This article was originally published in the September, 2010 issue of Romance Writer’s Report. I wrote it because I love talking about Discovery, and also because a lot of people have no idea what I’m talking about when I do! Enjoy!
In On Writing, Stephen King defines books as “found things,” stories that already exist out there in the ether, waiting for the writer to come find them and dig them out. I think this is true, and it’s all well and good, but the question is, how do you dig them out, exactly? How do you find the story you want to tell, and what tools do you use to discover it there, hidden away to everyone but you, the one writer in the world who was born to tell that one particular story?
That’s discovery, a process by which you find and unearth your story so that you can weave it into a cohesive narrative, ready for the reader to be whisked away to the world you created.
So, let’s get started, shall we?
What Is Discovery?
Discovery is the process by which you discover your story, and if you write, you’re already doing it. You know how you get in the car to go to the grocery store, and on the way you get a scene in your head, and you have to pull over to write it down, or you grab your handy voice recorder and dictate? That’s discovery. Any time an idea comes to you about your story, you are discovering that story.
Discovery will have its pound of flesh, one way or the other.
“Well, great,” you think. “So, big deal. I’m already doing it. What’s the problem?”
The problem is simply this: Writers tend not to value their discovery process, and in so doing, both the writing and the writer suffer. The writing suffers because the writer does not know her book well enough and so will have a greater tendency to go down random hallways that lead nowhere, instead of referencing her map of what the book is about. In running down all those random hallways, the writer suffers a drain on her energy and is more prone to that awful panic that comes when she’s not sure how she’s going to figure her way out of this story.
Plus, the bottom line is: discovery will have its pound of flesh, one way or the other. Eventually, the book will get figured out. It will be discovered and written the way it was intended—it’s just a matter of whether it happens on your terms or its.
On your terms, you decide when you will have your discovery process; you run the show. You give yourself three weeks, six weeks, 10 days—whatever you’ve got to give—in which you will actively not write. Or, at least, you won’t write with the intention that your work go into the book. You give yourself this time to indulge in soundtracks and collages, to read and watch movies and television, and, most importantly, to do your discovery writing.
As a matter of fact, you know those three chapters you are always being told, or always telling others, to cut from the beginning of the book? That’s discovery writing: information the writer needs to know but the reader does not. If you write those snippets during the discovery phase, you will be able to relax, get the value you need out of it, and set it aside, saving yourself and your beta readers much time and heartache.
On its terms, discovery will find you smack in the middle of the second act, sit its fat butt down on your manuscript, and overwhelm you with writer’s block until you pay the toll, which is, quite simply, time and attention. Eventually, once the panic subsides, and you relax and let your writer’s mind figure out the problem, you’ll get your answer and be able to move forward. Then, you’ll have to go back and rework everything you’ve done up until now because you didn’t discover that pivotal information up front.
This is not to say I guarantee you a smooth ride in the writing if you do discovery up front—that’s a snake oil promise if ever there was one. Some books glide along behind us like tame ponies, and others are mules bent on our inevitable destruction. That’s all luck of the draw.
But, I can tell you the writing will be a less painful and less time-consuming process. You will know immediately that it is discovery that is blocking you. You will know not to panic. You will take out your soundtrack and your collage and whatever else you use to unlock your access to that magical part of you that knows this story, and you will listen. Your answers will come faster, and the emotional toll it takes on you will be lessened.
Really, truly, a few fun weeks of your time up front to save you emotional toil and precious time on the back end? I think that’s a hell of a deal.
I’m Sold. So, How Do You Do Discovery?
Mostly, you follow one simple rule: don’t allow yourself to play; require it.
Believe it or not, the hardest part of discovery for most writers to accept is the fact that they are supposed to be enjoy- ing themselves. Ideas spark from a filled creative well, and in order to fill that well, you must do things that inspire you, that are fun. Listening to music, watching movies and television, indulging in creative hobbies: these are the things that you did in your “spare” time before, which you have now converted to “writing” time, and, so, suddenly, if you’re not suffering, it’s not work. Trust me, it’s work; it’s important, and you must enjoy it.
So, dump that dusty old work ethic that tells you you’re being lazy and self-indulgent, and go with it. Your job, for this period of time, is to indulge and enjoy your creativity. The cre- ative well that results will power you while you search the ether for the puzzle of your story, gathering piece by piece, until you know your characters, your setting, what your story is about and, most importantly, why you want to tell it.
But, also know this: discovery is not plotting. This isn’t where you figure out your turning points or your climax, although you certainly can. Discovery is where you find the pieces; fitting them all together comes later. If you’re a plot- ter, it’ll come before you write. If you’re a pantser, it’ll come during. But, to have the pieces ready and gathered before you start writing—that’s the trick. That’s discovery.
And here’s how you do it.
Five Ways You Can Fuel-Inject Your Discovery Process
(1) Read at least one book a week.
