Discovery Drafting

Every time I write a book, I have to learn how to do it all over again. I panic every damn time. One of the hardest things to remember is that I don’t really know what the book is about until I start writing. That is, my first (and second and third and fourth and . . ) draft is a discovery draft. I don’t know what I’m writing about until I see what I say.

This is really difficult for well-organized people (aka control freaks, aka me) to grasp. We know story structure, we know what the story’s about, we’ve done character discovery and mapped out the territory, we know all of that stuff. At the point where we sit down to write, shouldn’t it just be filling in the blanks?

The problem is, if you just fill in the blanks, the story’s dead. I think story is a living thing, buried in your subconscious, and when you raise it to the surface, it hits the air and changes, it absorbs everything around it, and becomes something new and alive. But if you don’t let it rise, if you put a brick on top of it and smother it with rules and plans, it’s always going to be something you constructed, not something you watched grow and blossom. You use rules and plans to rewrite, not to write.

That why the first draft has to be discovery draft, the draft that’s for only you to see, the draft where you can do anything you want. I started writing two nights ago, and my first knee jerk reaction was, “My god, this is lousy.” And then sanity reasserted itself: “Of course, it’s lousy, It’s first draft. First drafts are always lousy.” It’s a discovery draft. (My other term for this is the “don’t look down” draft, based in equal parts on something Ron Carlson said and on Wile E. Coyote, who runs off a cliff and is doing just fine. Then he looks down, realizes he’s on thin air, somebody hands him an anvil, and he’s done. Don’t Look Down, people.)

The second night, I went in and reread it, and it’s not good, but it’s not lousy, so I picked up and went on, and sure enough, I reached the end of a very bad scene, and thought, “That’s not going to work, that’s terrible.” But then analyzing why it was terrible showed me that I was undercutting my antagonist, making him a joke instead of a real threat. He wasn’t a character on the page yet, I hadn’t given him room to breathe, but I hadn’t realized that until I wrote him. Thank god for discovery drafts.

And then there was the supporting character I couldn’t quite figure out how to write. There was some complex layering there, foreshadowing I needed to get in, and I’d come up with any number of possible solutions, but when I started to write her, she was just there, the solution popped up on its own, and I thought, Of course. You can plan characters all you want, but you don’t really find them until you start the discovery draft.

That’s even true of character you think you know. I had done massive discovery work on my protagonist, but I still didn’t have her; I knew she was cheerful, pragmatic, and unflappable, but I didn’t know what that meant. Was she just going to smile through the whole damn book? Then at about 2AM that first night, I wrote this:

It was a beautiful clear night, so she was making good time past Phil’s shuttered pool hall when somebody grabbed her arm and threw her hard against the building.

You owe me,” Joe Hinch snarled, taking a step toward her, and then he crumpled to the ground, revealing Harry McNally standing him behind him with a cosh.

“I’m going to say this one more time,” Cat said. “I can handle this myself.”

“You know, a lady would say thank you,” Harry said.

“Well, if that’s what you’re after, go save a lady.”

and there she was. “Unflappable” didn’t mean Pollyanna, it meant she stood her ground and didn’t flap. That’s a protagonist I can work with. (Yes, I know it’s lousy. I’ll fix it. It’s a discovery draft.)

Joe up there is the bad antagonist, bad in the sense that he’s just a snarling mugger. When I rewrote it, I gave him more of a chance:

It was a beautiful clear night, so she was making good time past Phil’s shuttered pool hall when somebody grabbed her arm and threw her hard against the building.

You owe me,” Joe Hinch snarled, taking a step toward her.

Cat straightened and shook out her coat. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? What did Phil tell you about not touching the waitresses?”

Hinch said, “That’s in the restaurant,” and grabbed her arm.

“Okay, that’s fair,” Cat said and drew back her elbow to slam it into his throat when he crumpled to the ground, revealing Harry McNally standing him behind him with a cosh.

“I’m going to say this one more time,” Cat said. “I can handle this myself.”

“You know, a lady would say thank you,” Harry said.

“Well, if that’s what you’re after, go save a lady.”

Yeah, he still needs more work. Discovery draft, though. It’s working.

I was also having trouble with Phil Blight, the main antagonist for this story, a crime boss in the worst part of town. I wanted people to like him, but I wanted him to be a ruthless son of a bitch. The two traits didn’t seem compatible, and I was trying way too hard with him (he roared with laughter once and that’s when I knew I was grasping at cliches) and then this turned up as Phil warns Harry to stay away from Cat:

“I read the sign,” Harry said to Phil. “No touching the waitresses.”

