GUEST POST #2: “Outlining Versus Discovery Writing” by Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan


Michael J Sullivan



Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the epic six-book fantasy series, The Riyria Revelations. Originally published with a small press, the series was picked up this year by Orbit books and is being released in three volumes. The first, Theft of Swords, released in November, contains the first two volumes. The second, Rise of Empire, features the third and fourth volumes and came out this month. The final volume, Heir of Novron, collecting the final two volumes of the series, is due out in January 2012.

This is the second of five posts that Michael J. Sullivan will be doing this week on BookBanter. Check back tomorrow for the next post, or you can subscribe to the BookBanter Blog by entering your email at the top right of the BookBanter Blog page.

Listen to an interview between BookBanter and Michael J. Sullivan.

Outlining Versus Discovery Writing

This is probably one of the oldest debates that exists in writing (followed by the close second of whether the Oxford comma should be used). I’ve seen deliberations which have set forums on fire, as proponents of one side or the other attempts to explain why the opposing opinion is invalid. The truth is, it really depends on the author. Some will find outlining as a means of organizing their thoughts, while another may find it too restricting and ultimately stifling their creativity. So I’m not here today to rally opinions for one side or the other. So I’ll take this opportunity to give you a bit of insight into what I do.

When I started writing, I firmly used the discovery process. The problem for me, is I often wrote myself into corners and found that I wasted large amounts of time by either having to abandon a work entirely, or needing to cut out significant amounts of what I thought was finished prose in order to fix whatever predicament I had gotten myself into.  Before writing The Riyria Revelations I actually completed thirteen novels and started and abandoned an untold number of other manuscripts. So I found myself wasting quite a bit of time…probably years if I added everything up.

Nowadays I always outline, but I do so very lightly. In the early conceptualization process it is nothing more than where the story starts, where it will end, and various snippets of scenes that I think I’ll write along the way.  Then I get more detailed and provide some flesh to the skeleton by deciding what should happen in each chapter and checking the pacing of the book. It may mean adding a chapter here or there, or moving a chapter in order to balance the most exciting scenes with more slowly paced breathers.

Even though I have an outline, I leave myself open for questioning where I’m going and challenging if I can significantly improve the book by adding a twist, or changing a character’s motivations. I often find myself arguing with characters that resist doing what I want them to (because it would force them to act out of character). In most cases when I find myself fighting with them, it’s an indication that I’m trying to take a quick or easy way out. Listening to them will almost always require more writing—sometimes several chapters—but the book will always benefit when I give in to their demands.

Whether you write from an outline, use discovery, or use a mixture of both (as I do) there is one thing that I think all authors can benefit from…and that is giving a story time to gestate. I’ve been known to complete an entire book and say, “That’s pretty good…but not great…how can I take it up a notch.”  I’ll give myself weeks, sometimes months, just to mull over the story as a whole. Usually I play devil’s advocate, as if I’m picking apart the plot of someone else’s work, like I often do with movies. This is where some of my best ideas come from. With the entire book laid out before me, I can usually see various threads I can pull on or places I can weave new ones that will take the book in a whole new direction. In many cases I know I’ll surprise the readers, as I ended up surprising myself when I see ways in which I can make pieces connect.

I often get letters from aspiring authors asking for advice and many times I feel like it’s a cop-out, but the reality is only you can choose what is right for yourself.  No one can help you determine that. The best advice I can offer is to keep working at it, as the more you write the better you’ll become at identifying what works best—as with anything writing is a muscle which improves through repeated use. Don’t get discouraged if you end up having to throw away work, and don’t be so wedded to an outline that you don’t allow “the magic” to occur. The only universal advice I can offer is to never “settle.” Set your sites at producing the highest quality work you can and know that you might not realize the best way to get there when you are new to writing. But over time you’ll develop the system that work the best for you…oh and please don’t flame someone else for an approach that doesn’t match yours. It doesn’t help either of you.

Read Michael J. Sullivan’s previous post on “A Bit About Contracts.”

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Theft of Swords Rise of Empire

4 thoughts on “GUEST POST #2: “Outlining Versus Discovery Writing” by Michael J. Sullivan

  1. Nice post, Michael! I also use a blend of both methods, but jot down the point of salient scenes on index cards and then arrange them so that the arc of the book builds well. I know where the characters are when a scene begins and where they need to be at the end but how they get there is up to them–and that’s what provides the wonder of discovery as I actually write it out.

    • Totally agree, especially for a big complex novel. John Irving is the unusual kind of writer who plots and outlines absolutely everything before hand and then writes it, which to mean feels like you take away at lot of the fun and magic, and as you say “wonder” of writing.

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