When You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

I’ve been away from my manuscript for a while. Partly because of all the demands of school—tests and cases being their own unalterable deadlines—and more because I was stuck.

The forward momentum on Delicious had been decelerating for a few weeks before it halted altogether. And where it finally ran aground was an unexpected place, a mere reaction scene, or a sequel, if you’ve heard of scene-and-sequel. (If you haven’t, imagine the scene is a big fight that ends with everyone banging the door storming out, the sequel would be one or more of them trying to sort out what happened, what it all meant, and where to go from there.)

The heroine, Verity, is a cook. The hero, Remus, is her new employer—and half-brother to her late employer who had, at one time, been her lover. There is a strong attraction between Verity and Remus, but neither of them wants it to go any further: he, being a rising politician, does not want the complication; she, because she’d long ago stopped believing in Cinderella stories. Finally, one night, Verity gets a little tipsy and almost manages to land Remus in the sack.

That scene is done and in the can. The scene that followed, during which Remus directs Verity to return to his country seat, ostensibly to prepare for the Christmas feasts, is also finished and usable. Then I thought, hmm, we never got to know what was in his head during his near-seduction, better put in a few paragraphs.

The few paragraphs refused all cooperation. I wrote and deleted and wrote and deleted, baffled by my inability to make progress. What was the matter? Why didn’t the words flow? Why couldn’t I accomplish something as simple as describing a man’s reaction to almost sleeping with the woman with whom he was in deep lust?

Then it hit me: I’ve lost all touch with him.

From the moment my proposal for Delicious met with approval from my editor, I’d been racing against the clock, pushing hard to move the story along. I’ve written many scenes but almost no sequels: no introspection, no reflection, no layering of character and very little revealing of backstory.

And that is no way to go for a character-driven story. The estate Remus inherits should have been a character in its own right, full of scents and sounds and textures that trigger long-forgotten memories at every turn. Remus himself, born illegitimate, and not legitimized until just before his mother’s death when he was in his late teens, should have been a much more interesting and multidimensional character than just this handsome gentleman who arrives once in a while to speak a few lines to startle Verity.

I knew, of course, that the beginning of the story needed much reworking. But I kept putting it off in the name of progress. Now I’m totally pumped to go back and flesh out the skeletal frame, to give weight that would anchor the story much more firmly, and to make my characters real people, as opposed to obedient pawns in my drive for victory against the deadline.

Midterms went swimmingly. Thank you so much for all the good wishes.

4 thoughts on “When You Can’t Go Forward, Go Back

  1. Do you think you’ll do that before you finish the book? (go back and plump?)

    I’m asking b/c I’m in a similar situation. I’m run aground and know that the middle really needs more layering, but I’m always heard to just keep moving forward. Sadly, though, I’m not moving forward at all and thinking maybe I need to go back and do some of that layering and plumping myself…

  2. I’ve heard that, too, Robin. I’ve been going forward on my current WIP (I’m still in the rough draft stage), and twice I slipped into making revisions. The reason I did was because I knew those sections/scenes would bug the heck out of me until I did something about it.

    So I scrapped those scenes, and quickly rewrote them, then moved on.

    Here’s something you might consider, although I’m unpubbed, so take it with a grain of salt.

    For this WIP, I’m using index cards. It’s a low tech (or maybe no tech) way of doing things, but it’s helping me so far. This is helping me get through tough sections by guiding me through the story – first this happens, then this, and so on.

    Now, it sounds restrictive, but it isn’t. Although I have these cards, the info on them isn’t etched in stone. I’ve put aside several cards; some will never be used again, but others might. There are two things at work here: One, you have the freedom to throw in something when you have a burst of imagination and two, you can get back to the nitty-gritty of your story once you’ve had that burst.

    I’ve had a couple of bursts, and I’ll definitely being keeping one of them. The other…I’m not sure at this point.

    Anyway, I think this whole thing of marching forward through the rough draft, getting down some stuff, and then going back to revisions has something to do with how our brains our wired (don’t ask me where I read that, because I don’t remember ;-)). Think of it as telling your inner critic to shut up during the first draft; when it’s time to revise, tell your inner critic to have at it.

    It’s not easy figuring out this stuff, is it? If only there was some sort of template where you could plug certain things and presto! You’d have a nice, fresh, readable book…but anything worth pursuing isn’t that easy.

    Good luck to you, and to Sherry!

    ~JerseyGirl

    P.S. BTW, I got the card idea from a book called Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

  3. Thank you, Nancy! I believe I have the book you’re talking about, so I’m going to go revisit the index cards idea. I had a whole drawer of half index cards in different colors in neat little piles that I was going to do something with… then my 1 year old became tall enough to reach that drawer… 😉 They now have a nice crinkle pattern to them!

    But maybe I just need to relocate them. I found myself thinking I needed some sort of system to reorient myself to my WIP when I get away from it. I finally did just reread the last 80 pages and make some edits so I could recapture the flow, but if I’d had some cards with notes or a spreadsheet or something I think it would have been a better process.

    Thanks for the encouragement!! Good luck with your WIP, as well. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Robin, and I’m glad you found something of merit in my post! 🙂

    Good luck with your WIP (funny thing about your 1 year old, lol), too.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and Sherry!

    ~JerseyGirl

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