Writing in sequence, no matter the sequence

Ann Patchett has this to day in “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life”:

“Even if you’re writing a book that jumps around in time, has ten points of view, and is chest-deep in flashbacks, do your best to write it in the order in which it will be read, because it will make the writing, and the later editing, incalculably easier. Say you know the girlfriend is going to drown. It’s going to be a powerhouse scene. You’ve thought it through a thousand times and it’s all written out in your head, so you decide to go ahead and drown her in advance, get that out of the way. You have yet to work out why it happens, or what she’s doing in the water in the first place, but at least you know she’s going under, so why not go ahead? Here’s why: Because then you have to go back and write the boring parts, the lead-up, but you aren’t letting the scene build logically. Instead you’re steering the action toward this gem you’ve already written. When you write your story in the order in which it will be read, you may in fact decide that this girl shouldn’t drown after all. Maybe the boyfriend jumps in to save her and he drowns instead. You learn things about characters as you write them, so even if you think you know where things are heading, don’t set it in stone; you might change your mind. You have to let the action progress the way it must, not the way you want it to. You create an order for the universe and then you set that universe in motion.”

This short essay/memoir is pretty wonderful, full of many gems. I read it a few months ago and, as I struggle to write forward on a novel, I remembered this quote. She’s right. Every scene you write builds to the next in a way I don’t believe it can if you jump forward. The texture’s gone, those little details you didn’t know to expect that make the story.

“Deep breath,” I have to tell myself at the beginning of a longer project. Even one crap page a day moves a story forward. And when I get discouraged by small numbers like a page a day, I look back at what gets accomplished in a week and then a month and it makes a huge difference. And it’s always just by writing forward and not skipping ahead that the story starts to make sense to me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *