Maintaining that Sense of Discovery

I’ve been collecting author processes for a while. It’s one of things I always ask other novelists when I get the chance. Do you just start writing and produce incomprehensible garbage that you then go back over and revise a hundred times? Do you write an outline and then add detail until it becomes a novel? I’ve read excellent books produced all across this spectrum, but contemplation of actually writing like either extreme has always made me shudder.

This week I figured out why. As an author, I require a sense of discovery from my work.

Let me back up. I’m an English teacher. Teaching is what makes the money, and that will continue to be true for some time, even if my writing carrier takes off. That means if I’m writing rather than working or spending time with my family, that writing has got to be fun.

Fun writing, for me, is much the same as entertaining reading. “What’s going to happen next,” I ask the book, “how are they going to get out of this one??” Or “what kind of biochemistry does that monster have??!?” or  “they speak what kind of language!1!>??” That’s what’s fun. That’s what motivates me to keep reading, and that sense of discovery is the same fuel for my writing. Well, that and knowing people enjoyed my stuff, but that comes later.

So the pantsing-plus-lots-of-revisions fails for me for the same reason as the the outlining-expanding-into-a-book fails. After I’ve finished the book, I know what will happen — the discovery is lost.

The times I have tried to muddle through and fix problems later, the fixing turned out to be writing an entirely new story. I ended up with a choose-your-own-adventure with fractally diverging plot-lines. Super-outlining was a similar wash. I had this whole detailed plan of what was going to happen, but I was like, “you know it would actually be more interesting if…” and had to scrap everything downstream of that change.

The compromise I ended up with was to write a moderately detailed outline with the beginning end and some set pieces in the middle. Then I applied my algorithms for worldbuilding (What if x? Then y. What if y? Then z. What sort of people would be created by a z-full society?) and writing craft (scene n+1 is more tense than scene n, the protagonist will have their own reaction to events, which makes them make mistakes until it’s time for the denouement) and that filled in a lot of the blanks.

But also I just started writing. When dialogue occurred to me (it’s mostly dialogue that comes first), I wrote it interspersed with directions like “describe house here” and “she feels bad here.” And, starting at the beginning, I wrote the damn book one line at a time. Not too much skipping around the outline. No non-linear chronology. Just writing from A to B to C with enough work on the outline ahead of me to make sure I wasn’t headed for a dead end.

Appropriately for a book about trains, my story has been chugging along steadily for a year and a half now. I hope to finish the first draft in another six months. Fingers crossed.

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