A Novel Observed #18 – Don’t Look Back!

The Writing Stage

The Writing Stage

I know, I know: I’ve said it before. But it’s so important it needs saying again. Properly – with more words. Also, while writing chapter 12, I started looking back – imagine that! Disgraceful behaviour.

My deviation from the ‘golden rule’ rode in on the back of the struggles I had in chapter 11, when I fell into the trap of comparing the novel I was writing with the book I was reading. It was a well written book, with believable characters, gripping emotion, strong dialogue, multi-layered plot and generally good storytelling. And though I tried my best not to compare this literary masterpiece with No Time To Stand And Stare, it still got me thinking about my own characters, dialogue and plot. And the urge to go back and start changing things was overwhelming.

By some miracle, I didn’t do it, but this is what would have happened: I’d have gone back, all the way back, to my original plot and started tearing it apart, trying to add subplots and intrigue. I’d have begun changing the characters – their backstories, their desires and motivations, their conflicts and basic characteristics. I’d have scrolled all the way up to chapter 1, looking for ways to make the story better, picking over the dialogue, cutting out scenes, adding new ones.

Specific alterations and additions that came to mind included:

  • Make the butcher seem more sinister, by adding other run-ins with Sebastian
  • Remove the whole London-based section and scatter it throughout the main story
  • Add a more desperate backstory for Donald, so we care more about the plight of the Green Man, and feel more sorry for him
  • Slip in a few more minor characters with whom Sebastian and Neil could interact
  • Add an emergency that ends up drawing Sebastian and Neil closer, or maybe Sebastian and Emma instead
  • Improve Mrs Standfield’s role on the Sunday so we get more of a feeling of who she is and why she is the way she is
  • Make more of Virginia’s desire to be ‘ladylike’, so there is a conflict which Sebastian could help resolve
  • Have a clearer plan for Sebastian’s progression from hating the country to loving it
  • Make Sebastian more miserable in the opening chapters
  • ‘Show’ more emotion in the chicken killing / processing and in his interaction with Emma
  • Add more description of the village, the smallholding, the farmhouse, the pub and everything else Sebastian encounters
  • Give the dog a bigger role

I’m going to stop there, but I feel like I could add ten times as many examples. I’ve been down this path before with previous, aborted novels. And the result? They were aborted. Simple as that. I gave up on them because I couldn’t resist the urge to look back and start fiddling around, changing and messing with the story and so never managed to get past the 4th or 5th chapter.

This is why it’s the golden rule of novel writing: DON’T LOOK BACK.

Because if you do, you won’t turn, like Lot’s wife, into a pillar of salt. You’ll turn into someone who once started writing a book, but never finished. And that’s worse!

Actually, let me amend the golden rule just a little to: DON’T LOOK BACK DURING THE FIRST DRAFT.

Digging Up The Clay

There is a time for looking back, of course there is. A time for reworking plot and a time for reshaping characters. A time for tightening up dialogue and a time for increasing emotional tension. A time for cutting out whole chapters and a time for expanding on important passages. A time… you get the idea.

That time is in the second draft, and possibly in the third as well. But NOT during the first draft. Remember the post where I compared writing a novel with making a vase? And I explained that the first draft was the equivalent of digging up the raw claw? That’s what we need to keep in mind. We’re not shaping the vase at this point. We’re not even spinning it on that… spinny plate thing. We’re just gathering the raw materials that will, eventually, be transformed into the vase.

Get the raw words on the page / computer in the vague shape of a novel first. Once that job is complete, we can begin the work of shaping it into a novel. Then, and only then, can we look back!