I’ve been wrestling with one particular novel for two or three years now. The New Serfdom, which I’ve mentioned here before, has evolved drastically, moving Nolan, the original main protagonist, to secondary position and moving Gil, the original secondary, into the primary. And somewhere along the way, the novel turned into something completely different from the original concept.
There have been, and still are, a lot of problems with trying to get it written (or rewritten). I didn’t know Gil well enough. And there are two, and possibly three timelines, to fit in so they don’t lose the reader. I’ve swerved back and forth between trying to “fix” it and just tossing and forgetting. Tossing and forgetting has been very tempting at times because the novel is now a complete mess. But the new version that has been evolving from the original keeps pulling at me. In almost every way, it’s much more interesting than the original and potentially more productive of the conflicts that are necessary to any novel, and of the world building that is necessary to a science fiction novel.
I’ve played around with making setting up a rough chronological outline that takes all the timelines into account, but that hasn’t worked. And the reason it hasn’t worked is that I haven’t worked out why this character or that character is present at a particular time and exactly what they are supposed to be doing. What I’ve been trying to do is exactly what many writers do successfully — work out the plot first — and that I can’t do, successfully. Just in case anyone is confused here, a story idea isn’t a plot. You can invent many different plots from one story idea. In fact, that’s been done — giving several authors a story idea and challenging them to come up with their own plots.
My books are much more about the characters than the plots, and for some reason, I’ve upset the balance in trying to work out a new version of New Serfdom. I will never be able to work out the timelines until I know exactly why each character is doing what he’s doing and why he’s where he is at a specific moment in time. And the only way to learn all that is to ask questions.
The working file for every novel I’ve written has a section called “questions.” The questions I ask, and how I answer them, determine more about the novel than does the plot. That’s where I need to focus my attention. Go through the old questions based on the original concept, throw out the ones that are no longer relevant, add the ones that will lead me to the answers I need now. Instead of an outline, which many writers of how-to books insist is an absolute necessity, my books are shaped by questions. And most of those questions are about the characters, not about the plot.
A lot of genre novels are mostly about the plot, which makes them fairly easy to outline. They’re about what happens, and when. Once you have that, the characters do what the plot demands. Adding depth to any of the characters is optional. But genre stories don’t have to be written that way. Some readers prefer depth, thank goodness, so it’s possible to write stories where the plot is determined by the characters’ motivations, rather than the other way around. The main protagonists determine the direction of the plot. If I don’t lose sight of that again, maybe New Serfdom will get finished someday.