Being a first time author in the epic fantasy genre, I probably made every single mistake known to all of authordom as far as the approach. I’ve heard lots of ideas on approach since then, including outlining the entire book with what happens in every chapter and why, writing an entire character POV through the end of the book and then going back and adding other POVs, and, the other extreme, having no idea where you’re going with the story but to just write. This, I suppose, is a “purist” discovery writer.
There are advantages I see with each approach, as well as drawbacks. First, outlining the book. With Circle of Reign, I must have
“I ADMIT TO HAVING BEEN VERY FRUSTRATED BY THIS PROCESS.”
tried a dozen times to outline the entire novel. I didn’t know where it should go and kept trying to force myself to try and figure it out so I could write it! I admit to having been very frustrated by this process. All I had done up to that point was write different scenes, some seemingly having nothing to do with the story (heck, I wasn’t sure what the story even was in the beginning days). It seemed logical that an outline should be followed, and my training in business practically demanded I go this route.
The advantages are obvious: you have each scene, if not, chapter, outlined and all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Okay, it’s not that easy, but you really are able to move the work along fairly easy with a good outline. The major disadvantage is simply that the story can seem very formulaic and contrived (because, well, it is). Depending on how this is packaged, it may or may not be a bad thing, but normally is. Your characters can become very shallow and less-than-memorable, even if the story itself is promising.
In the end, I gave up on this approach for Circle of Reign. However, with Altar of Influence, a prequel written after Circle of Reign, the outline approach was very freeing. Perhaps this is because the story was much simpler, with far fewer POVs. While I was following the outline, however, I discovered many new scenes and characters as well as further depth to the existing characters. So, my outline wasn’t as comprehensive as I believed when I first sat down to write the manuscript, but that didn’t matter. It proved to be a great steppingstone.
Writing a single character through the end of the book is an interesting approach. I gave this a shot for about a day before finding it overly maddening; but, of course, it’s impossible if you don’t have a strong outline (which I didn’t for Circle of Reign). Honestly, I haven’t figured out how some authors make this work, as it takes away so much of the discovery process. I have to imagine that only the most brilliant can make this work, those who know their characters and the story backwards and forwards ad naseum. I believe this approach can cause characters to seem very flat and may limit their depth.
Then there’s what’s termed the “discovery” writer. I am this type by far. Various degrees of extremes exist here, from having no clue what your story will be and maybe just a character or two that you vaguely have an idea of in your head, to having certain milestones or major events you want to write but no idea how to get there. Before I get to the advantages here, the big disadvantage is consistency problems. If you are writing in completely unexplored territory, it will take a good editor and a lot of your time to weave the scenes together and keep them consistent. It’s not impossible but a little painful.
My experience writing Circle of Reign was one of pure discovery. I literally had no idea where the story was going or even what the story was! I felt there was a story to be told around Reign, the protagonist, but had not yet discovered it. So, having fallen short in the outlining attempts, I decided to just write. I felt like I was dropped in a barren wasteland with little survival gear and told to “make it happen”. Really?
Really. There was no right or wrong place to start. Who knew if were I was standing was even the beginning. It was impossible to be wrong because…well, there were no rules. Completely blank canvass.
Here’s something authors may not regularly to in order to discover their stories, but is immensely helpful to me. I narrate every finished draft. Not only is it helpful in editing, the process of you speaking your story aloud, trying out different voices and inflections, and then listening to it until you want to rip your ears off from being sick of your own voice, was key to my process. I cannot tell you how many new ideas and scenes came to me, including ways to improve existing scenes and dialogue. Circle of Reign is over 20 hours long narrated. I did at least 3 full narrations. So, yes, it was a massive time commitment. For an auditory learner, however, it was priceless in helping me discovery my narrative voice.
It might sounds strange for an author to say they were discovering their own story, but this is definitely what it feels like for a discovery writer, especially one who started from where I did. However, this process can be fairly easy once you have a good idea of your characters (at least a protagonist and antagonist). It’s true that your character will tell you what actions or dialogue (or lack thereof) should happen in any particular scene. Sure, you have to nudge them along every once in a while, but this organic way of writing minimizes a contrived feeling for readers.
As I said before, I really had no idea what the story was for Circle of Reign. I did have a couple milestones or plot points I wanted to achieve, but the journey there was completely unknown. This made the process extremely fun! Out of this discovery process, characters, subplots, and even a new race of people were born. Landscapes and climates were drawn, rivalries and friendships, and, my favorite, action/battle scenes came alive. One perfect example of discovery writing giving new depth to a story is this concept of how lands die and are reborn centuries later in Circle of Reign. Can you imagine a world where you know that someday your land will turn fallow, or enter an isolated ice age, or turn to a recalescent desert in a matter of weeks or months? What kind of dynamic does this add as a backdrop to a story? To the cultures of the people? To their psyche about life and death? I had been writing Circle of Reign for 2 ½ years before that foundational world building concept was discovered. It was there, somewhere, I just had not yet found it.
The most important thing was to simply write. If I had no idea what would happen next in the story logically, I didn’t force it. I wrote a totally different scene. The chronology of the story didn’t matter at this discovery stage, nor should it. For example, in an early draft of Circle of Reign, I wrote a scene that I dubbed chapter 7. In the final manuscript, it was chapter 22 and many years down the road in the story arc than initially written. Further, almost all of part 1 was written after I had finished the first draft. I was discovering more and more of my story as I continued to write, even if it didn’t make sense at the time.
Did I have consistency issues? Yes. Did this approach cause timeline imbalances sometimes? Yes. Was I moving chapters and large sections around like puzzle pieces during the editing? Yes. But, this exercise itself caused new pieces of the story to unfold! Sewing them all together in a (hopefully) seamless story was, itself, a huge part of the discovery process.
I mentioned earlier that Altar of Influence was written to an outline, an outline that ended up being outgrown rather quickly. Even here, the discovery approach was alive and well. The outline, more of mile markers as I look back on it, was extremely helpful in providing some direction, but little more than saying “head north”. There’s so many roads and paths, plains or mountains, you can cross while heading north.
What I’ve learned from penning two epic fantasy novels so far is simple: the journey is the story, not the destination itself.
Posted on 11/21/2014 at 12:00 AM