Put one scene after another…

Cat looking at a Macbook.
This may or may not be an accurate representation of me writing.
I’ve met several writers who are proud of the fact that they seldom write out of order. They begin at the beginning and keep moving forward until the end. Yes, they go back and edit, but they seem to consider it a failing if they realize they have to go back and add an entire scene.

Back when I first started writing seriously, personal computers didn’t exist, so I was writing on a typewriter. Typewriters don’t have copy-and-paste (for that, you needed scissors and actual paste!), delete (white-out and erasers have limits), and so on. So you sit down, start at the beginning, and keep going until the end. Revising meant re-typing (you could do minor revisions by marking up the pages, of course, but for your final manuscript you’d need to retype everything—in order).

Word processors make it a lot easier to write things out of order, then arrange and re-arrange to your liking afterward. That’s a good thing. But as I’ve said whenever I have explained why I occasionally host writer’s round robins with manual typewriters, there is a value to a situation that forces you to keep moving until you reach the end of a tale. When revision is difficult and messy, you learn not to let minor things distract you from the goal of finishing the story.

And some people really need that. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many reviews and articles out there with titles such as “20+ Distraction-Free Minimal Writing Apps to Help You Focus,” or “10 apps for distraction-free, productive writing,” or “(Even More) Distraction-Free Writing Tools” (let alone so many applications that do that to make the reviews necessary!).

But even when I was working on a typewriter, it wasn’t true that I wrote stories strictly in order. Before I ever sat down at the typewriter, I thought about the story I wanted to write. I might have jotted down some lines of dialogue or a few paragraphs of description in a notebook. Sometimes it would be several pages of description, with odd notes scribbled in the margins, words crossed out, or whole sentences written in between two lines of text.

Other times I would sit down, start writing a story, maybe get several pages done, then decide it was all wrong. I’d go back to pencil or pen and paper and try to sort out what was wrong with the story. Eventually I might pick up the story where I’d left off and continue it, but more often I started with a new blank page.

And back then I hated doing that, if for no other reasons that I hated wasting paper. Typing paper wasn’t a minor expense, and in some of the small towns we lived, getting a replacement ribbon when the ink started running out meant waiting until the next time someone was driving to a bigger town some distance away.

And don’t get me started on carbon paper and the expense of extra paper when you’ve decided it’s time for a final draft!

I do think that there’s a great deal of good that comes from sitting down and plowing forward. It’s too easy to get stuck in an endless loop of re-doing the earlier scenes so that a story never gets finished. But I think the writers who make a big deal of the fact that they almost never back up or write out of order are deluding themselves.

I’m basing this not just on my own experience, but my observations of their offices. Most of the writers I have known well enough to see their workspaces who make that claim have far, far, far more notebooks and sketchbooks that they work in before they start “writing.” All those outlines, notes, character sketches, et cetera in those notebooks are part of the writing process.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think they do the aspiring writers who ask them about their process a disservice with this delusion.

Now, I need to stop working on this and get back to my novel. I’ve been hung up in chapter 15 for far too long…

3 thoughts on “Put one scene after another…

  1. Not all stories start at the beginning and are finished at the end, as they are first perceived. I’ve had novels, long novels, come out in bits and pieces, full chapters to be placed here, bits and pieces there. Everything has to be melded in the framework of structure, but nothing that an outline before writing can determine.
    Some stories start at the beginning and go right through, with or without notes or an outline.
    Mostly though, the time devoted to figuring out structure in an outline would be better spent writing passages, using the imagination to figure out the relationship of passages to one another and begin to string together a story. The reason for this when a writer begins with uncertainty, the writer will have to edit and rewrite to improve the communication.

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