Look Forward Or Turn Back with Your Novel?

I’ve reached a difficult place in my novel. I’m more than halfway through, but I’ve just finished the rough draft of what I consider the “turning point” chapter. It’s the big chapter that changes everything and that is a kind of halfway-climax. After finishing that chapter, I dragged myself out to a cafe and wrote half-heartedly for an hour, working at the next chapter. But every sentence was an effort. I felt sluggish and reluctant; my mind was still with that previous chapter, and all the as-yet-unedited stuff that had gone before.

Just this week I’d had an occasion to look back at early chapters for the first time in months. I was proud of a good deal of it, but a lot of it had me itching to revise as well. And yet I’d told myself that it was time to push forward and not revise until I got to the end. Now I’m not so sure. At some point all writers probably ask themselves: when should we look forward, and when should we turn back?

1. Don’t let a bad mood turn you around.

Momentum and forward drive is an important, powerful thing. The first element of this decision is not wanting to lose that forward motion. I think I’ll have a better sense of the plot’s motion if I keep trudging forward. And writers have bad days all the time; sometimes, we’re just not ready to write more, or the writing is difficult, and that doesn’t mean that it’s time to return to the beginning. It might just mean that it’s time to take a break for the day and try again tomorrow.

2. Are there unanswered questions?

Looking back at those early chapters was an eye-opening experience for me. I’d completely forgotten some elements of the story or turns of phrase. At one point, I’d even placed my character as living in a different town. Obviously, there are things that need to be changed. Those neglected story elements need to be beefed up, and the simple factual errors need to be corrected. But is now the right time to make those changes? I think the question for writers should be whether we just can’t leave it alone. It’s similar to what meditation teachers say if you get an itch while you’re supposed to be meditating. If you just keep fighting the urge to itch, you’ll just be thinking about it instead of meditating. So just scratch it! There’s nothing wrong with attending to a need or satisfying an urge quickly so that you can return to the work at hand. If these small errors continue to bite at me, I may just take an hour, go back and change them. The real work of revising can wait.

3. Do you need to find out more things before you can revise?

Another reason that I’d err on the side of moving forward is that sometimes we aren’t ready to revise because we haven’t found out how the story will end. Your knowledge of what comes next will greatly influence what threads you want to tease out of the beginning; if you don’t understand the full scope of your novel yet, you won’t do a great job of editing. That’s why I think I need to get farther and discover more before I can satisfactorily work on those earlier chapters. They’re calling to me, making writing a hard slog, but I’ll just have to keep going until I truly understand where this novel is going.


4 comments

  1. I “turned back” on the first novel I wrote for Nano. I’d written about 15000 words in third person limited POV when I realized the novel needed to be in first person. I rewrote the first section — yes, all 15000 words — in first person. I had to have the voice of my main character clear in my head in order to continue, and I couldn’t do that without rewriting the first part.

    For the less serious stuff – a scene that needs to be inserted, perhaps, I leave notes in the document, usually
    *** FIXME ***: ….

    That way I can easily search for “FIXME” to find all the things I noticed needed changing.

  2. Kwana says:

    Good advice. I’ve so been there and still am. That turn back question and still you for a a long time. It may be better to just move forward and then turn back when the book is complete.

  3. mary brady says:

    When I wrote my 2nd novel (still partly in draft form, but hey–I can touch it, it’s there), I had no idea that it would have a ‘surprise’ ending. I was ecstatic to watch how ‘the story’ took over & how naturally a particular character showed up to ‘save the day’ at the end!

    Oddly, I’d put in a few facts about this peripheral, though always present, character that suited his final actions. But I still went back & added a few scenes that told more about him & bolstered his position.

    But–I couldn’t have known this ’til I reached the end. I say: keep a binder with notes of things you need to fix (& how to, so you don’t forget good ideas), then forge on.

    As for the days it is hard to write vs days when it’s easy: once it is down on paper, I cannot detect any difference in my writing overall & neither can any of my honest critics. I think we have about a 3 point variance (out of 100) in our quality & rarely stray much outside of that range. But we do have to stay on it.

    But don’t edit early–what if I’d edited out that character who was so critical to my story’s ending or altered his ‘arc?’ It’s all very mysterious & spooky. Let it remain so…

    L&K, MaryB

  4. Jake Shirley says:

    Good advice. The first point is a good one. I’m writing my first novel now and I think I’m the kind of writer that goes through the rough draft quickly and goes back to edit later. I have plenty of days when I don’t feel like writing, but I still try. Usually if I can just get started that day, the writing gets easier. I had a couple of false starts and I got stuck a couple of times because I wasn’t sure where the story was going. I’ve done some prewriting and now I don’t have to worry about what will happen next. I’m still learning about writing and I will probably always be learning. Thank you for your advice.

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