How to Write a Novel Backwards

Updated on September 19, 2018
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Disastrous Grape is from a dimension of sentient exploding fruit, and is author of the novels The Thieves of Nottica and Spherical Knives.

Why Write a Novel Out of Order?

Believe it or not, writing a novel out of order is an effective way to deal with Writer's Block. You ever try writing a novel from the beginning to the end only to become stuck in the middle? You can't move forward. You're tearing your hair, yelling at your cat, and you might even hurl your laptop across the room.

For the sake of all kittens everywhere, let's examine why this is.

What Is Writer's Block?

Is it a momentary lack of inspiration?

No, not really. Writer's Block is actually just fear. The fear of failure. The fear of writing something awful, silly, and not worth reading at all. You don't want to move forward because you are afraid of what will happen if you do.

The simple solution . . . jump all the way to the end.

This writing exercise is called "paperchunking" and I'm going to teach it to you.

Got your notes? Got your coffee? Got your grim and unrelenting determination?

Then let's do this.

So What Is Paperchunking?

When I was attending my first college, I had an elderly Creative Writing teacher who despised me. For the sake of this article, we will call her Mrs. Berkle (and . . . I just can't remember her name).

Mrs. Berkle was a former editor, and when she wasn't publicly humiliating me, handwaving my contributions to the class, and belittling my work, she was a fount of knowledge.

It was Mrs. Berkle who introduced me to a method that is known as "paperchunking," though to be clear, I won't pretend she invented it. The idea itself is presented in Janet Burroway's Imaginative Writing, which was our assigned text for the course. Mrs. Berkle merely regurgitated the information from the course material to us twinkly-eyed aspiring writers, like a mother bird vomiting something she'd already digested into the straining beak of her desperate chick.

Now that you've got that image in your head.

As the name suggests, "paperchunking" is when you write a random scene you imagine your characters in on a piece of paper.

At least . . . Mrs. Berkle suggested a piece of paper because she was very old, and very cranky, and probably hated computers. Given that few people write longhand today, you might want to type this random scene in a word document and insert it in your main manuscript later.

Or if you're a romantic like me, perhaps you'll write this random scene by candlelight, in a leather-bound journal sprayed with rosewater and covered in petals. As the streetwalkers say, whatever gets you there, babe.

So How Does Paperchunking Work? And . . . Is That a Word?

No, it's not a word.

This is how it works.

Because the scene you're writing (on your figurative piece of paper) may or may not secure passage into your novel, it is referred to as a "paperchunk" -- i.e. something disposable. Something random. Something you don't feel pressured at all to share with another living soul, because you are just letting yourself go, making up random stuff, and enjoying your own fictional characters and their world.

You might imagine your characters playing a card game. Attending a nudist beach. Stuck in the chimney. Choking on a turkey bone.

Or maybe they're lost in space. Or maybe they dug up the garden and found a corpse in the yard.

Dun dun dun.

You can naturally write more than one paperchunk, and it can take place at any time in the story. You can skip all the way to the end of the book, write the ending, then write the chapter before that, and write the whole book backwards, skipping chapters along the way, if you like.

Then later, after writing a series of awesome scenes, you can go back and connect the dots. Whose corpse was it? Or did they just find a coffin? Was the coffin empty or full of marshmallows? How did the protagonist's foot get there? You decide!

And guess what? It gets even better. Paperchunks don't even have to be full chapters!

That's Right. You Can Half-Ass This.

You can write quick scenes no longer than three paragraphs, insert them in your word document, then come back to them later and fill them out with more prose as the novel progresses.

This is ideal for busy, tired, starving writers who are working double shifts at the Meat Palace and the Quick-E-Mart.

It Also Removes All Fear

All the crippling angst and self-loathing so typical of most writers will be gone.

And before long, you'll be happily writing away on your laptop, typewriter, piece of paper . . . stone tablet (whatever gets you there, babe) and you won't be thinking of how frightened and anxious and full of self-doubt you are.

The idea is to break down your wall of I Can't Do This and make you realize Yes You Can.

The idea is to get your creative juices going, imagine your characters doing fun and awesome things, and forget for a moment that you're trying to write something 300 pages long by a deadline that's tomorrow.

The point of a paperchunk is to get you writing.

Happy writing.

© 2018 Ash Gray


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