Discovery Writing: Finding Your Story One Layer at a Time

Hello, all you writers and readers and other such misfits.

I mention in my bio I’ve been actively writing since I was probably about 10 years old. Maybe 9. Maybe even 8. I was a kid lost in my own imagination, and learning how to transcribe that imagination down on paper was one of the best and most life-changing skills I ever learned.

I’ve always written fantasy. Talking animals and magic and worlds full of wonder and excitement. You can thank my Harry Potter-loving family and our endless trips to the woods for those feats. However, if you’re not a fantasy writer, I still think you might like what I have to say here. Neil Gaiman said it perfectly: “all fiction writing is fantasy.” Even if the world your characters are moving around in is almost identical to the one we currently live in, you’re still creating situations that never were and people that never will be, at least not exactly. Fiction writers, regardless of genre, are world-creators. Give yourself that credit, because you deserve it.

The main characters for my longest on-going work-in-progress (now under the working title Daughter of the Queen), came to me when I was about 13 years old. I was sitting in the back of my friends’ mother’s van when suddenly this beautiful, tall, dark-haired lady with blue eyes with slits for pupil’s like a cat’s shimmered into view of my mind’s eye. Her name was Thorn, and she would stay with me for years, long after that friend and I lost touch, into high school and college and graduate school. Even now as I approach life as a married woman and partake on the rough and rocky adventure of figuring out what I was to do with my life, she is there, sitting in the back of my head with a calm, almost sad expression on her face.

Thorn has been many things. In her first form, she was the lead singer of a failing band, an alcoholic, a hidden princess in our messed-up modern day world struggling to figure out how to get back to her kingdom before it could be destroyed. She wore leather jackets and spiked boots, and was just angry enough to be considered a totally awesome bad-ass in my on-fire adolescent brain. Even as I describe this now I can still see the images of those first few scenes I tried to write with her: sitting in a bar where a strange man finds he can’t look away from her, adjusting her sunglasses to hide her eyes from the stares and questions she would inevitably get should she expose them to the world. I realize now that this isn’t a bad story idea, and I might very well come back and play around with the idea. It, of course, would have to be a different character, for that story, as it turned out, wasn’t Thorn’s.

Nor was it the story based around the Wicca mythology I studied when I was 14 or 15. When I was 16, she became a faery, and that stuck. When I was 17-18, she became a faery princess struggling to save her kingdom from her uncle, a faery who had been exposed to Christianity and, not understanding it completely, wanted to find a way to bring it into their world, where it simply didn’t belong.

Yes, that stuck too. And there was a dragon, and a boy she would grow to love. And a brother she loved but didn’t trust and a kingdom that terrified as well as enthralled her and a baby being born for the first time in over a century.

Those all stuck too. And I messed with it. And messed with it and messed with it and messed with it.

There was something like four or five unfinished drafts, all containing these ideas and my struggles of figuring out what to do with them. I wrote and wrote and wrote and would trash an idea only to start again. I tried outlining and character profiles and maps, but really the best ways for me to figure out how the story was going to go was to write it and see what happened.

Then, I stopped writing. Not just that story, but all together. Even though those characters were still in my head, even though that world was still lying half-build just beneath my conscious mind. I stopped writing for little over two years.

During this time, I was dating a not-so-great guy who was STILL better than my first really abusive boyfriend and therefore seemed to me like he was made of gold.

I was finishing up my BA in English in a school I had quickly grown to hate made up of writing and English professors who didn’t get or like me.

I graduated.

I moved out of my parent’s house and in with a roommate.

I struggled to find work, and then got a job at a library I had loved as a visitor but grew to hate as an employee.

After almost a year, the roommate nearly burned down our apartment with my animals trapped inside (she was crazy), so I moved out of there before I was financially ready and then I was forced to pay higher rent and utilities along with buying food on a measly paycheck, while ALSO taking graduate classes.

