I wasn’t too successful when I attempted National Novel-Writing Month last year. I had a few ideas, but the story didn’t write; I hadn’t pushed it hard enough to get it to start writing itself the way some of my older projects had. This year, though, I didn’t have the excuses I had before. I had time, I had inclination: this year, I decided, would be different. But, as with the last project, I ran into a number of problems with the scenes I was working on. How could I keep up my momentum?
I decided to make use of one of the greatest advantages a novel has over a tabletop game: the ability to write out of order. To skip from a scene on which I’m frozen to a scene I have ideas for. To figure out the conclusion, and then come back to the setup. Someone reading the longhand version of my current arc would go through more, and more irregular, time travel than an average Dr. Who episode, but it’s working; I’ve gone far beyond any of my previous efforts.
Why did–why can–nonsequential writing work so well?
The easy answer is “in order t0 circumvent writer’s block.” I’ve learned from prior experience, particularly on blog posts, that block feeds on itself: if you’re stuck, you start dwelling on the fact that you’re stuck, and that further crowds out the thoughts that are going to get you un-stuck. Getting a little momentum somewhere else in the story gives you a little extra force to get through the scene you’re blocked on, and gives your subconscious a chance to worm its way through whatever problem is keeping you from moving forward.
Another use for nonsequential writing is figuring out what events are needed in order to set up a later scene. This is one of my current project’s main sources of scene-skip: what began as a simple little revenge plot rapidly turned into a clash of hidden agendas, and every time I skipped forward I found another scene that I needed to splice in as setup, another hidden motivation that I needed to slip in some subtext for in a scene I’d already written or one I hadn’t quite finished. If I’d just gone in order, with my vague feeling for how this arc would end, I would have lost a lot of what’s making this one so much fun.
Sometimes, you just need something that’s in a later scene. A chance to refresh yourself on a character’s voice before it fades from your memory entirely. To escape from another character for a while. To write a kind of scene that you really like to write. To do something that the next scene won’t allow.
That isn’t to say that nonsequential writing is without its own hazards. With scenes at all sorts of points on the timeline, it can be easy to forget what hasn’t happened yet and what’s already happened, not to mention the occasional issue of not being entirely sure where on the timeline a given scene goes. There’s a strong chance that when you’re coming back to an earlier scene you’ll write something that contradicts a later one, and have to deal with reconciling the two. And of course, writers who motivate themselves by curiosity shouldn’t write the ending first: I learned that the hard way a few years ago! But for a writer who can keep all these hazards in mind, nonsequential writing can be an excellent way to shake away the problems that might otherwise stop a story entirely.