Before the First Word: The Power of Discovery

By Lisa Carter

So you’ve got this idea for a story . . . What do you do now? Do you sit down and pound out something? Then, encounter bewilderment five chapters later?

Here I am “playing” while working.

There are 3 stages in novel writing—pre-writing, writing, and re-writing. But the writing will stutter-step to a halt if first you don’t allow yourself time to discover what the story is really about.

Pre-writing is about uncovering—discovering—the story you’ve been inspired to tell. When you take what you’ve unearthed so far, throw it into the cooker of your creativity, and let it simmer on the stove of your imagination.

I’m giving you permission to play.

Play? I’m supposed to be working.

Discovery on the front end of writing will pay huge dividends on the back end. Let the story cook in your mind before you touch the keyboard or risk detours that lead nowhere because you didn’t really know what your story was about much less where the story was going.

When the writing stops being fun, your creativity suffers. Allow yourself to re-discover what made writing fun in the first place. Release the inner child that once couldn’t record ideas fast enough—ideas that sprang unbidden (or did they?).

Fundamental to a child’s development, play is their job. Play, with discovery’s unfolding promise, is essential to your story’s development, too.

Ideas emerge from that wellspring inside you—placed there by God who hardwired you to be a writer. Fill the tank till it overflows. The overflow becomes your inspiration. Don’t kid yourself—this is work, too. But important, fun work.

To recapture the fun in the discovery “work” of pre-writing:


It’s essential to the creative process—not an indulgence, but a necessity for writers. To fill the tank, read at least one book a week. Carry a book/e-reader with you wherever you go. Reading can guide your story’s direction. Not plagiarism, but as “iron sharpens iron” so another writer’s creativity can fuel your own creativity.

Let the subconscious to take over

If you “discover” in the shower, be prepared for higher water bills

Perform rote skills—like cleaning or exercising. With your body engaged in muscle-memory, your mind is free for subconscious thoughts to flow. You’ll have the cleanest house on your block—savor it for the second and third stages when you may have the worst kept house. Olivia’s story from Beneath a Navajo Moon came to me in a dream. My best ideas come in the shower. My husband jokes you can chart my discovery process according to our water bill.

Create a visual montage of characters/places

This will aid you in deepening characterization, generating plot outcome, and in marketing your novel. I “audition” actors/models using Pinterest boards for each novel.

Beneath a Navajo Moon

Using Scrivener’s organizational features, I collect photos to capture the moods of my characters—happy, sad, angry, funny. Because my settings become characters, I also gather pictures of regional lifestyles. This pays off in scene development.

Watch TV and movies

Wait. Did I really just say that? Yes, I did. This fun activity actually primes story development. The setting provides a visual framework for my characters. Want to guess how many episodes of Hawaii Five-0 I watched while discovering Aloha Rose? How about Navajo Cops in formulating Beneath A Navajo Moon?

Engage all five senses

Aloha Rose

When all the senses are incorporated, your characters become three-dimensional, jump-off-the-page real. Create a theme playlist for your novel that encapsulates the essence of your characters. Brudda Iz’ “Over the Rainbow” for Aloha Rose became merged with my story. So that if at any point in the writing process I lost the story trail, just listening to this song brought me back onto the right path. As an added bonus, listening to the soundtrack as a routine before putting fingers to the keyboard serves as a Pavlovian trigger—transforming the terror of a blank screen into a joy of discovery.

If by Chapter 12, you find yourself stymied? Don’t panic—the story hasn’t finished cooking yet. Revisit the discovery techniques that work for you, and access the inner child to guide you around the next bend. You must give the story the time it—not you—needs.

Discovery fun first = Happy writing

Lisa Carter is the author of two romantic suspense novels, Carolina Reckoning and Beneath A Navajo Moon; and Aloha Rose, a contemporary romance in the Quilts of Love series. Under a Turquoise Sky releases August 2014.

She and her husband have two daughters and make their home in North Carolina. When she isn’t writing, Lisa enjoys traveling to romantic locales, quilting, and researching her next exotic adventure. She has strong opinions on barbecue and ACC basketball. Connect with Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Check out her books at