Most writers start out as voracious readers, and then some- where along the way in our writing, we find we have less time to read, especially if we want to make time to write. The thing is, throughout all of the three phases of writing (discovery, writing and revision), it’s important to find the time to read, always, as much as possible, as often as possible.
Listen to audiobooks while exercising, doing chores or commuting to work. Tuck a novel or an e-reader into your bag or briefcase for those moments when you’re waiting for a meeting to start. Set a book on your bedside table to read for the last 30 minutes before bedtime. Every word you read fills that creative well of inspiration, and some of your puzzle pieces can be hidden or pointed to in the works of others.* Return to the source from which your well first sprung; have a book handy at every turn.
(2) Create a soundtrack.
For every book, I create a soundtrack of songs that relate to particular characters, scenes, or themes specific to that book, and I listen to this soundtrack throughout the entire process— while discovering, writing, and revising.
The key to the soundtrack in discovery is repetition. Pick out 10 to 30 songs, new or relatively unfamiliar to you, that you can play over and over again while you think about the book. Put your playlist on multiple CDs for every stereo in your world, or put it on your MP3 player and take it every- where with you. Listen while exercising, while driving, while doing the dishes, while painting the closet, and as you listen, try to keep your mind on the book.
As time goes by, you will find that your mind has associated this book with those songs, and when you’re stuck any- where in the writing process, you can pull out that soundtrack and listen for a while, and puzzle pieces will start to show themselves to you extemporaneously as you do other things. Keep a notebook handy to jot them down as you gather them.
(3) Do a collage.
You may think collaging isn’t your thing; that’s what I always thought because I’m not naturally a very visual storyteller. But it’s to people like us, who look at collage and think, “Meh,” that it has the most value. We’re strengthening our visual sense of the story and its setting, which helps us gather up the more visual puzzle pieces and helps tremendously in description, which tends to be a challenge for people who are not as visually oriented.
There are many different ways to do collage: you can go traditional with scissors and glue and a foam core board, or you can get all 21st century and create one digitally in Photoshop or your favorite imaging software. You can do multiple pages in a scrapbook, or you can set a ribbon board on a shelf and fill it with items and pictures your heroine might have in her home.
Don’t worry if it’s pretty; what the collage must do is engage your visual sense of your story, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be a stunning work of art to do that; it just has to be something that appeals to you, something that feels like the book. This is the most direct application of the puzzle metaphor because what you put in a collage literally looks like puzzle pieces. A photo of an English garden in a magazine, a particular picture of a TV star you’ve printed from your computer: all of these elements are little puzzle pieces that, once gathered into a cohesive whole, will visually represent the puzzle for you. Keeping it in the room where you write will help a great deal throughout the writing process.
(4) Engage in creative hobbies.
If you already knit or crochet or cross-stitch, this is the time to engage in those hobbies. Work on projects you can do with your eyes closed—myself, I make socks—and listen to your soundtrack, watch a movie, or listen to an audiobook while you do it.
The reason we get so many breakthroughs while driving is because, for most of us, it’s something of an automatic process. It engages the part of your brain that likes to have stuff to do and allows the rest of your brain to float off else- where and create. It’s much less dangerous to suddenly stop knitting to jot down your gathered puzzle pieces than it is to suddenly stop driving. So, if you’ve got a creative hobby you’re already familiar with, gather up some simple projects to do while you discover.
(5) Watch movies and television that inspire you.
In the same way that books are inspiring, all storytelling is inspiring; this is another great source of puzzle pieces. If you’ve picked out placeholders for your book—actors and actresses who will “play” the parts in your head while you’re getting to know your characters—then watch some of their movies. If you’re writing suspense, watch suspenseful films; comedy, go for the funny. Movies and television get you in the storytelling zone; Netflix or your local library are wonderful resources for this part of your discovery work.
So, That’s It? Play, Read, Make a Soundtrack?
That’s it! And once you’re done with the bulk of your discovery process—you’re never really done until the book is written and fully revised—you can gather up the puzzle pieces you’ve accumulated and lay them out. As you write, you will pick up some of the pieces you’ve gathered, the ones that are most relevant to the now of your story, and weave them into your narrative.
You will find many of the puzzle pieces will fit together in chunks, giving you entire sequences of scenes, while others simply become relevant to one moment in the story, and snapping that piece in will make it richer, deeper, and more meaningful for you and your reader. Some pieces will never make it into the book; others might wait for a sequel. But all of them inform your experience of writing the book; all of them enrich it, even when they don’t make a front stage appearance, and they all matter.
So, go forth and discover the puzzle pieces of your story. They’re right out there, just waiting for you to find them.
* Author’s note: This is not plagiarism; to be inspired by the work of another writer is a time-honored tradition. To copy or loosely paraphrase paragraphs on the whole is a crime. Big difference.