In ‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham, one storyline follows Virginia Woolf as she spends, well, hours pondering over the first line of her book, “Mrs. Dalloway”. It’s a familiar way to show the writing process in popular culture. And knowing Woolf, it’s probably a good depiction of the way she worked. But writing your first line and the first draft of the rest of your book doesn’t have to be like that.
One of the simplest (and not too torturous) ways of getting your first draft done is to slice it up into scenes.
First, here’s what I mean by “scenes”
A novel is often broken up into chapters, but scenes are more granular still. Think of it as a puzzle and your scenes are all the pieces. You have a good idea of the finished picture but you can’t get to that without making the pieces first. They can be big, small, fancy or simple. A scene can show anything from the passing of time to a car chase to a collection of thoughts, but each one is a step that develops your characters and tells your story.
Oh – it helps to have a plan
Writing scene by scene is easier to do if you’ve planned out your plot. You can quickly pick a scene to write and have an idea of your character’s state of mind at that point in the story. But even a “Pantser” can try it – it just might be trickier to put it all together!
You don’t need any fancy software
There are some online writing packages that are set up so you can write like this such as Scrivener. And they may well may it easier to manage. But you don’t really need anything like this. You can create as many docs as you need with Word or other equivalents. My tip would be to use headings that make it clear what the scene is about. Or if you have a plan, you could use a number/name that corresponds with the scene in that.
Right so that’s the practicalities – but exactly what are the benefits to this technique I hear you cry? I’m glad you asked.
Benefit #1 – It makes your task far less daunting
A novel is about a minimum of 50,000 words. That’s an exciting and terrifying thought, especially at the beginning, with nothing but a blank page in front of you. Like many things, it will feel easier if you break it down into the smallest chunks possible. You don’t have to write a book, you just have to write a scene. Then another, and another and another, and before you know it you have the whole thing! Rather than aiming for a daily or weekly word count for example, why not aim for a scene a day or a number of scenes per week?
Benefit #2 – It lets you just “get it down”
Writing is re-writing. But you can’t do that without something to work with. And whilst some writers do work in a “straight line” (although I’ve never met any, are you out there? Come say hi), most will find their inspiration jumps about like a rabbit after fifteen cups of coffee. Writing your book scene by scene means you can get it down in whatever order it comes to you. Can’t think of a first line? Skip to the second. Struggling with chapter five? Move on to chapter nine. Better yet get rid of the idea of chapters altogether for the time being. Just get it down so the real fun can begin.
Benefit #3 – You can identify weak spots
You may find you avoid wiring certain scenes and this is the perfect opportunity to ask yourself why. Do the characters involved need more fleshing out? Is the POV you planned to write from the right one? Maybe the scene isn’t actually needed at all? If you find something boring and painful to write, it will likely be boring and painful to read.
Benefit #4 – It’s simple to shuffle your timeline
Even the most detailed plot doesn’t need to be rigidly adhered to. Write each scene as a separate document and it’s simple to play around with how it fits together. Perhaps a non-linear structure would add more weight to your prose. Or maybe you’ll find two scenes you planned to flow together simply don’t and a different one is a better fit.
Do you write in a linear fashion or skip about? Have you tried writing your book scene by scene? Let me know in the comments?
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