“That’s for here in the Ear. What I’m telling you is, not outside of the Ear neither. Cat’s like a daughter to me. I been watching over her since she was twelve.”

“What happened when she was twelve?”

“I killed her father.”

Harry nodded. “And you drink the beer this woman brings you?”

“He was a bastard,” Phil said. “She was probably glad to see him go. Didn’t shed a tear at the funeral.”

“You went.”

“Course I went. It’s Monday Street. We pay our respects.”

“Right,” Harry said. “I will stay away from Cat.”

That’s too raw to stay as it is, but it won’t, it’s discovery draft. What it does give me is my way into Phil, so in that sense, it’s a huge success.

I mention all of this because I’m just re-discovering it (slow-learner here), but also because NaNoWriMo starts this Saturday. NaNo is basically a month of people all over the world writing discovery drafts together–that should cause a disturbance in the Force–and reporting their progress in word counts. (Lani Diane Rich’s first book was started in Nano, and it was also the first NaNo book published.) If you’ve been looking for a way to start a discovery draft, NaNo can be great because it doesn’t care how good your words are, just that you produce words, which means you’re practicing slinging those words onto the screen without second-guessing yourself about quality. It’s all quantity. You’ll have to rewrite, of course, but you can’t rewrite until you have words on the page to change, and NaNo gives you that.

The thing about discovery drafts is that they can be enormous fun once you put in a sock in your internal editor. Like all the other forms of discovery, they’re play, stuff that you’re doing not to create product–your discovery drafts are not going to be good enough to be published, accept that–but to find out about the story you’re creating. Once you can tell yourself, “discovery draft, don’t look down,” every time you start to panic, you’re on your way.

Oh, and here’s Phil’s composite. I like him, but he kills too many people:

The Blights 2

35 thoughts on “Discovery Drafting

  1. Jim Butcher does that likeable-but-murderous thing well with his mob boss John Marcone. He is a total bastard and won’t hesitate to take someone out but he has rules about it. And a Valkyrie. He has a Valkyrie.

    0
    1. I was going to mention him, too. Marcone may be a crime boss, but he looks after his own. Killing one of his employees is hazardous to your health.

      0
  2. Thank you for sharing your discovery process with us. I find it fascinating at any time, but especially now. My husband is in the hospital, and between work and visiting, I have no time for writing. It leaves me feeling not-myself. Reading your posts keeps me connected to my writing half and has helped me cope with a stressful week. So, thank you. You really are amazing.

    0
  3. You are so funny! That last line! Of the blog post. Not the excerpts–I loved them, even the one you said was lousy. Now I have to go look up cosh. That’s easy because I just put out a massive dictionary on a stand in my office. It will be my first word to look up.

    0
  4. I’m really enjoying these insights into your characters. I had to look up cosh, which then led to looking up blackjack, so a good Monday. Learned two new words.

    0
  5. Ah, a well needed post for me today! My discovery drafting is a slow process as I am still learning how to let the perfect words and crafting fall by the wayside in this beginning stage. “Still needs work, but the discovery draft is working.” <- Definitely what I've been telling myself lately and trying to put that sock into the internal editor.

    0
  6. Another good post. Have been reading along with these discovery posts in awe of how much prep you can do–I have to keep it minimal or it kills the juice for me. The majority of my discovery comes from the writing, similar to what you describe here. But as that Monk character always said, “it’s a blessing & a curse” because in my case when it works, it’s fab but when I hit a snarl, it’s like writing in oatmeal.

    Thanks for this. Particularly appreciate the samples in progress. So helpful to see & encouraging reminders that even seasoned pros have to grow their stories, one draft at a time:)

    0
  7. “I was also having trouble with Phil Blight, the main antagonist for this story, a crime boss in the worst part of town. I wanted people to like him, but I wanted him to be a ruthless son of a bitch. The two traits didn’t seem compatible, ” Riddick!

    0
  8. You really give me hope, Jenny. Thank you. (I used to think because I didn’t have a complete story ready to tell in compelling words, I couldn’t really be a writer.)

    0
  9. Sometimes names are so strange. For example, I know a lovely couple with the last name Blight. So for some people, “Blight” would be too on-the-nose for a character, but for me, it’s a totally normal last name.

