Friday, November 12, 2010

Discovering Your Story

I just read an excellent article in the September 2010 edition of “Romance Writers Report” that got me thinking about how I “discover” my story. In her article “The Importance of Discovery”, Lani Diane Rich, talks about the process of finding the story you want to tell. By this she means learning about your characters and what they need to learn to get to their happy ending.  It means knowing your story and your characters so well you know what they will do in any given situation. It means finding out what the story’s about.  She says “Any time an idea comes to you about your story, you are discovering that story.”
Ms. Rich argues that the writer needs to take the time to discover her book before she sits down to write it. Discovery will happen, one way or the other, either on the writer’s terms or on discovery’s terms. If finding out about your book happens on your own terms, you spend a few weeks thinking about your book, and doing various exercises to help you learn what you want to write. Maybe you’ll do some pre-writing; two or three chapters that never make it into the novel, but contain crucial information for you as the writer. Ms. Rich says, “On its terms, discovery will find you smack in the middle of the second act, sit its fat butt down on your manuscript, overwhelm you with writer’s block until you pay the toll, which is, quite simply, time and attention.”
I think I know exactly what she is talking about it. Here’s a tale of two novels (or novellas, at least) from my own experience.
Scenario number One: In the fall of 2009, my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, put out a call for a series of romantic suspense novellas featuring a blue diamond. I was intrigued by the concept, but I had no clue what to write about. I did a little research about blue diamonds, but sometime before Christmas decided I just wouldn’t be able to come up with anything before the deadline on March 31, 2010.
But my brain must have continued to unconsciously think about it. Sometime over the Christmas holidays I had an idea about setting the story in occupied France in the middle of World War Two. My husband and I talked over some scenarios based on the history of the time. From those conversations I came up with a rough outline of what I thought the story would be about.
Then I went to three friends and set up an instant messaging meeting with them. I had sent them my rough synopsis earlier, so they knew what the story was more or less about, but they really helped me to flesh out the characters and the plot. My friends Janet Corcoran and Karyn Good even helped me to come up with the name of the novella: “Flawless”. By the time I actually started to write the story, I felt I knew everything I needed to know. I wrote the majority of the story during the Saskatchewan Romance Writers annual “Book in A Week” in January 2010 and finished editing it in time to make the deadline of March 31. I am currently under contract for this story with The Wild Rose Press, and it will be released January 5, 2011.
Scenario Number Two: An idea comes to me: it’s about an angel who visits an elderly man with the promise that she will take him back in time so that he can have a second chance at love. I madly began writing this story without doing much research or discovery to figure out what the story is really about. The result: the story is about a third to a half finished, and I’m not sure where it will go, or if what I’ve written so far is any good. I haven’t looked at the story in nearly a year.
Ms. Rich says it doesn’t matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser when it comes to discovery; it still has to happen. “Discovery is where you find the pieces [for your plot]; fitting them all together comes later. If you’re a plotter, it’ll come before you write. If you’re a pantser, it’ll come during. But, to have the pieces ready and gathered before you start writing—that’s the trick. That’s discovery.”
Ms. Rich gives us five ways to help us make discovery happen:
1.       Read at least one book a week. I have to admit that since I really took my writing seriously a few years ago, my reading has gone way down. Part of the problem is lack of time. Any free time I have, I want to spend writing. I’m also concerned with letting the work of other writers seep into my own work. Ms. Rich says sometimes the pieces of the puzzle to your own work can be hidden or pointed to in the works of others. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by the works of others; it is a time-honoured tradition. Just don’t copy or loosely paraphrase, which is plagiarism.
2.       Create a soundtrack. Many writers like to listen to music as they write, although I find I need silence. Ms. Rich recommends creating a soundtrack of ten to thirty songs that relate to particular characters, scenes, or themes of your book. Play them over and over again, while you’re exercising, driving, doing the dishes. That way your mind stays on your book. Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas as they come to you.
3.       Do a collage. Ms. Rich insists the collage doesn’t have to be great art; it just has to make you think of your book. Find pictures of TV or movie stars who will stand in as your characters, or houses and locations that could be your setting. You don’t even have to use poster board and glue. For “Flawless” I went to the Internet and found a picture of French chateau and photographs of Resistance fighters and others wearing World War Two era clothing that made me think of my story. I kept them in a file on my computer, but you may want to print them out and keep them in front of you.
4.       Engage in creative hobbies.  I can’t knit, crochet or do cross-stitch, but I think I know what Ms. Rich is on to here. Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower or when driving. The part of our brains that creates is free to play while the other part is engaged with another task.
5.       Watch movies and television that inspire you. Wow, you mean I can now call my TV habit research? All kidding aside, movies and TV can get you into the storytelling zone. Ms. Rich recommends watching comedy if you’re writing a romantic comedy, and a suspense if you’re writing romantic suspense.
One final word. Don’t take discovery lightly. Take the time to learn about your story. If you don’t know your story well enough you can wander down paths that take you no where. Avoid the frustration. Take the time to play.
What sort of “discovery” do you do for your books?


