Tyra Tanner

Are You a Discovery Writer?

“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” -Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

What is this thing, this discovery writer? (A way of saying a writer who writes without knowing what comes next.) Is it a flavor like a strawberry popsicle? (Kind of.) Can I buy one at the store? (Probably not.) How do I know if I am one? (I’ll tell you how.)

I once asked a musician if he planned his songs out in methodical outline or if he just tinkered around until something came into being. His answer was the latter. He said his song was, “Out there, somewhere in the universe.”

Discovery writers are similar in their approach to writing. While we may have some idea in mind, or sometimes only a feeling or a situation, we take the energy of that moment, as small as it may be, and we roll with it.

Often, I don’t know what my next sentence or even my next word is going to be.

For beginning writers, this approach can be overwhelming. They might stare at that enormously white, enormously empty page and pour all of their anticipation and determination into the touch of their fingertips to the keys only to feverishly slam down a few unsatisfying words.

They need a plan, they decide. A goal to reach for.

So that was me, some years back, not knowing what kind of writer I was, and attempting to form a plan.

I’m a Brandon Sanderson fan, (Mistborn I love you!) and I’ve listened to some of his Writing Excuses podcasts, so when he said on a podcast that he often writes the endings of his novels first, I thought, Hey, that’s a plan!

So I did it. I planned it out. I wrote this big, clunky, 150,000-word epic fantasy novel, and I wrote the ending first, and it took years (because my kids were babies then and I only wrote for 20 minutes a day), and then I read it.

And it was terrible.

Can you fall asleep reading your own novel?

Why, yes, you can.

All that effort! All that time! I followed the plan!

Well, as it turns out, Brandon Sanderson leans towards being an “outline” writer, which means he likes plans and they work great for him.

But here I was, a giant snooze of a novel to my belt, and unsure of how to continue. All I knew was there were moments in the writing process where something inside of me lit up like a firecracker, all colorful and buzzing, and I wanted to do it again, but better.

So I sat down and began to write another novel, but this time, I didn’t have a plan. Oh, I had a character—a buff chic assassin whose consciousness uploads to the internet when she dies (which means she’s an assassin who can die, how cool is that?)—but no idea what the story was about beyond that. Turns out I like discovery writing, because the story ended three novels later.

So how do you find out if you are a discovery writer or an outline writer (or somewhere in between)?

This is how…

You try both. (Writing short fiction is a great way to experiment without investing as much time and energy as a novel.)

Outline approach: Make a plan. Execute it. See how it works out.

Discovery approach: Take these five words—forgotten, absorbed, today, lost, red—and run with them (or come up with your own words). See how you like it.

Don’t be afraid to throw things out. It isn’t a loss when you are learning (and having fun!!!!).

But if my words could give you anything, I would give you a dose of good ole courage to enable you to stare into the face of the blank white page and say, I fear you not! You great empty whiteness! I will stand before you clothed in my cluttery thoughts and forge onward!

In fact, now that I’ve been writing for some years, I actually get a thrill from that white page. I could turn you into anything, anything at all, I will make of you a shining hero and a hellish monster, and… Sometimes I even scroll down the page to hide what I previously wrote, just so I can see that empty page waiting for me.

So try it out! You might just discover that you are a discovery writer.