Friday, June 22, 2012

Writing Out of Sequence Without Going (too) Crazy

So I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and elsewhere that I write out of sequence. A lot of people have said they don’t understand how I do it, and like any writing technique, it’s most certainly not for everyone. That said, I thought I would share exactly how I go about writing out of sequence without losing my mind.  

And there will be spreadsheets. I have one I have been honing for the last few years that serves my writing techniques (and my OCD) quite nicely. If you would like a template copy of it so you can give it a try, let me know

First, how I write out of sequence. Then, why I write out of sequence. And, as a bonus, I’ll finish by explaining my dirty little secret for getting through those “I don’t wanna write that many words!” days. Because I assure you, I have them. All the time.

Let’s start with the “how” part, since the “why” parts will make a little more sense once you understand my wacky thought process.

Plan Ahead.

Some people can write out of sequence without pre-planning. Marie Sexton does, and obviously has great results, so winging it out of sequence can certainly work. 

I have to plan ahead, though. Even still, I’m probably somewhere between an outliner and a pantser. Yes, I have an outline, but it tends to change a lot as I write. This is, in no small part, because I write out of sequence. So my recommendation if you want to try this is to keep your outline flexible. If your story goes off the rails at some point, be open to the fact that your characters might be telling you something.

I try to keep my outlines vague, too. They’re just a list of scenes, and I have a basic idea of why each scene happens and the consequences of that scene. I don’t plan them out in explicit detail, I just know what will happen. Or what I think will happen. My characters are a contrary bunch, so you can imagine how often that works out. 

So, I recommend planning ahead, but that's your call.

Keep Track of Everything.

Even if you don't outline what is going to happen, it's wise to keep track of what has happened.  I'm writing this post with the assumption that you're outlining, but if you don't, I would highly recommend at least keeping tabs on what you've written, what scenes have taken place, etc.

Whether outlining before or after, I use a spreadsheet. Every chapter is its own Word document and its own line on the spreadsheet. This has two primary benefits besides pacifying my OCD:

1.      It’s easy to add, remove, and re-order chapters when I realize my outline needs to be modified. Just move them around on the spreadsheet, and then renumber chapters as needed. And if you just want to insert a chapter and worry about the numbers later? Insert it on the spreadsheet, give it a decimalized number, and move on. Tip: Windows likes to organize files so that, for example, Chapter 5.5 is ahead of Chapter 5.  That makes my OCD scream. Simple solution?  Rename Chapter 5 to Chapter 5.1.  (The graphic below has some decimalized chapters as an example) Now the files will be in the proper order, which will make life easier when it comes time to renumber them all.  Trust me, it’s not as ludicrous as it sounds; even my OCD doesn’t like renumbering the whole damned book every time I realize I need another chapter, because that happens to me like 70 times per book. Easier to just finish the whole thing and renumber it then.
2.      At-a-glance access to the outline, word counts, and which chapters are complete. 

Anyone who’s been following my blog for any length of time has probably seen my spreadsheet madness, but for those who haven’t, this is the basic gist:

  A detailed explanation of the spreadsheet and all its madness and glory can be found here. Basically: Chapter number, an "X" if the chapter is finished, the current word count, and a brief description of what happens in that chapter. It looks a lot more complicated than it is. 

Once it’s set up and ready to go, it doesn’t require a lot of work. You can easily see which chapters have been started and which have been finished. Handy, right? For me, it’s especially a necessity when I’m writing out of order, mostly because I need to be able to look and double check where I am in the story.  If I’m working on chapter 5, I can glance at the spreadsheet to confirm this chapter happens before the trip to the aquarium, so the character wouldn’t have her manta ray hat yet. Or something like that.  It’s kind of like a storyboard for me: a visual so I can remember the sequence of events. 

Your mileage may vary, of course.This is just how I keep track of stuff. However, if you want to try the "I don't feel like writing but I'm going to anyway" technique I'll address shortly, this will give you a baseline for how I do it. Then you can modify it and do it however you want, get the idea.

So now everything is set up, you've planned as much as you need to plan, it's time to write. So one note about that...

Don’t Be Afraid to Write Way Out of Sequence.

I don’t just mean writing chapters out of order, my friends. I write paragraphs out of order. No joke.  I’ll write a few sentences here, a few paragraphs there, and eventually they come together in a cohesive scene, which becomes a cohesive chapter, which eventually joins forces with the other chapters to create a manuscript that’s like the bastard lovechild of Frankenstein’s Monster and Voltron.

