I’m currently wrestling with this question because I have on my hands over sixty thousand words that don’t fit in the novel I’ve been trying to write. One of the many reasons the creative life is fraught with angst: you can work hard for months only to have to scrap everything you did. After keeping a steady word count for months, I have to stop, have a good look at what I’ve done, and possibly retool.
Not knowing where to start with my current novel, I decided to write my character’s story from the beginning and see where that took me. I started with his early life and, after fifteen thousand words, figured out that story wasn’t right for my novel. So I jumped to the next bit and spent a whole month writing twenty thousand words that could be something, but still wasn’t right for the novel. I did the same again last month, writing twenty five thousand words and – nope, still not my novel. Dammit! At least I can take heart knowing Mark Twain did the same thing.
I’m at a crossroads where I can either keep going with this exercise, getting all my character’s backstory written until I eventually stumble into the novel, or I can cut it off here and spend a month plotting to figure out what stories actually need to go in the novel and only write those. I’ve already weighed the pros and cons of both, so I’ll sum up:
If I keep going with the backstory, I’ll have my character’s whole prior life to draw from, probably enriching the main story in ways I can’t foresee. But I also know I’m stalling because I don’t feel ready to tackle the novel – is that a good or bad thing? It’s not like I have concrete deadline. Any stories I do include in the novel will have to be rewritten completely because it will be colored by the context of his current experience. Continuing along these lines means pumping out more verbiage for the scrap heap. However, a few of these stories might be worth turning into novellas, so it’s not all wasted effort.
If I quit writing backstory and get on with the novel, I do have a couple short scenes in the framing story to use as a jumping off point. Everything I write from there will be more relevant and automatically shaded in context. It means less work rewriting, but I also risk losing depth the story could have if I knew all the backstory lying below the surface. Not doing that groundwork also means potential continuity issues, because the novel demands being told in a non-linear fashion. The original reason for writing the story in its proper order first was so every puzzle piece would fit together when I mixed them up later.
So now I have a big choice to make. Do I make the big leap into my novel in a desperate attempt to crank out a first draft by the end of the year, or do I continue plodding along until I reach my novel naturally? Part of my anxiety comes from running into more than a plot hole – a great big information gap in the linear story that I’m scrambling to fill because nothing I write later will make sense otherwise. I could shrug and say who cares, but – no, actually I can’t. My brain won’t let me get away with that. I guess I’m stuck filling the gap and writing a crapload of exposition for my story bible until the world I’ve created once again makes sense to me. Sigh…by