Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing Out of Sequence Without Scrambling Thy Brain Matter (Or 'How Some Scenes Are Like Stopping at a Rest Stop So Batman Can Pee')

At some point, during my early writing days, I started writing out of sequence. In the beginning, I wrote chronologically like most sane, reasonable people, but then I started skipping ahead. A scene would catch my attention and refuse to let me sleep, so I'd write that part, and then go back to writing the rest of the story in order. Over time, this madness evolved until my only inclination to write even remotely chronologically was to start with Chapter 1.  I still do that. After about 100 words, I'll probably flit over to Chapter 17 for a little while. These days, it's a rare occasion when I write a paragraph in order. This blog post? All over the place.

So how the hell does it work, anyway?

Before I get started, I want to throw this out there to anyone who's curious about out of sequence writing: If you have any questions about specifics, anything you want me to cover that I've completely neglected to, please put them in the comments of this post. Out of sequence writing is pretty much second nature to me now, so I'm not always sure what other writers want to know about it.

That said, I'll cover as much as I can in this post. I've covered a lot of this ground before, having blogged about these techniques here, here, and here. So I'll probably repeat myself a little bit, but we'll just blame that on the ADHD and move on.

Let's start with a little bit on how to write out of sequence, and then I'll get to why, advantages/disadvantages, Batman, etc.

How to Write Out of Sequence

There's no one way to write out of sequence. If there was, that would mean this was a sane, reasonable technique employed by sane, reasonable people, but it's not. So, I'll offer tips and pointers based on how I do it, but please take them all with an entire mine full of salt. Should you try any of them and find they are disastrous on an "invade Russia in the winter" level, then by all means, reject them.

First, let's talk about documents and files. Most people I know who write out of sequence swear by Scrivener. I have a copy, but haven't learned to use it yet, so I can't speak with any authority about how well it works. I know several authors who love it, though, especially if they're not chronological writers.

I'm a creature of habit, and I write in MS Word. Each chapter is its own document, and when a chapter is complete, it's dropped into a folder creatively called "Finished Chapters."

But how in the world do I keep track of what happens in those chapters?


Okay, we all know what's coming. I know this is going to make a few people hit the brakes and yell "NOPE!", but hear me out, y'all.

If you're going to write out of sequence without losing your sanity, you'll probably want to at least consider outlining. I know some authors do this without an outline, but I have no idea how they manage it, and if I tried, my brain would melt out of my left nostril. In the interest of keeping brain matter out of my sinuses, which have already been mercilessly ravaged by the brutal Nebraska winter, I'm going to let those people do their thing while I do mine. So, let's talk about outlining for a moment.

I know that word is enough to make some authors break out in hives or have flashbacks to high school English. This is because high school is a powerful thing that can turn Shakespeare into something as exciting as dried peanut  butter and reduce World War II to a dull landscape of names and dates. So let's start by evicting everything high school ever taught us about outlines. I hereby grant each and every one of you permission to forget everything your English teacher beat into you about outlines. There are no rules. There are no requirements. You don't have to use letters, followed by numbers, followed by Roman numerals, followed by...you get the idea.

You also do not have to stick with your outline. As I've mentioned in many previous posts, my hard and fast (hehe, hard and fast) rule of outlining is that if the characters and outline disagree, the characters always win. If you deviate from your outline, no one is going to flunk you or leave snide comments in the margins. Remember that your outline serves you. Therefore, it should be written, formatted, and adhered to only inasmuch as it helps you, the author, write your story. If you work best with a strict, detailed outline, then that's your style. If you work best with something vague and brief, there you go.

All of that being said, I'm one of those vague, flexible outliners. Each chapter gets a one-line summary so I remember what's supposed to happen there. It can be as simple as "They meet."  Notice how there's nothing indicating where, how, why, or if there's a malfunctioning cotton candy machine involved. That's because my outline is not there to dictate every detail of the scene. Rather, it's there so I know at a glance the order of events. Do the characters meet before the Corvette incident, but after the fishing trip? Awesome. Now I know whether or not they can make comments about the rabid bass they caught, or if the love interest already has the imprint on his forehead from the Corvette symbol. So basically, the outline helps me keep the story's chronology straight so I can write out of sequence without creating continuity errors.

And to reiterate: If the characters and outline disagree, the characters always win. So if you find yourself working on a scene in chapter 13 that illuminates a fatal error with chapter 4, run with it and change chapter 4. If chapter 7 actually needs to come after chapter 17, rearrange, renumber, and continue.

So basically...

  1. Have an outline or at least a vague plan unless you're one of those human-alien hybrids who can do this on the fly.
  2. Let thy characters guide you.

