Sequential/nonsequential

Rosemary

You pick up a book, open the cover, start reading.

You keep going (with interruptions for sleep, work, bio-necessities, and social interactions) until you reach the end. At which point you shut the book, and put it down.

Your experience of the book is front-to-back, beginning to end. Start at the beginning, and go on until the story is over. And it’s perfectly natural to think that that’s how the book was written.

But members of the Fabulous Genrettes, and other people who have read my works-in-progress, know that I don’t write like that at all. I need to know where the story is going, I need a sense of its direction. I’ll write the scenes that I know, and those scenes might belong anywhere along the story’s continuum.

Once I have the known scenes, I fill in the scenes that I don’t know. The best scene to know is the last; the second best is the story’s climactic moment; next best to know is the opening.

After that, it’s all feedback loops. The scenes that I know help define the scenes I don’t yet know; and once I have those, I might fine-tune the previously written scenes, or go on to entirely new ones…

What prompted this musing is an interview with my very favorite writer, Ted Chiang, on BoingBoing:

Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I’ve connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.

I don’t think I ever knew that about Chiang…

Ha. Makes me smile.

Now, I do know that there are plenty of writers who start writing at the beginning and keep going until they reach the end. Some of them do quite well. A few do excellent work.

And some of them, sorry, just don’t.

I won’t name names.

But these are the writers who might have a great character, or a wonderful setting, and then just hit the ground running, writing one damn thing after another until they run out of events. Or until some attractively dramatic obvious end-point is reached, like: we win the war; the hero gets married; someone important dies; the planet blows up; etc.

I find them — how shall I put it?  Identifiable.   And unsatisfying to read.

And then there are other writers who seem to write that way, who might even claim to write by that method — until you question them closely.   Often, they’re just not counting the thinking that went on before they put the first word down on the page.   Some of these people actually “write” a story in their heads almost completely before touching the keyboard at all — at which point, they start at the beginning and write it all down, straight to the end.

But if you can get them to describe the process of creating, designing, coming up with that story before writing it down? Of pacing it, finding the scenes, learning about the characters, identifying the dramatic thrust?  It rarely comes out as: “I started on page one and just kept going”.

All this in answer to the often-asked question:

Q: How close is Book 5 to being done?

A: I just don’t know.

Q:Well, what’s the word-count so far?

A: I have tons of words, reams of words! And some of them will go away. Better ones will take their place. Or I will find I don’t need them after all.

Q: But how far along are you? Are you at the beginning of the story, or in the middle? Or near the end?

A: Yes. Yes, I am.

And here’s a different way to ask the question:

On May 25th, Mairead asked:

… [D]o you yet have a sense of the time remaining til you send off the next book for publication? Even an idea of the remaining latency’s granularity would be better than nothing. Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? An approximate coefficient with the granularity would be grand!

Answer: Not weeks! Probably not months — unless I were to win the lottery and quit my DayJob. (Then, yeah, it would be months.) Not decades! And probably not years plural….

It feels like a year — but it felt like a year last year.

Actually, it felt like a year two years ago, until I suddenly realized that I was working on the wrong book,and that I had to flip the order that I had planned, and move Book 6 into Book 5′s position. And that the new Book 5 was largely unknown territory.

But the upside here is that Book 6 (The City in the Crags) already has a lot of the work done on it. On account of me originally thinking it was Book 5, and spending all that time on it.

So, once Book 5 is done, I can be fairly certain of turning around Book 6 quickly. Possibly very quickly. In fact, I sometimes think I’m writing the two simultaneously, and have occasionally stated so in public.

Because, bringing us back to the theme of this post, of my nonsequential writing method.

Which, I must point out, also operates across the entire series.

I do know the last scene in this book; and I do know the last scene of the entire series.

I know the last sentence of the series.

Prequel? You want a prequel?

I know the last sentence of the prequel.


12 Responses to “Sequential/nonsequential”

  • Sean Fagan Says:

    I know the last sentence of the prequel

    Oh, that’s just mean :).

    Here’s my question, though: given how you describe your process, do you do an outline? If so, when do you do the outline?

    • Rosemary Says:

      Sean –

      I’ll sometimes outline — but usually as an aid to solving some particular problem.

      If the timing of events becomes tricky, especially if they are taking place simultaneously and at some distance from each other, outlining can help. Or if there’s a gap that I just can’t seem to fill, an outline can help me pin down the problem.

      I don’t write an entire outline for a book or story, and then write straight from that outline.

      I’m not saying I never would — at some point I’ll probably write a story that needs to be approached that way. But so far, not.

  • Brian Bambrough Says:

    I remember reading an account of a conversation between Agatha Christie and a friend. It went something like this:

    Friend: How’s the new book coming along?

    AC: It’s finished.

    Friend: Can I read the manuscript?

    AC: Oh, I haven’t started writing it yet.

    • Rosemary Says:

      Brian –

      Good example! James Thurber famously also wrote in his head:

      I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “he’s writing something.”

  • Elizabeth B Says:

    Ha! How cool to know that I work in a similar way to someone whose work I like so much. (Mmm, sneaking in a compliment… Sneaky.) It will be wonderful to read about the Further Adventures of Rowan and Bel (and Willam, musn’t forget Teh Willam), but it will come when it comes.

    Until then, party, er, write on.

  • Elizabeth B Says:

    (Oh, and also: Hullo, Sean. I used to be fatima@mills. How’s by you?)

  • Sean Fagan Says:

    snicker Small world, Elizabeth :).

  • Jeannelle Ferreira Says:

    I’m excited to hear all of this. I was just reading The Language of Power this morning in the subway, and you dated it when you signed it, in 2004. I was about to comment on Delia Sherman’s FB asking if you’d taken up yak breeding in Tibet.

    So, so, so glad the story hasn’t gone quiet in your head.

  • Subrata Sircar Says:

    Having just been introduced to the Steerswomen, I’ve been enjoying them immensely and dreading the rapidly approaching day when I run out of book :<)

    I've skimmed the blog entries but haven't seen these two questions answered; apologies if I'm asking your least favorite questions again.

    Do you know how many books there will be? (You appear to have scenes worked out for a prequel and two more sequels; are there others?)

    Do you ever run into the situation where getting from one of your landmark scenes to another either just doesn't work or requires a book of its own? (I am reminded of authors who set out to write a novel and discover it's volume 3 of an epic.)

    • Rosemary Says:

      Subrata –

      Sorry to take so long to reply to your comment…

      I often think I know how many books will be in the series, but it is something of a moving target. There is a bit of uncertainty around an upcoming milestone in the story — will it need its own book, or not? I might not be able to tell until I get there. At the moment, I’m thinking 7 books, plus a prequel (which must be read after the series, and not before).

      As to your second question: The book I’m currently working on was planned for a position later in the series, but I realized that the planned next book (The City in the Crags) needed something specific to take place before it, and that the solution was to switch the order of the two books. I was caught rather flat-footed by this, and I’ve been working on cleaning up the structure of the series arc.

  • Amanda Says:

    Every six months or so I wander around the internet looking to see if there are new books by Rosemary Kirstein or Laurie J. Marks coming out anytime in the known future. It’s been a long few years, but I don’t give up hope!