Mailbag: Looking Forward or Turning Back

In this week’s mailbag, I’ll be addressing an important issue in the novel-writing process. I’ll return to the post Look Forward or Turn Back in Your Novel?, in which I wondered when it was the right time to look back on past chapters and do some editing.

In the first post, Margaret said:

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.

Great idea, Margaret. I use a similar system of notation in my novel so I won’t be slowed down or lose momentum in order to look up places or struggle with one word choice. Passages that are weak and need re-writing I put in bold; for names and other facts, I put [NAME] in brackets. Later I can search for the brackets and do the research.

Kwana said:

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.

Thanks, Kwana. I agree that momentum is something that is so precious. I can’t waste it, and there is plenty of time to revise later! It’s just difficult sometimes to leave something that you know you can improve. One teacher told me to work on editing periodically, but to always create a little something every day. Otherwise, it can be too demoralizing just to cut and cut and cut.

mary said:

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!…

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.

Great point, mary. Some things we just can’t know about the story’s progression unless we follow its energy and keep plowing through to the end. I agree that sometimes it’s best to just make a note and keep right on going. There is something magical about getting to the actual end of an actual first draft, no matter how much work remains to be done on it.

Jake Shirley said:

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.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jake. Getting started writing can be just like starting to ride a bicycle uphill, can’t it? It can seem impossible to get those wheels moving at the beginning. But the importance of simply sticking it out and putting in the effort can’t be overstated. Writers, keep trying!

Thanks, writers and readers. Until next week!

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