How To Break Causality and Write the Perfect Time Travel Story, by Stewart C Baker

2. Hijack your future self’s time machine

She said she’d come to warn you, but you’ve read enough time travel stories to know that the time stream is mostly self-correcting.

Besides, just because she made choices that led to her being an old, grizzled worrywart doesn’t mean you have to do the same.


15. Walk that big fat paycheck all the way to the bank

Who’s “wasting time on oversaturated tropes” now, Pam?!


4. Write a first draft

It flows out of your fingers like liquid gold, as rich and exhilarating as the sunset pooling on the vermilion throne at Lakamha.

It’s beautiful. It’s glorious.

Most importantly: it’s done.


13. Find a new critique group

World War One dragged on for fifty years, leaving Europe in a state of apocalyptic ruin. The film industry never really took off, and the Internet was never invented. Your brother and sister apparently don’t exist.

Worst of all, the coffee shop where your critique group met never opened, so you don’t have anyone to read your story.

Who knew assassinating H.G. Wells in his childhood would have so many unexpected consequences?


10. Take one more jaunt through time

There’s got to be something you were missing. Something that will make everything work.

But what?


7. Lose all sense of self

Have your headaches always been this bad? Aren’t you supposed to need glasses? When in the hell did you become blonde?!

You can’t remember, and you cling to your unrevised manuscript like a drowning woman grabbing at flotsam.


5. Ask Mom what she thinks

She isn’t answering your letters, won’t come to the door when you knock.

When you finally corner her at the grocery store, she smiles and says I’m sure it’s very nice, dear.

She doesn’t meet your eyes.


9. Eat a healthy, balanced breakfast

(Hey, it’s the most important meal of the day!)


14. Publish

After several years in the new normal, realize you’re just revising the novel to be different, not better.

Mail it to an agent. Shop it around. Spend long periods waiting by the mailbox to hear.

It sells—of course it sells. Since you did what you did to H.G. Wells, time travel stories were never popularized, and nobody’s ever even heard of time machines.

The advance they give you is obscene, but it pales in comparison to the feeling you get when you see the book (your book!) in a local bookseller’s window.   


3. Jump through time. See wonders

The building of the pyramids. The battles of Warring States China. The terrifying splendor of the Mesozoic.

You could go on like this forever and still be home for supper.


16. Live the dream

You’re a famous author now. The inventor of the time machine, the rediscoverer of time travel fiction!

As the royalty checks roll in, relish them. Go on speaking tours. Sign the contract your agent nets you for a travelling theatrical production, which is what they do here instead of movies, and which pays about as much.

Take the money and run. Buy more cake than you can possibly eat. Eat all of it, then hop back in time and eat it again.

Be gloriously sick.

Never look back.


1. Run your new idea past your critique group

Ignore their jeers, their petty jealousies. Inventing a time machine just to write a time travel story might seem pointless to Pam, but how else are you going to get that sense of authenticity? How else can you write what you know?


19. Burn it all down

All your manuscripts. All your plans.

Everything you’ve ever done has ended in failure, so why even bother trying?


18. Try to put things back the way they were

The contract for your novel haunts your dreams, and everything you eat tastes like ash. You can’t take pleasure in anything—not with the world the way it is now.

You realize—too late—you’ll spend all your tomorrows dreaming of your pasts, and you wonder how you can fix the mess you’ve made.

At least you still have the time machine. Does that mean you’re in a different timeline now? Some kind of parallel universe that branched out when you made that fateful decision?

You have no clue, but it gives you an idea:

What if you went back in time to steal the time machine from your second future self to stop that self from going back in time to warn your first present self (or is it past self, now?) not to take the time machine from your first future self when that self went back in time to warn your original past/present self about what would happen if you took the time machine from your first future self? (Your head hurts, but you’re pretty sure you’ve got the order of that right.)

Or what if you pushed H.G. Wells out of the way of that bullet you fired?  If you stopped past past you from ever becoming a writer? If you murdered your great-great-grandparents? If you brought dinosaurs forward through time so they never went extinct and ate up all of mankind’s distant ancestors?

What if . . . ?  What if . . . ?


11. Assassinate H.G. Wells

(You knew it was coming.)


6. Start over (and over, and over)

None of your drafts end up working. All your plots and characters are out of skew and getting worse.


17. Admit that you’re lonely

Read the personals.

Lie awake late, watching the stars circle overhead. Wish you could have gotten through to your past self. That you’d never tried to write a time travel story.

You wish H.G. Wells were here so you had somebody to talk to. You wish you’d saved some of that cake.

Wallow in self-pity.

Cry.


8. Give up

Realize you should have listened to your mother and majored in something sensible—like business, or community health. You should have listened to Pam.

Stop trying to write. Stop jumping around through time.


12. Start one more first draft

This one is painful to write, and exhausts you. You throw all your fears into it. All your hopes, your dreams. Your deepest, darkest secrets.

Will it work any better, once it’s done?

You don’t know. You can’t. But isn’t that always the way of things?


20. Move forward, doing what you can

Everything you do to relive your past just makes a bigger mess, and the time stream—frankly—is fucked.

So leave it alone.

Send your stolen time machine on a one-way trip to the Mesozoic, where nobody will find it, and look to the future—to yours, the only one you can really control.

Take one step after the other.

Maybe you’ll never reach your destination, but you have to try. It’s what makes you human. What makes you who you are.


Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. He was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California, and currently resides in Oregon—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.

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