Time travel. Alternative timelines. Rewritten histories. It sounds easy enough, right? I mean, you’re just making it up as you go along, and since no one has actually lived in these alternate universes, who’s to say what’s authentic and what’s not? I learned the hard way, through years of edits on my first speculative fiction novel, just how not simple this is and just how convoluted the rabbit hole is that you’ll soon find yourself in if you don’t take some preemptive steps to map it out. Good thing for me I’m a plotter who really likes charts.
Which brings me to my first tip:
KISS – Keep It Simple Sarah (by my third or fourth edit I start substituting other words in for the 2nd S)
A simple tip for a simple concept. The more convoluted you make the subplots of the story, the more confusing you – and the reader – will get. Time travel is mind bending at its core, and while it’s easy to get carried away in all the what-if scenarios you could put your characters through (people coming in and out of their lives, fortunes to be made through playing the stock market or betting on sports, lives to be saved) restrain yourself.
In my first novel, She Wouldn’t Change a Thing, I went a little crazy in some of my earlier drafts with all the things my protagonist did. She woke up as her seventeen-year-old self and found her way to high school where she ran into her ex-boyfriend who’d dumped her decades earlier and then had to fumble her way through a tennis match even though she hadn’t held a racket in years. By the end of the book, I felt compelled to mention that she’d gone on to save countless lives in natural disasters and terrorist attacks – because who wouldn’t do that, right?? – and the plot ended up buried in all the unnecessary details.
Needless to say, that was all edited out so we could get back to the story, but here’s the sage advice I learned that could end up saving you rounds and rounds of edits: If it doesn’t further the plot, don’t even mention it. No matter how tempting it is.
Make a Chart
I know. I know, I know, I know. You’re a pantser, and charting stifles your creative juices. The good news: It doesn’t have to be a chart. The bad news: It has to be something. A set of rules and algorithms must be jotted down and easily accessible for you to reference throughout your writing process. Trust me. You won’t remember them all. For example, if you’re writing a time travel novel, what can and can’t your protagonist do?
Can she change the fate of everyone around her, or is she destined to watch history repeat itself?
Can she hop back and forth between dimensions, or is she forever bound to one world or the other?
Can she retain all her knowledge and physical abilities from her previous life, or does she feel her new age when she travels?
The questions are limitless, and don’t be surprised if, by the end of your first or second draft, you end up with a chart on your office wall that you have to take down during live interviews so no one will question your pantser status.
Stay authentic to history
What kind of advice is stay authentic to history if you’re writing an alternate history novel?
Let me elaborate: If you’re going to leave any part of factual history in your story, make sure it’s accurate OR explain in detail why it’s not.
Here’s a personal example from my second book, Midnight on the Marne: The Germans have won WWI and many years down the road the Bolsheviks are coming in to take northern France. Before edits, there was a scene set in late 1924 where a character mentions that Lenin is dead and a new leader, Stalin, has taken his place. In factual history, Lenin had a debilitating stroke in August of 1924 but didn’t die until January of 1925. I thought to take advantage of that and just kill him off a bit early to fit in with my timeline, but my editor wasn’t having any of it. And she was right. People with knowledge of Bolshevik history – or even those who like to fact check while reading – would not be happy that I didn’t stick to the facts. Unless there is a compelling reason for Lenin to die a few months earlier in my alternate world – like the plot involves his assassination – history needs to remain factual. I changed the text to read that Lenin was sick or dying and a new man – Stalin – was being groomed to take his place.
Be Prepared for criticism
This is an obvious one, of course. No matter what you write, be prepared for criticism. And maybe it’s just my personal investment in speculative fiction that makes it feel this way to me, but people tend to have very strong opinions on time travel, in particular, and will argue with your interpretation of it as if it really does exist and you just don’t know the rules. Which is another reason it’s so important to document those rules. It’s much easier to break the ones you can’t remember. And, in truth, it’s easier for the reader, and a much more enjoyable experience, to follow along with the plot and not get hung up on the what ifs and whys when there’s a consistent and concise set of rules threaded throughout the narrative.
This is what it’s all about, right? Reading is entertainment, and how can we expect to entertain others without finding enjoyment and passion and worth in our words and stories. So, let your imagination take you to worlds that no one has ever visited and to circumstances that no one has dared envision, and then – when you’re ready – invite your readers to come along for the ride.
Are you writing time travel, or alternative history? What obstacles have you run in to? Or what secrets have you discovered? Let’s talk about it on our Career Authors Facebook page!
Sarah Adlakha is a native of Chicago who now lives along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with her husband, three daughters, two horses, and one dog. She started writing fiction shortly after retiring from her psychiatry practice. Her debut novel, She Wouldn’t Change a Thing, was a CNN most anticipated book of 2021. Midnight on the Marne is her second novel.