One word after another


I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.
-Laurence Sterne

Sounds so simple when someone else describes the process. I envy people who can sit down and write the first sentence, and then the second, and then the third… People who write linearly, that is. I think they must be very organized mentally and have everything laid out. The characters do what they want, the plot marches along in an orderly fashion.

I did try to write like that.

Clockwork with alarm mechanism, made by Nathaniel Dominy V, 1799 - Winterthur Museum - DSC01610I’ve tried outlining and drawing up character sheets and figuring out everyone’s motivation and then writing it all out in a straight line from beginning to end. And the result was as exciting as cardboard. The plot was predictable as clockwork. The characters weren’t people, they were cardboard cut-outs. Even I found it boring. I shudder to think what anyone else would think of it.

The only way I’ve found that works is to start with an intriguing idea and a likable character. Put the two together and then see where the story goes, let it develop in its own way.

For example, His Forgotten Fiancée, I thought: what would a man do if he woke up with no memory of himself, and a woman walks into the room and tells him they’re engaged? How would he react? I started out with the initial scene, then wrote the ending, then went back and wrote the middle.

With my next book, The English Lieutenant’s Lady, I came across a reference to British spies in the Oregon Territory in 1845. What if one of these spies fell in love with a local woman while on his mission? He couldn’t reveal his real identity, but he wanted to make her his wife. What would he do? I started out with them meeting, then wrote several scenes in the middle, then connected them up with the beginning before writing the ending.

I usually start with the beginning of the story, and I do try to write the next scene and the one after it. But the trouble is, an early scene almost invariably ends up having an impact on one or more later scenes, so I have to write down both the early and the later scenes while they’re fresh in my mind. Then I stuff the later scene into a later chapter to wait for the narrative to catch up with that moment. And those scenes tend to spin off ideas for new scenes that need to happen sometime in the middle of the story. Within a week or two of starting a story, I find myself with several handfuls of disconnected scenes that happen at various points in the story.

The secret of being is a writer is there is no secret. You do it one word at a time and that’s the only way. It’s totally terrifying. But the way you go about becoming a writer is by finding out how your brain works. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. I write in pieces. -Diana Gabaldon

Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon both write in non-linear, disconnected scenes. They discuss their writing style in this video. I found it very encouraging to know I’m not the only person who works like this!

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