A few years ago, during my MA, I decided I needed to write something that wasn’t related to my studies. I bought myself a new notebook and made the (terrible) decision to write it by hand. My handwriting is appalling, and I can type faster than I can write, but we all have to try these things.
So I sat down with my pretty notebook (it was covered in typewriters), and started writing.
My challenge—other than writing legibly—was to write chronologically.
Every piece of fiction I’ve ever written and finished has been written in a seemingly haphazard order. I wanted to try to write this book in the way that it would be read.
And by chapter four—about 5,000 words in—I was ready to throw in the towel.
Not only had I doubled my workload by writing by hand first, but I hated writing chronologically.
I’d get halfway through writing a scene that feeds into the next BIG scene, and want to get to the next BIG scene right away. But I couldn’t. And I wasn’t yet invested enough to force my way through writing the slower scenes to keep going.
As I really wanted to keep writing and see where the story went, I created a folder on my laptop and created a plethora of Microsoft Word files. That way, I could write in any order I liked.
While my experiment was seemingly futile, I learnt a lot about myself and my writing process.
And, if you’re like me and don’t write chronologically—or you want to try it—here are some tips on how to do it effectively:
Don’t use Word or Google Docs
I have a vendetta against both for novel writing. I think they make the process infinitely scarier.
You’re forced to write your book in chronological order or have the world’s messiest document, or a folder of files, each containing different scenes. Then when it comes time to slot in that scene, you can’t remember what you called it. Yep, been there too many times to count.
Programs like Scrivener mean that you can focus on one scene or chapter at a time without the overwhelm of the other 50,000+ words staring back at you. You can also move your scenes around like a jigsaw, which is great for if you write in a (seemingly) random order.
Since you can keep everything to do with your work-in-progress in one place—from the writing itself, to your planning, to any background research—you’ll always know where everything is.
If you’d prefer something browser-based or that guide your through the planning process, I’d recommend Plot Factory. They have templates for some of the big plotting structures and guide you through how to use each of them before you start to write (which you can also do on Plot Factory, but within your browser instead of on your hard drive).
Focus on the BIG scenes first
The BIG scenes are often where your key conflicts lie. They’re the ones that drive your story. And the most fun ones to write!
Most importantly, though, they’re where your emotional investment lies. If you focus on writing these scenes first, you’ll be so invested in what you’ve written that you’ll be desperate to stay with your characters in their world and keep writing!
Know your plot
If you don’t plan your plot, you’ll get stuck. This isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when. Knowing where your characters are going—even if it’s just in your head—is still planning.
Writing your plot down allows you to visualise it so that you can see if it works or not. You can identify any plot holes before they arise, meaning you won’t get stuck when you’re writing.
Pantsing your writing is bad for your writing confidence. It’s as simple as that.
At the very least, you should know where your characters start and where you want them to end up. You still run the chance of getting stuck in the middle, but it gives you a starting point.
I like to work out my plot on Post-It Notes, leave them for a few days to see if there are any gaps I want to fill in, then transfer my plot into Scrivener or Plot Factory (I use both depending on the project). Once they’re added to Scrivener or Plot Factory, I can find them whenever I like and write the scenes in whatever order I want.
Not having a plan also means you’re more likely to have to reread what you’ve written to re-familiarise yourself with it. This can really throw you off and further damage your writing confidence. Why? Because you’ll start questioning what you’ve written and editing as you go along, which is a really, really bad idea.
Don’t edit as you go along
This is harder when you don’t write chronologically, but it isn’t impossible.
Editing and writing are different skills. It should be no surprise that they require different mindsets.
Doing the two things at the same time is multitasking. It means you’re not going to be as good at either of them because you’re not actually focusing on either of them. This means you’re more likely to make mistakes.
And your writing confidence? Down the drain.
You may have just written something, but since you’re already editing it, you’re already judging it. That’s really hard to do objectively when something is fresh out of your head.
You can’t judge your work objectively until you’ve had that time away from it. Then, and only then, can you really judge your writing as a reader, editor, or publisher would.
This step is why planning is really important—if you have an effective plan, you don’t need to read back through what you’ve written because you can cross out what you’ve written on your list, or mark it in your planning tool, once it’s done.
Take a break
This is crucial with all writing, but it’s especially important if you don’t write chronologically.
Space will allow you to spot any gaps that you might’ve missed in earlier reads—any scenes that need adding in, any scenes that repeat another scene, etc. You’ll only be able to judge this in your own work when you’ve abandoned it to work on something else for a little while.
Emotional distance can be difficult to want to build, but it’s how you can build your writing and editing skills on the same project.
Getting an editor to read through your work is helpful too, but you’ll pay an editor far less if you’ve already ironed out the biggest kinks before sending it their way. The more work they have to do on your manuscript, the more they’ll charge. Learning self-editing skills will therefore save you a lot of money during your writing career.
See it as a jigsaw
A novel doesn’t have to be written linearly. They don’t even have to be read linearly.
A novel is a picture, and, just like a jigsaw, the pieces can be assembled in any way that you like.
Don’t force yourself into a writing method or system that doesn’t work for you. What works for one person won’t work for you, but when you do find what works for you, you’ll be a writing machine.
What’s your writing process like? Does it change from book to book? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!