Writing your scenes out of order – and the real title of The Mountains Novel

writing scenes out of orderI’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Mountains Novel and am breaking what has been one of my holy writing habits.

Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.

I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.

Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.

On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’

Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.

Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.

ideas book cropAnyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.

Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Darrelyn Saloom on May 25, 2014 - 8:00 pm

    Congrats, Roz. With the boxer’s memoir, we worked linearly from beginning to end. Now I’m working on a collection of memoir essays from childhood and start each one with a scene. Once I’ve written the scene, I work my way forward or backward or both. Sometimes I head in the wrong direction and have to track back. I never know until I’ve written a scene.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:47 am

      Darrelyn – lovely to see you here! And how interesting to hear how your process altered from the memoir with Deirdre to your essay collection.
      It’s especially interesting what you say about taking the wrong direction and then unpicking it. I do that too – and have ended up with a large outtakes file even though it’s a first draft.
      Your experience seems to support the idea that the piecemeal approach works well for books that are ensemble pieces. Perhaps these are more exploratory – at least while they’re being made.

  2. #3 by mgm75 on May 25, 2014 - 8:08 pm

    Like you, I used to write from start to end but my current novel which is about a group of Roman gladiators investigating the destruction of a legionary fortress. Because I felt their back stories needed to be important to what happens when they arrive, I’ve been putting to together in no particular order. As it stands, I have three sub-folders: In Rome, In Germania and then back stories. It can be a problem to figure out how to put it all together but if it is what will work best for your character development then go for it.

    I am quite enjoying the process so far.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:49 am

      Hi mgm! It sounds like you have quite a bit to juggle there. How will you take control of it ultimately? I’m planning to make beat sheets of all the characters’ arcs as well as an overall beat sheet for the narrative as one work.

      • #5 by mgm75 on May 26, 2014 - 7:37 am

        I hope to start working in the flashbacks quite soon so that I have one long coherent piece of text.

        Beat sheets are a great idea though, I will probably do some purely for each character.

  3. #6 by David Penny on May 25, 2014 - 8:10 pm

    When I was young and foolish I was a fan of the William Burroughs method of cutting up his work, throwing it into the air, and assembling the book from what came down. These days I plan, but sometimes yearn for the raw creativity (or maybe i mean lunacy) of those days. It had the advantage of making you look at the book in a totally different way.

    Because I now plan I’ll write out of sequence – like Joss Wheedon, I write the scenes that might be the cornerstones of the book and then work around them, building layers.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:52 am

      David – great to see you here! Was that a William Burroughs method? I thought The Beatles also did it with a recording of some instrument they didn’t have access to.
      I certainly find I’m adding layers as I work like this. They’re still very rough, though. If I read through them I’d know there’s a lot missing and the phrasing has no refinement at all. But the emotion is there, so I know what the core is.

      • #8 by David Penny on May 26, 2014 - 9:27 am

        It was the Dadaists in the 1920’s first used the method, but Burroughs popularised it in the 50’s and early 60’s. David Bowie used it a lot too – he was a big Burroughs fan, not surprising really, is it :-)

        I might try it on the second Thomas Berrington book I’m currently plotting out. It’s far denser and plot rich than the first, and much, much darker, and the technique might work well on it. Hmm…

        • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 11:51 am

          Denser and darker? Ooh good. And you’ve got a nice triumvirate of core characters whose arcs will need to be juggled with the demands of the new story.

  4. #10 by Marsha Ward on May 25, 2014 - 10:35 pm

    I’m accustomed to writing in a linear fashion, but the characters in my current WIP have demanded that I write out of order–a lot! At first I found it discombobulating, but now I’m used to it, and I’m pressing forward as I hopscotch toward the already written end.

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:54 am

      Hi Marsha – yes, I found it disorientating too in some ways. But it was also completely necessary as I couldn’t concentrate on the scene that was next in chronological order. Long may you hopscoth with good results!

  5. #12 by Teddi Deppner on May 26, 2014 - 12:16 am

    Congrats on the progress, and on finally feeling secure enough to declare the “real title”. I must say, it was entirely because of the title reveal that I was drawn away from pre-conference nose-to-the-grindstone to read this post. After hearing you talk about it a few times, I’ve developed a vested interest in your next novel. Hmmmm, clever of you! :-D

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:54 am

      Hi Teddi! I’m glad my big reveal tempted you over. :)

      • #14 by Teddi Deppner on May 26, 2014 - 1:20 am

        Turns out the discussion is more applicable to my own work than I thought in scanning the headline, especially now that I’ve read the comments.

