Story Crafting: Discovery Outlining

Happy Friday everyone! Wow, what a week! Not only did I finish incorporating the edits on Covenant provided by Tammy Salyer, I’ve started trying to retrain myself to type using only one space between sentences. It’s super difficult, and the rest of this blog post had inconsistent spacing for it. Ah well.

Anyway, the week got away from me, and here it is Thursday night again, time for another blog post. What to write about? How about writing!

People ask writers how they write a book. Do we outline, or set a start point and see where it goes? The community seems to break this down into two archetypes of writers: outliners, and discovery writers. (In reality, most people are probably somewhere in between on a spectrum rather than absolutes).

In brief: outliners detail out every scene, crafting a logical plot, and then they stick to it. Writing involves following and fleshing out the outline. This can make a tight, well integrated plot, but may leave less room for characters to grow organically. Discovery writing involves creating a setting and detailed characters, plopping them down in a situation, and then see where it goes without really knowing where it goes.

In discussing the process with Tammy, she told me, “Ah!  So, you’re a discovery writer!”  At first, I reacted defensively to this… “Well, oh no!” I thought. Why?

Because I never like to be thought of as aimless and meandering.  Discovery writing is hard, and as much as I love Robert Jordan, DUDE!  Have you seen how long that series is? And, he planned it as a trilogy. It’s sad, because this is perhaps one of my favorite fantasy series, but I don’t think I could recommend it to anyone. Similar criticism has been levied against the awesome work of George R. R. Martin… (which, admittedly, I’ve not read past book 1 yet, but I will… I’m repeating what I’ve heard from friends): how many books are out, and winter is still coming? Oh, and don’t get attached to any characters.

After reflecting further, Tammy is right. I am a discovery writer, but not an absolute one… I do write with an outline, but the outline often changes and gets tweaked after every chapter.

I carry around a black Moleskin notebook with me. I jot down key questions to solve, character motives, and then keep a story arc outline going. Then I write a 1 to 3 chapter outline at medium detail. Sometimes I jot down scene ideas for the chapter on which I’m currently molding. But, the thing is, once I sit down at the word processor, I think of the outline as more of a guideline. Characters tend to have their own opinions, and I tend to write scenes inspirationally rather than deliberately.  So, after every chapter or two, I refresh and go back to my Moleskine notebook, and re-do the outline from memory.  Stuff gets changed.

When I wrote the opening chapter of Lightfall, I wasn’t sure where it was going. I knew the back story in significant detail… the Dragon avatars, the fall of Artalon, and the death of the God-King and the Black Dragon. All that was clear in my mind. But, what about this young elven woman who manifested as a fully grown adult, with faerie memories knocking around in her brain? I had a vague idea that she would be swept off to a troll society and they would teach her to become a druid.  I knew I wanted to do a story of a nature-based society warring against civilization, and the protagonist druid would ultimately turn against her mentors and take the stance that civilization is also natural.

However, I knew this wasn’t the larger plot. It was important to Aradma’s development, and there are scenes in Part 2 of Lightfall that act as a bit of a prelude to the rest of the series, but that situation resolves itself rather early in the trilogy.

The overall theme of rational enlightenment carries through the entire trilogy, and the larger question of gods, and a skeptic’s role in a magical world, started to develop.  By the time I finished part 1 of Lightfall, before Aradma even began her druidic training, I knew where the trilogy would end. (And, I’m not going to tell you now!)

There are many paths to an end. As I’ve written Lightfall, and Covenant, and now as I’m in the process of The Tides of Artalon, I’ve kept the larger story on track to the end-game.  There is a coherent destination. However, there are many paths to a given destination, and that’s some of the fun in writing.

The characters have surprised me. Eszhira was supposed to die at the end of Lightfall, but when I got there, the story demanded she live. Other characters I’d not planned on killing off have met their end. It’s been a delightful experience writing this series, even while keeping it on track towards its final destination. (I promise you, unlike Battlestar Galactica, I do have a plan, and things in Tides are converging back to the original vision). Some characters have unexpectedly betrayed the protagonists.

The challenge of organic writing is that side characters sometimes get an unplanned amount of time.  The more time they get, the more they demand to be brought back… otherwise you risk plot imbalance, or them seeming very much like plot devices.

When I started Book 3, I told one of my beta readers that I didn’t know what I was going to do with Seredith (a relatively minor, if neat, character from the first two books).  I could finish the series and never come back to her character at all in Book 3.  My reader told me I must not do this. Now, Seredith has become a central character in Tides, and some seemingly short story arcs in Part 1 of Lightfall have taken on significance in the series’ finale. I’m thrilled everything is coming back full circle to the beginning.

However, it’s not always been easy.  I’ve found, as a mostly-discovery writer, much of the job hinges around channeling tangents back into the main arc in order to: add richness; avoid them seeming like earlier plot devices, and do it in such a way that appears as if it was pre-planned.  (note to you all: every bit of brilliance was pre-planned, and nothing was accidental.  You believe me, right? I didn’t think so.)

To wrap this up, Tammy recommended an episode of Writing Excuses talking about the genre of Epic Fantasy (as distinct from Heroic Fantasy). It’s a great episode, so I thought I would share. [the direct mp3 link is here if you want to listen straight from your browser] After listening to this episode, I’m comfortable calling The Ahmbren Chronicles a work of epic fantasy.

Cheers until next week!


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