The Meat of a New Story

If I’m not writing, I’m a wreck. Without the focus of plots, details, characters, settings, and motivations, I am at a loss. I’m exhausted after each book release, because it’s another baby out in the world and there are a lot of things that go into book promo, and I often feel the need to take a break. Watch some TV for a change. Maybe sleep in on a weekend until *gasp* 9 am.

My days are planned to the minute. I’m at work for 9 hours. I write on my lunch break, or read so I can keep up with what’s going on around our genre. An hour to work in the car and an hour home. Dinner. If my kids are at their dad’s, write from around 7 pm until I can’t keep my eyes open. Up the next day at 5:45 to do it again. Kid-free weekends = writing weekends. The nights I do have my kids, I don’t look at the book or the research or the emails so I can concentrate on my time with them. Read at bedtime until I can’t keep my eyes open. Lather, rinse, repeat.

A new book release throws off my routine, but I’m so fried I can’t immediately dive into the next one. I need a minute to regain ownership of my brain from the characters who ran it for however many months.

Luckily, this time, I’m ready to sink my teeth into the next one a lot faster than usual, and I have a lot of options to choose from off my plot bunny list. But I have a question to ask you, lovely readers. A story grabbed my heart and has been squeezing for months, but I have ignored it for reasons. It’s not one I thought I’d ever put to paper, so I didn’t bother to plot, no matter how compelling the characters and their scenario pulled at me. Now that I have given myself permission to write it, I have no plan. No plot, and no outline. I have a vague inkling, and it’s pretty nebulous. A thought occurred to me, but I want to pose to you a question.

I have always wanted to write a non-linear story, where the events happen out of order. The best example of this I can think of is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. For a non-linear story to happen, and this idea to work the way I’m thinking, the past timeline and the present timeline would be happening simultaneously, either with alternating chapters (my preference) or flashbacks. I’ve seen, however, some people who don’t like this type of story. Thus, my question.

What’s your opinion on non-linear stories? If you don’t like them, or if you aren’t a fan of flashbacks, what are your reasons? If it’s something you haven’t had a problem with before, what are some things you like about those kinds of stories?

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57 thoughts on “The Meat of a New Story

  1. I don’t like them and I don’t like flashbacks. Why? Because I don’t like change. I detest change. I no sooner get involved in a character, POV, plot line, whatever – then it changes and I have to start all over. I mentally groan every time. BUT!!! If the story is good, I won’t let that stop me from reading it AND if anyone can make me not hate it, it’s you. Go for it. Don’t ever let us define YOUR story, AJ.

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  2. I don’t mind flashbacks, but ONLY if it’s well written and you are not left scratching your head and having to re-read something three times because you can’t figure out what the f just happened.

    I enjoy the “now” or “present” and then a trip back into the past to explain something with the characters. You have to be very careful though. It has to be just right. You got this, so I say go for it.

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  3. I enjoy them, as long as its well written and doesn’t leave me confused. I like how it typically adds a little mystery to the story and everything gets wrapped up at the end.

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  4. I’ve read books that go back and forth from the here and now until about the middle ( usually about a break up or a death), but from then on the story is in the present. I don’t mind a book written this way because it allows me to read the book as if I’m a part of it. Books that start at the end and then the rest of it is all flashbacks I don’t like. I feel like everything has already happened and all choices have been made so what’s the point. Always happy to hear that a new book is chomping at the bit to be written.

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  5. The question should be: have you read and enjoyed a non linear story? A great writer can make the story real for us readers no matter the style. You are a great, talented writer so I am sure your non linear story would be greatly appreciated.

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  6. Non-linear stories can be a turn-off, IF there’s too much back and forth (so much that you lose track of the time-line), it depends very much on how they are written, and the characters – flaskbacks can add depth to the character, I’ve read stories that made me I wish for some.
    ” A story grabbed my heart and has been squeezing for months” – and just like that I’m sold and hope we’ll get to read it soon. Linear or non-linear doesn’t matter, if your heart is in it I’m sure it will be a wonderful story.

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  7. It all comes down to the skill of the writer. You can do anything if it’s done well. I tend not to like flashbacks, as few authors can write them well. Alternating chapters is sometimes best; it doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out.

    Another thing to consider is the readers’ patience; will they hang around long enough to 1) understand what’s happening, and 2) settle in until the end?

    There’s also this: will both stories be equally compelling? I read a book once where this was decidedly lopsided. Almost immediately, one story became paramount, and having to wade through the boring one drove me nuts.

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    • That is an excellent point, Fen, about both story lines being equal in pace and interest. Unless that’s broken on purpose, like The Princess Bride. Sick kid is nowhere near as exciting as pirates, but it was still funny enough (and short) to make it work.

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  8. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen was Memento. The movie started at the end and moved forward.I was so well crafted. I’m sure if in the hands of a bad director it would have failed. But it didn’t. I’m intrigued by the non-linear approach and I believe you have the mind to place it all perfectly

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  9. I read a book a few years (A Red Tainted Silence) that was done this way and it was really very well done. Also Amy Lanes Sidecar was kind of done this way. They were both outstanding. I also read one that was not so well written this way (no names, sorry) and because of this took from what could have been a great read. It just depends on the writers skill level and of course the subject matter. It also depends on the reader and what he/she likes. I really don’t think, with your level of skill, that you have much to worry about. I say ‘Bring It’!

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  10. My first response to your query was a slump of my shoulders as I usually don’t like that type of story. But, then I thought (as someone else stated above) how can I tell you how to write your story? You are the creator and your art is a gift to all of us who have discovered you. So, write it as you need to, and I can guarantee you I will buy it, read it, and (I’m positive) love it. Now, get to it! 🙂

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    • One of my favorite writers, Wally Lamb, does this all the time, showing how ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (Faulkner). If this is the story that’s nagging at you, I say go for it.

