Note: This is the entire content of the Nonlinear Writing post I made February 1st, 2013, which was actually presented in a nonlinear fashion! If you want to read it as such, you should start here. Otherwise, enjoy!
Often one of the biggest excuses to not write you’ll hear from an aspiring writer is that they’re not “in the mood” (or perhaps that they are “waiting for inspiration”). On the one hand, it’s important to realize that writing, just like all other forms of art, is work. You have to sit down and do it on a regular basis, no matter what, regardless of how you feel about it. If you don’t, you never get better. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say that you have to slog through the writing in the most disagreeable way possible. It is a difficult task, you might as well try to find ways to do it that don’t fight with human nature.
In my experience, most people sit down to write and pick up where they left off. But if where they left off doesn’t match their current mood, then it only becomes that much more difficult to actually work on the story. Nonlinear writing is a writing technique to help you overcome that difficulty. Instead of writing the events of your story in the order they happen, you simply look at the things that happen in your story and pick one that suits your mood and the things that have been on your mind lately. In other words, rather than letting where you are in your story dictate what you have to be feeling and thinking about, let what you are feeling and thinking about dictate what part of your story you write! This makes it much easier to get into the pace of what you are writing and removes that oh-so-tempting excuse of “not in the mood” from play all in one fell swoop. Pretty great, right?
There are a couple of catches to writing like this. One is that you have to have a pretty good idea what events are happening in your story. If you don’t have a game plan this method of writing is likely to leave you with a huge mess of disjointed events. And by that I mean an even bigger mess than nonlinear writing gives you when you do have a plan, which is problem number two. When you do this, you’re invariably going to write a much later part of the story before what winds up leading up to it, and you’re going to have to then rewrite what you wrote before to make it match the lead up.
An example of this is actually in Heat Wave. I wrote the bulk of Circuit’s phone call to Sumter HQ before writing most of what lead up to it. In the original draft, Circuit wasn’t in the van at all, he had purposefully gotten out in a fairly remote location to prevent causing any kind of electrical problems in the van. However, that didn’t really work right, for a number of reasons, and I wanted to show what he was doing while he was on the phone, for a number of other reasons (notice the deliberate vagueness to avoid spoilers!) When the time came to actually knock that portion of the story into shape and post it I had to completely rewrite the background action, because Circuit’s circumstances were much different than what I had been planning when I wrote the scene the first time. Fortunately, most of the dialogue was still viable and I didn’t have to change that much at all.
Now what if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like plotting your story out ahead of time because it makes you feel constrained? Nonlinear writing can help you, too! As the polar opposite, someone who likes to plan his stories a great deal before beginning with them, I’ve found jumping about in the story helps me see ways that moving scenes around, or even deleting them, postponing them until later books, or breaking them into short stories might better serve the goal of telling a good story. For the freeform writer, it may help you get past writer’s block or spot plot holes that you didn’t catch as you were writing.
In the end, nonlinear writing is just another tool in your writing toolbox. It’s not the best way to approach many aspects of writing. It’s probably not going to help you with short stories at all, and sometimes you’ll have some part of your story that you just have to get down before the rest will make any sense. But half the battle for a writer is just getting something down every day, and as something that both makes that easier to do and takes away excuses not to do it, nonlinear writing is pretty good. Give it a try sometime, you might find you like it.