Questionable: Discovery

Lola asked:

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.

So discovery.

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.

24 thoughts on “Questionable: Discovery

  1. Just wanted to ditto what Jenny said about reworking an old manuscript. It’s WAY more work than starting fresh. I’ve done it a few times — am still doing it now for one project that still had enough juice to be worth doing — and I don’t regret doing it, but it would have been a lot quicker and easier to have written a new story from scratch in most cases.

    1. This may be a whole other Questionable, but I’m wondering now when do you decide to give up on a book?

      I have a manuscript I’ve trashed and rewritten three times now. Lots of stuff went into that: I started a big, complicated story with lots of characters before I was ready, I took it to critique group before the story was firm in my head and went off on the wrong track, I wrote before the characters solidified in my head. Between drafts, I’ve taken breaks to work on other (SIMPLER) stories, but the characters are still there, chatting away in my head, and I’m wondering whether to start draft number four when I’m done with my NaNo project or let this one die…

      1. Complete novice here, but I’d think it would rest on do you really want to do it? Does it make you happy? Do you think it’d be fun?

        Or maybe you could ask your characters (or, in my case, I’d probably ask my inner child – she’s great at straight answers) what story they want you to tell about them. (I’d bypass logic on this one – logic says you shouldn’t throw away all that work; but it doesn’t care whether or not you have fun.)

      2. My advice, and it’s only advice not a solution or a rule or anything like that, is to take everything you’ve done on the book and put it in a folder and bury it deep on your hard drive. Then start all over with the characters and do discovery as if it’s a new book, writing all new scenes. When you have that book firmly in mind, then if you want to go back and look at the old stuff, it’s still there, but most of it will be useless. It probably died on you because you took it away from its roots (been there, done that), so it’s like rescuing a growing thing: cut off the dead pieces, feed the roots, and watch it bloom again.

        1. Thanks, Jenny! That makes a ton of sense. Starting discovery as if it’s a new book will help get rid of all the prior-draft baggage in my brain.

    1. Not Parker, although she’s in the background of another character in another story in this world. But the pickpocket stuff comes straight from the guy who taught Beth Riesgraf how to pick pockets in real life, Apollo Robbins. He also played Parker’s opposite number in the “2 Live Crew” episode, and they both did all the lifts in their scenes for real. I’ve been wanting to do a pickpocket ever since I read about him.
      I don’t know where the belltower came from, but it was there right from the start. I like towers. And solitude. Bells, not so much.

  2. I love that time of morning when I lie half asleep/ half awake and let my mind drift over my characters and their world. I’m sending out the first two books in a series to an interested editor and agent these days, and am so excited to let myself drift into book three in the series. I’ve been stuck far too long in the editing rewriting process since these are my first books, and am reveling in re-entering this process of discovery. I’m going to try to write the draft of the third book – or at least get started – by riding the wave of Nano energy. I’m so excited. This post was very timely for me. Thanks.

    1. It’s so hard to get into that golden time when the book is more real than your real life. It’s been a long time for me. I’ve had books I wanted to write, characters I loved, but this is the first time in a long time that these people will not shut up in my head, and every morning I wake up with more. I’ve missed it so much. Fingers crossed I don’t lose it. Although the collage is a good indicator that I won’t; it’s sparking all kinds of things.

  3. “(Warning: Whatever you do, don’t google “vintage sex.”)”

    Anyone ever been to the Museum of Sex in NYC? I went about 12 years ago when it first opened, and I was still pretty innocent back then, so some things managed to surprise me. For example, I’d never realized that basically as soon as they invented film, they started making silent film pornos, complete with the dialogue in white letters on black backgrounds intercut with the action. (Now that I’m older and know more about the history of all technology, including the internet, I realize that pretty much as soon as guys figure out how to create an image in any medium, they want to make one of a naked woman.)

  4. Daydreaming or dreaming of the story has increased for me lately, but I find that music has become an especially powerful motivator. I have been working on a scene where the depth of emotion I wanted to convey was a little challenging for me to write. Then I heard Gladys Knight and the Pips’s Neither One Of Us on my iPod rotation. BOOM and SOB. There the scene was. It was a truly lovely moment.

    1. Music is second only to collage in my discovery process. I’ve been slowly putting together a soundtrack (for me only), and the way perfectly lovely songs just don’t work and songs that really aren’t my thing are perfect is as eye opening as what happens when I put two pictures together.

      1. I enjoy those moments too. There is an indie music channel on my cable system that played ambient, alternative rock I’d never heard of and what I would not call my pint of Guinness. But it totally brought to mind one of my heroes. “Yeah. This is my boy’s taste.”

  5. I am not a writer but really enjoy reading all of the posts about the art of writing. For some reason the topic today resonates more than usual. I learn all kinds of things from the discussions and am particularly glad to hear about God Help the Girl. I pulled it up on the internet and am now hooked.

  6. Jenny, just curious – when you’re working on a discovery project like a collage, do you take notes on thoughts as they occur to you? Keep working and jot down notes later? Or do you skip note-taking and trust your brain to hold onto important bits?

    1. Right now, because it’s a collaboration and Toni and I e-mail every day, I’m trading notes with her. We’re also keeping pinterest boards and making notes there, and we started a private blog so we could put notes there and then comment on them; much easier to keep organized than e-mails. And we have a wiki for the world of the world of the book. But in general, I’m not making a lot of notes on paper aside from blocking out the four point plot. It’s all discovery right now.

    2. I’m making notes. Very stream-of-consciousness, kinda what Jenny’s collage does for her, my weird notebooks do for me. I will almost never go back and look at the notes once I have the characters and general plot in my head; the notebook is just my discovery process.

      Although I am going to end up collaging, I think. I think the tactile feel of the collage would help.

  7. “Never second guess your subconscious. It’ll get mad and leave.”

    I think I need a tattoo of that on my inner left wrist. Maybe “Follow the girls” inside the right wrist. Thanks!


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