Doesn’t that make for an editing nightmare, though? Believe it or not, it really doesn’t. I actually found I had more continuity errors and such when I tried to write in sequence than when I started writing out of sequence. Why? Because as I flit back and forth between chapters, I can make minor adjustments to keep the continuity going.

And speaking of the benefits of writing out of sequence, that leads me to the next part of this post…

Why write out of sequence? What’s the point?

Well, for starters...

Ever Gotten Stuck on a Scene or Chapter?

Yeah. Me too. All the time.

Ever Had a Scene In Mind That Just Wouldn’t Leave You Alone?

*raises hand* Yep. Guilty.  And in my early years, I wasn’t above rushing through scenes to get to the one I really wanted to write. And yeah, it worked out about as well as it sounds.

So, now, instead of beating my head against a wall to get through the stubborn scene, I just skip ahead and work on something else…like, for example, the one that won’t shut up.

Bonus? It’s not unusual at all for the stubborn scene to get unstuck after I’ve written a later scene. Maybe I’m just not in the mood to write a car chase scene today. Maybe I really don’t feel like writing a sex scene. Maybe I need to write that emotional breakdown scene before it keeps me up for another goddamned night.
Oh, and those scenes that are absolutely necessary but I just don’t want to write? They’re a lot easier to write when they’re the only thing standing between me and calling the book finished.

Writing out of sequence has other perks, too.

Foreshadowing is Now Ridiculously Easy

So let’s say you’re happily working on your story when your character needs to, at a most inopportune moment, have an allergic reaction to something. Let’s say he’s terribly allergic to artificial sweeteners. You’re working on chapter 19, and your character orders a Coke, but the waiter accidentally gives him a Diet Coke.  (Yes, I know, this is a dumb example, but I’m just making a point)  And you stop and ask yourself, “Have I mentioned this anywhere else in the book? Crap.”

Fortunately, that restaurant scene in chapter 11 isn’t finished, and neither is a conversation with his co-worker in chapter 5.  Which means it’s now simple to scoot back to one—or even both—of those chapters, and write a little snippet that will foreshadow his NutraSweet allergy.  Maybe his co-worker offers him some sort of healthy snack, and he cautiously asks if it has any artificial sweeteners in it. Then in the restaurant scene, his date puts Equal into her iced tea, and he suddenly realizes he can’t remember which glass is his and which is hers, so he asks, adding a casual, “Just checking. I’m allergic to NutraSweet.”  

Obviously that’s a ridiculous example, but you get the idea. The point is, if you see something that needs foreshadowing, it’s very easy to go back to other chapters and slip in that foreshadowing without having to rewrite, reorganize, or whatever.

And by the same token…

Sometimes Later Chapters Reveal Things About Earlier Ones

The other day, I was working on All The King’s Horses.  I was having a lot of trouble with the beginning and the ending, because I couldn’t see the characters’ motivations as clearly as I needed to. I did have a pretty solid grasp of some of the chapters in the middle, though, so I decided to write those.  In doing so, letting the characters do what was in character for them, I actually figured out that I had the beginning all wrong and the ending needed a massive overhaul. By the time chapters 9-13 were finished, I finally understood what needed to happen in the preceding and following chapters.  Instead of getting stuck and stalling out, I skipped ahead, and stumbled across the solution.

So those are a few reasons why I write out of sequence. There is, of course, the fact that I’m certifiably insane and have the attention span of a brain-damaged squirrel, but I don’t see why that’s relevant.

And with alllllll of that out of the way...

I promised one final perk. A technique gets me out of the “don’t wanna/can’t make me” rut I get into sometimes. Like yesterday. Whoa, Nelly, I did not want to write yesterday. Knocked out 5,500 words anyway. How? Glad you asked.

Now that you’re writing out of sequence with an OCD-pleasing spreadsheet at the ready, you have a weapon against “meh” writing days. Fair warning: it sounds excruciatingly complicated when I explain it, but it’s actually quite simple to implement. 

As you probably know, I’m one of those writers who aims for a quota of 5,000 words per day. And believe you me, there are some days when I just. Don’t. Wanna.  On a day like that, writing 500 words sounds like agony, never mind the full five grand.

I’m also someone who finds that large workloads can be easier to deal with in smaller bites. When I travel, I’ll sometimes set my GPS to a town 100 miles out, and then when I get there, I’ll set it for the next one, because 100 miles is more palatable than 500. 

