On Writing,  publishing

You Can Learn Story from the HGTV Network

The Sequential Nature of a Story…

Sounds like a well-duh, but so many writers are stuck in that problem. And that makes writing so much harder to do for themselves.

What problem? Of course you write a story from the beginning to the end, don’t you?


Basically, beginning writers believe they must start a novel on word one and write to the last word. That belief creates time-wasting things like outlines and rewriting, two of the more deadly practices to creativity ever invented by an English teacher.

And if I believed I had to write from word one and not do anything but move forward until the last word, I would outline and rewrite as well. Ughh…

Of course, if I believed that I would never sell and would have quit a long, long time ago.

So having trouble with the idea of telling a story without telling it from front to back? Go watch the HGTV channel, you know, the one with shows like Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper.

Flip or Flop does a daily countdown. They number the days like a ticking clock, a great story technique.

The viewer sees the show in a sequential order that makes sense to the viewer, supposedly from when the cast decides to take on the house to when the house is sold.

Word one to the last word.

But that is certainly not how the activity in the purchase, design, or construction goes. In fact, if you watch closely, you can see hints that much of the decisions are made in one or two days, even though they spread them out through the show for the sake of the story.

And construction is going on in different areas at the same time. For example, they always wait until later in the show to pretend to decide what to do on the yard, but that process, just like others, is started much earlier in the timeline. They just toss it in at that point for story.

And like in a good novel, they skip all the boring parts. And they make up false stress and worry when things are going too smoothly.

The story of each house is put together like a novel, but it isn’t created from the beginning to the end. The creation process skips all over time.

After all, it is construction.

That’s What You Do In The Construction of Your Novel As Well

I call it “Coming Unstuck in the Timeline of Your Book.”

A writer is the god of the book (or the producer of the show) and can write one area, jump out of the timeline of the book, go back, write another area, fix another area, write forward more, and so on.

If you want another example of this, go get the movie Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in the timeline of his own life.

That is your skill as an author, folks. You are unstuck in the timeline of your novel. You are the construction foreman. The project manager. The producer. The person who decides which part of your story to do next and how it fits with other parts.

Your only goal as the producer is to make sure the reader feels like it is a story that starts on word one and ends at the last word.  Readers need that. It’s how we were all trained to read.

But you never have to write it that way.


Another way of describing this concept is cycling. My method, which I always thought odd (until I learned that a vast number of long-term professional writers did it), is to write about 400 words.


I go back to the start of that 400 words or so, going through the words again, touching, thickening, making things clear until I get to the blank page with pretty good speed. I write another 400 words.


Go back about 400 words and repeat the process.

I tend to write about 1200 finished words an hour with that method.

When I come back to a story after being gone overnight, I jump back about a thousand words and run through it all again, putting the story back in my head, fixing and touching a little until I reach the blank page and power forward 400 or so words.

And if I am writing along and discover I need to plant something back earlier, I stop instantly, jump out of the timeline of my novel, go back and put in the new stuff, working forward from there to make sure it is consistent.

I never write sloppy. I never leave something undone. I always do the best I can do with every story.

This is trained over decades and automatic for me now. I call it all my first and only draft.  When I finish, the book is finished and the reader experiences the novel from the first word to the last word.

But I sure didn’t write it that way.

And if you really believe they put those Flip or Flop shows together by filming on the exact days they put on the screen for story timing, you have never, ever been around a construction project in the real world.

Just as most readers have never been around a writer constructing a novel.

Stop thinking like a reader, start working like a writer.


  • Kate Pavelle

    Every 400 words? I’ll have to try that. I’ve been going every 800-1200 words, but I find the read-and-fix period is too long then, and it pulls me out of the flow.
    And I might have to try that with dictation. I LOOOVE my Dragon Dictate, mostly because *my* spoken word translates to a text that’s more natural to read for the audiobook narrator down the line. However, I’m going through thousands of words of dictation right now, fixing stuff, and I’m chafing at the bit because I really want to put down new content, and I know I’m better off doing the fix-and-update now rather than later. Going between pacing-and-talking and sitting-and-typing every 400 words doesn’t sound too bad, let’s see how it goes in reality.
    And I wish real-world construction projects went as smoothly as all that! Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever cheap.
    Enjoy your day 🙂

  • Scott


    Okay, I certainly understand how you write and the cycling technique which I have started implementing as of 1 January 2017. I also know enough of your process to know that you don’t outline. It is also a technique I am trying…with surprisingly good success.

