Could you talk about the discovery process? I’m getting back in to an old story and I feel like I need a refresher course in who my character is and the world she lives in. I like her but I think enough time has gone by that who I wanted her to be is different now. I’m older and now I want her to be older and wiser too.
Since I’ve been immersed in the discovery process for the past month, it’s a good time to talk about that. But I will say first that trying to resurrect a moribund book is a lot harder than starting a new one. The old stuff gets in your way. So my advice is to start over with the character you love and see where she goes if you set her free from her old shackles. She’ll probably connect up with the old story in some ways, but starting from scratch can invigorate your brain so that even the old story parts feel new again. And then a lot of the old stuff you just trash. You’re not the writer you were then, and sometimes the old stuff just doesn’t work any more. It’s not a tragedy, it’s just evolution.
First, you need a starting point. Usually for me, that’s my Girl, my central character. She might be sixty, but she’s still My Girl, she’s the one I’m going to invest in and stick with and dream about and think about obsessively. But sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes I start with a genre (“I want to write a ghost story, I want to write a Golden Age mystery, I want to write a fairy tale”). Sometimes with a premise. It just depends on how the idea hits. The collaboration we’ve just started began with a format idea from Lani: Four of us would collaborate on a series of stories that would act as episodes in a series, and we’d publish them one a week for sixteen weeks until the entire story was told. And we’d set it in the alternate fantasy/fairy tale world we’d started so long ago. So at that point, we all had to pick our characters.
That’s harder for me, so I looked at the world (I’d been doing a lot of world building) and said, “My Girl lives in the Edge,” which is the slum of the major city in the world. I like the Edge, I’m setting the Zo stories there, that felt right. Lani said, “My girl is a gypsy.” Krissie said, “My girl is disguised as a stable boy.” Toni said, “My girl has magical powers that are consuming her.”
So I defined my girl by her setting, Lani went for community and heritage, Krissie went for complicated character, and Toni went for danger and conflict. They’re all good, we just picked different starting points.
So discovery begins when you find your starting point (obviously) and then it continues as you keep an open mind and build on what you have. For example, location means a lot of things to me and they all feed into who My Girl is, including where she lives and works and who she talks to, the people in the background. So–and for the life of me I can’t remember why–I decided she lived in the bell tower of a ruined church, a place that had toxic magic underneath it but was perfectly healthy at the upper levels. And I decided she was a cat burglar (I don’t know whether that came first or the tower climbing came first) and a pickpocket, who worked as a waitress at the local bar/restaurant. And the extrapolating from that, I know she likes to be alone, she likes heights because she can see so far, she likes the security of the tower (not a lot of people can climb a church tower), she wants a place that all her own, no sharing . . . . That belltower location was my first big clue as to who Cat was.
The second clue came when Toni said that her girl was going to have hellaciously powerful magic, so I said, “My girl has no magic. Isn’t interested in it, would rather not deal with it.” That gave us a nice balance, and Lani and Krissie could fill in somewhere in the middle. Of course, that meant that so far, Cat was a series of negatives–wants to be alone, doesn’t want magic–but I still had the start of her personality.
And that’s really discovery, starting and building on that start and extrapolating out from that, and adding things that seem right–the sticky phase of writing when everything you notice sticks to your story in some way–and then thinking about how that addition shifts the shape of your story. That’s why it’s important to stay fluid and not edit yourself during early discovery: there’s so much about the process that’s intangible. Why does this picture look like My Girl, and this picture of the same real person doesn’t look anything like her at all? Why does this picture of a cottage look like where the antagonist lives, and this picture of a cottage just look like a cottage? The big thing is not to try to explain the why to anybody including yourself. It just does. You’ve discovered it by letting your mind wander, and that’s why your subconscious has latched onto. Never second guess your subconscious. It’ll get mad and leave.
So, for me, everything after discovering who My Girl is at a fairly superficial level is about building her world through locations, people, things, events, anything that floats to mind, while daydreaming about her, listening to her talk in my head. And that means I have to do things that make things float to mind. The things that fuel the daydreams for me, are collage, music, pictures, and (for a collaboration) talking with my collaborators.