And yes, I was still with the not-so-great boyfriend who made me feel so lonely I spent much of my nights crying my eyes out and my days hovering nervously around my phone, wondering if I would bother him too much by sending him a “how are you” text. (He the, “sorry, I’m busy” guy. You know the one.)

Then, the not-so-nice boyfriend and I broke up. I got a different job at a different library, one that was closer to where I was living in a department that I loved. I adopted another cat for the refugee buddy to be friends with, and met my now fiancée. In 6 months, my now-fiancée and I were getting ready to move in together. We found a place – our now home – that was perfect and had space for an office that would fit both our desks so we could work together.

Now, he knew I was a writer, and he knew I had stopped writing. He encouraged me to start again, and eventually I did. With two more years of life experience behind me. Two wild, crazy, jarring, emotional years, and it was about time that I put them to use.

Last May, I sat down and said hello to Thorn and her world again. I started from scratch, and by the end of the summer I had 53k words of a very, VERY different story than the one I been writing (or rather, struggling to write) when I was in high school and college. Yes, she was still a faery, yes, there was a dragon, yes, there was still a brother and a baby and a complicated court and an even more complicated bad guy. But it was different, and took a real shape for the first time in over a decade right beneath my fingers. It’s a mess of a first draft, but when I return to it (I finished in September and swore I would wait another year before going back to it), I now know what needs to be altered added. For the first time in over a decade, I have Thorn’s story as it should be.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: Great story, Bec. What’s your point?

Well, I want to back-track a little to the months before I wrote this complete draft and even the years before that. I, like many of you, was constantly told there was a “right” and “wrong” way to tell a story. When writing all those previous drafts, I realized I was telling the story the “wrong” way. I would stop whatever I was doing and try to do it the “right” way – and then would quickly stop all together because that way didn’t work for me. Since that way didn’t work, I assumed I didn’t deserve to tell a story.

Well, you know from my last post that that is complete and utter BULLSHIT, but that doesn’t stop many of us – myself included – from being paralyzed with fear over not fitting into the mold that supposedly has been set for us by our academic creative writing teachers and people on the internet who think they know everything. I stopped writing because I thought I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t ever going to be good enough, and because I was told again and again that if I couldn’t do things the “right” way, then I shouldn’t do them at all.

In the months before I started that new draft, I found some wonderful things. Yes, I’d stopped writing, but there was always a part of me that considered itself a writer, that would be looking for writing blogs and books and whatever else out there that offered to teach me something more about the world of storytelling.

Sometime in March of 2018, I read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert and found my urge to create growing somewhere behind my heart. Then, I stumbled upon Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing Podcast, and I became totally addicted.

Those of you who read my last post probably recognize these as part of that “supplemental sources” list I included at the bottom of the page. Well folks, they are there for a reason. Gilbert’s message to readers of Big Magic is to give the finger to the nay-sayers and create what you love, even if you never end up becoming the best of the best or famous for it. If you create for yourself, then that’s enough.

Lafferty’s podcast is for wannabe fiction writers looking for tips and tricks of the trade. The episodes are deeply honest and heartfelt, as Lafferty talks to you about what it’s like being a full-time writer with depression, and the different things she’s learned about herself and the industry over the years of her journey. She also brings on other authors to interview and will answer questions she gets either by email or on Twitter.

I can’t remember what episode it was, or what author was being interviewed at the time, but she and Lafferty were talking about the creative processes. Lafferty mentioned something about being a “discovery writer,” and suddenly it was one of those moments see in movies where everything freezes as sudden realization dawns on the protagonist. Only the epiphany didn’t happen to some character in a movie: it happened to yours truly.

It was a throw away comment, something she didn’t bother to explain. I don’t even think they really talked about it more, and if they did, I don’t remember what was said. But even without her definition of the word, I knew exactly what it meant, and I knew that I was one, too.

A discovery writer is someone who discovers the story as she goes.

