding experience this week in which I started writing a scene, thought it was crap, dragged another character into it, and voila! It magically had an interesting lead-up to what I knew needed to happen.

Benefits of this process? It lets the characters lead the way. I never have to muscle them into doing something that doesn’t fit their personality or plot arc.

Downsides? I meander. The book is probably 25,000 words overweight at this stage. Sometimes I sit and stare at a blank screen for a long time before I get started, just because I’m not sure where I’m going.

But I also get to maintain my Scarlett O’Hara, “I won’t think about that today; I’ll think about that tomorrow” mindset. A lot of writers quit writing early because they start editing and get bogged down, but because I don’t worry about everything being perfect the first time around, I get a lot done. I’ll revise when the complete rough draft is finished. “Think of your first discovery written draft as a really extensive outline,” Dan Wells said on Writing Excuses. And I am.

Still, would it save me a lot of time and effort down the road if I outlined? How do you write? Persuade me that I should change my unstructured ways.

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One thought on “Discovery Writing vs. Outlining

  1. Most of the time, I am blindsided by an idea. Sometimes a single scene makes its way into my brain. There are also times when I have a brief “Woah, you know what I’ve never seen done before?” and so on.
    Once I have the idea, I try to expand on it and answer a couple of questions: What brings me to this idea happening? What happens after this scene? Who are these people involved? What drove them here? Questions like these are answered over time for most things I work on. My current project, however, is not going in a specific way. I found that I had created a world before there was an actual event or character. I’ve created a constantly revised treatment of a story, that changes every few days or so until I feel I have enough of it nailed down. The reason I’m doing it this way, though, is because of the contest. I would like to see what I can do if I just started something with only a vague outline, but I’ve put everything else on hold until the end of November.

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