How (and Why) I Write My Books Non-Chronologically

So I write the scenes in my books out of order. I had some vague idea that this wasn’t what most people did, but it was so normal to my process that I didn’t think it was very interesting. Yet I had a few people on Twitter ask me to break this process down because it sounded intriguing. It’s always funny when people ask you to break down your process because if they didn’t, you know… well, I wouldn’t interrogate it much.

I often try and start a novel from the beginning, but my brain isn’t always accommodating. More often, what I’ll end up with are little bits of dialogue, fight scenes, political discussions, etc. that jump into my brain. I’ll put those down into the manuscript file, adding them into it in roughly the order I think they’ll appear in the final book.

Like this bit of dialogue from Lilia for THE BROKEN HEAVENS that came to me last night right before bed:

“It’s what I’ve seen us trying to do this whole war – set ourselves apart from the enemy. Be different. I think we built a people that was as different from our oppressors as possible. The Dorinah became like the Saiduan. We deliberately became something else.”

This is probably going to go somewhere in the last third of the book, so I’ve plugged it into the manuscript before the big ending scenes that I’ve already written, but after a lot of the mixed dialogue and opening chapters for the first third that I already have in there.

I have another one that comes much earlier in the book between Lilia and Yisaoh, which I plugged into the first third:

“You’re already a drug fiend,” Yisaoh said, “hacking out your bloody lungs every night. Are you becoming a liquor fiend too?”

          “You don’t understand my life,” Lilia said.

 “No, my life was spent trying to convince Ora Nasaka there was an imminent invasion, and position my family so we could lead the country. Prepare our people to face it. You see how well my life’s pursuit turned out. But you don’t see me numbing my sorrow.” She fumbled for another cigarette.

         Lilia smirked. “What will you do when you run out of those?” she said.

Not all of these snippets will make it into the final book, of course. But when my brain serves me these little bits of dialogue and scene-setting, I take them. It’s why I ended up writing the last chapter of the book so early, because my brain was busily stringing it together. Now the rest of the book will move toward that ending.

When it comes time to put all the scenes together, it’s a bit like patching together a quilt – or, more accurately – a complex puzzle. You find that not all the pieces fit, and that you have to create new pieces to bind the existing together.

I start out with a rough shape/outline for every book. I have all the basic beats down, especially with the Worldbreaker books, which use big events in the sky as turning points for characters and situations. I put five of these down into a sort of five-act structure and just nestle in these dialogue bits and scenes and descriptions as I go. When I sit down to officially write for the day, I’ll try to start writing chronologically, filling in what needs to be filled in from the beginning, but if I’m stuck or I get bored, I’ll jump ahead to some other scene that I’m excited about writing so I don’t waste my writing time. It’s this determination not to waste my writing time that’s probably led me to write this way today more than I did in the past. When you are writing as quickly as I am, and your time is so precious, you can’t just sit there and stare at the place you’re stuck at for an hour. I do also use techniques from Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k, the biggest of which is to outline the scene(s) I want to write for the day before I open the file to work on them (I purchased this book a little over two years ago, and you can see how it helped kickstart my productivity).

Writing THE STARS ARE LEGION is another good example of this type of writing. Though I wrote one of the POV character’s chapters mostly in order, I skipped a lot of big scenes and transitions and just put placeholders there the first time through. This is because I had an epiphany about what the plot actually was for that character and sat down and re-wrote the whole outline in a rush one night, making it more of an episodic exploration with clues to the larger mystery woven in. Framing those chapters as a journey up through one of the worlds level by level with crazy adventures made it easier to write all in one go. The tough part was the other POV character. I wrote her first couple chapters, and her last couple of chapters first, so I would know where she started and were she needed to end up. Those missing middle chapters are the big chapters I’ve been working on the last couple weeks, trying to fill in what happened to get her to the place I needed her to be. I’m continuing to refine and rework those as I go, and we’ll do one more big pass here before it’s ready for reviewers. I also went back and filled in a lot of missing scenes and transitions, cleaned up stuff like, “Where did they get this rope from??” and other inconsistencies. When I need to draft fast, I just tell myself “You can fix it in post” and careen on ahead. Sometimes I’ll even make notes to myself along the way, “Be sure to go back and give Casamir’s settlement a name” or “Foreshadow the use of the air balloon.”

I realize that not all authors can write this way. I recently spoke to another author who was trying to write this way and found it aggravating, as they were used to writing chronologically and editing as they went, so by the time they reached the end they actually had a whole, coherent novel ready to turn in to their editor(!). I would LOVE to be able to write this way, but… it just doesn’t work for me. I get stuck, and then I get blocked, and then I just piss off and go screw around and angst about the book for months until it’s the deadline and oh no and then I write it all out of order and fill in the other parts later. So remember that there are lots of different processes out there.

So far, writing out of order works for me, though my agent would sure like me to come up with a coherent plot before, you know, the weekend before the book is due. I’d like that too, but I’ve found that though I can do big plot beats ahead of time, the really good, meaty stuff comes while I’m writing. It’s the scenes I plug in after the fact, or weave in from snippets I wrote into notebooks just before bed, that really give these books the character and worldbuilding details they need to go from “OK” to memorable.

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