How to Write a Novel – Pt 4: Writing Style

Now that you have an idea of what kind of story you want to write, and maybe even a few characters ready, it’s time to create story.  The next step all depends on how you like to write.

When I attended a writers conference with Brandon Sanderson, he said there are typically two types of writing styles: discovery and outline.  (See these notes for more details.)

But don’t take these to be absolutes.  You may lean more heavily toward one than the other or you may be a little of both.  The important thing is to discover how you work so you can work with yourself.  So what are these modes and what do they have to do with our writing style?

DISCOVERY

You have a character, whether vague or well formed, and a scene or situation you want to throw them in.  But you’re not entirely sure where the novel and maybe even the scene is going.  So you start with the characters and let them tell you where the story will go.

You finish your scene and have an epiphany!  Now that you actually know what your story is about, it’s time to go back and rewrite the scene.  You write it again, and it takes you in yet another direction you didn’t expect.  This new direction is really what the story is about.  All you need to do is rewrite the scene to have it match up a little better and then you can move along with the rest of the book.

If this sounds like you, you’re probably a discovery writer.  Stephen King also likes to write in this style.

One downside to discovery writing is you may end up perpetually rewriting and not making the progress you want to or should be making.  And some discovery writers have a hard time actually finishing their novel. The upside is you’re probably not afraid of rewriting things to make them better.

Although I’m more of an outline type writer, I’ve found discovery mode to be immensely helpful.  Sometimes if you’re not sure where a scene should go, it’s okay to just let it unfold before your eyes.  Let the characters dictate where they’re going to take you and just record what happens.

I also find it useful to try out an idea and see if it will fly with my characters.  Sometimes it takes me in new directions I’m thrilled to discover.  Other times I realize while it is interesting to me, it doesn’t belong in my novel.  But I don’t think any of these scenes are wasted.  I’ve written several scenes which I’ve tossed later but that helped me understand better where the story was going so I could leave only the interesting bits for readers.

So, are you a discovery writer?  Do you love throwing characters into a situation and seeing what comes of it?  Is your philosophy that you must rewrite it until it’s right before you move on?  Then you may be a discovery type writer.

OUTLINE

You’ve got your characters fairly well fleshed out, you’ve built your world, and most importantly you’ve spent lots of time painstakingly creating an outline you intend to follow like a road map to the end of the story.

Rewrites are something you loathingly do, since you already knew where the story is going.  You wanted to get it right the first time—hence all the work you spent on the timeline.

If this sounds more like you, you’re probably an outline writer.  Orson Scott Card is one of these.  This is the category I tend to lean toward more heavily.  I prefer to do my “discovery” writing in a outline, trying things out there before spending too much time poring over scenes I wouldn’t end up using anyway.  If it doesn’t work in the outline, I feel like no time was wasted, so no big deal scrapping it.

I also used to loathe rewrites, other than fixing little grammatical errors.  I thought I’d spent enough time working all of this out in my outline and my world or character notes.

The downside to outline writing is you typically don’t want to do rewrites.  The upside is you actually finish the novel.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

I think becoming aware of these styles and realizing the type of writer you are helps you embrace the good traits from both worlds.  If you’re a discovery writer, I would challenge you to try a basic outline of where you want your novel to go—even if it changes later.

For outline writers, try writing one scene without the aid of your outline and without doing any planning.  Let the characters tell you where the story is going instead of dictating to them how it will turn out.

If you do this, please email me or leave a comment here on how it turned out for you.

For me, the most important change was coming to terms with the idea that even a third draft probably wasn’t good enough, no matter how much outlining I did.  Working with a professional editor helped me curb my ego which touted perfection at anything I did.  Most of you won’t need a professional editor until several drafts down the road, but you certainly can use a pair of critical eyes to help you see where you need to make improvements.  See one of my older posts on learning to love feedback.

Discovery writers.  Give yourself a limit on rewriting a chapter.  If you’ve rewritten it three times already, move on to the next chapter and leave it alone until you’ve written three more chapters.  Force yourself to make progress before going back to work on it again.  Despite how much you’re tempted to go back and make it right, let it go for the sake of some progress.

Besides, whatever writer type you are, your first several drafts will probably be rough.  Read my friend Brian’s post on the state of first drafts and what we learn from them.

Outline writers.  In those moments when you feel like you’re just not in the writing groove for creating new material, go back and look over your early chapters.  Read them out loud.  Where do you stumble?  Do some fixes, look for plot holes and anything that doesn’t match up with what you’ve written in the following chapters.  It’ll mean less work later. 😉

Have you figured out what type of writer you are?  Are you discovery, outline or a mix of both?  What advice would you give to the other side?  What advice would you give to those who write like you?  Post in the comments below. 

Tomorrow it’s time to Start Writing!  We’ll go over tips for staying motivated.  See you then.

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3 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel – Pt 4: Writing Style

  1. I’m a hybrid. I must outline first and that usually gets me 75% through the story. Let’s face it, nothing ever goes according to plan. The other 25% is me looking over what I have and fleshing out sub-plots or other points of tension, or simply writing where the story takes me. A bit of both worlds.

    While I don’t loathe rewrites or revisions, I understand they can/should be part of the process. Every writer is different. What works for me probably won’t work for the next writer. That’s what makes the journey so much fun, finding what works for you and applying it to a routine. At least I think it’s fun.

    Additionally, reaching out to other writers and learning how they write is just as fun and interesting. I’ve met some wonderful people that way (including you). Even though writing is such a personal process, it helps to make connections and travel with a fellow writer for a while on their journey. It helps to know you can reach out to someone who may understand what you’re going through. Not to mention they may be an awesome doodling machine with a heart of gold. 😉

    While I’m tempted to be on team Chupacabra, I’m going with team ZombeNinjaFairy! ZombieNinjaFairy for the win!

    Seriously, what a fun and relatable take on the writing process. Careful, your talent is showing! 😉 Okay, I’m done with the winky faces, promise.

    • When I saw how much my writing grew stronger working with an editor, any disdain for rewrites quickly went out the window. Now I love the whole process. Yes, I’m still lazy about it from time to time, but I believe in every part of it. I do look at my outline as a road map, but I don’t mind taking little detours along the way to the destination.

      And you’re too kind. 😀 Thanks for all the compliments!

      I think ZNF would probably win in a fight against the Chups (that’s what I call him for short). Mostly because Chups’s thing is to suck the blood from its victims like a vampire. ZNF luckily, has no blood only a thirst for brains and maybe pink tutus. But together they could make a formidable team…. *shudder*

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