        The story I’m working on right now weaves together the timelines of 4 primary characters (one of whom is the antagonist), and that is starting to get a little messy (in my head) in terms of keeping track of timelines and such. Nice to see that others are finding ways to bring things together!

        • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 11:48 am

          Four primary characters… yes I think I’ve got that many. Glad we detained you so usefully, Teddi!

  6. #16 by CG Blake on May 26, 2014 - 12:26 am

    Roz, thanks for sharing the title of your new novel and your process. In my current WIP I am writing the story out of sequence. It is challenging, but the story cannot be written any other way. I am finding as I am in the midst of the second draft that I am reorganizing whole sections and even writing new “bridge” scenes. Prior to this story, I was pretty much a linear writer and my plots followed a chronological order. Your post is helpful as I see that you have been grappling with the same issues. Good luck!

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 12:56 am

      Hi CG – goodness, we seem to have been solving similar problems. Or reinventing the same atom or something. Welcome to the revolution.

  7. #18 by roughwighting on May 26, 2014 - 1:07 am

    Both of my books were written in what I call ‘pods,’ and they aren’t in order. I don’t know the order until my first draft is done. Gives me a lot more leeway to let the characters go wherever they want to.

    • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 11:46 am

      ‘Pods’ – I like that description! I often rename my draft file ‘rushes’, to indicate that I expect to cut it about and fiddle with the order. Thanks for commenting!

  8. #20 by Viv on May 26, 2014 - 8:39 am

    I think we learn to be fluid about our methods and what works at one time may not work at another. I’m not much of a planner but i do sometimes find if I have a better idea of where a novel is going I am more able to steer it there. Of course, that often doesn’t occur until half way or later, but I still rely on the belief that somewhere deep inside, my unconscious has always known where it’s going and will be behind the helm the whole way even if I don’t realise it. It’s about having faith in the writing soul.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 26, 2014 - 11:49 am

      Hi Viv – ‘faith in the writing soul’ – that’s a good description. So much of what we do is following our gut, or working out what our gut is trying to tell us.

      • #22 by Viv on May 26, 2014 - 3:24 pm

        It is. I’m starting to be able to hear mine again, which is good news. As well as the feeling returning to my fingers (and along with it, manual dexterity that had eluded me for a considerable time, to the extent I’d not noticed quite how fumbly I’d become) my brain fog is lifting and memory is returning. Early days yet but good progress for some things. I might even be able to write properly again.

  9. #23 by DRMarvello on May 26, 2014 - 1:55 pm

    So far, my novels have been thoroughly planned and linearly written. I occasionally insert a new scenes between existing scenes, but that’s as close as I get to writing out of order. In spite of my planning, the story always evolves a bit while I’m writing it, so I worry that writing a future scene might result in work I’d have to discard or that it would restrict my flexibility.

    When I do have an idea for a future scene, I create a placeholder for it in Scrivener and make a few notes. Sometimes a specific character interaction has taken over my imagination, such as a conversation that has played out in my head, so I’ll record the bones of it as well, but I leave the connective tissue for later. I don’t invest much in future scenes because I’ve learned that I throw them out just as often as I complete them.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 27, 2014 - 7:45 am

      Hi Daniel! That’s a good point about the novel evolving as you write it, and how writing out of order might mean you write a scene that isn’t in tune with the rest. I don’t think I could have started this book at the end and written to the beginning, for precisely the reasons you mention. In order to feel happy about writing from the end, I needed a certain amount of understanding.
      That’s a nice tip about creating placeholders in Scrivener.

  10. #25 by Karen Lynne Klink on May 26, 2014 - 2:05 pm

    I write in order, but every now and then have the urge to write a scene out of order. Something happens to put me in the mood for a particular scene, for example, I watch a particularly good scene in a movie where a good friend of the antagonist dies, and I have a similar scene coming up in my story. I should probably write the scene when I am in the mood for it, regardless of the timeline. Next time this happens, I think I will do it.

    • #26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 27, 2014 - 7:47 am

      Seize the mood, Karen – I know the feeling. This is one reason I end up with Undercover Soundtracks – they have the effect of conjuring epiphanies and then reproducing them to order.

