Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.22: Hybrid Outlining and Discovery Writing

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

What can discovery writers learn from outlining? What can outliners learn from discovery writing? Is there a balance between the two that can serve as a happy, productive place for writers? (summary of answers: lots, lots, and yes-but-not-all-writers.)

Homework: Write a backward story. Begin with the ending, and work your way backward into the story as you write your way forward with the words.

Thing of the week: Nothing Left to Lose, by Dan Wells.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Sometimes, you’re not sure what you are going to do until you are halfway through it. Many writers transition from discovery or outline writing to a hybrid approach. What can discovery writers learn from outlining? Thinking about the shiny place you want to take the story before starting to write the prose can be very useful. Knowing your beats allows you to map and combine, then hit those beats. Unconnected vignettes need structure added — it’s easier to start with a structure, and fill in the vignettes. Avoid hijacking, because sometimes you just need to save that new, cool thing before it derails the whole book. Outline the plot, discover the characters. Free write characters, outline plot and setting, to give yourself a framework to work in. What can outliners learn from discovery writers? Joy! Be flexible and dynamic, to take advantage of those new spins, zings, twists, and epiphanies you find while working. Outlining shrinks the gaps, discovery writing fills them in. What goes in the outline and what doesn’t. Have circumstances forced you to use a tool? Submit an outline! Proposal is outline plus three discovery written chapters. Barcon: Great story concept, please send us a proposal. Self-imposed practice!

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Hybrid Outlining and Discovery Writing.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And I’m not sure what I’m going to do until I’m halfway through it.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. So. I want to talk about something… This mostly started because I know that both Dan and Howard… And Piper piped in and said she had done it as well… Have kind of transitioned away from solidly doing discovery writing and more toward using a hybrid method. Which I find very interesting, because I during my career, have transitioned away from solid outliner to a hybrid method of my own. It seems like this is really what most professional writers are doing, is they find things that work for them. Let’s start with some easier questions, though. What do you think discovery writers can learn from outlining?
[Howard] Discovery writing is often you’re chasing the shiny thing. And outlining is putting the shiny thing in the outline and then running toward it. Being able to do that, being able to think about that shiny place you want to take the story ahead of actually having sat down to write the prose, is incredibly useful. Incredibly useful.
[Piper] I think it’s interesting with romantic suspense because it is a combination of the romance and the suspense aspect. So if you can do a hybrid where you kind of map out your beats… Oh, this is a romantic beat that I want to hit. This is a suspense beat that I want to hit. Then you can manage the two plots and combine them a bit more, like chocolate and peanut butter, rather than I’m eating chocolate over here and I’m eating peanut butter over here. It just allows you to know that you’re going to hit those beats, rather than going back and realizing you missed it somewhere along the way and have to get it in there.
[Brandon] Right. This is the most common hybrid I’ve seen, which is mostly discovery writing with a little outlining in that I know what my beats are. I’m not completely discovery writing, I’m just discovery writing from beginning to first major beat, to second major beat, to third major beat, to end.
[Dan] The method that I had to learn, and the reason that I hybrid now, is I eventually learned the difference between a story and a bunch of stuff that happens. That’s really what the first draft of I Am Not a Serial Killer was. It was a bunch of unconnected vignettes that needed structure applied over the top of it so that it was shaped like a story. Instead of disconnected vignettes.

