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Marginal Notes

Writing in Both Directions

Start your story at the beginning, write until you reach the end, then stop. Then start your revisions with page one and work straight through from there, too. Although there is no best way to write a novel, a lot of writers take this approach because it's the most natural. And it may work for you.

But stories aren't always so linear. Instead, they loop back and forth, with later events affecting earlier ones. Your characters might veer in unexpected directions, plot points that seemed minor when the story started may turn out to be critical, and vice versa. The ending can change the meaning of events at the beginning. I almost never edit a client's manuscript without reading the entire thing, because I need to know where the characters and the story end up before I can know where they should start.

This is why revising is so critical. You can't really see what your opening scenes should be until you have the entire story in place. I've often had clients work with me, editing through a manuscript, then ask me to take a second look at the opening chapters, to bring them into line with the changes we'd made further along. The end of the story no longer lines up with the beginning.

It's also critical to be willing to let go of what you've already written. It's been said in a lot of different places that you need to give your characters enough freedom to surprise you. You need to give your story the same freedom to rewrite itself. It's possible that your later chapters have taken it in a new direction. You need to be willing to rip apart and rewrite your opening chapters to fit.

Recognizing that the later parts of stories can change the earlier parts can also help with writer's block. I've written before about the various ways writers can get stuck mid story. One I didn't mention is because a story isn't unfolding as neatly as it should. You may not be able to keep going because you have no idea what should happen next. Many years ago, I spent a couple of months learning to voice pipe organs. The voicer is the guy who changes the shape of the pipes -- cutting, bending, or scratching the lead -- to change the way they sound. Most organ pipes come in sets of 61 called ranks that range in pitch from deep bass to very high treble, but all need to have the same tone and volume. One of the tricks of doing this was to set the sound of every twelfth pipe. That way, as you worked your way through a rank, you didn't have to keep the entire set of 61 in mind. You only had to fill in shorter gaps between two pipes that already had the sounds you wanted.

The same approach can get you past this form of writer's block. You'll almost always get hung up mid story, when you've introduced your characters and presented them with problems. You probably also have the ending in sight, at least roughly -- that's why you gave your characters the problems you did. The trick is getting through the middle to the end.

The answer may be to skip the middle and start writing scenes from later in the story. As you solidify your ending, you will give yourself a fixed point to work toward. This could let you write the middle you need to bridge between the beginning and the end.

Stories aren't neat machines that chug along their paths. They're organic beings, where everything effects everything else. As in life, the past often flows out of the present, not the other way around.