Doing it backwards

I’ve listened to many writers talk about their writing process. What I’ve learned is fascinating — but also somewhat discouraging if you’re looking for a magic answer to that whole “How To Write” question. Because there isn’t one. There are about a billion.

Some writers start at page one and write straight through until the end. Others start at the beginning, write several chapters, get distracted by something shiny, write a couple chapters at the end, then a few in the middle, and then a few more toward the beginning. Others use an outline — whether highly detailed or just bare bones — and flesh it out until they have a story. Some start knowing plot and nothing else; some start with full-blown characters but no idea of what those characters will do. Some edit as they go and once they’re done, they’re done. Others only edit after the entire rough draft is on the page. Some use spreadsheets. Or whiteboards. Music. Collages. Play-Doh and glitter.

The one thing all these wildly different and often contradictory methods have in common is they each result in a very similar product. A completed manuscript. There is no One Right Way to write a novel.

You have to do what works for you. If what you’re doing is not working, then by all means, look around, listen to what other writers are doing, try a few different things, see whether they work for you. Adopt them if they do and run like hell if they don’t.

Be wary of people who say you “have to” do things — plotting, writing, editing, promoting, querying, whatever — a certain way. What they’re really saying is that THEY have to do things that certain way. Or that they happen to know three other people who do things that way and it works for them. And that’s delightful. Good for them. It does not mean you have to, or even should, do it the same way.

So I’m taking my own advice. What I’ve been doing — writing in a linear progression, the same way I’d read a story — is not working right now. I’m close to being done, but . . . struggling. The writing feels “off” or goes in the wrong direction and I end up deleting it.

But I have a pretty good feel for how this story ends. So I’m going to start there, at the end. I’m going to write that last scene and then go backwards. Like backing a train into the station at full speed, hoping the track is straight and the platform is sturdy and that no one is standing too close to the edg– wait. That’s not a good image.

More like a detective trying to solve a crime. Taking the evidence of what happened and reconstructing it backwards in time, trying to figure out how everyone got there and what they did and said and why. Hoping I can connect the end to the middle without derailing the entire train.

I might even get really drastic and use note cards. And [shudder] coloured sticky notes.

Do I recommend this as a “writing process?” Hell no. I’m not even sure it will work. I might end up making a bigger mess than the one I’ve already got. For me, the important thing is being open to different ways of creating, of discovering how to tell a story. Trying not to become discouraged.

“Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” -Thomas Edison

My next book might have a different process entirely. With my luck, it will be a more difficult process. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is finding what works. If I have any advice at this point it’s to be willing to explore, try new things, look at your process from a different angle. However. Be just as willing to say, “No. That’s not how I do it. That doesn’t work for me.”

So I’m experimenting, doing it backwards. I’m also going to take a week of vacation and get in the car and drive until I run out of road, find some solitude in which to write. But that’s a different post.

By request, here is Quincy the Wonder Dog from a couple summers ago, up at the lake, wet and sandy after a swim, contemplating all the bad things he’s going to do once he’s off that leash. And he did.

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Filed under Quincy the Wonder Dog, writing

7 responses to “Doing it backwards

  1. Awwwwwwwwwwwww 🙂 🙂 🙂


  2. McB

    Seconding Merry’s comment. 🙂

    there is rarely only one right way to do anything. There’s the way that works for me NOW, and the way I’ll have to do it later or next time. Mostly it’s a mixed bag. Mostly it’s about getting through and I just use whatever works. I do believe, though, that you have to have a method at each stage. Winging it sounds romantic; but mostly that’s just messy and lazy.


  3. “a method at each stage” — I like that. I like it a lot.

    So maybe the linear approach was necessary for the beginning of the story and now that I’m nearing the end, I just need a different method. That makes me feel better about it. Less like I’ve failed and more like I just haven’t yet learned all the various steps/stages of the process.


  4. Think of it as curvy. Then when you look close up at the curve you discover that it’s lots of straight lines that touch at the ends.

    Huh? Lots of scenes or chapters are linear. But the scenes or chapters join each other at their beginnings and ends, and the whole thing is more curvy than linear.

    OK. Calculus. But what did you expect from Moi?


  5. LOL! Calculus as a writing process? GP, you kill me.

    But you know, if you tip those curves on their side so it’s like a roller coaster, the comparison is very apt. Maybe you should teach a writing class…


  6. orangehands

    Ok, also Awwwwwwwwwww!

    I’m still discovering the best way for me to write. I started in short stories which has an entirely different writing process for me, so it took me awhile to just get over that first hurdle of “you can’t do this the same way, it just doesn’t work.” I’m still perfecting my process but I’m getting to one I like more and more.

    Good luck on finding yours.


  7. Thanks, OH. I started out short too, with newspaper Op-Ed columns. Three formats: 180, 350 and 750 words. The 350-word ones were the most difficult for me. And then blog posts. I think I’ve pretty much conquered that format. A 100,000-word novel is such a different beast.

    What’s helping me the most right now is all the information I’ve had thrown at me about screenwriting. I make fun of notecards and sticky notes, mostly because it’s difficult for me to give a brief summary of a scene and then categorize the basic plot elements. But once you do, it’s very illuminating.

    And I’m glad you all are enjoying The Wonder Dog. He’s very good at being very bad.