You May Ask Yourself, “How Did I Get Here?”

December 29th, 2006

In the “First Novels” thread, Mitch asks:

What do you do when you’re well into your first draft and you find you want to make a significant change in the story?

I started writing a novel-in-progress as a high fantasy, but I realize now that it’s better as soft science fiction with a low-tech society. Also, I thought I wanted the novel to be about a thug with a social conscience and mission, now, I realize it would be better as a story about a thug who acquires a social conscience and religion.

I guess what I’ll do is write a few notes to myself and just keep going forward with the new backstory and story line in mind, then revise the beginning when I’ve hit the end of the story. If that doesn’t seem to be working, I’ll revise from the very beginning.

But I’m curious to see what the Seasoned Pros would do and recommend in this situation. Or do Seasoned Pros even run into this situation — is this a mistake only a beginner makes?

My two cents: This is absolutely not a “beginner’s mistake.” So much so that I want to highlight it out in front.

To my mind, this is a novel coming to life.

I can think of few things more exciting, in writerly terms, than a story that begins talking back. It might talk back in sullen mutters (“gawd, why can’t you just listen to me for once, but you never do, do you?”) or in snarky teenaged bursts (“are you really that much of an idiot that you can’t see what’s staring you right in the face?”). It might take a more soothing intellectual tone, or it might just change horses in midstream without consulting you and next thing you know you’re hauled out on the prairie running flat out with the rain battering you in the face and you’re wondering, to reference the Talking Heads song, how on earth did you get here?

So, the answer to your question is: Cool! How awesome that your story is transforming right before your eyes!

What to do about it?

I hope others will weigh in. I’ll give a few options of my own.

One way is to simply forge forward until you get the first draft, the basic plot structure and narrative arc, laid down. That’s fine, and it works. I’ve done it myself although not, now that I think of it, at a point of such major shifting in LANDSCAPE.

I can handle character shifts in this way and have done so, working forward through the narrative and only going back once I’ve got the first draft done to revise the necessary scenes. In cases where a character shifted aspect while I was writing the first draft, I have sometimes found I had to go back and redraft immediately, but usually I find that only after I have the complete arc down can I really point the character’s journey properly in the revision now that I, more or less, know where the character is coming from.

Shifting landscape midstream would be more difficult for me, but that’s mostly a personal eccentricity because I write so heavily within landscape. In my case, I would probably go back to the beginning at that point and start over. But, having said that, I don’t think you have to do it that way.

In fact, my advice of choice is this:

You have to do it the way that works for you.

Meanwhile, have a great time. It sounds fabulous!

11 Responses to “You May Ask Yourself, “How Did I Get Here?””

  1. Kristine Smithon 29 Dec 2006 at 9:08 pm

    I have not had a book flip genres on me. I can speak, though, as someone who winds up tossing the first 200 pages of her first draft and starting over because major plot lines derail and characters change. This has happened with 5 books. I am resigned to the fact that this is my process.

    I reach the point where things bog down, and I have no choice but to start over. I know that unusable glop is sitting out there at the start of the book, and I go back and replace it with new set-up. The first third or so of a book is the footing of my story, and unless I have confidence in its solidity, I can’t keep writing.

    If it were me, I would go back and rewrite the draft to work with the new premise and setting. Because if I didn’t, I would just make more work for myself later on. If I changed horses and wrote the new story to the end, then went back and tried to rewrite the beginning to suit…the story would take twists and turns and I would find that it didn’t work with the ending.

    But like Kate said, you have to work in the way that’s best for you. Listen to your inner author, who may be trying to tell you what to do. Heck, it just torqued the book on you.

    Good luck!

  2. Carol Bergon 30 Dec 2006 at 8:29 pm

    As one who starts out with no more than a character in a situation, I have certainly come upon these “revelatory moments.” I’ve realized that a character that I thought was a man was actually a woman, and I’ve discovered character motivations, and whole plot truths like “oh THAT’S what the villains are really doing.”

    I find that I can’t go forward until I go back and work this into the prior text, because a revelation of this kind has tentacles that can touch other characters and events along the way, and I don’t really know how until I write it into the story.

    I am with Kate…this is no flaw or problem. This is a story taking on life. Enjoy!


