Tips for Discovery Writers: Finding the Joy

Metawriting, Micro-outlining, and Squee-Hunting

When I first started writing longer works, I realized pretty quickly I’m what we call a “discovery” writer. The less-flattering term is “pantser,” meaning that I fly by the seat of my pants when I write! The first draft is where I find most of my joy in writing. Despite being a professional editor, I hate revision and try to avoid it as much as possible.

Over time, I realized how worthwhile it is to embrace the journey of discovery and look at my writing process like a map that is unfolding as I go. The more books I write, the more I realize there is no right or wrong way to approach a project. Every book is different. Ideas develop differently depending on what you are writing. Just like the structure of a book may be different for say, a horror book vs. a fantasy book, the structure of the writing process is also tuned to book genre. More complex projects require more planning, while “easier” (in my head!) projects can rely more heavily on the imaginative process.

This is a topic I’ll be exploring in this post and also in my upcoming one-hour workshop with From the Heart Romance Writers in late March:

Outlining Your Way to Your Novel 
DATE: Sunday, March 24, 2024
TIME: 1:00pm EST/12:00pm CST
Price: $55
Register for the From the Heart Romance Writers online retreat, a two-day workshop for writers featuring webinars, writing sprints, meetups, fun social events, and more. 
Featuring my one-hour workshop, Outlining Your Way to Your Novel. If you consider yourself a “discovery” writer, outlining a novel can be a daunting task despite the abundance of advice available on the subject. As a discovery writer, you may struggle to fit your work into a given form, from saving cats to the hero’s journey. That’s why I’ve developed an outlining method that enables you to discover your own path to structure. In this workshop, you'll create your own outlining approach that you can use to write each new book. We'll explore existing methods and show you how to borrow from them to develop an organic form of outlining that doesn’t stifle creativity. Additionally, we’ll examine the structure of recently published books in your genre to help you stay on trend. 

You Can Always Look Back

The discovery writer is like a person lost in the woods with a map that illuminates step by step. The writer may not be able to see the destination, but if they can imagine the next step, it will become lit up in their minds. By looking back at where they have been, the discovery writer can see the end of the road ahead.

The benefits of discovery writing are manifold. For writers who struggle to outline, discovering the story as you go can feel more exciting. The writer is IN the story, figuring out what happens with the character as events occur. The plot may feel more organic to a reader. The characters might feel more unique and real. There is no hamstringing details in after writing a scene—details arise organically.

This isn’t to say that all plotters have boring stories. But, I would push back against the idea that there is one universal plot. The reality is that most plot structures are based on Western storytelling—and that can leave the plot feeling too familiar. So even plotters can benefit from loosening up their process in order to create something that feels fresh.

For a discovery writer, the goal is to hold onto the joy. Losing that spark of joy in the writing process can derail the whole project. You might be reading this and laughing, thinking, “How can one person be in their feels so much while writing?” But the emotions of creativity are key for a discovery writer in finding the story.

One thing to consider is how your writing process works for you. How does the story come to you? For example, do you imagine your story's events as if they were a movie? Or are you drawn in by one single line of dialogue? Do you imagine characters by their quirks and personality traits? Do big ideas fascinate you—and in particular, how you might translate those big ideas to an audience?

The key to discovery writing is being able to: 1. Have an inherent sense of where you are in the book and where you are going (if not necessarily the end) and 2. Be flexible enough in revision to “reverse outline.”

Discovery writing is often linear in nature, but it may also be non-linear. For me, I discover the book as the action happens. I often wait between chapters, deciding what will happen next. This means my book has a natural progression that feels organic. But I have also written books where I wrote on a scene basis, stitching scenes together at a later time to create chapters. The process of writing in this way will often mean going back and filling in gaps.

The beauty of writing non-linearly is that it often skips unnecessary scenes that have to be later cut in revision, like travel scenes or expository scenes without much plot “value”. While it can feel chaotic to write out of order in terms of plot, you might be surprised to learn how your scenes stitch together to form just the right amount of storytelling.

Here are some of my favorite tips for discovery writers who hate to outline on how to keep that joy alive in the process of writing a book.

Tips for Discovery Writers on Outlining & Keeping the Joy Alive

  1. Reverse outline, reverse outline, outline in reverse: This is my number one tip for discovery writers. A reverse outline is a document that outlines the novel after it’s written. You can do this at any stage in the writing process. Essentially, the writer looks back at what they have written so far and then uses that to generate an end-point or else fill in missing “plot holes”. A reverse outline can be created using any outline method, from Save the Cat to the Hero’s Journey.

  2. Create Your Own Outline: As a discovery writer, you probably wouldn’t rely on someone else’s method of writing line by line. Discovery writers are generally independent learners. This is why I always encourage writers who struggle with outlines to come up with their own method of outlining. Maybe it’s simply post-it notes; maybe you decide how a novel structure works and come up with “must-haves” of your own. Create your own unique system.

  3. Try “Micro-outlining”: Micro-outlining is like outlining but with smaller pieces of the puzzle. For example, you might try simply outlining each chapter with a one-sentence outline. Or, you might try outlining the next 5 chapters at a time as you write. Try writing a list of scenes you know will be in the book.

  4. Try “Metawriting”: Metawriting is one of my favorite exercises. Any type of writing about writing falls into this category. Essentially, freewrite about your project and what you want to accomplish with it. You can do this in-scene: Try writing a scene about “what happens next”. Or else, put your character into an interesting scenario and see what they do. Have your character explain to someone else in the book what they want and why. Write descriptions of your settings from your character’s POV. Don’t worry about being too expository—you are explaining the writing to yourself, and you can always go back and cut it later. This kind of “in-scene” outlining may become a pivotal scene in the book.

  5. Mind Map an Outline: A mind map is a free-association exercise. There are lots of ways you can use a mind map for outlining. For example, you might start by writing the character’s goal in the center of the page and then mind-map free associations related to that goal. Or else you might write a central location in the middle of the page and then use the mind map to write descriptive words about that setting. Brainstorm ideas, connect plot points, and keep track of your characters.

  6. Don’t Harsh Your Own Squee: Allow yourself to find a process that finds you joy without worrying about whether other people operate that way. Remember that this is your book, and it comes from your creative mind. All that matters is that you love it.

  7. Recognize that Writing is an Organic, Natural Process of Imagination: All writing is influenced by the books we have read and the things we love. But the act of creation is, by nature, organic. It comes from the wonderful world of imagination. Imagination is not a linear process. It’s wild and chaotic. Embrace that!

  8. Enjoy the adventure: Your book is a journey through an uncharted land. Don’t be afraid to stop and smell the adjectives! But really, it’s okay to slow down and enjoy the process of writing. The last thing any writer wants is to feel miserable with their book. If you feel like you’ve lost the path, don’t worry; you can always find it again.

I hope these tips help you embrace the journey and find the joy in your writing. Remember: Write what you love, love what you write. See you on the word trails, fellow adventurers!

Holly Lyn Walrath is a writer, editor, and publisher. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Analog, and Flash Fiction Online. She is the author of several books of poetry including Glimmerglass Girl (2018), Numinose Lapidi (2020), and The Smallest of Bones (2021). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. In 2019, she launched Interstellar Flight Press, an indie SFF publisher dedicated to publishing underrepresented genres and voices. As a freelance editor, she provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best.

Upcoming Workshops from Holly Lyn Walrath


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