Tuesday, September 28, 2010

writing in time

Well, here I am talking about time again (in my comments to Liza's entry). My forthcoming book is about time, so it is an obsession of mine.

In this case, though, I am thinking very practically. Is it necessary to write a novel chronologically, that is--in the order it will appear when it is finished? This is a question I've discussed lately with students.

My answer for that is no. Write the chapters that come to you. Write them in whatever way works for you. I have written chronologically on some books. On others, I've written chapters like a tourist map of a walking tour; the marked stops help direct the internal journey.

Specifically, on Hiroshima Dreams, I wrote the first two chapters, the middle chapter, and the last chapter at one sitting, and sold the book with that material. Writing the rest of the book was extremely difficult, but no doubt I was helped by my map. I've written beginning and ending chapters first on at least half of my books, then sometimes worked forward and backward as a way to trick myself into reaching that difficult middle territory.

The idea, as always, is to find your process. If you are stalled where you are, it's often helpful to write a later chapter, or maybe even chapters that you might toss. Never restrict yourself, or impose rules on "how things must be done." Within some structures, such as episodic you can shuffle and reorder chapters.

Find your way. Inspiration is precious. Grab it when it comes.


  1. Thank you, Kelly, for validating my creative process.

  2. I hope this will work for a critical thesis too, because trying to start at the beginning is making me want to eat my own eyeballs.

  3. I just told my fiction class tonight (we workshopped two novels-in-progress) to disregard chronology and just write all the good scenes first. And I don't mean "good" as in happy scenes, but "good" as in gripping, exciting, emotionally charged, and fun to write! In the end you may find those will be all the scenes you'll need to work with.

  4. Has anyone read that novel by Charles Baxter that starts at the end and goes backward to the beginning? It made me feel a bit discombobulated, but it's interesting to see what happens when you turn your chronology around.

  5. Faulkner's _A Fable_ is a tough book to read. It's an allegory of the days between the betrayal of Christ, the crucifixion, and resurrection, but set in WWI. It jumps all over the place in time sequence. I couldn't make any sense of it until I found a reader's guide that gave an outline of the book with the scenes in correct chronological order. Even Faulkner was confused as he wrote it. He had to make a master outline, written on the wallpaper in his study, to keep track of it.

    I'm a very sequential writer. It's very hard for me to jump ahead and write a scene or chapter ahead of my current place in the story. I have always been like that with my nonfiction, too. In revision, I may decide that a scene needs to go in a different place, but in the draft stage, I can't jump around.

  6. Yes, Faulkner. Genius. And even the best reader in the world has to jump back, read again, figure it out, and a guide is very helpful. But so worth navigating.