Also, precisely how out of sequence you write is entirely up to you. Some people write entire scenes. Some people write a few paragraphs here and there, and eventually sew them all together into a cohesive scene. Me, I'm all over the place. I usually have at least 300-500 words in every chapter of a book before I ever finish one chapter. Then I'll just add 100 or so here and there, and eventually...it's done.

So there really isn't a particular method for out of sequence writing. The biggest thing is just to keep yourself organized enough to know what to write and where, but not so strictly outlined/planned that you suffocate yourself. I know, that doesn't sound terribly helpful. "Just do what you want and try not to get lost."  But that's pretty much what it boils down to.

Okay, but why? It sounds kind of complicated.


What are some of the advantages of writing out of sequence?

A lot of the pros/cons have been covered in the previous blog posts I linked above. Preventing continuity errors, ridiculously easy foreshadowing, etc. A couple of things I'd particularly like to highlight in this post:

  1. Some scenes are a pain in the ass to write.
  2. Some books are a pain in the ass to finish.
Let's face it: Even the easiest book that's just rocking its way out of your head via your fingers is going to have its moments. It's kind of like being on a road trip with awesome friends and Batman. You're flying down the interstate, having the time of your life with your friends and Batman, listening to the radio and Batman's stories and totally not questioning why a) you haven't seen a cop for the last 100 miles or b) Batman's even hanging out with you, but...

...sooner or later, someone will have to stop and pee. I'm not naming names or necessarily saying Batman's the one who's gotta pee, but one way or another, you're eventually going to have to start watching for a gas station or rest stop, slow down, pull into a parking space, and come down from your high-while-sober euphoria of fun to peruse a dirty convenience store's snack aisle while you wait for Batman to come out of the bathroom. Then it's back on the road for more fun and Batman.

Which is an incredibly long and belabored way of saying...sometimes you stall or hit a not-so-fun-to-write part of the book. Sometimes there's a scene you just don't feel like writing. I've argued many times with people who think that if a scene is difficult or troublesome to write, it's probably going to be difficult or troublesome to read. If I don't feel like writing it, the reader won't feel like reading it. I disagree. Honestly, every single one of my books has at least one scene that I beat my head against before it finally came together. There are some scenes that were so difficult to write for whatever reason, I would literally add 2-3 sentences, then go work on something else. For weeks.

The thing is, not every exciting-to-read scene is exciting to write. And sometimes, in order to get from one exciting-to-write scene to another, you need another scene in between that is necessary and interesting to read, but for whatever reason, excruciating to write. Writing that scene is the Batman pee break of the road trip: like it or not, it's gotta happen.

For  me, the Batman pee breaks are usually sex scenes and car chases. Car chases are seriously the bane of my existence, and for reasons I'll never fully understand, I find sex scenes incredibly difficult to write. But since I write erotic fiction, they are obviously necessary.

But what in the name of all that's good and unholy does this have to do with writing out of sequence?

Everything, my dear friends. Everything.

Imagine, if you will, that you're on your road trip with Batman. Now imagine you're like fifty miles from Vegas, and you are itching to sit down at the baccarat table and out-baccarat James Bond. And a hundred miles after that, you're going to visit Area 51 and are guaranteed to witness an alien abduction complete with televised anal probing.

What if you could teleport ahead, skip the miles of desert and the OMG Batman seriously another freaking pee breaks, and park your butt at the baccarat table? And once you were done with that, you could snap your fingers and be in your front row lawn chair at Area 51?

Guess what?


Skip ahead. Write the baccarat scene. Then skip ahead again and write the Area 51 scene. While you're at it, jump back to the pre-baccarat driving and write in a witty, foreshadowy snippet of dialogue that you hadn't thought of before. When those are done, time warp all the way to the end and write the wicked cool epilogue involving a reincarnated Joan of Arc and a disembodied owl brain.

See? Words are flying! The scenes are landing on paper, and they're awesome! A few more scenes, and you're done with this bad boy!

Which of course brings us back to Batman and his temperamental bladder.

Yes, we can skip around and write all the exciting-to-write scenes, and knock out all the scenes that just wanted to happen right now, but sooner or later, you're gonna have to suck it up, pull into a rest stop, and let the dude do his business.

In my case, this usually means going back and writing at least one or two of the sex scenes, or going back and finally finishing that car chase which is currently nothing more than a dozen or so sentences scattered throughout an otherwise blank document because OMG car chases are going to be the literary (not literal!) death of me.

So... really? Now we have to sit down and write the scenes that are really hard to write? Now that all the cool scenes are done?

Yes.  But look at it this way: those scenes are the only thing standing between you and a finished book.

Just last week I was wrapping up Razor Wire, my lesbian  military romance. That book had been flyyyying out of my fingertips, words hitting the page like... like... okay, let's just let this one go before I find a way to bring it back to Batman stopping and peeing again. Point being, Razor Wire was flying.

Except for the second sex scene. I was flitting all over the book, adding 100 words here and 500 there, but every time I came to that scene...crickets.

