I’m a planner when it comes to novel writing — no surprise if you’ve read Super Simple Story Structure.
Once I have my overall plot in mind, I first draft pretty quickly. But finishing a novel always takes longer than I expect.
I think I finally know why.
I tend to forget about the time and effort needed to go from the initial idea for a novel to figuring out the plot.
There’s a name for this phase of writing a novel (or other type of story).
It’s called discovery. Until recently, I was mostly unaware I was doing it, so I failed to set aside enough time for it.
What Is Discovery?
I first heard the term “the discovery phase of writing” a year or two ago. I had a bad reaction to it because in law, discovery is a process that can be drawn out, frustrating, and stressful.
In litigation, discovery means asking the other side to give you information about its case and evidence. Attorneys argue a lot about what needs to be handed over to the other side.
That type of conflict is only fun for people who like to argue and make life difficult for everyone. (Not all attorneys like that! Seriously.)
In fiction, the discovery process is much more fun because you’re finding out about and expanding your characters, settings, themes, and story.
When I was practicing law full-time, I didn’t realize I was engaging in discovery for my fiction because it happened in odd moments.
At court while waiting for my case to be called I'd scribble notes about my character on a legal pad. Later, standing in line at a Corner Bakery, I might look at the people around me and imagine what they were thinking.
I thought of what I was doing as “daydreaming.” It didn’t seem like part of the writing process. It was a way to entertain myself when I was bored.
It also was a way to feel I was making progress on my novel despite having little time to put words on the page.
What I didn’t realize was it wasn’t just an illusion to make myself feel better. I really was making progress on my novel.
How To Do Discovery
Now that I’m devoting most of my time to writing, the discovery process is more purposeful and I’m more aware of it.
Some things you might do in discovery:
- Read Non-Fiction
This reading is different from research on specific topics. It's about big picture topics and themes that might or might not help generate more ideas or prompt turns and twists in your story.
For my second mystery in my new series, I've been reading websites aimed at immigrants to the U.S. from various countries and paying attention to newspaper articles about immigration. A missing woman in the book is an immigrant who overstayed her student visa.
(For more on the creative pluses of reading rather than watching the news, check out Reading The Newspaper Can Spark Ideas For Your Novel.)
I’m also reading books about causes of death (the photo at the top of this article is from a recent trip to the library).
Before so many images were available on the Internet I used to page through magazines and tear out photos of people who either looked like my characters or whom I found striking for one reason or another.
On the right is a photo of a magazine page that inspired the character of Erik Holmes, a wealthy CEO with an obsession about the end of the world and obscure religious cults in my Awakening series.
I also saved photos of outdoor and indoor scenes that evoked strong feelings.
Now I do the same thing but online through sites like Instagram and Pinterest. These sites also allow me to post and organize photos I take that relate somehow to my novels.
Watching documentaries is also great for prompting ideas and scenes.
Though I had no plan of including snake handling in my Awakening series, I happened to see a documentary on it. It solved an issue I had, which was how to put my protagonist in great danger without it being clear who was behind it. I chose a setting where snake handling was still practiced and plunged her into an underground cavern filled with rattlesnakes.
Many writers create collections of songs that fit their stories or characters.
It doesn’t mean that these songs would need to be played as a soundtrack if your book were a movie, though you can create a soundtrack if you like. But they are songs that suit a particular mood or character.
Choosing them helps figure out how the characters feel and what's happening in their lives.
I like to scribble in a notebook or on scratch paper, or type quickly into a document, random thoughts about my story and characters. Often I never look at these notes again.
The thoughts might or might not be directly related to the story. It's a way to hang out with my characters or explore how possible twists and turns might affect them.
Sometimes rather than writing, I pace and talk.
Concerts, art exhibits, garden or city walks, sporting events, and just about anything you attend that stimulates your mind and helps you relax can also be part of the discovery process. All trigger emotions and set your mind free to wander.
It doesn't matter if you love the event of not. Some of my best ideas for characters and plot developments came to me while sitting through a concert that bored me nearly to tears.
Why Do It
Embracing the discovery process can save you a lot of time later.
With my first mystery I had what I thought was a pretty solid first third of the book finished and a rough draft of the rest.
To my surprise, when I sent it to my story editor, her main response was that the mechanics of the plot seemed fine but, basically, who cares? Why does your main character do what she does and why does it matter to the reader?
Had I allowed myself more time for discovery, I likely would have developed more layered and engaging characters before plotting the book and writing the draft. But I didn't, so my rewriting process took three or four times as long as I'd expected.
Taking time to read and daydream and look at photos (or anything else from the above list) pushes me to really get to know my characters and consider different plot turns and twists I might have otherwise overlooked.
Though “push” is really the wrong word.
When I let myself spend time in discovery I don’t feel pushed at all. Instead, I feel relaxed and happy to be spending time with my characters in a place that isn’t about hitting word counts.
It reminds me of how I feel when I’m reading a novel I really love. It’s as if I am living in another world that’s amazing, fascinating, and heart wrenching.
If that’s the experience I want my readers to have, and it is, I need to be able to go there myself first.
I started this purposeful discovery process about two weeks ago for my second mystery novel (working title The Charming Man).
I’ve been shifting between creating a rough outline and doing more reading, meandering, and discovering. We’ll see if overall this results in less rewriting than I did for the first one.
That’s all for now.
Until next Friday —
L. M. Lilly
P.S. For help on developing your characters, you can download my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.