The Plot Arc of Past Mistakes

I went about writing Past Mistakes entirely the wrong way.

That’s not a great way to start a post, but the mistakes go back years and have since been corrected. I can be honest about them now.

As with most of my stories, it started with a premise. This was fine for a short story, but the premise couldn’t stretch to cover a whole novel.

That’s one of the many, many lessons I’ve had to painfully self-acquire over the past few years. A novel-length story isn’t a single story. It’s a whole lot of stories, set in the same world, that all support the same, overarching story arc. That means you need not one good idea, but a whole lot of ideas that work together.

A single good idea surrounded by a tapestry of cliché will quickly turn off not your readers. Your creativity too. There’s nothing worse than rereading your last ten pages and realising it’s all filler.

The long pause in the middle of writing Past Mistakes was due to personal circumstances, but there were a great many smaller pauses too. In fact, several of those smaller pauses were long enough to write entire short stories in them. I wrote the first half of another novel (Erasure) in the pauses between chapters of Past Mistakes. These breaks came when I didn’t have enough good ideas to support the next chapter of Past Mistakes. I felt like any words I added to the manuscript at that point would sabotage it. Better to set those ideas free in separate stories.

Maybe that’s how some of those dreadful mashup stories come from… vampires in space, for example… The author’s creativity went in another direction and they didn’t have the discipline to keep the two stories seperate.

One thing I should have thought about before I started writing the book was the ultimate destination of the story. All I had to start with was the first 10,000 words, which I now give away for free. It’s when I hit 30,000 words that I realised I had to fix a destination for the story, and bring the threads I was spinning back together somehow.

I took some time off from the writing and spent a week drafting a one-page document that broke down the story into twelve chapters of 10,000 words each. The hard part was forcing myself to bring it to a logical close at the end. The dénouement had to make sense, and everything that had happened so far had to somehow lead there, even if many of the plot twists were designed to surprise. I had to re-write that page a dozen times before I was ready to start again.

And instead of continuing the story from there, the exercise forced me to go back and rewrite the second and third chapters, and make some light edits to the first, to ensure everything was consistent. Only then was I able to move forward with the story.

The plot design wasn’t finished though. The best laid plans are, at best, wishful thinking. As the story hit the page, the rhythm and pacing were revealed, and different to what I’d put in the plan. That meant I had to either go back into the story to force a different pacing, or I had to adjust the plan to match the evolving narrative. I most often adjusted the plan. The detail of the story only emerged as I wrote it. Once that detail was revealed, the plan had to change to match.

Ultimately, the story is in nine sections, not twelve. I honestly don’t remember why I was so focused on the number twelve to start with. Maybe I thought I was writing a TV show.

Parts of the story had to be cut completely. It’s difficult to put a line through seven thousand words.

Six times I had to go back through every word to make a retroactive adjustment. That’s what happens when your see a flaw in your narrative.

It’s never going to be perfect in my eyes. At some point I have to set it free. There are still some things right now that bother me. I have to decide if fixing those is worth the immense effort it will take. These are small changes that weave through the entire text.

I also can’t afford a professional editor. Maybe on the next book if this one justifies itself in sales. It takes a lot of effort to critically assess something you wrote yourself. You’re so familiar with the text you can’t see the mistakes when they’re right in front of you.

But I have a timeline. A deadline. A publication date.

So I have until then.

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