Home > My Fiction > Getting a novel back on course

Getting a novel back on course

For a while now, I’ve been working on a second spec novel (not counting all those I wrote way back when as discussed in “Origin Story 2“).  It’s an expansion and continuation of my first published story, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide.” Following the expanded events of the novelette (which turned out about three times longer than in the original, due to more characterization, backstory, and worldbuilding detail), it follows the human characters as they become part of a larger interstellar community.

But I hit a snag recently.  I’ve been trying to piece together the climactic portion of the novel; I’ve ended up diverging considerably from the outline I wrote, pretty much winging it and rethinking as I went.  I came up with a bunch of new ideas for where I thought I wanted to take it.  But then I realized that maybe I was going off course.  I was getting too involved in exploring a certain aspect of galactic society, and I realized that this novel’s story wouldn’t allow me to do a real exploration of that concept, because it’s being told from the perspective of human beings who are only learning about it secondhand.  I was afraid it would come off as superficial and misdirected in focus.  But I wasn’t sure what to do about it, because the concept is pretty central to the backstory of the novel.  So I put the manuscript on hold for a couple of months while moving on to other projects.

This morning, I finally realized something.  I was getting so caught up in my worldbuilding, in exploring and expositing this larger civilization, that it was distracting from the narrative focus on the human characters and their situation.  I realized that was what I needed to focus on.  Instead of trying to turn this story about a group of human characters into a broader but unsatisfyingly tentative story about a larger aspect of galactic civilization, I should keep the focus on the humans and explore the phenomenon in question more narrowly in terms of how it affects us.  Because that’s what’s relevant to the characters in the story; it’s their perspective for most of the novel.  This isn’t the right story for a detailed exploration of the phenomenon in its broader galactic application; it needs to be a story specifically about its impact on humanity, because that’s the one aspect of it that I really can explore here, and because that makes it part of a larger overall dynamic that already exists in the novel.

Fortunately, I’m still early in the climactic phase of the novel, just at the starting point more or less, and I was able to shift to this new, improved direction merely by revising the most recent scene I wrote to change the emphasis of the conversation there — a conversation that defines the agenda of  a major character and sets the stage for what follows.  Now the scene is less about broader galactic policies and agendas and is more about the future of humanity.  Just a little shift in focus, a few replaced paragraphs and rearranged lines, but it makes a big difference to where the story’s going.

Now, maybe that’s not all I need to do.  I’ll have to go through the previous stuff and see if I can tighten the focus there as well.  But revising this scene puts me on the right track, or at least a less wrong track than before.  It’s an important start.

See, my problem is, I’m an inveterate worldbuilder.  And sometimes I get so caught up in creating the world and wanting to show my creations on the page that I let it swamp the story.  That’s a tendency a writer has to watch out for.  A story needs a focus, and it can’t just be “Hey, look at all this cool stuff I made up.”  Anything that doesn’t serve the advancement of the core storylines should be left out, no matter how interesting you find it.

And like I said, this isn’t the story for a real exploration of this larger concept.  Which means the right place to explore it would be another story.  Maybe if this novel sells and does okay, I can do a sequel that does explore these concepts more directly.

In other writing news, today I finally came up with a better title for the short story I finished the other day.  The title I was using was something of a placeholder; I liked it, but it was too frivolous for the story and based on a pun that I essentially already used in a chapter title of the spec novel to which this story is a prequel.  I made some further tweaks in the story itself as well.  However, I’ve got a new concern.  Without meaning to, I ended up telling a story that has kind of a cliched “progress is dangerous”/”there are things we weren’t meant to know” vibe to it, which isn’t something I’m comfortable with — or that SF magazine editors would necessarily respond well to.  I got so caught up in the underlying idea that I didn’t quite realize it was taking me there.  I’ve tried to compensate for that impression, but I’ll have to think about whether I can do a better job fixing the issue.

I’ve also decided to take one more stab at a novelette I’d almost given up on after multiple rejections.  I’ve all but run out of markets that could take it at its current length.  There’s one left, but I’ve had some thoughts about how to improve and streamline the story.  Again, part of the problem is wanting to put the worldbuilding on the page.  I had a whole thing about the mystery of the aliens’ behavior and a scene where the protagonists figure it out, which is cool and interesting to me, but isn’t really what the story is about.  What matters is the impact of the behavior, not the solution of the puzzle of why it exists.  So I need to deal with that more concisely.  Once more, it’s about maintaining the proper focus.  Identify the core of what your story is about and concentrate on that.  The famous advice “kill your darlings” also applies here.  It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy a scene; if it isn’t necessary to the story, it needs to go.  After all, if you can’t sell the story, no one will see the scene anyway.

And yeah, I really should be moving on to new stuff instead of revamping old stuff.  But I’m not ready to proceed with anything new at the moment — I still need to figure out where the novel rethink is taking me — so the rewrite will give me something to focus on in the meantime.

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