[Piper] Another type of hybrid, though, rather than just having the beats and how you get from point A to subpoint B before you get to Z, is also, you’ll see a lot of authors on Twitter or Facebook say they got hijacked in the middle of a chapter. Where they started writing a chapter and it started to flow in a different direction than they originally intended. So they decided to just go with the flow to see how it worked. Most often it happened with dialogue, where their characters’ dialogue just went someplace else, and it worked so well, they actually went back and rewrote their plot, or rewrote their outline, because of that little epiphany twist that was unexpected.
[Dan] See, that happens to me all the time, and I have to be very careful… Because when that happens, you have to go back and change something. It’s either your entire outline or that one really cool thing that you did. More often than not, today, what I will changes that one really cool thing. That dialogue was brilliant and wonderful and I love it. Maybe I can fit it in somewhere else. But it’s derailing my entire book. I need to make some hard decisions.
[Howard] I’ve got a folder full of… The folder is called Off-Track, and it is where I take a script that I wrote that I really liked and was working, but it doesn’t fit the story, it doesn’t fit the way things needed to unfold. So I chuck it off into another folder. What I found is that… Piper, what you’re describing is… In conjunction with my outlining process, the plot is outlined. The characters are discovered. I build my plot in such a way that the characters are allowed to take shape in the way they’re going to take shape. I don’t know, necessarily, which character is going to be in the position to make the decision to chase the spaceship that needs to be chased. But I know that there is a spaceship that’s going to need to be chased. There’s a thing that happened off panel that I’m not… I don’t need to discover that. That’s in the outline. That’s what allows me the flexibility that I need.
[Brandon] This is describing exactly where I’ve gone, when I say hybridize. I try to discovery write character and outline plot and setting, although I do it like an outliner, which means I’ve taken a page from Dan’s book. Where you did the free write on John Cleaver, and I always thought it was really interesting. I try to do free writes on my characters at the beginning, so I can discover character voice, motives, personality, passions, and things like this, which lets me do a better job of having a framework for them.
[Dan] Well, knowing your characters well is what’s going to help you make those painful decisions when you get hijacked. Because you have to be honest with yourself. As wonderful as this is, is that really what these characters would say in this conversation? Or is it just a really cool turn of phrases that I came up with that I want to use?