  1. Quick answer: I dream. Almost every story has come to me in dreams--vivid, colorful dreams, like I'm living the story myself. Sometimes they wake me from sound sleep and drive me to the laptop. The more intense my writing effort, the more intense the dreams.

    James L. Hatch Author
    Solstice Publishing Author

  2. A good portion of my story lines comes from watching the Discovery Channel. The ideas for both Fiona and Riley's Journey sprang from watching segments on ancient history.

  3. Good post and a topic that all of us writers deal with. My local writers group discusses the subject of where we come up with story ideas all the time. As for me, I rarely have a problem finding a new story line. Like Miss Havana, a lot of my story ideas fill themselves out in my dreams.
    Starla Kaye

  4. Great post, Jana! I too loved that article in the RWR.
    I'm a "recovering" pantser -- the kind you talked about who had no idea where my story was going, who just started typing. With my WIP I've taken the time to get to know them by thinking about where they came from, their childhood - none of which will probably make it into the story, but I it stuff I have to know.

  5. Excellent post, Jana. And so true about discovery. I've learned through trial and error that having a vague idea will only get you about half way. And then the story may be so muddled you have no desire to finish. My first NaNo project was that way. Also, the ending had very little to do with the beginning, LOL! This time around, I thought about my story for about a week before I began writing, getting the hero's and heroine's backstories sorted. So much better to be working from a position of knowledge.

  6. I love the line "Don't take discovery lightly." So true. If I think of something pertaining to a story, even if it's a story I know won't be written for a while, I jot it down and file it in the appropriate place. And I do all those things you listed. Plus I love writing exercises and find they help me discover a lot of good stuff about the plot and my characters.

    It was so much fun working on flawless with you! I hope to repeat the experience with a story idea of my own. Can't wait to read it.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Miss Havana. Dreams are powerful things. I've had some ideas come to me that way as well. But I think the ideas came to me because I was already thinking about my story. My mind was pondering solutions and ideas, both consciously and subconsciously. It's always a good idea to have paper and pen beside your bed to write down those great dream-inspired ideas. Or, like you, get up and hit the laptop!


  8. Hi Patsy,
    Nice to see you! TV shows like those on the Discovery channel are great sources of inspiration for our stories. I like newspaper articles as well. From that initial inspiration or information we add characters, plot, and all kinds of detail to flesh out that story. Discovery would be all the "fleshing out" that goes into the making of a book.


  9. Hi Starla,
    Ideas come from everywhere. But unfortunately, some of our ideas don't bear fruit. To me, discovery is the process of finding out not only what my story idea really is about, but whether it has what it takes to be a full length story.

    Thanks for commenting.

  10. Hi Jennifer,
    I'm the kind of writer who needs to do some work before I can start to write. Otherwise, I really get lost, and really don't know where to go. Some writers can just get an idea and start typing, but I really believe that as they immerse themselves in the writing, they discover their story. For me, it just works better if I do my discovery before I hit my keyboard.


  11. Hi Lu,
    I so agree with you. Things have always worked out better for me when I know what my story is about, and who my characters are. But like I said, some writers work differently. It kills the creativity for them if they know every little detail before the writing begins. They figure out their story as they go along. Everybody has their own method!

    Thanks for commenting,

  12. Hi Karyn,
    You're smart to keep track of ideas as they come to you. You never know when one of these ideas will turn into a viable book for you. I also think that writing down these ideas and putting them away for awhile satisfies the urge to abandon the story you're working on and chase another story.

    Our little plot party for Flawless was a ton of fun. I would love to do it for one of your stories. Just give me the time and place!


  13. I'm not huge on TV now (time and poor tolerance for a lot of the stuff out there) but I was as a kid and well into my adult years. I'm down to DWTS, Castle and reruns of The Nanny. Some of the old and the current inspires me, as does reading (any story that catches my interest). Discovery also comes through constant mental review of every scene between the hero and heroine. Those nuances often show when I'm driving, cleaning, walking or my mind is otherwise semi-engaged.

    Excellent post, Jana. Thanks for sharing it.

    Joanna Aislinn
    The Wild Rose Press

  14. I'm with Miss Havana...I wake up with many of my plots fully-formed in my head. Then I spend days/weeks/months thinking through how to actually write the conversations, the actions, etc. But I know the entire plot arc from the dream. And music never helps me. I have to have quiet, to the point where I've worn noise-dampening headphones if my family is being particularly loud when I'm trying to listen to my muse.

  15. Hi Joanne,
    Discovery also comes through constant mental review of every scene between the hero and heroine.

    If you're anything like me, scenes play out in your head like a clips from a movie, only I can stop, rewind, and change the dialogue and action as the clip runs. You do this often enough for key scenes and you've got a pretty good idea where your story's going before you begin writing.

    Thanks for sharing Joanne.


  16. Hi Fiona,
    I'm with you on needing quiet. I know writers who love playing music as they write. Some writers would be inspired by creating a soundtrack. But I'm sure it wouldn't work for me either. I need silence and find that lyrics distract me.

    I'm glad you were able to drop by.