  3. […] 2 – You May Ask Yourself, “How Did I Get Here?” “I can think of few things more exciting, in writerly terms, than a story that begins talking back.” Kate Elliott on dealing with stories that run away with their writers. (tags: independent life evolution development plot novels stories literature writing) […]

  4. green_knighton 31 Dec 2006 at 8:24 am

    Count me in on the ‘it’s a feature’ side of things.

    If I find that I have a strong revelation of this kind, I go back, and I fix the beginning until I am happy. Like Carol, I find that too much changes in that process, and if the changes are major in nature, it’s better to have them on screen (and not to have to rewrite a large chunk when I think I’m finished.)

    With my current project, I soldiered on, because while things were shifting, there were several shifts in several directions – I very much explore-as-I-write, and will shortly arrive in revision-land…

    Every book is different. Do whatever feels right.

  5. Mitch Wagneron 01 Jan 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Great responses — thanks, all.

    Finding I have nothing particularly intelligent to add at the moment.

  6. Betsy Dornbuschon 02 Jan 2007 at 1:52 am

    I’ve had characters merge. I’ve had good guys go bad. I’ve had bad guys justify their behavior. I’ve had lines and scenes that I just couldn’t delete that took me three books of a series to realize why. My instinct is to go back and rework, but I try to forge ahead until I get a complete draft. For me that’s the hardest part. Then I allow myself to repair. I’ve found revision and fixing the set-up is much more efficient when I know the complete arc.

  7. Mitch Wagneron 03 Jan 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Kristine Smith:

    I have not had a book flip genres on me.

    This is tangential, but that comment caused me to raise an eyebrow. “My book hasn’t flipped genres,” I said to myself. “It’s just gone from fantasy to soft science fiction.”

    Then I realized that I’m operating from a set of assumptions that are distinct minority. I consider fantasy and science fiction to be one big genre, and don’t see a great wall between them.

    Vampires and faster-than-light drives are both impossible–so why do we classify one kind of story as “science fiction” and another as “fantasy.”

  8. Gypon 12 Jan 2007 at 7:18 pm

    “Vampires and faster-than-light drives are both impossible–so why do we classify one kind of story as ‘science fiction’ and another as ‘fantasy.'”

    Well, I’m no author, but I would venture to say that it’s because science fiction appeals to science fact and suspends disbelief by telling half-truths. Also, a lot of good science fiction has actually predicted technologies that actually came about (such as the cell phone). Fantasy suspends disbelief by appealing to spirits or magic or some supernatural cause, and really there’s no way that our society will acquire these things as it develops and matures.

    Esentially, it boils down to the fact that vampires will NEVER exist. Faster-than-light drives, however, might actually happen.

  9. kateelliotton 13 Jan 2007 at 3:31 am

    Hmm. I agree with Mitch on this issue of one big genre.

    Science fiction actually has a pretty lousy record of prediction culturally – think of how thoroughly feminism (and the Pill, and the sexual revolution as meaningful to female sexual choice, forex) was not envisioned back in the Golden Age.

    One might argue that vampires DO exist – metaphorically, and in that way, truthfully. Whether genetic engineering could create bloodsucking humans who need human blood to survive is another issue, of course, but I would argue that sf & f like all narrative are ultimately about the human condition, and insofar as they illuminate the human condition, or entertain us, they are successful – regardless of the mechanisms they use to tell the tale.

    That’s just me, though.

  10. Charleson 13 Jan 2007 at 7:23 pm

    I guess I look at Science Fiction and Fantasy as one big genre, with many subgenres. Since I grew up reading Andre Norton more than any other author, I’m used to both from the same author. Andre Norton had the ability to successfully combine Science Fiction and Fantasy into the same story. I personally refer to this as Science Fantasy.

    Stories like Star Wars and Andre Norton’s Witch World fall into this category for me.

    But no matter how many subgenres or mixing and matching that I can categorize, I tend to view both as part of one large genre.

  11. Mitch Wagneron 14 Jan 2007 at 3:03 am

    Fantasy and science fiction both tell truths by using metaphor. Fantasy uses the authority of the occult, and science fiction appeals to the authority of science — but the overwhelming majority of science fiction has very little to do with actual science. The best science-fiction writers understand this, and work both sides of the street as the mood strikes them. Two examples: Poul Anderson and Charles Stross.

    Gyp, you’re mistaken — faster-than-light travel is just as impossible as vampires. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that either are possible, except as metaphors. I’d love to be wrong about that — I’d love to get on a spaceship and arrive one week later on a distant planet — but it’s just plain impossible.

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