Work on my latest novel was going so well that at the beginning of November, I was at chapter 21 and thought it would be finished by the end of this year. Progress was flying along, even to the point that I was rushing home from work and hurrying through the evening chores just so I could get a few more pages written. But then, it hit a problem. I realised that the narrative I had been creating was leading me in a slightly different direction to what I had originally planned. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve been writing this novel, ideas have developed and characters have evolved, giving everything a more satisfying depth. This was a good thing, but it meant my original plan was now too simple for the more complex characters that had emerged. The end point was in sight, but the path towards it was no longer a straight line and there were several obstacles blocking the way. Basically, I was stuck, and work on the novel ground to a halt.
Luckily, in in my recent post Advice for Writers, I had collated a bunch of writing advice from authors that I admired, and I remembered one piece of advice that could help me. I hadn’t included it in that blog because it was about what to do when a novel gets stuck, and I very rarely get stuck. But now I needed it. The advice came from Margaret Atwood, and it was this – “If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road.” In other words, go back to a point in the action before thing start going awry and rework from there. I looked at my novel, and started retracing my steps. Frustratingly, I had to go back quite a few chapters, but as I started the rewrite, things started to fall back into place. And yet, it was not quite the same place. It was a darker, deeper place; still travelling in the same direction towards the end point but along a parallel timeline. In the words of Doc Brown in Back to the Future 2, I had interrupted the time continuum, creating a new temporal events sequence, resulting in an alternative reality. That’s one of the best things about writing novels. An author can travel back and forth in time!
This time travelling has various uses. Sometimes it is simply for exploration. This is a technique I use regularly in the planning stages of a novel; in order to develop the main plot and characters, I jump back in time to think about the events and family history that precedes the action of the novel. I can write whole scenes about the parents of my main characters that will never be used but are indispensable for establishing the details. Or you can jump forward in time and check out the ending, or maybe even the sequels. Knowing what happens next is important.
Other times, it’s more of a stage management thing, the placing of vital clues or props that will be needed later on. It might be a metaphor to build on a theme, or a piece of behaviour or speech to solidify a character. It feels like cheating, but it’s just editing. It’s why a first draft is just that – a first draft. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for those 19th Century writers who published a novel in monthly instalments in magazines; they must have been very confident in their planning!
And then there are the occasions when a complete rethink is needed. As in this instance, it can be used to completely divert the course of the action. A simple jump back in time, and I put my characters on a different road. The trouble is, I had to jump back quite a few chapters, and that led to some significant rewriting. Then it was Christmas, and there was just too much going on to sit down and put the work in. So I’m still behind where I was, and the novel I thought would be finished by the end of the year still has quite a way to go. But it is now back on track. And with Christmas over, I am confident that I can crack on and complete the first draft. The sooner the better, as I have a lot of other work planned for 2023.
Happy New Year.