    But here’s my question: you are still, more or less, going from the beginning to the end, cycling back as necessary. If your Creative Voice blasts a message, a Future Scene, that you realize comes later in the novel, do you then stop your forward progress, jump ahead to that Future Scene, write it, then go back to where you were? *OR* Do you allow that image to rest in your Creative Voice and still power on from your then current location until you get to where that Future Scene goes and then write it?



    • dwsmith

      I never jump ahead. If my creative voice tells me it needs to write what seems to my critical mind a “future scene” I just break, white-space and jump to that future scene and fill in what needs to be filled in IN THE FUTURE SCENE. That is a way of your creative voice telling you that you don’t need all the stuff you thought you were going to put in. Makes your books flow and read faster if you follow that creative voice to where it wants to write. And don’t backfill, just move forward.

      • Maree

        I’ve read in Kris’s blog, at some point, that she tends to write scenes, and then print them out and arrange them?
        Sometimes scenes connect out of order

        • dwsmith

          Yeah, she does that and I had to do it once because a book formed that way for me. Hated it. Kris doesn’t much like it when that happens, either. (grin)

      • Patrick R

        Hi Dean
        didn’t follow where you said …. “I never jump ahead” … but then expanded to say “If my creative voice tells me …I just break, white space and jump ahead to the future seen and fill in what needs to be filed in IN THAT FUTURE SCENE.”

        I’d appreciate if you could run over that again? Thanks

        Generally, would it be correct to understand your approach is going into the dark so don’t know the scenes ahead, as such. Not pre-determined. However, your creative voice may spark with something that may fit elsewhere in the story from where you are currently writing (in the story timeline). If and when that happens, you just quickly go write (“break, white space”) what has come up. That done, you think no more of it because you go back to where your were before (in the story timeline) and carry on.

        That way, it may be that the ‘spark’ scene that was written could find itself being met some way down the road and incorporated – or not – into the tale that is evolving (to you, and entertaining you – THE KEY FIRST READER, perhaps). It was an inspired scene but not precious. Could be chopped. Deleted. Or maybe find itself munched and cycled through as the spark info is seen and played with differently, then, by the creative voice.

        All flexible, to serve the enjoyment of storytelling and the evolving tale.



        • dwsmith

          Nope, never go back and fill in. It just never occurs to me to write a scene that isn’t the next one in the book. If my creative voice tells me to write something I thought was a ways off, I white space and THAT is the next scene. You know, time and space jumps. I have no idea what I am writing until I write it, so if I feel I have to jump ahead, that’s the next scene. I trust it will all work out by the time I get to the end. (Trust the process.)

          So I never go back to where I was before the jump other than in a normal cycle. That’s where I am being confusing. And I realize hard to imagine. But I trust the creative voice. If it wants me to write something next, that’s what is next in the book. REally is that simple. And that hard.

        • dwsmith

          After my last answer, I’m starting to think that this entire topic might be enough for a workshop. There is a lot to this method of writing without outlines that I never covered in that book or in the lecture. Hmmm, might want to do that for me just for fun. (grin)

          • Patrick R

            Hi Dean

            Ah…! I think I’ve got you now.

            When writing, you go where the creative voice, the imaginative fun is taking you and that is always into the dark. It may be simply the next place or moment for same characters, or a switch to other characters in same time/other place…or perhaps a ‘jump ahead’, i.e. “a little while later”-style jump for any of the characters.

            Is that now a correct understanding of your system? If so, that would mean how you experience the unfolding story (with keystrokes, into the dark) is also the line by line telling that readers will ultimately read and enjoy, too?

