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Back-Seeding Your Story: Writing in Spirals

Barbara ProbstI’ve been asked every imaginable question during author interviews. When did I decide to become a writer? What was my favorite book in childhood? Which of my characters was the hardest to write? The only question I was flat-out unable to answer was one that seemed, at the time, entirely absurd. Someone asked me, “What’s your favorite word?”

A single word?  I was tempted to quote Lewis Carroll, who wrote in Alice in Wonderland:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Now, however, I know the answer. My favorite word is recursive.

If you google recursive, you’ll find complicated mathematical definitions and descriptions of how computer coding works. For a coder, recursive denotes a process in which a program or piece of code continues to run until certain conditions are met.

For a writer, however, recursive means looping back to revise earlier material in light of what you’ve developed, rethought, or learned. It’s more than revising in the sense of “improvement”—making your writing cleaner and stronger, your scenes more vivid and compelling—although obviously you need to do that too.

Recursive writing is an organic, nonlinear refreshing of the parts in light of an evolving whole—something that most writers do, whether they think of themselves as “plotters” who’ve worked out the structure in advance, or “pantsers” who take a more improvisational approach. Even with a detailed outline, there are always elements that need to be revisited—many times. As Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, said in a 2016 interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education (https://www.chronicle.com/article/scholars-talk-writing-steven-pinker/ [1] ), when asked how he approached the revision of his own writing: “Recursively and frequently.”

I was aware of the recursive nature of writing when I was an academic, writing scholarly papers. More often than not, my ongoing research led to new facts that required me to “loop back” and correct, enhance, or even rethink earlier sections of the paper—adding a reference that brought another nuance or perspective to the topic, offering more context, changing the order of the points I was making, and so on.

It’s not so different in fiction. As my mentor Sandra Scofield wrote to me in a recent email: “Every page you write casts its shadow over the pages that came before, and inevitably, you will discover you have to go back and change something, either then or in revision. I am in the last fifth of my book, and I spend more time going back than writing, adjusting, adjusting. Everything is in flux.” Then she added, “That’s what’s fun about writing a novel.”

Let’s look at some ways we can use recursive writing—or, I should say, recursive rewriting.

Correcting:  At the most literal level, you might go back to fix an inconsistency or change a detail about a setting or character. You may have decided, two-thirds of the way through the story, that it would be better if the neighbor were a nearsighted widower or a young woman with a dog. You might also need to delete a reference, a bit of dialogue, a paragraph, or an entire scene that is no longer story-relevant. You might move a paragraph to another part of the book where it fits better or reverse the order in which characters are introduced—because you know things about the story now that you didn’t know when you wrote the scene.

Maximizing or minimizing:  You might realize that an element is turning out to have greater importance than you’d originally thought—which means that it needs to be developed more, introduced earlier, cited more frequently, or highlighted in a new way. The reverse is also true, of course. You may have spent too much time on something that you originally thought would have greater importance than it now does, and thus need to trim it back.

Foreshadowing:  To paraphrase Chekhov, if you want a pistol to go off in Chapter Twenty, you need to show us that pistol several chapters earlier—preferably more than once, in increasingly ominous ways in order to build tension, although not in a way that’s so overtly obvious that the shot becomes predictable and trite. Ideally, the reader will say to herself, “Oh my gosh, of course! Why didn’t I see that coming?”

You might not realize that you need a pistol shot until you’re in the thick of writing Chapter Twenty; that’s when a recursive back-seeding is called for.

That was the case for me, many times, when I was writing Queen of the Owls. For example, it wasn’t until I was working on the last quarter of the book that I realized social media could play a much more complex role in the plot than I’d envisioned. That meant I had to go back and not only back-seed specific references to social media on earlier pages, but I also had to back-seed character traits of the two people—the protagonist’s inquisitive young son Daniel and her lighthearted friend Phoebe—whose actions set the social media elements in play. Otherwise, those plot points would feel contrived rather than the organic oh no! moments that I wanted them to be.

Planting a signature trait:  It can be useful for major characters to have gestures, phrases, habits, or something a bit unusual that makes them stand out or signifies an underlying psychological feature—especially if that gesture or trait is going to play a role in the plot or signal a character arc. If that gesture or habit “comes” to you midway through your writing, you need to go back and plant some earlier examples.

While I was writing Queen of the Owls, for instance, I realized that the motif of hair could serve a thematic function—so I went back and gave each major character a different kind of hair or hair-related behavior, and then made sure it was mentioned several times so it became associated with that character.

Planting a recurring object, setting, or symbol:  I like to do this in threes, with increasing intensity for each occurrence of the object or setting.

In Queen of the Owls, there are several scenes that take place in the university library. In the first scene, protagonist Elizabeth encounters renowned professor Marion Mackenzie, who represents everything Elizabeth thinks she wants to be, and Marion offers an unexpected intimacy. In the final scene, Marion snubs Elizabeth, undoing the connection that was forged earlier. To make the contrast between intimacy and distance even more potent, I went back and had them meet in the women’s restroom the first time (the most intimate part of the building) and outside the library the last time (the most impersonal part)—a small change to an earlier scene that only occurred to me after I’d written the later one.

So, too, with recurring objects. When you realize that an object has evocative potential, you can go back and plant it in an earlier scene. It needn’t be a “symbol”—that is, something that is meant to represent a big idea like peace or innocence or death. Rather, it’s something that has story-specific or character-specific meaning. By back-seeding it, you create an association in the reader’s mind that’s evoked the next time the object is mentioned, thus thickening its emotional power.

To me, this is part of the magic of discovering my story’s hidden richness. It doesn’t necessarily mean stopping the flow to go back to an earlier scene. It’s fine to write a “note to self” and go back later.

And sometimes it’s “front-seeding” when you make a different kind of “note to self” that you want to be sure to mention an object or gesture or phrase again, later in the story, or return to a particular setting in order to evoke the memory in the reader of its first occurrence.

At least, that’s how I work. In layers and spirals.

What about you? Do any of the processes above ring a bell for you? Are any of them new ideas that you’d like to try? Are there other ways that you spiral back, recursively?

About Barbara Linn Probst [2]

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.