    Although maybe the wife’s maiden name is a bit much to be believed on the page, especially for someone who got married to a Blight.

    0
    1. They’re not married, and that’s a name she gave herself. It’s part of the plot.

      Philbert Blight actually came about because I was reading about a tree disease in northwest (I think) called Filbert Blight. It was just such a great character name, I had to use it.

      0
  10. I feel the same way when I start a book. “Man, this is crap!” I somehow always forget it takes a while to get warmed up and figure out what you’re even writing about, then when you finally hit that stride things go much smoother. But I still panic, every single time. Even after writing this comment to remind myself, I will panic.

    0
  11. I’m working on the first three chapters of book three in my Baba Yaga series (I have to send a synopsis & 1st 3 chapters to my editor as I wait for Berkley to decide if the numbers are good enough for 1&2 to justify doing 3). It’s lousy. What’s worse, it isn’t going to be much better by the time I have to send it, because FIRST THREE CHAPTERS. Argh.

    And I like both your versions, think neither are lousy, and actually prefer the first one. Also, as usual, I want to read the book already.

    0
  12. “Bet Me is probably the last straight romance (as in not women’s fiction) I’ll ever write”,
    read this while perusing this blog……..I love “Bet Me”……say it ain’t so……just wishing you’d write a sequel…..or the same story over and over again. At least twenty times. Please?

    0
    1. Nope. When they’re done, they’re done, and Bet Me is definitely done.
      But I am working on a fantasy romance now, so hey, new worlds to conquer.

      0
      1. I could see doing something with Harry’s kids, or Bonnie’s kids, or Liza. Everyone else is pretty much wrapped up.

        But I don’t have those stories in my head, so it’s not my decision. 🙂

        0
      2. Alright…..sob….I’ll look forward to the new book.
        Can you set it in a small English village where everyone drinks copious amounts of tea?….I’m just sayin’
        Seriously, thanks for the reply………!

        0
    1. Sorry, I should have said. They’re the other stories I’m working on right now. Still in draft form. The Cat stories are part of a collaboration, the Zo stories are just me, but they’re all set in the same world and characters cross over.

      0
  13. ahhh……that explains the interesting Google search. Thanks for clearing that up Miss Lady (as my building super calls me) now that I’ve read all of YOUR books…….who do you suggest reading? (if you don’t mind…2 names would be good)

    0
    1. I may steal “Miss Lady.” That’s good.

      Let’s see. Anything by Terry Pratchett, he’s my go-to guy for fantasy/satire/humor/great characters/great story. Then there are my collaborators: Anne Stuart, Toni McGee Causey, and Lani Diane Rich. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is the one I’m supposed to most write like, and she’s a pal, so that’s a good way to go. If you like historical romances, Georgette Heyer every time. Mary Stewart for Gothics.

      0
      1. …..steal away…..I’m pretty sure he just can’t remember my name.

        Wow, thanks for the list.
        Listen, I’m just going to throw this out there…..in thanks for your suggestions, but mostly for your work….I’d love to paint a (small) portrait for you of one of your PETS!
        (I was going to say I’m not a flake…..hmmm) My work is sold in a gallery in Lambertville, N.J. You’d be doing me a favor…..when people ask me what I’m working on, I can say Dog Portrait,or Chicken…..whatever, instead of my beautiful list of excuses.

        0
        1. Thank you, Eve, that’s very sweet. At the moment, I have no walls to hang anything on, but you’re welcome to use any of the dogs for your art. There are pictures all over Argh of them.

          0
      1. Tessa’s last one, Any Duchess Will Do was so funny, and smart, and terrific all the way through. I thoroughly enjoyed that book.

        0
  14. (-: Does this mean you’ll be NaNoing this year?

    And the other thought that struck me was “likeable assholes = Vetinari.” Well, he’s not likeable, and he’s not a villain, but I adore him.

    0
    1. I love him too. This is more Reacher Gilt without the cruelty.
      I am seriously considering NaNo since I’m going to be doing this draft anyway.

      0
      1. It would be fun to see your name up on the board — disturbing the forces in the universe together with however many thousands of other people. (-:. It would also be extremely enlightening to hear your reactions to the NaNo structure as you go through it. (Although one of the lovely things about NaNo structure is that you are allowed to bend it as you want to.)

        0
        1. My writer’s group is talking about it and a lot of people here are doing it, too. And since I’m going into full speed draft mode, it’s a good time.

          0

Comments are closed.