Non-Linear Writing – Focus On Your Story’s DNA

by Jenny Hansen

To answer this week’s “throwdown” here at Writers In The Storm, I’m taking the Non-Linear approach. That means that where Laura must start at the beginning and move forward in an organized manner, I simply cannot do so. The linear approach kills my stories.

After nearly fifteen years of banging my head against the Organized Writer Wall (it’s this very sturdy, well grouted thing located precisely in the middle of the Novel Desert), I finally figured out what the issue is. I’m a scene writer AND a big fat Scaredy Pants.

For more than a decade I went from manuscript to manuscript, even jumping from one to another then back again, trying with all my might to hold focus and finish a book. About two years ago, I realized I wasn’t having a writing problem, I was having a finishing problem. I’d crank out 100-150 pages of what seemed to be a stellar story…but then I’d fizzle.

I’d write a short story whenever I got stuck on a book and, let me tell you, I have a big stack of those piled up. After whipping out the short story, I’d alternate between feeling great at finishing something and berating myself that I was batting zero at completing my novels.

In my yearning to be linear and organized, I tried EVERYTHING:

  • Attending workshops to learn what other people knew about finishing books that I didn’t.
  • Creating outlines: this worked out fine for knowing what happened in the book but definitely stifled my creativity.
  • Seat of the pants writing, rushing through the first three chapters to find out what the book is about.
  • Character studies
  • Synopsis writing
  • Praying to the creativity gods…

I’m pretty sure I’ve tried it all (at least once) in my quest to get a book off the ground and finished. Then I read an article about Diana Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. I saw that she had re-constructed the movie in her head, scene by scene, until everything she saw was on paper. Then she shuffled them all together into the books we know and love.

While I won’t pretend to be anywhere in the Gabaldon’s league, we write the same. A light went on in my head and I accepted the truth: I’m a scene writer.

I can sustain interest and focus in a single scene. Most of the time, I can even manage to write it from start to finish since I am lucky to write fairly quickly. BUT. I work really hard to focus on nothing else besides that scene because the end of the book always feels like a big black scary hole to me (this is back to the Scaredy Pants issue). If I think about “The End,” I get stuck.

So I don’t even consider THE END OF THE BOOK until I’ve finished the first draft containing all the scenes I think need to be in the novel. At the end, I put them together, sort of like shooting a film out of order before sending it to the editing department.

My process has evolved into something pretty close to the following:

1. Like most writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene when it comes to me so that I have it out of my head and onto the page. This process seems to keep the gates open for more scenes to come crowding in.

2. I take some time, close to the beginning of the process, to bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my critique group and decide on the overriding theme or message for the book as well as the internal and external conflicts for the protagonist and antagonist. (I’ll discuss this in my “must-have” section below.)

3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. I’m not always lucky and sometimes I have to have a second plotting session over this one. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable. For a great summary of turning points, read this breakdown of Jenny Crusie’s talk at the 2009 RWA conference, plus I’ve put more resources below.

4. I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a weekend go by without keeping my work in progress on my mind, I start to lose focus.

Lorna Landvik, of Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons fame, does something that I’m planning to adopt when I finish my high-risk pregnancy memoir. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna work great! (Note: if you’re in need of high risk pregnancy information, click here.)

Landvik writes every scene in the book down on index cards (this is similar to Laura’s approach) except she does this as a FINAL step in the writing. She strings a clothesline at eye level down her hallway and, armed with clothespins, walks up and down the hall making sure her scenes are in order. She must not have small children at home because she said she keeps this clothesline up during the weeks of her second draft. I’m probably going to have to hang my string on the wall because of Baby Girl, but I am soooo doing this.

What are the Must-Haves for the non-linear approach?

