“Oh, I just started at the beginning and wrote through to the end.”
We all know at least one person like this. The ones who make a plan, and rigidly follow it from start to finish. They seem to have it made – a clear path, from A-Z, which they are sticking on with focus and determination. How much better at this they must be than us poor, lesser fools who get distracted partway through!
Well, here’s a secret: I don’t think I’ve ever written a novel chronologically. So today, I’m going to talk you through how I do it.
Start At The Beginning
But wait, I hear you cry – you just said this was going to be about not writing chronologically!
That’s true. I don’t. I also, just to be completely contrary, start at the beginning. Let’s take Protos as an example, since I’ve got that handily sitting in front of me. When I started the second draft, I began at the beginning. I was rewriting the start from the first draft so, in many ways, this was the logical option. I wrote about 10,000 words in that order before I deviated.
Starting at the beginning, especially on a first draft, has a lot of benefits. You might have spent ages planning your novel, and feel like you know your characters inside and out – but as we all know, that can change a lot in practice.
The beginning (unless you’re writing a follow-on of some kind) will almost always involve introducing your readers to your characters. So take the opportunity to follow this path as you introduce your characters to yourself. Who knows – they might well surprise you!
Change Perspective to Stay Focused
You started at the beginning, wrote two chapters, and now you’re stuck.
The problem is, you really want to write out this beginning passage in full – you want to get it into the body of the story so that you have a clear picture of how the characters got there before you start dancing about in the places they’re going.
My question to you in this situation is this: are you writing a multi-perspective story? Because if you are, welcome to the next weapon in your arsenal – changing point of view to give you a new lease on a stubborn passage.
This is, again, something I have been doing writing Protos. When I get really stuck, I switch to one of the other points of view – sometimes in the arc I’m working through, though not necessarily. With Protos, I wrote Chapters 1 and 2 in one POV, then changed for Chapter 3 – suddenly, things were flowing a lot more easily.
Because even though I’d already introduced this second character, writing from their perspective is different. Their thoughts, their observations, everything about their narrative is unique. It gives new opportunities for exposition and insight, as well as just a change of scenery. And speaking of which…
Next, Write Anything
You’ve got the beginning down. You’re good with it. You changed POV a few times to get through it, were happy with how that shaped the story, and you’ve got a bunch of chapters under your belt. Now you’ve been staring at the words Chapter 6 for the past three hours and nothing seems to be coming.
Don’t panic! Go and write something completely different.
And I mean completely different. Write something you’ve just really wanted to put your characters into and then work out later on where it’s going. Really excited about your main romance? Jump forward to almost the end of the book and write the scene where they finally get together.
Not sure where to jump to? Go to your plan. Read it. Wait for the moment where your eyes lock onto something and you get so excited about that scene that you can’t think of writing anything else. Write that scene. Then do the same thing again.
Rinse and repeat and before you know it, you’ll have a whole plethora of scenes dotted throughout your novel, spurred onwards by the novelty of jumping around.
Connect the Dots
Of course you can’t finish a draft with just those jumps, so to really write a novel, you’ve got to connect the dots. Now I’m not going to lie to you – this is the bit that can feel like a slog.
You’ve run out of that novelty, that fun exploration. You’re down to the ‘work’ of writing. This is the part that feels like it’s stretching on and on – for me, it’s often the part that comes after Nanowrimo.
What I tend to do is break my story down into arcs. Your novel almost certainly has them, even if those arcs are a simple beginning/middle/end. Arcs might be characterised by location – your characters start in one place, move to another and spend time there, then move to another. This is how Mundane Magic broke into arcs, and how I tackled finishing that off.
Go through these arcs one at a time. You can use the previous tactic of jumping back and forth if you need to – go from one to the other as you slowly fill them all out and finish off your plan. Eventually, you’ll have a full picture.
Conclude Whenever You Want
You may have noticed that I’ve not talked about writing the end of your novel. This is deliberate – because as far as I’m concerned, you should write it whenever the hell you want.
Some people like to write the ending first. Others do it whenever takes their fancy. Others make it the very last thing they write, so that they reach the conclusion in the same way that their readers will. I think all of these approaches have merit and it’s just about finding the one that best suits you.
For me, it really depends on the story. With Mundane Magic I wrote the ending midway through; with Protos, I’m midway through but I still haven’t written the ending, despite having written almost the entirety of the final arc. I suspect this might be one where I don’t write the end until the end.
As with all things, it’s up to you. These are just tips that I have found to work for me. However much or little you use them – good luck!