Friday, July 23, 2010

Re: Why Discovery Writing is the Best Writing Method Ever

Also titled, “Charlie PWNs Nathan. Maybe.”

Or, “In Defense of Outliners.”

Perhaps, “Nuh-uh, Outlining is Win, Fool.”

DISCLAIMER: I actually have nothing against discovery writing, I’m just defending outliners. One of my new favorite authors, Dan Wells, is a discovery writer. So there.

This is in response to this post. Comment for or against me below. :D


People don't usually plan what they say . . . . It isn't meticulous or plotted out. It just happens. Which is why discovery writing works better for this than outlining.

I don’t outline dialogue. There may be one of two places in a story outline where I have a great monologue idea and I type out a draft, but that’s it. Usually, if dialogue is necessary, I’ll write something like “Learn about Mary’s relationship with her father” and that’s that. I doubt anyone is anal enough to outline all the conversations in a book! I find this an invalid point.

However, if the author has planned out a scene for months down to every detail, it might show in their character actions. People might do something a little too well thought-out when the sudden plot twist appears, rather than react realistically.

By all means, characters are more natural when outlined because you already know what they’re generally like from the beginning of the story, you’re not trying to figure it out.

Brandon Sanderson once said that, when brainstorming, never keep the first idea that comes to your head, because that’s the obvious choice. The cliché answer. Discovery writing more often than not sticks with the first-idea, because that’s what spills out. There’s no planning. Therefore, discovery writing, on its first draft, at least, will be less original than a story that has been planned out.

Brandon Sanderson, by the way, is an outliner.

Which brings me to my blanket statement: Characters in outliners' books are robots, characters in discovery writers' books are real people. FACT.

False. When a writer takes time to plan his characters, they’re more likely to be different, original, and quirky—therefore more enjoyable to read about. Characters who go without planning have the potential to all sound the same. They’re just place-fillers until the author figures out what to do with them and where to throw them. Outliners start with a glass half-full. Discovery writers don’t even know which cup to use until act two.

You know what is boring? The Council of Elrond chapter in Lord of the Rings. Yes, I'm hating on what might be the greatest fantasy book ever, but every time I re-read that book I skip that chapter. You want to know why it's boring? Because it looks really good on paper or an outline, but in execution it is just a slogging infodump.


Due to overplanning and this need to follow an outline, all the life has been sucked away from a scene. Nothing seems spontaneous and new; it was all just a huge plan.

Disagree. Outlines aren’t as meticulous as you may think. They can be changed, added to, or subtracted from. David Farland even recommends this in his newsletter, David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants.

Outlining a scene forces you to consider it from all angles. When you reach it in a story, you already know its shape. You know all its sides and corners. You may discover a new one as you create it, but when you create it, you can show so much more because you took the time to think about it. Discovery writers haven’t taken this time—they’re scenes become two-dimensional and flat.

When you write as a discovery writer, you are bombarded with cool ideas all the time.

Many new writers who discovery write hit road blocks more frequently because they don’t know what to do next. Outliners already know where to take the story.

Anyway, people don't sit around in discovery written books.

Unless the writer doesn’t know what to do with him because he doesn’t know what’s happening in his story.

Lots of outliners sit at a desk with pages strewn everywhere, maps, pictures of various flora and fauna of their magical world, family trees, all that garbage.

Outliners also have less plot holes, less hanging storylines, and less inconsistencies. :D

People sit around a lot in books. I hate that. That's why I usually read YA, because the length constraint makes it so stuff is always going on. In most Epic Fantasy, people sit around all the time. And, hey, guess what? Most long-winded Epic Fantasy guys are planners, and YA authors are discovery writers. [. . .]

Planners have like four years of research to lean on. If they get stuck, they can just pull out chapter 34 and write that instead, because it's already planned ha ha. But you know what? You are just a wimp. Real men write with nothing.

What professional writer takes four years to research his story? Tolkien and Rothfuss aside. . .but they don’t publish yearly like others do.

Also, it sounds “wimpier” to publish short, YA fantasies than to take on the task of writing an actual epic. We go for 200,000 words. You settle for 75k.

Let's be honest here: everybody plans their first book. Nobody just sits down and starts writing. They write because they've had the BEST IDEA EVER (tm) for the past six years, and they are FINALLY WRITING THEIR MASTERPIECE (tm). They get pumped, tell all their relatives about their new career, and decide they are real authors now.

Then they write one chapter and never write any more. They just keep planning.

That is such an overgeneralization it’s ridiculous. A lot of new writers, discovery or no, don’t finish books. It’s because they’re amateurs. They’re new. All my first books I started I never finished. (I also discovery wrote them.)

I didn’t start finishing books until I could outline the whole thing on paper and knew I had a story.

POINT 6: Discovery Written Books are Shorter and Less Boring

Didn’t you already make this point? In point 3?

Anyway, that's the point: outliners can't just sit down and write whenever they want. They can't just pop out something super-fast.

On the contrary. I finished 1,000 words in about twenty minutes today. And I had an outline. :P I sit down and write daily without having to wonder what I’m supposed to do in the next scene . . . or the present one.

If they are given a writing prompt, they can't just "have an hour to write," they need more. They have to go over details, plans, characters, city names, distances, geography, language, religion, all this crap.

False. That’s already been done before we start, so we’re good to go.

As for your points as to why discovery writing sometimes doesn’t work—well, I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Excerpt of the day:

“You don’t hear them, do you?” he asked.
Singe listened, but only the sounds of crickets entered his ears. “What am I supposed to be hearing?”
Esrov shook his head, drawing his knees to his chest. “They cry, all the time, night and day.”
Singe raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“I don’t know,” the ghost answered. “Spirits. I can only see them when I’m like this, but. . .they don’t see me.”

The Raimos, chapter 22


  1. Pishaw, your points may be valid (and maybe a few are as overgeneralizingly ridiculous as mine :P), but my post was LONGER and therefore MORE CORRECT.

    Also Point 3 and Point 6 are the same because I discovery wrote it in class and didn't bother to edit because I'm lazy. Plus I needed more points, ha.

  2. I think you guys are both wrong. The council at Rivendell was awesome!

    Okay, seriously, I tend to agree more with John Brown, who claims that there is no such thing as a "discovery writer" or an "outliner," just different tools that work better or worse for different people and different projects. Brandon Sanderson describes himself as an "outliner," but his Alcatraz books came out with little to no planning. Dan Wells describes himself as a "discovery writer," but he also teaches an awesome workshop on outlining and meticulously outlines the endings of all of his books.

    I think it's more important to know yourself as a writer and figure out what works and what doesn't. For some people, outlining their characters will make them act like robots, but for others (like myself), filling out a character background sheet helps to flesh them out and make them three dimensional. Some people have an intuitive sense for where things need to go, and outlining in any detail makes it impossible for them to listen to that intuition and therefore kills the story. It's all about knowing who you are as a writer and customizing the tools to work for you.

    Also, I really did enjoy the council at Rivendell. Diplomatic representatives from all the races of the last great coalition against the Dark Forces, discussing and debating the proper course of action with the fate of the free world at stake--I dunno, I thought it was cool.

  3. Oh YEAH?

    Well, I'll council YOUR Rivendell!