    1. You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure so you don’t end up with a pile of scenes you can’t use. It helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey as well. Here’s the most helpful link I’ve found, which combines the two. I work with 3-Act structure because I can keep track of it better in my head.
    2. Two words – Conflict Lock. If you don’t have a conflict lock, you don’t have a story. So says Bob Mayer, author or Warrior Writer and co-founder of Who Dares Wins Publishing. Here’s a blog to tell you more, plus I’ve included a three minute video of Bob teaching the Conflict Lock (see the bottom of this post).
    3. Be sure you understand your project’s DNA (theme) before you write. If you have a strong visual of the underlying message you wish to convey to your reader, you will write to it. That DNA will inform every scene choice you make because it has to. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.
    I have so much to say about theme, it’s likely I’ll do a separate blog on it. Often linear writers like Laura write straight through to help themselves discover theme. I usually start with theme and then write to it. Plus, whenever Laura gets stuck, I convince her to write a scene out of order…works like a charm every time. Shhhh, don’t tell her I’m trying to seduce her to the dark side.

There are two main issues that led me to embrace this non-linear style:

  • The linear approach was leaching the joy from my writing.
  • This less-structured approach seems to help me ease by my fears.

I’d get stuck on one of three things with the linear approach:

1. It was boring (for me) to write straight through, and my creative side isn’t very patient or structured.

2. Once I knew what happened, I didn’t want to write the book any more.

3. Transitions are pure hell for me and I’d get stuck on them.

The first two are just my own lovely personality flaws  but the last one required an intervention in the form of teamwork. I can write emotional scenes or funny scenes all day long with complete focus and pretty good results. However, if you ask me to get the heroine out of her office and over to a restaurant for the next scene, I go blank and dither around, either writing too much or getting complete writer’s block.

Finally, in desperation, I asked my critique group if I could just ‘get a pass on transitions’ and they were sweet enough to say yes. We have a system worked out: I highlight a note like “Get heroine from point A to point B please” and they help me fill it in later, after the first draft is finished and in the bag. In return, I help them amp up their humor or their emotional scenes.

This brings me to…The Magic of a Great Critique Group

  1. A good critique group wants your success as much as you do.
  2. Everyone in the group has unique talents that, when combined, helps everyone get a fantastic book out of the deal.
  3. I could not take the non-linear approach without a critique group to read my work and catch my errors.
  4. If you’re a non-linear scene writer like me, I highly recommend you build yourself a writing A-Team to support you in your editing process.

Let me give you a good example of how this works for us, the founding bloggers here at WITS. Below are some areas of strength that we all depend on from each other.

  • I have a great grasp of theme and how to edit or add in scenes to underscore this theme. I also tend to see the humor in every scene.
  • Sharla Rae is a great all-around writer but she excels at word choice and putting Like with Like. She also writes the steamiest sex scenes you’ve ever read so she weighs in on those (thank God!).
  • Fae is a World-Building Goddess who can invent everything from another galaxy to the medical accoutrements you’ll need to survive there.
  • Laura writes descriptive prose that makes you feel like you’re inside a scene. Plus, she go, go, GOES.

Golden Gift – Bob Mayer’s Conflict Lock LIVE

The good news is, now that I understand my process and the simple fact that I’m a scene writer, I can stop berating myself for what I’m not and just focus on the joy of being what I am. I’m a much better writer now that I’ve just relaxed and embraced my process.

I finally understand why I’ve been able to finish short stories: they come to me as one long scene and I can hold my focus long enough for that. This is also why blogs are pure joy for me – they’re short.

Two writers I deeply respect – Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander) – are both scene writers. As I said earlier, for Outlander, Ms. Gabaldon wrote the scenes that came to her and stitched them together later, like a quilt. Janet Fitch published White Oleander originally as a series of short stories which she later realized were chapters in a larger story that she combined into a novel. Everything worked out well for them, right?

I remind myself of that whenever I feel myself losing focus and force myself to slow down, breathe, and take things one scene at a time.

Which side of the “throwdown” do you gravitate toward? Straight through or scene-by-scene? We’d love to hear your feedback on this!

REMINDER: Linda O. Johnston will be back with us on Friday talking about how to plot a mystery. We hope to see you then. In the meantime, if you hang out on Facebook, we’d love it if you stopped by the Writers In The Storm page to chat!

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30 Responses to Non-Linear Writing – Focus On Your Story’s DNA

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Wow Jenny, you really made me think. I know you’ve struggled with what writer you ‘thought’ you should be – I was so happy when the lighbulb flashed and you saw what kind of writer you ARE. Powerful moment!

