Tuesday, October 05, 2010

New Buzz: Discovery Draft

Sometimes it's hard to label your writing process. There's plotter and there's pantser, of course. There are planners and "organic" writers. And of course there are combinations of all these things. Trying to figure out your process is hard enough, let alone labeling it. And then of course as your writing grows, so can your process, so what was true last year might not be exactly true now.

The RWR has been a great source of articles lately. First Jo Beverley talked about "writing into the mist" - how she is a complete pantser and that it's perfectly okay. I took a lot of comfort from reading that article, because there are a lot of plotters out there who look so organized when they lay out a new story. Then there are the people who need to know ahead of time what the story is about - and not some vague description. Actual things that happen. Character goals and motivations and conflict and OMG resolutions. People like your agent and your editor. It can be really difficult trying to come up with something solid when you JUST DON'T KNOW. It's easy to think you're doing something WRONG.

There was another article in the RWR about the "Discovery" phase - all that preplanning. Figuring out your characters, making a soundtrack, maybe a collage, conflicts, whatever. The idea is that doing all the ground work means that when you sit down to actually write the story you're better prepared. I like the idea, I really do. I really enjoyed the article. But for me, I had to take it a step further. Because I usually have pics, and music, and some backstory/character work done, and maybe even a prelim synopsis. I usually THINK about the story a lot. But honestly? The discovery phase lasts longer for me - to the end of the first draft. Because no matter what I *think* I know, I'm usually wrong. I discover things as I write. Things that sounded brill on paper don't work in the story, so I have to take a different tack. The characters show me bits about themselves that I didn't know until I put them in a certain situation at a certain time and asked myself WHY.

It takes a lot of pressure off knowing I don't have to have it all nailed down. That's what the first draft is for. I ALWAYS know more at the end than I did when I started, and so I go back and revise and layer things in or cut things out or just re-shape things. Symbols that I didn't know about in the beginning, I find closer to the end and I can go back and foreshadow. The thing is, I don't HAVE to know it beforehand. It's okay to discover it as I go - as long as the end product is COMPLETE.

I'm not the only one who has been talking about discovery drafts lately.  My CP Michelle Styles has been talking about how characters aren't fully rounded until you get to the end and you can go back and fill things in. You can't foreshadow things you don't know are important, so you go back and add richness, texture, resonance.

Julie Cohen says that too. Her first drafts are messy but once they are done she goes back and works her magic with an efficiency that is terrifying. Check out her post-its by clicking on her name.

The thing is, your process is your process, and if it works, don't try to mess with it. It might be tweaked for individual books; some are simply harder work than others. But if writing a "discovery draft" is what it takes for magic to happen? So be it. Maybe it takes you twice as long to write a book as someone else who works differently, but the goal is always the same - create the best read possible.

So how do you put something together for your agent and editor ahead of time? I still don't have the answer to that one. My current thing is a one page summary that hits on the hook, basic character goals, conflicts and motivations. But that might not work for you, and certainly not for every editor.

Hey, I didn't say it was perfect. :-)


  1. "I usually THINK about the story a lot. But honestly? The discovery phase lasts longer for me - to the end of the first draft. Because no matter what I *think* I know, I'm usually wrong. I discover things as I write. "

    This is exactly what I'm just discovering. Even as I become more of a planner, things still change that whole first draft. Great post!

  2. Brilliant article, Donna! And so very true. Most of my plotting and planning is done in my mind, depending on the story. Sometimes, I do a preliminary outline listing character and GMC details.

    For the one I started writing this past weekend I kept confusing myself and had to work up a family tree to make sure I had those details right. From that, I finalized (and I use the word loosely here!) the GMC sheet. One of my CP's helped with the general idea and a lot of brainstorming has taken place. This story is a little more risque than I usually write, but when the words are there, you go with the flow.

    Thanks for your take on things. It's always helpful to hear how the pubbed authors do things.

  3. "It's always helpful to hear how the pubbed authors do things."

    Oh Lorraine, it's a whole lot of trial and error and frustration, hair pulling and grinding of teeth. LOL Maybe that's part of my process too? :-)

    Nicole - whatever works, right? And I think that if you plan, as long as you allow yourself to go off the grid sometimes, you can discover some great things!

    I envy planners/plotters, I really do. Unfortunately, no matter how much I try, it doesn't gel for me. Which is why I might as well embrace my process rather than fight it.

  4. the best I do as a guide is write a one page synopsis before I start writing. Sometimes I fill out a template but never to the end and then I lose it halfway through.
    I write by long hand and then do my edits when am typing it out.

  5. Wonderful post Donna! Thanks so much :)

  6. I regularly break out in hives at the probability that one day I'll have to write a synopsis in order to sell a book before I've written it.