Guess what? It works the same way with words. When I don’t feel like writing 5,000 or even 500 words, I can talk myself into writing 100, and it’s considerably less daunting. Think about it. One hundred words is seriously not very much. This paragraph alone is about 75 words. Even on my worst day, when it’s nothing but word dentistry, I can write this much plus a little extra without too much effort.

And this is where writing out of sequence comes in handy. Instead of trying to hammer out a massive chunk of wordage, I go through and write a little bit in each chapter. I set myself a goal of 100 words, and when I write 100 or so in that chapter, I move on to the next one.

But how in the world do you keep track of which ones have their 100 and which still need theirs?

Spreadsheets, my dear Watson. But of course.

I take the spreadsheet I brainwashed you into using earlier in this post, and I modify it slightly. I create two extra columns next to the word count column. Column E is my existing word count column. Column C is where I’ll put the target word count for each chapter.  In Column D, I put in a handy little formula that calculates how much I have to write to make Column E match Column C.  For example, chapter 2 is line 3 of the spreadsheet. The formula in Column D will be =C3-E3.  Do this for every line. (Copy and paste the formula; it’ll adjust the line numbers)

The modified spreadsheet looks like this:

Note: You have to enter Column C manually, which is kind of pain, but it doesn’t take long. Just take whatever number is in Column E, add 100 to it, and type it there. (If you’re feeling a little more ambitious, take Column E and round it up to the next 100, 200, 500, or what have you.)

Like I said, it sounds ridiculously complicated, but I promise it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Plus, once you’ve put in the formulas and such, you can just hide the columns until you have another “meh” day. Then unhide them, adjust the numbers, and do it again. And you can always hit me up for my template, which will have the columns and formulas already entered.

So, now that your spreadsheet is cocked and ready, move over to your word processor of choice and open up your first chapter.  Write 100 words.  Move on to your second chapter. Another 100 words.  Easy, isn’t it? Seriously, when you set it as a goal, 100 words is really not very much at all. Do this for every chapter. If your book has twenty chapters, congratulations: you just wrote 2,000 words.  Reset the formulas and do it again. Hey look: 4,000 words.

Does it sound ridiculous? Yes. Even I roll my eyes when I’m explaining it, because it sounds stupid. But I cannot tell you how many “Ehhhhh, I don’t wanna” days I have turned into good, solid, quota-meeting days. Not long ago, I was having an off week, and I did this four days in a row. Next thing I knew, I was 20,000 words farther into my book, and a good half dozen chapters were better than two-thirds finished. 

In fact, after I've applied that technique every day this week, this is how All The King's Horses looks right now (with the extra columns hidden so all you can see is the current word count for each chapter): 

 Most of those chapters are at least halfway done, and most of that was done 100, 200, maybe 300 words at a time. I'm telling you: it works.

And one final word, something I cannot emphasize enough about using this particular technique: 

Don’t Cheat. 

You’re not doing yourself any favors if you just write 100 words of garbage in each chapter. You still have to think about what you’re writing. This isn’t an exercise in barfing words onto the page, it’s just a way to break up the large task (daily quota) into something that’s not so daunting (individual chapter quota). No skipping the use of contractions, or leaving out hyphens, or naming every character Mary Sue or Captain Jack, or throwing in some info dumps, just to up your quota. You only have to write 100 words, so there’s no excuse not to make them count. Then move to the next chapter and make those 100 words count.

In closing...

As with everything, your mileage may vary.  It might be as disastrous for you as writing in sequence without an outline is for me. Or it might click with you.  Either way, if nothing else, you have a little more insight into the complete and utter madness that happens here in the land of L.A. Witt and Lauren Gallagher. 

Oh, and by the way? I wrote this blog post out of sequence too.


  1. Love this! It made a lot of sense to me. I think I might give it a try for the novella I started yesterday. :)

  2. Brilliant! Going to try this.

  3. Fascinating - I've always wondered how people who write this way manage to keep track of everything. Maybe I'll start giving it a go when I get stuck.

    Have you tried using Scrivener, Lori? The outline view would keep track of almost everything you do with the spreadsheets, with considerably less hassle for you.

  4. I have played with a demo version of Scrivener, but I really like writing in Word. That, and I know me: Give me a brand new piece of software, I will waste *ALL KINDS* of time just playing with it. The spreadsheets have worked well for me, so hey...if it ain't broke. :D