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    • But why don’t you normally like that type of story? If there’s a pattern of annoyances that can be avoided, I would like to. I tend to like them, so I’m not critical enough. I’m leaning less toward flashbacks than I am alternating chapters/sequences, if that makes a difference.

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      • Most of the time (not all because I’ve read some done well), it simply takes me out of the flow of the story too much. I’ve had to flip back and forth to section headers to see dates or time periods. Maybe because they were switched too frequently making it hard to get into or hang onto either thread. Or, they weren’t clearly distinguished, causing confusion. Sometimes sequence of the back story or history was random or didn’t move forward like the present action (this one you’ve already addressed). These are the things I remember encountering (and not enjoying). Hope this helps. And, I was serious about believing however you do it, you’ll do it well.

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  11. As a reader who very happily discovered you a couple of weeks ago and promptly devoured your backlist, I’ll chime in and say that I believe you have the skill to pull this off. I’ll ditto what others have said: (1) the story has to be the right fit for this style; and (2) it takes a skillful writer and careful plotting to go back and forth, past and present, clearly, seamlessly, and not confuse the reader. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced way more bad examples of this than good. Can’t share any details of what I didn’t like because those don’t become keepers, and out-of-sight, out-of-mind. lol! I now approach these types of stories with caution, and have to be hooked from the beginning. I would love to share a recent very good example of non-linear writing in the “Boy in the Shadows” trilogy by A.M. Snead. This book weaves flashbacks through the present like a beautiful tapestry. It was so heartwrenching to read, I can’t imagine that it could have been written any other way. The transitions between past and present allowed me to catch my breath, if that makes sense, as both past and present were dependent on one another to move the story forward.

    It sounds like your story is begging for you to write it, and I look forward to reading it! In my experience as a lifelong book lover, the characters and the stories that nag, lead, cajole and strong-arm their authors into writing about them make the best books.

    BTW, Gavin and Ben — definitely in my top 10 best couples list!

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    • First, Kathee, welcome to the insanity of my world. We have (restraint) jackets. ❤

      Second, you bring up very interesting points, and now, my brain is in overdrive with how to make the present line dependent on the past line more so than it already is. Hmmm.

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  12. I’ve pondered this question. I have no real definitive answer as to what works for me in as what I read is really dependent upon my mood. I’ll read anything and I like anything, if I’m in the mood for it it. There are some non-linear stories that I’ve truly enjoyed and there were some that were meh. The test for me is if I keep re-reading it. What it boils down to is how well the story is written (which you won’t have a problem with) and if the characters can keep me engaged in their world (another thing you won’t have a problem with.) I also enjoy different POVs in a single story or a single POV. It just goes depends on how it’s written. I read a book where it had first person and third person POV and I didn’t realize it until I was done with the book on my second read through because the story worked for me. For readable purposes, I like when there is a clear distinction between the past and present and if there is a POV switch, then the speaker is made clear.

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  13. I’ll keep it short and sweet. I love stories with alternating timelines (more than flashbacks). Like you, I have The Time Traveler’s Wife high on my list of favourite reads.
    And I’m incredibly curious now.

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  14. I don’t really see how jumping the timeline is all that different from alternating characters. My initial reaction was that my personal preference would be chapter divisions, but sometimes flashbacks ‘gel’ better. Either way, you’ll pull it off with style. Dare I ask for a hint on the subject matter? xxx

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  15. I’m not fond of them and I like the violence in your other books. That said, you need to write what you feel is right or it won’t work for anyone. I’ll just read it and patiently wait for my dearest wish – a book about McKnight. I fell in love with those green eyes.

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  16. AJ, The Time Travellers Wife is still one of my fave books. As someone named Kate Aaron said ;), I also liked The Liar but you yourself know that whatever you write will get 5 stars from me anyhoo!! I vote for McKnight too!! ❤

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  17. I can’t say that I dislike all non-linear type stories because there have been exception, like The Time Traveler’s Wife or One Day. That being said I have read some where it all goes terribly wrong. It all comes down to having the right balance for me and that the timeline, however it shifts, doesn’t take me completely out of the story which is what has happened in the past. Also, it should be kept simple regarding the secondary characters. Since it’s done out of sequence I find that having too many characters confuses the situation especially if some of the past characters are not featured in the future or vice versa. I have such faith in your writing though, that I’m sure it will be great. I’m currently reading Consent and I’m riveted as usual by your stories. I missed Ben and Gavin and it’s great to see their bond and love is stronger than ever. Can’t wait to see what you do next!

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  18. AJ – I don’t mind non-linear stories as long as it make sense and does not result in me getting completely lost :). I think it is a good way to tell some stories unless it results in the reader getting whiplash!

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    • I am keeping those very things in mind, clearly naming the narrator and time frame, and making each part long enough that the chunks of story feel substantial. Or I’m trying to.

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  19. I’ve read several stories where the time line jumps around and/or the POV and without fail the ones that were well done I loved even though I would probably say in general not my favourite thing yet, A Red Tainted Silence was one of the most mesmerizing books I’ve ever read another one that I enjoyed beyond belief and it just reduced me to a babbling mass of emotional jello was Sarah’s Key and also beyond belief was Greg Iles book ‘Black Cross’ I don’t read war stories and this one again just amazed me. He actually does this in a lot of his books and it’s so effortless and seamless that I actually never realized it until now…wow! I’ve read everything by this author and some more than once. I guess if it’s done right you only notice that your reading a really good book. I look forward to reading this next endeavour of yours whatever the style, I know it will be fascinating story just like the rest.

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