Literally making the shit up as she goes along.

There might be some planning, some outlining, but the reality is she’s got an idea, a notebook, and a pen, and therefor enough to keep her going, probably for a full draft. Of course that means that that first draft is MESSY. But by golly, it gets written! And that’s the important part.

Discovery writing, however, does not fit into the mold of doing things “the right way.” “The right way” said you have to have an outline, a world-building chart, all your research done and laid out in front of you, another outline, a list of all your major characters, a list of all your minor characters, the ability to straighten every hair on a camel’s backside, and the power to make all the planets align with a single wave of your hand. It is only after these tasks have been achieved that you can start to write.

Yeah. Bullshit. Bull. FUCKING. Shit.

Learning this term changed the world for me. It somehow gave me the permission I’ve been seeking since I started writing as a little, little kid. It allowed me to do what I was best at, which was explore all the potential the world inside me has to offer, and string together a story as I go along.

The reason why I spent so much time at the beginning of this post laying out all the different forms of Thorn’s story over the years I was writing it was because it outlines the path of discovery I took.

And when that path of discovery became fully open to me just by hearing the identifying term, I suddenly was able to get up the courage to write a messy, horrible, disjointed first draft of the story as it was probably always meant to be.

But you know how I got there?

I set off on my grand ship with my loyal crew of pens and notebooks and my first mate Laptop with nothing but a poorly drawn map and a cracked spyglass. With no real destination in mind I found the hidden islands I was always meant to find. And I did it without going through the “right way” rituals I listed above, and it WORKED. (Take THAT, You Bitchy Professor in College That Shall Not Be Named).

Once I have discovered the story in its most raw form, I can begin the processes of honing it down to the diamond beneath the rough. Through editing and re-writing, every draft will get a little better, a little closer to the form I want it to be in. It’s the same process I’m going through right now with my latest work in progress. I mentioned earlier that I started this one by throwing 34k words at a word document, but I’ve gone through and figured out what needed to be added and taken a way, and draft by draft, layer by layer, I’m finding the story.

Here’s the loose moral to this ranting, raving post: it’s great if you know the ending of your story. It’s even better if you have all the details hashed out and you think you know exactly how things are going to play out when you sit down and start writing.

But let me tell you what I’ve discovered (pun intended) over these last 15 years of being a writer: When you’re sitting there, writing that first draft, you are not in control.

Rather, you are a mere creative vassal these people that never where in places that never will be are using to tell their stories. And it is not going to go the way you thought it would when you made your outline, and that’s a good thing.

Let it be free. Let it be messy. Let your characters do and say outrageous things, because that is how you really get to know the story. With every draft you write, you gain a little more control, and the relationship between you and your characters changes from a parasitic one to a partnership (well, more of a partnership, anyway). Let yourself discover the story, one draft at a time. If you let yourself learn something new each time you come back to it, your story will only continue to get better.

It’s a good thing if your story isn’t going as you planned or if your characters keep surprising you. That means they’re alive. Remember: you are the first person, the first point of contact with this new world you have created. Do you want your readers to fall in love with your characters, enjoy watching them grow, become immersed in the world you’ve created? If your answer to those questions is “yes,” (and I hope they are, or else it sounds like you’re writing a text book), then you have to experience those emotions first.

Mur Lafferty gave me permission to embrace being a discovery writer when she gave me the very term that defined the whole of my writing up until that point. I’m now giving you the permission to do the same, or at least allow it to be included in your “right way” ritualistic process.

So go, writers. Write messy horrible first drafts with surprises at every turn. Let your characters take the wheel. Even if it looks like they’re about to crash the whole bus into the sea, because you won’t be disappointed with what you find at the bottom of the ocean.

R.F.

© 2019, Rebecca K. Fisher

Published by Rebecca

Freelance content writer for eco-conscious businesses and non-profits. Lover of books, animals, and trees. YA fiction writer with THREE on-going WIPs.

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