Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Out of Sequence

Last night I wrote a scene in my WIP that was out of sequence. It was the first time I did that. And it was totally liberating.

Usually when I write, I open up my file and begin where I left off. I ask, “And then what happens?” and off I go. But this particular WIP has been giving me some trouble in the “what happens next” department. My main character has to undergo some real changes, and my writing was way too gradual. I can’t hand my agent a 250,000 word YA contemporary with a male MC and expect it to sell. Yet the writing has to be organic. The changes have to make sense. The tension needs to rise and the action must flow.

So last night, I let my MC take the plunge and change. He did some things and said some things that he wouldn’t have done in the opening chapters. I know I’ll have to add scenes in later—either as I continue toward the first draft finish line or in revision—to make those changes make sense. But I got to know my MC better. Now I can ask, “Why did he do that?” and fill in the holes.

And by the way—big plug for Scrivener—outlining and index cards functions in this program make it so easy to write out of sequence. I still have a lot to learn about Scrivener, but I am very glad I’m now using it. If you use a Mac, try the trial version.

So my question to you, fellow writers, is do you ever write out of sequence? Do you write some of those big scenes first and worry about justification later? Or do you plow through knowing you’ll do major word count dumps in revision?

Photo: Ian Britton


  1. I LOVE Scrivener. And, I normally work sequentially, but (using Scrivener), I divided my manuscript into chunks--basically Act I, Act II and Act III. And, then I worked on them as if each part were it's own complete novel.

    And, I started with the third act. It was a great way to work!


  2. I've thought about doing the out of sequence method but I always chicken out.

    I'm the dump it down in order then go back and cut/revise/add as needed to make it flow writer.
    Not pretty and may be a time waster but it's my comfort zone.
    Good for you for changing it up! If I can't bring this wip to a close I may have to bite the bullet and do an out of order scene. Ack! I get hives thinking about it...

  3. I write sequentially, but I really identify with what you said about the writing being too gradual. I've run into exactly the same thing. I really like your solution -- why not jump ahead to where some of the changes have happened and fill in the blanks later? That way, you at least blast through to a finished draft, feel like the book isn't going to take forever, and can fill in the smaller increments later. If software helps, so much the better.

  4. I'm a sequential writer, and a skinny one at that. Sometimes I "write" scenes out of sequence in my head, but I never set them to paper until it's the proper moment.
    My first draft is bare bones, then I go back and add layers. That's not to say I don't sometimes cut what I've written in the first draft, but my objective in revisions is generally to add depth not to cut word count.

    As for the what happens next question? I'm learning to figure that out by being in tune with the emotions of my character. Where did I leave her emotionally in the scene that just ended? There has to be carry over.

    As for Scriviner, my vote is still out. I don't like the way it mucks about with format when you convert a file to Word. And I swear, I've moved scenes around on that little corkboard thingy only to come back and find them back where the originally were.

  5. Hi, my name is Robin and I'm an out of sequence writer! I frequently use this method, especially when I'm stuck or if I'm interested in how two characters will interact down the road, but I'm stumbling along trying to get them there. I write the scene then sort of "build a bridge" and write toward it. Sometimes I need to tweak what I've written with how the characters have grown.

    Sometimes all I do is make some notes as to how I want a scene to go, then write towards it and flesh it out.

    Either way, writing out of sequence is something I've always found helps me move things along.

    Great post!

  6. Sarah, I love the idea of working on Acts as complete novels. I've always thought in Acts, but not as complete stories in and of themselves.

    Nelsa, quick -- get the Benadryl! It should be in every writer's toolbox. Let me know if you go for the out of order scene and live to tell the tale!

    Marcia, that is how I feel -- like I want to blast through to the end. To me, "the end" are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

    Meg, I think if I was a bare bones drafter, I wouldn't feel the need to jump ahead. But I'm not. I write a lot of stuff that no one ever sees -- not even my dear fellow Paper Waiters.

    Robin, I'm glad to see I'm in good company!

  7. I haven't done this yet, but I'm willing to try it, especially if I'm stuck. Sometimes when you know what happens "after," you have a better idea of what should happen "before."

  8. I can remember reading tidbits from several famous authors who said thy write out of sequence. A few names come to mind. One of the first things J.K. Rowling wrote was the last chapter of book 7. And John Irving says he always starts his books by writing the last sentence first. I can't remember who else said they do their writing back to front, but I know they're out there. As for me, I'm a linear kind of gal. Hmm. Maybe I should try going at it the other way around!!

  9. I've never written a first draft out of sequence, but your liberating experience makes me want to try it! And I MUST try Scrivener.

  10. JL -- I love John Irving more than I can say. I'll take any words of advice from him I can.

    Medeia and ML -- try writing out of sequence. It's almost like doing something the nuns would never let you do. Can you tell I went to Catholic school?

  11. Great post! I've done it both ways. Usually I write sequentially, but if there's a huge scene in my head that won't leave me alone, I write it and then bridge. Frankly, I'm not sure I see much difference in the final outcome, so I say do whatever works for you!

    Scrivner looks fun, but I guess I'm a creature of habit and I'm so used to Word and all the little tricks I already know (key combos and such). I have the trial version on my MAC but think I've used like three days of it total over the last three months.

  12. I wish there was a IBM version of Scrivener!

    It's funny that you did this post because yesterday I wrote out of sequence for the first time too! It was liberating. Then today I skipped a whole section that I just wasn't ready to write yet.

  13. Lisa, I hear you about working in new programs. I know I'm not yet getting all I can out of Scrivener, but I'm working on it. And I think it will all be worth it.

    Christina, isn't it great breaking out of the mold for the first time?

  14. Hi-I felt like I could have written this post myself, you took it right out of my head. I was actually just explaining to my mom last night about how I have to write the scenes and dialogue down as soon as they come to me, and most of the time, these are ending scenes. Then I have to go back and put in the "filler" chapters to get to the good stuff. During revision, I cut back some of the "filler" and then I have a nice finished product. Here's the crazy part-I only recently allowed myself to start doing this! And it really is so FREEING!!!! Get down the stuff that you really want to sink your teeth into and then go back and put the other stuff in. Love it. Great post!

  15. Ammie, thanks so much for your comment. You're so right about it being freeing. I think we writers sometimes get too bogged down in process. What we are doing, after all, is our creation!

  16. I've worked both ways, but the more I write, the more I am becoming an out-of-sequenece writer.
    When I work from start to finish, I very much want to describe every lightbulb and blade of grass, every look and sigh and gesture of my characters. All that stuff gets snipped out in revisions anyway.