Collage: I’ve shown you the collage for this project; the only thing I’d point out in addition now is that I started with the setting as a backdrop so I could fill in the blanks as I went along. I knew the big setting for my story would be Monday Street, so that’s what I built, the setting that Cat grew up in and that defines her to a large degree. Location doesn’t always work as a starting point for collage–sometimes mine are divided into events or turning points or character spheres, or whatever is best for that story–but what I’ve found is that the way I start the collage often tells me what’s important about the story. The Liz collages were filled with people and relationships, family trees, couples, events that were about relationships (eating in the local hang-out, a wedding, etc.). The Bet Me collage was divided into spheres–public outdoors, public indoors, private indoors–because Min shifted who she was and how she felt depending on those places, and her relationship with Cal shifted as he moved up through those spheres. So the key to collage is not thinking about what you’re doing in making the collage, it’s thinking about the story as the collage happens. I’m in the putting-stuff-on-and-ripping-stuff-off stage of the Monday Street collage now, and it’s amazing how much I learn about Cat’s world and what Cat wants as I build it. I can’t emphasize enough: it doesn’t matter what the collage looks like, what matters is what happens in your head as you put it together. The collage is a tool, not a product. That’s why Pam has all of my old ones. Once the book is finished, there’s no point in keeping the collage, any more than there’s any point in keeping the pages and pages of notes I make as I write a book. It’s done. It’s over. Moving on . . .
Music: I also find music can be a big key. Finding the protagonist’s theme, the love interest’s theme, the antagonist’s theme, the love theme, the story theme . . . any of those can open things up. Cat was kind of a stolid lump before I found “God Help the Girl,” and I found it by accident watching Agents of SHIELD. I didn’t even find it while I watching the show, I was just so entranced by that cold open of this cheery, sunny girl going into terrible danger to this happy tune with lyrics that said, “God help the girl, she needs all the help she can get,” that I looked for it later on iTunes and You Tube, and THEN when I played it, I thought, “Oh, WAIT, THAT’S CAT,” and there she was, a generally happy person living in the middle of danger all the time and dealing with it pragmatically but not dully. It was the key piece I needed to get her off the ground.
Pictures: I’m not a visual person, so one thing I do when I’m trying to make something in my head more concrete is find pictures that evoke the things in the story. Most of this stuff doesn’t go in the collage–there’s no room for Cat’s underwear there, for example–but if I know the clothes they wore in 1910, what Cat’s got on under her waitress uniform, what a criminal gang looked like in 1910, then the world starts to build in my head, all the texture and color and detail I need to dream my story. Not write my story, this part is just for me, making the world I daydream about more concrete. Pinterest gives me a place to stash the stuff I find, and then fine tune it as I write the book. It’s not a collage because the point of a collage is the relationships and connections you make between the things you glue down together, and Pinterest is just a bunch of pictures. It’s more visual research notes. It’s also a great place to stash your own pictures if you’ve got a setting you can visit in real life; Bob made me “walk the terrain” for Agnes and the Hitman, and after I got done complaining about it and went with him, it was amazing what I learned. If you’re doing fantasy or you’re too far away from your setting, use Pinterest to walk the terrain. (Warning: Whatever you do, don’t google “vintage sex.”)
Mindlessness: But the biggest part of discovery is daydreaming, paying attention to the stuff drifting through your head about the story. We feel sometimes that unless we’re actually typing, we’re not writing. But the prewriting/discovery part is so vital to the success of your story that I think it might be more important than writing. I know when I’ve tried to write without it, I’ve produced flat dreck. Keep daydreaming your story without any kind of editing, remembering that anything goes because it’s all in your head, and you’ll find that as you repeatedly day dream some scenes, they become not only real and detailed but key to your story.
The last thing to remember about discovery is that it doesn’t stop until you’ve sent your galleys off. As long as you’re writing, rewriting, editing that story, new things will happen, so you keep going back to your notes, your music, your pictures, you keep all of that spinning in your head as your story becomes clearer and clearer in the rewrite. Discovery isn’t what you do before you write, it’s a part of writing, right to the end.