Monday, January 11, 2010

When linear gets chunky

We've had a few mentions here and there of linear versus chunk writing in these parts (see Jen's excellent post on chunk writing here, and Rachel's post on linear writing here). We have two chunksters here (Jen and Kristen) and two who like to know what's going to happen next before they commit it to the page (me and Rachel).

Around the Writers Forum, you'll often find discussions about using one approach or the other, and it certainly seems that there's a slight difference in creative wiring between the writers who use each method. Not that one way is better than the other- just different strokes for different folks.

But the thing is, linear writing and chunk writing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I'm a writer who has to know how the story unfolds before I can commit words to paper. If I start writing without an outline, things rapidly get out of hand, and not in a wow-that's-creative way- in a wow-that-makes-no-sense kind of way. As long as I know where I'm heading and what the overall shape of the story is, I'm good. I always have my eye on the prize, and it keeps me heading in the right direction.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't chunk it now and again.

Once I have my outline, with my beginning, middle and end all mapped out, I find that it frees me to jump back and forward up and down my timeline. I can write a scene from the beginning of the novel, or from the end, and because I know what happens in between and what the purpose of the scene is, things work out fine.

This ability and willingness to go back and forth through the story while writing helps to avert the biggest problem I find with being a linear writer- the writing-because-I-have-to blues.

I stumbled across this phenomenon for the first time in a while today. Remember I mentioned my lofty ambition to once and for all finish BETWEEN THE LINES this year, and how it all relied on fixing my daughter's terrible sleep patterns? Well, amazingly, we seem to have managed the latter resolution less than two weeks into the New Year. She's now slept in her own bed, through the night, for the last six nights. And today, for the first time since she was born, I was able to write for almost two hours while she had her daytime nap in her own cot.


So, when I sat down in front of my computer, I opened up the current third chapter of BETWEEN THE LINES. I've revised or rewritten chapters one, two and four in recent weeks, and I'm quite tickled that it's falling into place so well. Chapter three is not new, but it does need significant re-writing.

It's a victim of being one of the earliest pieces I wrote three or four years ago. At that time, I knew my veteran WWI soldier Bill had to get to London to find his brother's fiancee after receiving a letter from her. He was a broken man, and after his brother was declared missing, presumed dead, his whole life was in flux. He wanted to make a human connection again, and he wanted to make it with the last person who truly knew his brother.

Oh, and he was pretty much nuts, and he was determined that he was going to convince his once-sister-in-law-to-be to marry him instead, with tragic stalkery consequences.

Fast forward to now, and that plot has long gone out the window. Bill's brother has instead become his son. And he's trying to find the fiancee to protect her and his unborn grandchild, and not because he has designs on the poor woman.

So, the chapters as they stand go a little something like this:

Chapter 1: Bill receives a letter, addressed to his son Jared, which has been redirected to him as next of kin because Jared is missing, presumed dead. Bill has been working his way up to suicide after Jared's disappearance, but a big secret in the letter changes his life on the spot.

Chapter 2: We go back one month in time and peer over the shoulder of Jared's fiancee, Laura, as she writes the letter. We discover that she's pregnant, but determined to stay in London even as the bombs come down because she can't quite believe that Jared is dead. She knows there's a chance the letter will make it all the way to her future father-in-law in Australia, but she hopes he might be able to help her find Jared as the official next-of-kin.

Chapter 3: Bill boards a merchant navy ship in Fremantle, Western Australia, bound for London. He's going to rescue Laura and his unborn grandchild and he's determined to bring them home to Edenvale Farm. He couldn't keep his family safe last war- he's sure as hell not going to let the same thing happen to the next generation.

And, to show you where we're heading:

Chapter 4: We go waaay back in time to 1920, when Bill arrived home from his time as a soldier in WWI. He's shellshocked and devastated- during the war, he lost his brother, his best friend, and even worse, his fiancee. He's lost everything, and he has no idea how he's going to get back into his old life. But then he walks in the door and discovers five-year-old Jared, who looks just like his mother (Bill's fiancee Kit). The only problem is, it's a bit unclear whether Bill is really Jared's father, or whether Kit might have had an affair with Bill's now-deceased brother Lionel. One way or the other, Jared is the only thing left that gives Bill any hope for the future, and he's determined to protect his child from the same forces that destroyed his family (not only war, but also jealousy).

Anyway! I sat down today determined to work on chapter 3 like a good little linear writer, but I didn't get very far. I only managed about 600 words, but I just wasn't feeling the enthusiasm. To spark myself up a little, I opened the very first draft of the chapter from four years ago and read through it.

And oh boy. The current chapter is so very flat next to the old one. The old one had plenty of problems, but it had heart. And the main reason was, I wrote it when I was feeling inspired by that particular scene.

Today, I was writing that particular scene because I felt like I had to, and it wasn't working.

If I was such a strict linear writer that I forced myself to write each scene in order, I don't know how far I'd get. I have to have the freedom to go back and forth between scenes so I can capitalise on my enthusiasm for different parts of the story. But at the same time, I have to know what happens before I can feel enthusiastic about it.

So, how about that? I think you'd have to call me a hybrid writer, taking parts of my method from both chunking and linear approaches.

Next time I get to sit down in front of the keyboard, hopefully tonight, I'll ruminate for a while and decide what part of the story is calling to me. Then I'll open up my lovely Scrivener, and I'll write that.

By the way, speaking of plotting, if you'd like to access an exercise on that topic, I'm running one right now in the Writers Exercises folder at CompuServe, here. It utilises the three-act structure, but it doesn't have to be used to plan out a story in advance- it can be used to reorder a completed work, too.


  1. I'm afraid I'm in no position to comment on the theory in this email, partly as I'm a real chunkster, but mostly because I'm just so excited to see that outline of your first four chapters, in order, that I can think only of Bill :-)

  2. Claire, your outline is awesome! Please, please, get this finished!

    And I'm like you - mainly linear, with a dose of chunking. Hey, if you have a red-hot scene in your head, you just have to get it down, regardless of whether it's five, ten, twenty chapters ahead.

  3. I think I have a similar approach as you, Claire - I'm free to write chunks once I know where my trajectory is taking me. Otherwise, I get into trouble, and I lose my motivation if I think that I'm going to be investing all this time (that is still, as of late, stolen from school-related things) on something that I'm not sure will even apply to the WIP.

    However, I have a rough outline of my current WIP (I know the major plot points, rising action, climax, and _why_ it all happens) and that's incredibly freeing -- I can jump pretty much anywhere in the WIP if I want to! I wrote some stuff from the middle just a couple days ago and it felt great, and it had heart, just like you said.

    I find strictly linear writing to be totally suffocating, on the flip side.

  4. Hit submit before I could add...that's a rockin' outline! Way to go! :-)