            Therefore, the idea of being out of the timeline is not about production of words in dashed out (but not sloppy!) scenes, here and there, as they pop-into-mind, to then fit down into different parts of a perceived linear timeline.

            No, it is not such a production process.

            It is about creative process, instead, where the writer has no hang ups about needing to always have a perceived linear – and damned near continuous – story timeline in the telling; it is more running with the stream of creative consciousness, i.e. the story action can ‘jump forward’ a little or a lot, in time. It is just as everyone, I suppose, has an easy understanding of jumps in space/location at scene or chapter breaks in a book, or fast-switch on TV (‘Meanwhile, at the other side of town…” or “…back at the secret HQ”, etc”).

            No problem with that. Not at all.

            I think a touch of my confusion also came from the TV comments. Editors will take footage of multiple activities (like scenes…roof work, garden clearing, rubbish gathering, etc), perhaps underway in parallel or sequence, or both, (having their own real-world project timeline to logically undertake) and then back in the editing suite they slice and dice and fit and form those activity scenes into their own TV format structure, with its flavour and attendant timeline. Here, the scenes are packages, and they are fitted, dropped in, after the fact.

            How to play with creativity. A huge area.

            All part of learning to be clear and fine with flow, letting it come…and not be ‘put in places’, as you note. Only put it where the creative voice popped it into your head, i.e….the next words being typed in the writing, and that will be read by readers!

            I imagine that works the same for ‘jump backs’, or flash-backs/

            Great discussion.


  • Vera Sorka

    I write three chapters and then go back over and read them and add in or fix up things. It’s been working pretty good. When I get to the end it is done. The novel I’m working on now has been difficult and I’m just trying to trust the process and let it tell it self to me but so far a solid ending has not come to me and it feels like we have a lot more to explore yet to get to the end. It’s already near the 70,000 words so not sure how long this will be but will try to be patient and let it play out.

  • Kit Daven

    Thanks for elaborating on your method of writing in cycles. For as long as I have been writing, that’s how I’ve done it, too. However, for many years, I thought writing this way was a form of procrastination, and the jumping around to “fix things” was my Inner Critic at work and not my Muse, so I’ve been working against that instinct for about two years now. So glad I picked up a copy of your Writing Into the Dark. When you described that text tinkering was in fact the Muse at play and not the Inner Critic, I immediately recognized that was how I used to write. Since going back to this way of writing, my word counts have gone from 200 words an hour to about 600-800. So thank you again for writing Into the Dark and all these wonderful posts.

  • David

    I have no problem cycling or going back to insert things that are needed. I’d be puzzled if anyone did. Most writers seem to do some form of this. Of course, some cycle in complete drafts (and I don’t mean rewriting per se, I have to do a continuity “draft” with each book because I do a lot of technical info). Jumping forward though, that I cannot do. I’d need a timeline and plot for that. And I’ve gone down that route before. I end up doing three times as much work when I write a chapter ahead of where I currently am. Plus, it steals my enthusiasm away because I know what’s going to happen.

  • Dave Creek

    It’s good to know that this process, which I’ve been using in its broad strokes, is one that’s actually pretty common. I think of it as writing the final draft rather than going through several versions. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do revisions afterward, sometimes extensive ones, but that I concentrate on getting things in as good a shape as I can from the beginning.

    I think my journalism background has a lot to do with it. When you’re producing the ten o’clock news and a story breaks at 9:47, the mind tends to concentrate on writing fast and getting details right the first time. No time for second drafts!

  • Prasenjeet

    Your writing into the dark book was very liberating for me. it was very freeing to discover that you should get unstuck in the timeline of your book. Have you ever experimented writing your novel from the middle?

        • dwsmith

          I start from where I start typing. I have been known to find my actual story opening a few thousand words into a story and cut off the first part. And in cycling I often change the opening some.

          So yup, as far as readers are concerned, I start at the beginning. But in reality, I start typing because I don’t even know a character or setting and as that develops, I tend to see the opening. Sometimes it is where I started typing, sometimes I have to type some to get to the opening.