Fiction Writing is not a Linear Process


Definition: A linear process is one that moves along a line from A to B to C in a straightforward fashion. Conversely, a nonlinear process may develop in different directions at the same time.

I can only speak for my own fiction writing process . . .

I do not follow anything that would even slightly resemble the linear definition above. I am currently writing the last five chapters of The Light Never Lies. Yesterday, I wrote the first draft of the final chapter. Then I roughed in parts of the third from the end and then the fifth from the end. I’m going to move from both ends of this last section to the middle so the climax will be written last.

Lest you think my entire process of writing is erratic, let me explain. I began the book with ideas, the lightest of brush strokes that allowed me to see a starting point, some vague, shadowy lines of action, a climax, and an resolution.

I blocked out three sections for the whole book. For each section, I created my sticky note chapter outlines with one page of blank paper for each chapter. The sticky notes started out containing mere hints about what could happen in a given chapter. They got rearranged, scrapped, and rewritten as I actually wrote.

Definition: A hermeneutic circle is a process by which individual parts inform the whole and in turn the whole informs individual parts.

What happens in my fiction writing is an example of a hermeneutic circle. I work and work on a part of the story – a setting, a chunk of dialogue, an action scene. Then I plug that part into the whole and let it wiggle into place. There it sits as pleased as punch and before I know it, that part has begun to inform the whole of the story. So now I might need to go and make changes to other parts. At the same time the whole is doing its work. I may need to go back and tweak that first part I was telling you about. The whole process keeps going back and forth.

Right now I can almost taste the end of the entire first draft of The Light Never Lies. I actually typed the words THE END the other day – a bit of a cheater since I wrote the last chapter before the lead up chapters or the climax, but the light (so to speak) at the end of the tunnel is there.

Definition: An iterative process is a process for arriving at a desired result by repeated cycles of operations. The objective is to bring the desired result closer to discovery with each repetition (iteration).

It is in subsequent drafts that the iterative process takes hold. The finished product is a journey of discovery. I have to actively seek what in many cases is already hidden within the text.

Do you believe that you can write a complete draft of a story or book and not be aware of the underlying themes or connections you created?

I believe this because I am still discovering things about Disappearing in Plain Sight that I didn’t know were there.

It happens all the time. Here’s another example. The last blog I wrote contained two pictures. I wanted people pictures, one of women and one of men. We have a massive file of high quality digital photographs that Bruce and I have taken over the years (his more high quality than mine – but that’s a story for another post). This has proven to be a phenomenal resource in blogging. I scrambled a bit through my memory and looked through the photos from a couple of trips and found what I was seeking. I didn’t realize, until the day after the post was up, that both photos featured photographers. If you look back at that post, you will ask yourself how that could be. But it’s true.

I am convinced that creativity is like the proverbial iceberg, a lot of it is under the surface of even the artist’s consciousness.

How does that relate to an iterative process? In each draft of a story I need to keep spiralling backwards and forwards through the entire text. A theme discovered on spiral number two, three four, or fifty-four, will be like a thread that I might decide to draw through the entire fabric of the story, enhancing here or there with more precise brush strokes. Or I might pull that thread right out, deciding that my subconscious was a bit off course the day that thread got wove into the whole.

Fiction writing, for me, is a spiral process, a feedback loop, a back and forth, here, there and everywhere mosaic of creating. The one thing it has never been is linear.

I’d love to hear some thoughts on how other people see their own fiction writing process. Do take the time to share.

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(The photo at the top of the post is street art mural in Montreal.)

23 comments on “Fiction Writing is not a Linear Process

  1. Laura Hogan says:

    I always see my writing as a jigsaw puzzle – I can see where the obvious pieces are supposed to go but it takes longer to fit the more subtle pieces alongside the set pieces.

  2. My writing process is similarly erratic to yours, except that (somehow) I’m able to hold the disconnected parts in my head until the time comes to drop it into the story – but the differing parts do bloom inside like my head like frost on a window pane, growing into tiny stories in their own right until they are ready to become part of the whole tale…

    • Frost on the windowpane – lovely 🙂 Another nice analogy – I can see those little bits of frost gathering other bits and pieces around them, growing and expanding until they find their way into the bigger picture story.

