I decided that for the next little while, with the exception of upcoming anthologies I want to pitch to, my focus is going to be on novel writing. The problem is that I have a few potential novel projects to work on. A space opera that’s at draft 2 and needs work. A fantasy novel at draft 1 that needs considerable work (read: rewrite). And about a half-dozen other ideas for novels that are just notes in my Moleskines.
Deciding which one to work on was proving difficult. My main issue, I realized, is that the projects really speaking to me aren’t the ones in my trunk; I wanted to write something new, but that would mean most of August would be spent outlining, and I don’t want to lose the bulk of my break. Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes, non-teachers, but trust me – as much as the summer break is a gift (or a necessary siesta because of how gruelling the school year is, but that’s a separate topic) it can actually be stressful, as you look at everything you want to get done and you’re not sure if you have enough time to do it. So that was the quandary I found myself in.
The solution? I’m doffing my outliner hat, and trying out life as a pantser.
For any Muggles out there, “pantser” is the term for someone who discovery writes (or writes by the seat of their pants) instead of working from an outline. Every pantser is a little different, but the ones I’ve spoken to will have a few notes on character, setting and an overall plot, but not much beyond that, and certainly not a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The idea is that you just start writing and see what happens, focusing on the skeleton of the narrative with the understanding that you’ll fill in the gaps and correct things as you complete later drafts. I’ve written short stories this way before, but never a novel, and so the prospect made me nervous; I’ve also heard it’s easy to hit roadblocks, write yourself into a corner, etc, because you haven’t planned. However, you could also spend months outlining a novel, start writing it, and realize two chapters in that the whole thing doesn’t work or you simply hate it (I’ve been there).
One thing that I had in my favor was I had an already-developed idea that would be perfect for discovery writing: a series of short stories and a subsequent novel that had been intended as a different project, but needed to be changed (sorry to be vague there, but there are reasons). With the bit of development I had already done for that, I decided to focus on a core idea structure taught to me by my colleague Anatoly Belilovsky. In order, I came up with the following:
But the key is that my development was much more minimal than what I’ve done with previous novels. I have my two primary protagonists and my primary antagonist, but any other characters in my head I left as just one-line descriptions. I have the building blocks of my setting and the key rules of my world (it’s second-world fantasy), but the worldbuilding I left vague on purpose, to be built as I write. With an understanding of the key plot points I would need my characters to move toward, I started to write.
And damn if I’m not having a shitload of fun.
In all seriousness, discovery writing this novel has been liberating so far. My focus is on my characters and my dialogue, specifically on figuring out how they would respond to other characters’ lines or various external stimuli. This means that I’m really getting into their heads, and in some cases figuring out ways that I can screw with them. I’m also creating characters on the fly. I came to a scene where one of my protagonists is standing on the front stoop of a friend’s residence, barring the city guard from entering and demanding to see their commander (who replaced her when she retired). I had already spent a few paragraphs figuring her out, since up until starting that chapter she was only a one-line description in my notes, and then did the same with the first guard she speaks to, and then the commander. These people came alive as I was writing, in a way that never happens when I’m outlining. Part of this is because I started asking myself a crucial question: what’s the last kind of person you would expect to see right now? When I outline, since I’m trying to come up with a whole cast of characters without actually writing them, I find in my first draft that some of them are too generic or cliche. But with this method, I’m managing to avoid it.
The long and short of it, basically, is that I think discovery writing might be the way I should be writing my novels. I suppose I should be grateful I’m figuring it out now, at 27, as opposed to later in my career. I’m currently at the start of Chapter 8 (they’re short chapters right now, which may change in later drafts) and trying to manage 2000-3000 words per day at minimum, which so far has been do-able. The adventure now is to see if I can keep up this pace and maintain my excitement – there have always been moments before where I start hating a lengthy project and want to switch to something else – and I’ll be updating you as I go. The lesson here, folks: when in doubt, try something new.