I couldn't take the scene out because it was necessary for the story. There was nothing wrong with the scene, I just...didn't feel like writing it. It was that simple. Sort of like the car chase scene in The Given & The Taken. It was absolutely necessary to the story, and when it was finished, my betas were thrilled with it and fortunately couldn't tell that writing it was word dentistry.

With both the car chase in The Given & The Taken, and the sex scene in Razor Wire, I found myself in the same situation: the entire book was written except for that scene.

Now, it was still a struggle to finish those two scenes, but it made a huge difference knowing that once they were finished, the book would be finished. It was decidedly less daunting to approach those scenes knowing I'd be done with the entire manuscript, rather than "Okay, now on to the next 50,000 words..."

Bottom line, which I probably could have summed up in far fewer but considerably less entertaining words:

  1. Writing out of sequence allows you to write the scenes that your brain wants to write without a) blowing through the less interesting ones just to get to the good ones, or b) completely stalling out because you can't get past the less interesting ones.
  2. Writing out of sequence can also put you in a position where the less interesting scene is the only thing standing between you and a finished book.

A few points about that:

1. When I say "less interesting" scenes, I don't mean less interesting to read. Some scenes are just tougher to write, or aren't as exciting to write, but are still mission critical and absolutely interesting to read. Make sure you know the difference. Is this scene just tough to write? Or is your reluctance/difficulty a sign that there's a problem with the scene?  Does Batman really have to pee, or is he just being a jerk?

2. For some people, writing all the exciting stuff first can backfire. For me, it's like chapter peer pressure. All the other chapters are done, and they're glaring at chapters 15 and 23 like "WTF, dude? Get your head out of your butt," and that's enough to motivate me to pound out those chapters.  For others, once the fun stuff is done, they don't feel like writing the less fun stuff, and the manuscript stalls. Know thy mind, know thy limits.

As with anything, if a technique or explanation doesn't work for you, toss it aside and ignore it. Part of this game is figuring out what works, and there is no 'one size fits all' on this particular rack.

Hopefully at least some of this made some sense. If you have particular questions about out of sequence writing, please do put them into the comments, and I'll address them in a future post.

And I make no promises about whether or not Batman and his overactive bladder will appear in that future post...


  1. Now you have me wondering whether Batman has a pee flap built into his suit or if he has to take the whole damn thing off when he needs the bathroom.

  2. Wow! Another amazing post. You knocked this one out of the ball park. I never would have thought that I could use this method...but after reading this, I think I probably could! My favorite part? (Aside from the bathroom-happy Batman) was chapter 15 and 23 peer pressure. Oh yeah, I can see that! Those girls are serious! Thanks for a great post.
    Evelyn / Gail

  3. I'm enjoying these posts of yours! :) They are giving me ideas. I have a question though, a mechanical one. You say that outlining is very important to your process and I can see how and why and it makes an incredible amount of sense. But HOW do you do it? Whiteboard? Index cards? One of your ubiquitous spreadsheets? A notebook? Post-Its on the wall?

  4. I write out of sequence and I'm a pantser. If a scene just isn't grabbing me to write it, or I'm stuck on it for some reason, I'll skip ahead (or backward) and write a different scene. Once my brain figures out how to write that one scene I got stuck on, then I go back to it. I don't outline, but I have an idea, however vague, as to where I want the story to go. The scenes don't come to me chronologically, so I don't write that way, but in the end I'm able to piece them all together. Some chapters or scenes may need a little rewriting, or a lot, or be dropped altogether. It's the way my mind works.

  5. Brilliant blog post. Meat and fun - my favourite.

    One of my reasons to write out of sequence are holes. I outline and write more or less sequentially.
    But some scenes take research I haven't done yet, so I'll sketch them in to detail later.
    And sometimes, there's something missing that I can't quite name yet (a motivation, a thematic tie in - this can be quite nebulous), and writing a later scene will *poof* magically make all the puzzle pieces fall into place. They always do, if that scene should be there. If they don't, there's something wrong.

  6. Hey, you and I were talking about this on Twitter! I was grocery shopping with a toddler/tweeting, you'd just returned from London. ...I remember I was so excited to find you wrote out of sequence, because I do too! I was laughing, reading this post- it's exactly how I wrote my first book. First chapter fleshed out, then jumping around all over the place, writing pieces here and there as I saw it, leaving the hardest scenes till the end. The albatross around my neck was a menage sex scene. It was like pulling teeth! PAINFUL! But you're right the motivation was when I finished it, I was DONE! Thank you for this post. I'm a new writer, so I thought I sort of blundered around writing the first book and that I needed a system for the second. But I do have a system! Yay! I'm already naturally doing it again. ..begining fleshed out, hopping to other scenes. Here we go again! Hurray!