    I love your links, and am going to dig into a couple in a bit, but what hit me was the three-act structure and Hero’s journey. I won’t be digging into those. They’ve always made me feel like you did above – insecure and like everyone got it but me. Reading your post helped me figure out why.

    That is all macro – the 10,000 foot level; and I’m a detail person. No wonder the thought of non-linear writing scares me – I’m afraid that I’m going to lose the storyline and the whole book, if I pull my head out of the detail. Duh, guess I’m an accountant for a reason. But I think that’s why the commenters are so uncomfortable with the other side. I’d love to hear from you all – is that true, or is it just me, being the outlyer as usual?

    Your gift to me, Jenny, has been your golden nugget of Theme. When I had to go back to my first novel and do a total rewrite, I was lost. Again, it’s that macro look – I had NO idea how to do it. You reminded me of the theme, running like a thread through the book. Once I focused on that, everything became doable, and I think I’m going to end up with a much stronger book.

    Love you, Chickie! (even if you ARE on the Dark Side.)

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  4. I love both of your posts on the linear and non-linear approach to writing. I want to say I’m a little bit of both. I can write straight through a book but I’ve also written scenes out of order. Although come to think of it, when I write out of order, I’m less likely to finish the book.

    Love the discussion and love the links. I’m off to do some reading now. :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Sheila! I think the key is to find YOUR approach (which is whatever one helps you finish what you start). On studying both these posts, the links will work for either style, they just get used differently. :-)

  5. I think writing scenes is a good method because it gets all the action out and then all you have to do is link it together logically. This probably helps cut down on the non-important info or sagging parts of the story. I know that I tend to write waaay to much linkage material. I should focus more on the scenes. Great resources/links. Checking now.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Nicole. That’s how I feel, but I’m a scene writer so I’m not really an objective opinion.

      If you have 25 chapters and 2-4 scenes per chapter, it all becomes a question of math and which scenes are necessary to get the story told. I can’t focus for longer than a scene at a time because my brain gets too worried.

      I write the 10-20 scenes that I’m sure of. Then the ones that I see, based on those and the turning points for the book. Everything builds on everything else in this approach. Plus, I stay entertained by my own writing more when I do this.

  6. derekd says:

    Excellent article. While familiar with the 3 act structure and hero’s journey, like Laura, I was hit with the theme question. Not sure I could tell you the theme of the WIP I am working on, but I can certainly see how important it is for helping color every scene, and pushing things along.

    I very much enjoyed your take on developing your team, and of course what is being said without being directly said, is how then to be a good CP. Thanks so much.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      LOL, Derek…I love that you caught the subtext on great critiquing. Look for your group until you find all the components you need. When we took on our last new members, we stated a 90 trial period in advance. If anyone wasn’t cozy, it was a no harm/no foul agreement. Several years later, we are Writers In The Storm. *cue movie music*

      Thanks for your comments. As I said above, I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way…just YOUR way. That being said, you need to know the theme of your book pretty early to make a powerful book. Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer class helps with this A LOT. You are required to state goals and describe your book in short sentences…it’s really hard at first and REALLY powerful. :-)

  7. Janel says:

    I do believe this post is the shove I’ve been needing. :) I love writing short stories. I think I have always been drawn to them because of their condensed intensity. However, my muses have decided I need to branch out and write something longer. I’ve been writing down scenes on index cards and coming up with characters, but I haven’t started writing yet. To be honest I’m a little scared and intimated by the size of the project

    Doing the scenes out of order had crossed my mind before. Now that you have described your process and how writing out of order helps, I’m convinced to give the technique a try! Thank-you! :)

    • Laura Drake says:

      Janel,

      I’d also recommend settling on a theme – it’s the piece that ties the whole story together for me. If you decide on a theme, whenever you’re stuck, check back on your theme, and it may help un-intimidate you.

      I’m the opposite – I want to learn to write short! The short story is coming back, and it’s SO much faster to write!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Faster than a novel, sure…but easier? I’m not certain about that one. And Janel, please do check back and let us know how it goes with getting your story off the ground!

  8. Judy says:

    I’m mostly a scene writer, with some linear thrown in. I write the first several chapters, one leading into the next. Then I write the end. I need to know where I’m going, and what I have to do to arrive there. I’ll pop in scenes as they come to me, and shuffle as needed, even if it requires a bit of rewrite because the characters are more or less developed. When I’m about half way done, I write a one-sentence description of each chapter and see what needs adding, filling in, re-arranging. If I’m stuck at the computer, I pull out pen and paper and start writing. The best thing I did was stop trying to “fit” into a category. I write six days a week, five heavy and one light, and one day when I won’t open a document. However, if an idea pops in, I do take the time to write it down. Thanks for sharing what works for you; it reaffirms my decision to do whatever works for me, no matter how odd it may seem to anyone else.

    I love the “Come to the dark side, we have cookies. -V” Cookies are definitely an incentive. :-)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Judy,

      That’s a nifty process, and very macro-oriented, which makes it attractive to me. :-)

      You are in very good company – both David Morrell (creator of Rambo) and John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany) start at the end and work backwards. I don’t know that I could do it, so my hat is off to all three of you!

      Laura found that cartoon…isn’t it AWESOME?!!

  9. Love this post, Jenny. It exemplifies one of the things I love about the writing process: it’s different for everyone! Your way is definitely not my way, but it clearly works for you and that’s what’s important. Creativity comes in many guises!

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  11. MISSED this yesterday in my scotch tape melee. Great POST and I LOVE having permission to write out-of-order. Some scenes write themselves in my head and sit around knitting afghans until I get to their “spot” in the line-up. Yes. I know I didn’t need your permission. I needed MY permission.

    An update (and defense) on my comment (Laura’s-brain-FRZZZTing comment) about the scissors, scotch tape, and stapler. I used this technique to organize individual scenes in my WIP b/c some had to die. Some were out of synch. Some early iterations had excerpts I wanted to pull into my scenes. HOWEVER, I wrapped myself up in my Word Docs trying to accomplish all of that on the computer. I have now completed that part of the rewrite and first draft journey. All is well. The scissors and tape stage is complete.

    Each scene starts on a new page, as will those wrapped in afghans in my head. AND, I have mapped out the scene journey, including where they fall within each act.

    GREAT post, Jenny. As always.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Gloria! It sounds like your process is working swimmingly for you, scotch tape and all. (Still LMAO about that…Laura might still hyperventilate.)

  12. Jenny, both you and Laura are obviously good at what you do and who are either of you to doubt? I must say I fall into the “I don’t think I think about it.” The process is merely a means to an end and the mechanicss might put me in a coma. I get hung up on a character and an idea, and sorry, but they often come together in a scene I see fully in my head. Like a movie or the sounds of music, it takes me on a rambling journey or a mad-capped road trip to wherever. I write the entire first draft from beginning to end. Long about the fifth draft, I might begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    I use your method of writing scenes out in a “note” file, I highlight areas where my focus got murky and often add or delete whole characters or sub-plots that confused the main plot. I keep at least one if not two doc. note files on each thing I write, even the blog. I never, never, ever “delete” dialogue, characters or scenes. I remove them from one book or story and who knows that I might want them somewhere else?

    So once more, character or plot, linear or circular, index cards or flying by the seat of our pants. We might do it all in different sequences or approach them from different angles, but if you have learned that good writing needs excellent rewriting and you love the wonder of our world … it doesn’t matter. I never could work out the chicken and the egg thing and who cares if it’s half full or half empty? When I’m thirsty I drink and when it’s gone … I fill it up again.

    Loved this debate :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love your chicken/egg, half empty/half full comment…thanks for the morning laugh. We like to debate over here. :-)

      I normally would just tell everyone to WRITE, but I didn’t get anywhere when I did it and had to go back and figure out theme. As long as people get a great book finished, it’s ALL good.

  13. Camille says:

    Another way to look at non-linear writing: it’s actually, imho, the more organized way to write — it’s just taking the outlining process into the writing process and making it more organic.

    Or you could call it verbal storyboarding. Instead of nailing down your plot with summary, you nail it down with the emotional details that proper scenes give you.

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