Earlier this year, when I was giving a talk at my old uni, a creative writing student asked whether I wrote my narrative in the order I expected it to be read. I had to say, rather unhelpfully, that I did and I didn’t.
For me, the pleasure of writing is the act of accumulating pattern. Like a crystalline growth, a novel develops in random areas, as certain sections of the book start to accrete ideas, some of which turn into scenes or full-blown chapter outlines. Those chapter headings in my ‘outline’ file form the seeds from which the crystals grow; when the structure gets unwieldy, it gets transferred to its own chapter. (Unusually amongst the writers I know, I give each chapter its own file, only amalgamating them when the first draft is complete; I’ve found that putting the whole narrative in one file leads to confusion. Individually crafted patches are the way to get a neat and tidy quilt.)
I also try to keep my chapter sizes fairly even, ideally between two and three thousand words. I do this firstly because the discipline that imposes stops me from losing control of the novel, and secondly so I can break the rules for effect when I need to, splitting particularly complex scenes in the middle, or having chapters consisting of only one short scene.
As the word count on the first draft creeps up, the files containing the behind-the-scenes work – particularly the ‘questions’ and ‘outline’ files – follow an evolutionary path not dissimilar to a diagram of a brontosaurus: thin at one end, thicker in the middle and thin at the other end.
However, with the actual writing of narrative, things do get linear. I usually try to write chapters in the order in which they will be read (even if that order is subject to change during rewriting) because if I give in to the urge to skip ahead to the ‘fun’ bits, then I might just end up with relatively strong scenes tenuously linked by weak ‘fill in sections’. Having said that, by the time I’m about half a dozen chapters in there’s a chance of a scene (or more often a conversation between characters) arriving in my head wholesale. I write it out – usually just in longhand – and leave it until I reach the section where it might fit. Sometimes it doesn’t and it gets discards. Sometimes it does and it gets stitched in.
There is still a fractal element at chapter level. Most chapters are the unholy marriage of two elements. There’s those notes taken from the ‘outline’ file which may be only a few odd sentences or may be the best part of a page. Ideally, this needs to get up close and personal with a side or two of scribbled notes, often written when I first wake up on the morning, or on a ‘plot walk’.
And once I’ve managed that thirty or forty times, I’m there. At least for the first draft.