There is no law that says you have to start writing with the first line of Chapter One (or the Prologue, which we know is perfectly fine to have in your book). I’ve know that other authors write books in pieces, or start by writing the end then go back and start at the beginning to get to that point. But as a young writer I felt I couldn’t do that, that I had to start at the beginning and work my way through my carefully-crafted outline one scene, in order, at a time.

And that’s pretty much how I’ve written everything, up until Annihilation.


In that book there’s along spell-duel between two super-powered wizards, Gromph Baenre and the Lichdrow Dyrr. Intercut with that were other scenes that would touch base with some of the other characters in the story. I wanted to make that spell-duel as accurate to Dungeons & Dragons as I possibly could, so I devised a “system” by which I mapped out (on graph paper, of course) each D&D round of that spell duel, taking into account the casting time and duration of each spell, movement from here to there, and so on. This went on for several pages and took a long time to choreograph. This was not easy, people, trust me. But once I had that document and started writing I got to the first of the points where I had to switch back to the other characters and I just couldn’t do it. I had this strong feeling that if I stopped writing the spell duel, I would somehow lose the thread of it.

So I kept going, writing the entire long spell-duel in one marathon go. Then I went and wrote the other scenes inserted within it.

It was only after I had done that that I realized, Oh wow, I just wrote this book out of order! And not only did it not kill me, didn’t kill the book, but, if I don’t say so myself, it worked.

That was the last time I thought I had to write a book in sequence, and again, I’m hardly the only or first person ever to get to this idea. In her blog post “Writing Out of Order,” Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, wrote: “I wrote the beginning of Divergent first, up until she chooses her faction. Then I got stuck.” Recognizing the importance of her heroine’s relationship with her instructor, she focused in on that:

So I made a note of where I stopped, skipped a page, and wrote all the Tris and Four scenes that I could think of. And while I was doing that, I came up with ideas for the simulations and what came before them . . .

Whenever I came up with ideas, I put notes at the little hash tags separating the scenes. Notes like “scene with Al, Christina, and Will at the chasm here” or “scene with Tori here.” That way, I kept track of my ideas and where they would likely fit.”

My non-fiction stuff, in particular, tends to be assembled in pieces. I start with notes, add more notes, source examples and interviews and add those in, then write around them based on what I feel I have at the “most-doneable” stage, meaning, Do I have enough to finish this chapter? If yes, I write that chapter, not caring at that moment if it’s Chapter Three and I haven’t finished Chapters One and Two yet.

All this depends, of course, on knowing that no matter how you get that first batch of words, that rough draft down, you will have to read it again, in order, in revision, fixing any disconnects and otherwise massaging it into a coherent whole.

What brought all this to mind this week was that I was up until about two a.m. Sunday night, writing a part of the end of a novel that I’ve only so far written the first (rough) chapter of, and, months ago, the very last paragraph. This last paragraph, a nod to John Irving who famously wrote the last line of all of his books first, was a scary proposition for me.

But fear can suck it—I might just get a better idea later anyway and change it.

Tired, I actually laid down to sleep Sunday night then for no reason I can explain, just had this idea. A big chunk of the final scene I’ve been mulling over for ages all came together, placing into the action a character I didn’t think would be there in my original conception of the scene. But there she was and I realized she had to be there. It dumped into my head fully formed. As Graham Greene once said:

So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.

But then I actually lay there thinking, Oh, it’s okay. I’ll remember that. I can go to sleep.

Then the second lightning bolt: I’d never advise any author I work with to do that. Writing coach Phil would say, “Get your ass up and at least grab a notebook and a pen, you lazy sack of shit, and write this thing. Sleep be damned!”

And so I got my ass up, grabbed the notebook and pen on the table right next to me, and I started writing.

And I kept writing for about three hours.

Now I have the first few thousand words and the last few thousand words. Who knows which few thousand words will be next?

I don’t, and I don’t care.


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Pingback: AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 3: DON’T BE NERVOUS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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