The Page a Day Writers Group

Evolving Technique, From Discovery-Writing to Structured Plotting

Posted on: April 23, 2010

I used to be a “discovery writer.” Oddly enough, I didn’t even know there was a name for my writing style until just a couple of years ago, so far into my rabbit hole was I. Back then, I began a book or story on the strength of a head full of images, voices, snippets of plot and conversation, and then proceeded to weave them together, if a bit clumsily. This method creates a manuscript which requires much refining and retooling. It’s perfect for Joycean stream of consciousness stories, less so for those that become densely plotted or depend on a solidly built new world. I think I got (mostly) lucky with Ice Song, because I was following the traditional format of a fairy tale. But as I begin my fourth novel Asta Requited, and the third in the saga of Sorykah, the gender-switching Trader, I’m taking a  new tack.

Deb Ayers introduced me to the Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which lit up my brain with a firecracker explosion of insight. Next, Claire Fadden shared Larry Brook’s Storyfix concepts with the group. More light show displays. Then I really and truly understood the meaning, purpose and placement of the inciting incident, and plot and pinch points, hooks, archetypes, the classic conflicts and resolutions. As Eddie Murphy said, way back in ’82, “You gotta have a hook!”  Suddenly, the big doors of the writing temple opened, and previously vexing koans revealed their glorious simplicity. It was thrilling.

You want foreshadowing? Bam! You got it!

You want structure? Bah da bing! You got it, baby!

Asta Requited is going to be different. I’m a more confident mother/creator/writer now. I understand all the parts and their placement and will lay out my foundation in advance, rather than building the house first and then having to shore up sagging supports. It feels like more work to begin with a Hero’s Journey worksheet and Story Structure worksheet (cheat sheets I made for myself), to outline and really peg out the high points, but, it’s work I’d have to do anyway. This time, I’m mapping out the book. I know that my hook and foreshadowing go in the first few pages, if not paragraphs. I know (roughly) which chapters contain plot points, and the essential info needed there.

There’s still plenty of freedom allotted for discovery-writing. I depend on and look forward to my characters taking charge of their own stories and surprising me. They just won’t be running the show this time. It’s a bit more challenging, since I’m not a terribly organized thinker and resistant to routine, but I have a new sense of comfort and certainty as I go forth. I may wander through imaginary foreign lands, but I don’t need to get lost there. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a map.

Kirsten Imani Kasai

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5 Responses to "Evolving Technique, From Discovery-Writing to Structured Plotting"

You know what Oprah says — luck is preparation meeting opportunity. There is no way the world could be denied someone with your writing talent — discovery writer or not. You put in the hard work and the endless hours to bring us the imagery and depth of Ice Song (and soon) Tattoo.

I do agree with you. Studying and understanding story structure makes the writing journey a bit more fun. I feel like I’ve been let in on the secret. Maybe that’s what Louis Pasture meant when he said fortune favors the prepared mind. We’re just continuing to prepare our minds.

I think this strategy could be used in life in general, especially for us who get easily distracted. “Oh, look how pretty that is over there.” I’m realizing structure is important in my everyday life. I just read an article that said clutter and the stress of long to do lists that you’ll never complete can shave years off your life. So I say keep on the path but continue to be surprised by those you meet along the way. You’ll live longer.

Yes, story structure is an essential piece of the pie; without it I feel like I’m stumbling around in the fog. Actually, even with story structure I do a fair amount of foggy stumbling, but I feel like at least I have a flashlight! And there’s plenty of room within the structure for stretches of discovery writing, too. So we don’t need to give that up, if it feeds us.

Thanks for sharing your process, Kirsten.

Thanks for this post. I’ve always been a simmerer with a rough outline, and it works for me. Some times the outline is all in my head, and if I write everyday it flows well – I hope. I think sticking with your writing, and constantly being open to learning from what you read as well as from good critiques. Through time the lessons sit there in your head to be pulled, subconsciously, to the front, and make each story better than the last one.

I make it a habit to follow writers from their debut novel to see if they are putting to use what they have learned in each new book. Some do, and it’s marvelous to see. Some don’t, perhaps because they think being published means they know everything, which is sad because they have missed an opportunity to grow as a writer.

Hi Liz,

I’ve read several interviews where writers have said they don’t go back to read old work because all they see are the mistakes. If that’s true, then at least it’s a sign of healthy growth and evolution.

Each book demands its own structure. The key is identifying which one is required and being comfortable working with a variety of structures to suit the needs of the story.

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The Page a Day Writers Group is a diverse collection of wonderful writers based in San Diego, CA. We've been meeting monthly since 2004. Our primary function is in-depth writing critique, marketing and brainstorming, but there's usually some wine, chocolate and ribaldry involved too. We write fantasy, humor, literary fiction, nonfiction, romance, thrillers and YA. Join us on our journeys to publication and the wonderland beyond!

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