[Brandon] So, let’s reverse that question then. What do you guys think that outliners can learn from discovery writers?
[Howard] Joy.
[Piper] I think you can discover a spin on the plot that you didn’t think of in the first place. Like, discovery writing allows you to find a new way of doing things that may be you didn’t see on the initial plot run. Or plotting effort. I think that that discovery mode is a really good way to take it, because it allows you to be inspired, it allows you to add a new zing or a new twist or a new epiphany. It’s being flexible and dynamic through the course of creating something that takes a whole lot of… An awful lot of work to create.
[Dan] I find that that flexibility actually helps me come up with much better solutions to problems. That happened to me in all three of the Mirador books, where I will have in the outline problem A arises and they apply solution B to it; move on. Then I get there and I’m like, “Nope. Solution B is stupid.” I’ve already written them way past the point where solution B would have helped. What am I going to do now? On-the-fly, I have to come up with something better that usually ends up being a much better storytelling thing anyway.
[Brandon] I have frequently said, I sort of think of it this way, that every piece of writing is discovery written to an extent. What outlining does is shrink the gaps that you have to discovery write between. Because most outliners do not have an outline sentence by sentence. If they did… That would be the book, and they would have discovery written it to come up with that. So you are discovery writing your outline or you’re discovery writing between point A and B, and A and B may be short. Like, here is a sentence for this chapter, where the discovery writer doesn’t have a sentence at all for that chapter. You still have to discovery write the majority of that chapter. So practicing discovery writing is more… It’s like it’s what writing really is. Outlining is a tool to help your brain discovery write in the ways that help… That works best for you.
[Howard] I think a thing that’s useful for outliners to learn from discovery writing is what goes in the outline and what doesn’t. If you’re writing a mystery, then your outline probably very clearly describes the crime that was committed, when it was committed, and then when we discover these sorts of things, when clues unfold, so that you have a very clear path for the mystery, and then you’re going to write the characters into it. What if in writing the mystery, some of those clues… You know you need a clue, but you don’t know what it is? What if in your outline, you decide, “Ah, you know what, I want this to be a little more of a character story, and so I’m going to add character beats for this character, and I’m not going to discovery write that part anymore, but I’m going to allow myself to discovery write pieces of the mystery?” What goes in the outline versus what doesn’t go in the outline ultimately is the question that vexes me. When I started the current Schlock Mercenary book, book 17, I knew that it was beginning with Captain Tagon in some sort of dream state or cybernetic place or whatever. Dead, but his consciousness is alive. I made a promise to the readers that I was bringing him back. I did not have an outline for book 17 yet. The whole first week of strips was me discovery writing Captain Tagon in this state, having a discussion with somebody else. Then I had a brainstorming session with my writing group in which over the course of about 45 minutes, we put together a nice heist/thriller/timebomb plot… I’m not telling you which of the three, but it’s an amalgam of the three, and then I was able to say, “Oh. Okay. Now that means the strips that I really, really have to write next are going to have to touch on these points in order to telegraph that that’s the kind of story that we’re getting into. It’s very much down to the wire for me, because…
[Brandon] So, to pat ourselves on the back, knowing elemental genres…
[Howard] Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] Helped you to come up with…
[Howard] So incredibly… So incredibly useful.
[Brandon] Name check those smart people last year.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, because something else I name checked earlier was the John Cleaver free write…
[Dan] Whoohooo!
[Brandon] And we are now up to John Cleaver six!
[Dan] Yes. John Cleaver six, which is, at least as far as I know, the end. I said that after three. I’m saying it even more firmly now. Book 6 is the end. It is called Nothing Left to Lose. The arc of the first trilogy was kind of John doing one thing. The second has its own arc. So this is paying on that arc and all six books at once. It’s very different than what you think it’s going to be. But it is really cool and I love it.
[Brandon] Have we ever promo’ed the John Cleaver movie?
[Dan] No. I don’t think we have talked about the John Cleaver movie.
[Brandon] So, movie of the week!
[Howard] At this point, it’s out of theaters.
[Brandon] No, no, it was never in theaters.
[Dan] That’s the joke.
[Piper] It was in some theaters.
[Dan] This is May? Well, as of December, it became available in DVD and Blu-ray and Netflix. I don’t know if it’s still in Netflix in May, but I guess we’ll find out.
[Brandon] You should all go watch it. It’s very good.
[Dan] It’s really good. It is getting rave reviews. It’s winning awards all over the place. Christopher Lloyd. People are calling it the best performance of his career. So.
[Brandon] There you are. John Cleaver. Our favorite little creepy dude.
[Dan] Favorite little creepy dude. And go read book 6, Nothing Left to Lose, because I love it.
[Brandon] All right.
[Dan] There were two different points in the outline where my editor was like… Or not the outline, but in the manuscript, when she sent it back with notes. She’s like, “I am crying now. Why are you doing this?”
[Piper] Oh, no.
[Dan] Aha!
[Brandon] [laughter] Oh, Dan.
[Howard] What if I don’t want to cry?
[Dan] Well, then…
[Brandon] Why would you be considering reading a Dan Wells’ book in the first place?

