Smoke & Mirrors
With some oddball exceptions, books are always read from front cover to back. Beginning to end. You don’t start reading in the middle of chapter ten, go back to the prologue, and then work backwards from the end.
But you can do exactly that when you write a book. Let me give you an analogy.
Ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-house Five? The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, lives unstuck in time. In one moment, he’s a soldier in World War II. The next he’s a child. And then he’s an old man. The story bounces back and forth in Billy’s life. Vonnegut, being the genius he was, weaved a non-chronological story that makes perfect sense.
When you’re a writer, you want to be just like Billy Pilgrim. Be unstuck in the timeline of your story. I rarely write in order, except maybe with short stories and even then I tend to loop back and forth from the “current” spot to an earlier point.
This book, as it now stands, is an organized mess. Doing a quick estimate, I’m over the 5,000 word mark, but it’s hard to say because all the chapters are in different files and I don’t want to break my focus. (I was actually at 8,000 words.) Most of the headers say “Chapter ?”, because I don’t know what order I’ll present the topics. My “outline” is a checklist of things I want to discuss, written on a single piece of notebook paper in my chicken-scratch handwriting.
I have a file for a chapter on critical voice, about 400 words long at the moment. My checklist includes the topic “Fear”. I’ll complete the chapters for both topics, and I want them early in the book, but I’ve skipped them for now.
Critical voice and fear are very hard topics to discuss, and I’m not sure I have all the tools to give the chapters what they need. (That sentence is an example of critical voice.) And what I have to say will be controversial and might upset people. (And that’s fear right there.)
I wasted a week—which thankfully didn’t stretch into maybe weeks or months—letting that critical voice and fear eat at me while both chapters went unfinished. If I had attempted this book a year ago, I’m sure it would never have gotten done.
Note, I was still writing during that “off” week. I worked on The Lydia Ludwig Affair until that project too stalled—I think because I’ve hit the third of the way point, the magical place where new ideas lose their energy. So I switched to another project, The Devs Must Be Crazy, which is now near completion.
I’m aware of all this because I keep a record of what I do every day in a small notepad. Books I read, games I play, places I go, how long I work, what projects I’m on, etc. I hadn’t even realized until now that a whole week had gone by without working on Writing Is Not Work.
The point is, I wanted to gain some momentum and move forward. So I skipped those chapters for now, and wrote on the topics that aren’t so hard to write. Guess what?
I’ve had great fun so far. I’ve written a chapter a day since Sunday, and it’s now Thursday. I hope to get the book done before I leave on a road trip in mid-July. That gives me eight days. (And yes, I made that deadline! (Speaking of writing out of order.).)
I’ve chosen to manage my critical voice and fear in a positive way, and not let them drag me to a dead stop. When I return to the chapter on critical voice, I’ll have a streak going, and that will motivate me to do what I have to do.
So give yourself permission to write out of order. Kill the butler before showing Chekov’s gun. Once the body is cooled and your detective has had time to investigate, then go back to an earlier point and drop the sneaky foreshadowing into the right places. Afterwards, you can continue forward with the tale and let the plot thicken.
The common wisdom of NaNo is to never go back and change what you’ve written until you’re done with the first draft. I don’t dispute that advice. Remember, every writer is different. But that’s not how I work. At all.
When I finish a scene, I jot down some notes on a piece of notebook paper. Something to the effect of the chapter number, the viewpoint character’s name, maybe what she’s wearing, and what happens.
An example from The Lydia Ludwig Affair: “Chap. 2, Brin, chase Gare, into wine cellar, captured.”
Enough information to remind me later what happened. Sometimes, I’ll have to rewrite my backwards outline when the chapters get rearranged too much, which I’ll be doing soon with Lydia Ludwig. I did a massive loop into earlier parts of the story, with new viewpoint characters. The loop was possible, and painless, because of the notes I had taken. I knew where in the flow of the story to place the new viewpoints.
This looping, or cycling, is not editing. I’m adding new material, entirely from creative voice. Editing and rewriting are largely critical voice activities.
Some writers will take notes on what needed to happen at an earlier point in the story—such as, ADD SCENE TO SHOW GUN—and then in a second draft add the scene. Each to his own. My preference is to just add the scene, because if my creative voice is telling me to do so, I feel I should honor that. Same with changing somebody’s hair color, or the type of gun they use.
And who’s to argue with adding new words, regardless of where those words are placed? Cycling and writing out of order helps me produce a cleaner first draft. And holds me into a story longer when I know I don’t have to do heavy edits to fix little things.
The end result to the reader is the same. No reader will be able to tell the difference when a writer cycles or not. The act is smoke and mirrors, an illusion of continuity. It wasn’t a continuous story in the writer’s head, now it is in the reader’s.
You just don’t need to tell anyone you wrote that fun, fast paced tale out of order.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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