What Do You Do When Your Novel Goes Off Course?

Novel-writing is like an interstellar voyage: disorienting and lengthy. Go off course, and it can be nigh-impossible to backtrack. What do you do when your novel's taken a wrong turn? Scott Westerfeld, Brad Meltzer, Cherie Priest and Rudy Rucker explain.

Especially if you're writing a book for National Novel Writing Month, every day of forward progress is vital — and if you realize your book lurched in the wrong direction 10,000 words ago, you're going to have a hell of a time going back and restarting from where you went wrong. But it's difficult for anybody to find that wrong-turn place and start over from there.

So we asked some of our favorite authors to suggest ways to get back on course after your story has done a slingshot around the wrong star. Here's what they suggested:

What Do You Do When Your Novel Goes Off Course?

Brad Meltzer (author of The Tenth Justice, The Book Of Lies and Identity Crisis):

That's just process. Mark Twain said that when you're done writing, you throw out the first half, and what you have left is what's gold. So it's fine to veer off course. As long as you have the thick skin to recognize that everything must be edited and corrected and improved. Of course, that doesn't mean it'll be easy. There is no terror like the terror of realizing that all your work is for crap. But again, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

What Do You Do When Your Novel Goes Off Course?

Cherie Priest (author of Boneshaker, Fathom and Those Who Went Remain There Still):

The most egregious time I ever had a novel go off-track was with one of my more recent books, FATHOM. In fact, it happened twice with that project. I kept getting two-thirds of the way finished with a draft ... and then I'd realize that it wasn't working. The parts just weren't coming together, and my attempts to force them were creating even worse problems. Finally I did what I should've done in the first place — I turned to my editor (who is awesome). I asked for an extension on the project and kept her on the phone for a couple of hours, bouncing ideas off her; and eventually I was able to sit down and hammer out a draft that worked much better — and the finished product is vastly improved for the editorial input and subsequent reboot. If it's broken, it's broken — and for me, anyway, there's nothing else to be done but trash it and start fresh. I'd advise anyone who's stuck to find a patient, insightful friend to ask for help, and try coming at the story from another angle next time. I know a few people who can reshape something from the ground up, but I'm just not one of them ... and that's a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

What Do You Do When Your Novel Goes Off Course?

Rudy Rucker (author of Postsingular, Hylozoic, Mathematicians In Love, and the Ware tetralogy):

Making a major plot change in a novel isn't always as hard as one might imagine. After all, much of a story is descriptions, or dialog, or action scenes — and these tend to stay pretty much the same. The switchpoints where the plot emerges are really rather few and rather short. So changing the plot is maybe a little like acupuncture. You may might find there's only five or six spots that you need to zap, and that the changes may in fact be quite small. This always surprises me. What happens is that my conception of the story looms in the background and seems to imbue every scene, but in fact the stage-magic-fog of the conception is really only emerging from, as I say, five or six little nozzles, and its not so hard to tweak the nozzles. This said, there will be times that a whole scene needs to go, which can be a bit painful. In these cases, I save the excised chunk into my separate "Notes" document so that it's not totally lost. And when the novel comes out, I post my notes online anyway, so the scrap gets a kind of half-life as well.

What Do You Do When Your Novel Goes Off Course?

Scott Westerfeld (author of Leviathan, Pretties, Uglies, Peeps, Midnighters and So Yesterday):

When you've made a huge wrong turn, it's important to broach the subject carefully with your subconscious. Don't sit down saying to yourself, "I'm going to rewrite the last 100 pages!" You'll freak out.

Instead, pretend you're merely taking a closer look at the fateful juncture. Maybe you'll just rewrite that ONE chapter where things went wrong, just to see what happens. Tell yourself that after making a few important changes, you'll be able to salvage most of the 100 pages since. And after those first changes are made, your brain will slowly become invested in the new state of affairs. After a while, you may actually WANT to make all the changes necessary, even if that means throwing out a month's work.

It's like any bad news: Don't come out with it all at once.

Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are also giving invaluable writing tips for NaNoWriMo on their respective blogs, on alternate days. (Click on their names for the blog links.) Well worth checking out!