[Brandon] So. Have you guys ever been forced to discovery write when you were used to outlining? Well, you’re all discovery writers… For the most part, right?
[Piper] Well, no, I’ve been forced to discovery write more than I wanted to.
[Brandon] Okay. Have you been forced to use one of these tools by circumstances? What were those circumstances?
[Howard] I just described that.
[Howard] I did not have an outline yet and I needed to begin a book. All I knew is that this is a promise I made in the previous book. It needs to be fulfilled here. I sure hope I can come up with an outline in a week. It actually took me two weeks.
[Brandon] See, I asked this question specifically because I know a lot of newer writers, once they start getting work and things like this, they will end up say getting a job like Wesley Chu, who’s one of our other cohosts, got, where they’re like, “Hey. We want you to write this thing for us. Submit us an outline.”
[Piper] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] If you are naturally a discovery writer, then “Oh, submit us outline” suddenly send you into panic mode.
[Piper] A proposal, for me, is generally an outline and a three chapter sample of the first book. So that first three chapters tends to be discovery written, because they’re asking me to do a proposal. I don’t know that I’m committing to this entire series before I’m getting contracted. So a lot of times, I’ll have this story concept, and an editor who is having drinks with me or what have you… A lot of these things happen by accident. I wasn’t pitching. But someone says, “Oh, Piper. What do you write? What are some of your ideas?” Generally, we’re Barconning it. I’m like, “You know, ha ha ha, funny, funny… In context, it would be great if somebody wrote blobbity blah blah.” They’re like, “Promise me you’ll send me a proposal.” I’ll come home and have to write a proposal.
[Brandon] Right. On this thing you came up with at Barcon.
[Piper] Exactly. Like, I have no idea what that happened. Like, that happened with an alpha werewolves mercenary series, but now my agent and several of my author friends are like, “We need to see that.”
[Brandon] So, Barcon, by the way, is what we affectionately call hanging out at the bar at another convention. Particularly a larger convention… Sci-fi convention, not like this ComicCon, but like something like WorldCon or whatnot. But a lot of the regional cons have one where they just call it barcon, too.
[Piper] You can… You definitely can do that at romance cons as well. Especially RT Booklovers. There’s an entire barcon culture. Like I never, when I’m at that convention, ever go to bed at night without having taken at least a 5 to 10 minute lap around the bar. Always.

[Brandon] So. Dan, have you ever been forced to use one tool or the other?
[Dan] I actually forced myself, on John Cleaver five, because the first two books of John Cleaver were just completely discovery written. Then I started outlining more. So for 5, because of the structure of it… It’s John kind of hitchhiking around the country… I thought this will be fun. I’m going to try this again. I got two thirds of the way into it and had to stop and put everything on hold and spend like two weeks outlining the end of it, because I had become so dependent on outlining that I couldn’t finish the book properly. But it was very interesting to go back and just make it up as I go. To wake up in the morning and sit down to write and go, “What’s next? I don’t know what’s next. What happens? Let’s find out.” It was refreshing and it was very cool and I learned a lot from doing it. But I still had to go back and figure out how it was going to end in order to write the ending.
[Brandon] As a natural outliner, I did the Alcatraz, my middle grade books, as discovery writing exercises, to practice and get more versatile. So that was imposed, it was self-imposed, and I actually do these stories a little bit like a game of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Where I come up with a bunch of random prompts. In this case, magic powers, magic tools, weird things, just something I think of. I put these in a list, and say, “Okay, it’s got to touch all these things. Go.” It gives me a different kind of restriction.

[Brandon] In that name, I actually have some homework for you guys. A different kind of restriction. I’ve been thinking about what we could do for this one, because we’ve forced you to do discovery writing and outlining so much. I want to shake it up a little bit. I was thinking about my assistant, my editorial assistant, Peter. When he goes through a copyedit, when he’s going to copyedit something, he does it backward first. He starts at the last line of the book and works forward. The reason being it lets him take those sentences away from the context he’s used to seeing them in. Because by then, he’s read the book several times. It allows him to approach them freshly and make sure the grammar and punctuation and things… In the copyedit, he’s only looking for that stuff. He’s not looking for the larger scale things. So I thought I would suggest you guys try to write a backwards story. Now, these are not fresh and new. They… It’s not that new cool thing that it was when Memento came out and things like this. But I still think it could be fun to force you to look at stories in a new way, the structure of a story in a new way. By starting with the last sentence, and then working backward. You don’t have to actually write each sentence backwards. You can write each paragraph backward, would probably be easier. Do a paragraph, then the paragraph before, and then the paragraph before. But see what happens if you try to write the story backward, having no idea where you’re going. Use one of our writing prompts that we give on this as the last line instead of the first line.
[Howard] But they lived happily ever after, anyway.
[Brandon] And then they found Howard’s pants.
[Piper] Okay. I can’t tell you the images that just popped into my head.
[Brandon] It’s a running theme for Writing Excuses. Howard’s pants, for some reason. It goes back into the first season.
[Howard] Which I’ve never, never come to record without, except for maybe that one time… I’m making that up! I’m making that up.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.