Writing Backwards

The first chapter I wrote in The Shadow Chamber was one of the last chapters in the book. And I recently wrote what will be the last chapter in the book with only about half of the 1st draft finished. Since then I have found that much of what I’m doing is writing backwards. I’ve picked a point and now I’m figuring out how to get there. That actually makes sense in a physical way. For instance, when I get in the car to go someplace I’ve never been before, I obviously know where I want to go. Once I know that, I have to figure out how to get there. That approach works for travel, but does it work for writing a novel?

A picture of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate from 1985
The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate

Joseph Conrad said the last word he wrote for his book Victory was the title, which is in reality the first word of the book. And I’ll wager there are authors out there whose last sentence in a book was the first one they wrote. I wish I could say I’d deliberately set out to pursue this writing backwards method from the moment I started The Shadow Chamber. I didn’t. The fact that I have been writing backwards has been a recent epiphany for me. I didn’t realize I was doing it until a few days ago.

As with most of my writing processes, writing backwards has not been strictly lineal. I still head for other parts of the book that I know need work, but even then my focus is how that work will fit in with the ending I’ve already crafted. I’m trying to keep an open mind about where the book will end up. In other words, just because I’ve written an ending doesn’t mean that I won’t at some point toss it in favor of a different ending. Maybe I’m too enamored of the current ending and I’m giving it too much power over the rest of the book. That might be the case, but the fact is that right now it’s driving much of what remains to be written, about 30% of the first draft.

This isn’t one of those “How to Write a Novel” lessons. I don’t do those; I only comment on my own experience; I’m merely reflecting on the way I have quite accidentally approached this particular book. When I realized what I was doing I tried to recall the overall process for the other books I’ve written, wondering if this is something I’ve done before without being conscious of it. I don’t think it is. With the exception of “the good guys win,” I’ve never had a detailed ending already written for a book before somewhere in the neighborhood of half of that book exists.

In the normal course of things, I have a rough idea of what the entire story will be when I start writing. I’ve definitely gone through a process in which I’ve changed a book’s ending as I write what I imagined the story would be. But I’ve never written back to front, so to speak. Now that I’m doing it, I may try it on a more dramatic level with my next book. Why wait until half-way through the journey to determine your route, right? I’ll see if I can’t write an ending first, and stick with it as I create the rest of the book. That probably takes more imagination and discipline than I’m capable of mustering, but it might be worth a try.