Do you write chronologically? Or are you prone to writing whatever scene strikes your fancy? Do you skip around, hop ahead, circle back? Or are you inclined to move from scene 1 to scene 2 to 3 and beyond?
I always thought I was a chronological writer. I mean, I sit down and write what (1) I have listed on my outline, or (2) what I feel ought to come next. I follow my emotional dominoes as best I can, and in attempt to give every scene a cookie, I write lots of action and lots of arguing.
Yet, when I follow this method, I always find that my drafts are woefully out of order.
None of the scene beats seem to hit that gradual incline of tension and stakes:
Instead, it’s like this:
Specifically, I tend to write WAY TOO MUCH in the first half of the book. Too much emotional intensity, too much inter-character conflict, too much action, too much tension, etc.
It’s like I pour out all the REALLY BIG scenes at once…and then I’m left floundering over what comes next. Then, only after agonizing, do I realize nothing comes next, but lots must come between.
An example. In Windwitch, the very first scene I wrote for the Bloodwitch named Aeduan was dark. Like, I’m talking Aeduan goes banana-pants crazy after an encounter hits a bit too close to home. People then die at Aeduan’s hands.
I loved that scene. It was one of those instances where it just poured out of me in a rush of fury and feeling. Yet, as soon as I finished, I was stuck. I could see nowhere for him to go after that scene. You see, I am very, very, very particular about writing murder in YA—I simply do not allow my characters to kill unless it’s absolutely 100% critical to the story. (In my opinion, the emotional consequences are simply too big to have a character take human life. Ever.)
Needless to say, it was…erm…not good that I had this crazy slaughter scene in literally the first scene I wrote for Aeduan.
So I ditched the pages, with much heartbreak, and tried a new approach (or many new approaches).
About a month ago, though, I was hitting the final hard scene beats that precede an epic climax, and BAM! I realized Aeduan’s vicious opener belonged here, at the end of his story. The stakes were running high, his emotions were running even higher, and it was very justifiable for him to take human life based on the previous scenes. (Note: I said justifiable, but not morally right. There’s a huge distinction, and it’s important to remember that in your writing!)
Aeduan’s bloodbath scene was not the only one I wrote in the wrong order for Windwitch. In fact, almost EVERY SINGLE SCENE for every single POV was something I wrote too early (or too late) in the story. But once I rearranged it like the ultimate jigsaw puzzle, I had a book with the proper arc of rising tension and stakes.
This happens every time I draft a novel, yet it’s only with Windwitch that I finally realized what I’ve been doing all this time.
And honestly, it has been a MASSIVE epiphany for me—one that carries huge relief. I’m not a terrible writer! I’m not writing wasted words that will be thrown away forever. I’m simply not getting the scenes down in the proper order.
It’s like that story that author Liz Gilbert shared about the poet Ruth Stone:
“[Ruth] would catch the poem by its tail and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. In those instances, the poem would come up on a page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first.”
It is absolutely okay if the story comes out reversed or jumbled or upside down because it’s out, and words on the page can always be fixed later.
What about you all? Do you write chronologically? Out of order? All jumbled and messy as I do?
This article originally appeared in the Tor/Forge newsletter. Join the mailing list here.
This article was originally published in January 2017.
Susan Dennard has come a long way from small-town Georgia. As a marine biologist, she got to travel the world—six out of seven continents, to be exact (she’ll get to Asia one of these days!)—before she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and two dogs, and is extremely active in social media. You can find her on her blog, Twitter, or Misfits & Daydreamers, a weekly newsletter on all things books and writing. Her Witchlands novels, Truthwitch and its sequel Windwitch, are available from Tor Teen and Tor Books UK.