  11. #27 by writerchick on May 26, 2014 - 6:23 pm

    What you call hopscotching I do in the prep stage for a story. I create what usually turns out to be a huge document with notes, characterizations, plot points, important scenes, snatches of dialogue and conversations between the characters, backstory the whole shebang. After a while, this massive ridiculous document cues me on how to assemble the story. Some I guess I’m neither linear or hopscotchy.

    Writing is a very organic thing and once you start putting down the words, takes on a life of its own. Odd as this may sound, I let the story (or maybe it’s the story gods) guide me especially in a first draft. Subsequent drafts are easier to rein in, assemble, reorder and force the story into submission.

    Insightful post.

    Cheers.

    Writer Chick

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 27, 2014 - 7:49 am

      And insightful comment, Writer Chick. Yes, I recognise this organic process of construction. I must have written masses of documents about Ever Rest before I ever began the actual text.

  12. #29 by jonirodgers on May 26, 2014 - 9:15 pm

    1) I can’t wait to read this book! 2) I have never written a book from beginning to end. It’s not on purpose, just seems to be the way that works for me. I write the beginning, then end, then “power scenes”, then I back build to weave it all together.

    • #30 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 27, 2014 - 7:49 am

      Hey Joni! Lovely to see you here. What a great description – ‘power scenes’! I’m going to start using that term.

  13. #31 by Alexander Charalambides on May 27, 2014 - 3:52 pm

    My problem is a lack of patience. If I write from beginning to end I find the story changes itself as I write and i hate having to go back to make the whole consistent. In my most recent projects I’ve been writing with someone else, and that imposes a certain discipline. Our first book involved a lot of edits, drafts and rewrites which were necessary, but slowed everything down. The current book has been written backwards, starting at the end we created a list of the events, plot points and scenes before dividing the work up. So far I find that working from the end with a super detailed plan makes the whole process a great deal faster.

    • #32 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 28, 2014 - 7:11 am

      Alexander, regardless of which way round you write the book, you’ll still need to revise it. Yes, this does slow down the time it takes to release the book but it makes it a lot better. Unless you’re a genius, of course. And even Charles Dickens has places in his novels where it shows he could have done with revision!

  14. #33 by Lesley O. Rice on May 27, 2014 - 3:59 pm

    I’ve been sitting on a story about an art theft/confidence trick for ages, and I’m itching to start writing, but I can’t. Not until I know exactly how it ends. I used to create a list of ‘cool bits’ but on my last project I ended up throwing half of them away, something i hated doing, but they just didn’t fit the way the story had grown, so this time, i’m treating ‘cool bits’ with caution. Thanks for telling us how you work, it’s really useful to see that there are many different way of approaching a blank page.

    • #34 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 28, 2014 - 7:13 am

      Lesley, what a shame! For every writer who finds a technique works, there will be another who tried it and found it unhelpful. I hope you get to the confidence point soon. Thanks for commenting!

  15. #35 by Anita Diggs on May 27, 2014 - 10:04 pm

    It was good to read about your process, Roz! I can see where writing beginning to end would cause writer’s block down toward the middle because you’ve literally stopped. You don’t know where you’re going; you didn’t know where you were going when you started out. An outline is important so that you have a core conflict that builds and builds and builds until at the end there’s a resolution. An outline would helpful using either process!

    • #36 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 28, 2014 - 7:14 am

      Hi Anita – ah you’re talking about the troublesome middle. When I teach clients, I ask them to figure out a middle as well as an end, or they might noodle about in pointless circles because they didn’t know to aim for the middle first. Hence – as you say – the value of outlining!

  16. #37 by jumpingfromcliffs on May 30, 2014 - 8:39 am

    I really like the name of the novel Roz; I’m particularly fond of the pun :)

    I have to say, I write the Joss Whedon way (although I didn’t know it was his way until I read this post). I would love to one day write a story from start to finish, without deviation, but my mind just doesn’t work that way. It grasshoppers all over the place, from interesting bit to interesting bit, then I’m left to go back and fill in the holes that link them together. With Dark Energies, I started three-quarters of the way through then went back to the beginning to figure out where the story should start.

    It’s a haphazard method which can be hard to control and generally results in more rounds of editing than I have the patience for. But I enjoy it and it keeps the writing process fresh for me.

    Thanks for a cracking post – you’ve opened my eyes to a few things I didn’t realise about my work.

    • #38 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 31, 2014 - 6:10 pm

      Thanks, Jon! The grasshopper problem is one reason why I heave a sigh of relief when I get to the end of my first draft. Then I can start flinging in new ideas when they occur to me and it feels like I have a proper vessel for them.

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