  3. wordsavant says:

    I love your process and think it’s interesting that you start from the beginning and the end and work your way backwards. I like the idea of writing a novel in a non-linear way.

  4. Gwen says:

    I love learning how other writers write. Sometimes I think my biggest weakness as a writer is that I’m a very linear thinker (but I’m a teacher with a mathematics specialty…hmmm…)

    Your technique of recording ideas on post-it notes is one I’ve heard before. I suppose I should give that a try, because I’d really like to break out of my linear comfort zone. Recently I purchased a writing software called Scrivener. I decided to buy it because the writing isn’t restricted to a linear model, which is one of the limitations of MS Word. Scrivener been a great asset in helping me plan stories and even in writing first drafts. There is a digital cork board feature that can be used for something like your post-it note technique. But I think I might prefer the tactile version of feeling that paper in hand and physically manipulating it.

    I agree with your thoughts on theme. I think getting the story out is priority one, and theme eventually presents itself with subsequent rewrites (at least in my case). I tried writing to a theme one time, and it bombed. Lesson learned.

    Great, informative post, as always.

    • I hear what you’re saying on the tactile part of the post-it note system of outlining, Gwen. You know what I would love to have? A really huge white board where I could see all the chapters up at once. That would be awesome. There is something so powerful about being able to see the whole while focusing in on the parts. Love the way you link up teaching, math and the possibility of going down a road of linear thinking. And then there was Einstein – LOL.

      • Gwen says:

        Your idea sounds like the story boarding that movie makers do. If you ever watch “the making of” features on a DVD set, this is something that’s often shown when a screenplay is in the planning stages. I think that giant white board would be awesome to have, too! Having a visual can be a really powerful tool.

  5. There is such a thing as linear? hmmm…

    • Yah, duh . . . who knew? I won’t say there isn’t a place for it, though. Maybe near the end of the writing process we need to shift gears and think like the reader who will most likely read our book from page one through to the end. Does it make sense? Always an important consideration.

  6. My first drafts are almost always done by the seat of my pants. The second draft is where I finally decide what this story is about and what overall message I’m trying to transmit, so the second draft is carefully outlined and analyzed. I TRY to be linear about all this, but (and I’m paraphrasing Terry Brooks here) writers are just “not all there.” We just don’t think in a linear, singular fashion. Our minds wander down strange avenues.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • I definitely see the place for some linear thinking in subsequent drafts. Though it is a struggle when we aren’t all there. Your statement that you only find out what the book is really about in the second draft would no doubt come as a surprise to many aspiring writers, but I believe this is a message that we have to spread. It takes time to realize what we’re about and that is a back and forth process. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  7. This is very true for me, too. Like Laura said, when I write it’s like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Thanks for sharing!

  8. rolark says:

    I’ve found that I work fairly linearly and just jump back to add foreshadowing in earlier chapters when something new pops out at me in the later chapters :). I don’t do the sticky note thing, but it’d probably be a little easier than what I do end up doing: writing down the “titles” of each event that happens in my books and then taping them on pieces of paper titled ‘Chapter 1’ and ‘Chapter 2’, etc., so at a glance I know what major scenes happen in each chapter. Seems to be working so far 😉

  9. alan crabb says:

    Thanks for that article. I typed into the search engine-is writing a linear process- as I was trying to work out how to teach writing to primary age children and it was becoming obvious to me that story mountains or introduction, problem and resolution didn’t seem to be helping. The way you write seems to be the way we naturally go about this process.

    • So nice to see this older post gaining a bit of new traction. I love the idea that young children can be introduced to a more organic, free-flowing means of expressing their creativity. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  10. Lisa Keefner says:

    I’m thrilled to have ventured into your non-linear world of fiction writing advice. I began this search self-chastising because I seem to jump from paragraph to paragraph and from page to page as I review my previous work. As we often experience the feeling of isolation and incompetence when crafting our work, I now breathe a little easier knowing that at least one other spiral soul is out there! Thank you, Lisa

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