This is how it went down:
Editor*: Hey! Suvudu is becoming Unbound Worlds and they want you to tell them everything a new writer needs to know about writing time travel! Can you do that?
Me: Sure. Here’s my suggestion: DON’T.
Editor: Could you elaborate a little?
Me: Remember all those edits we did? Remember trying to count how many Sams were in the same room? DON’T. DO NOT WRITE IT. CEASE AND DESIST. Writing time travel is not for the sane.
Editor: … okay, I see where you’re going here. But could you, just maybe, lie? I want to sign more authors willing to write time travel because I love it.
Me: I sent you moose socks from Alaska! Is that not enough?!?!
Editor**: [sends a GIF of Bambi batting his eyelashes]
Me: Fine! I’ll tell them how to write time travel without losing their minds.
Editor: Great! It’s due ASAP! Excuse me while I go edit a Wesley Snipes novel.***
If you insist on writing time travel, your best bet is to wait for someone with tenure and grant money to invent time travel for you. Not only will it keep the science authentic, but you can also use the time machine to go back in time and get published before time travel becomes the next big trend.
I’m not saying this is what Wesley Chu, Sean Ferrell, or I did… but I’m not saying we didn’t either.****
I don’t have tenure anywhere. In fact, my only university degree is in marine biology. I know a lot about algae (ask me about Karenia brevis!), but my knowledge of quantum mechanics is sketchy at best. In fact, if you go far enough back in my Twitter timeline, you’ll find a tweet that reads something along the lines of “The biggest problem with writing time travel is that you have to invent time travel first.”
Throughout history, humankind has been very creative as we’ve thought of ways to outsmart time. H.G. Wells had his machine sit still while the world around it flickered past. Doc had a DeLorean. Outlander had magic stones. Sliders had a wormhole. All of these are excellent choices. Really, the time machine is only a mechanism for moving from Point A to Point B.
So, let’s skip the physics and discuss some of the options authors have when writing time travel.
First, is the time travel controlled or not?
In the Time & Shadows series I use controlled time travel because the problem isn’t getting to a different part of time, it’s dealing with the realities of being able to get to a different part of the timeline. Sam is fighting with a power-mad sociopath, serial killers from alternate iterations of time, and – in Decoherence – she’s fighting herself.
In Outlander, Diana Gabaldon uses uncontrolled time travel because the time travel is an obstacle for the heroine. Claire can’t control the gateway to the future and the past, and she’s at a crucial moment in history where she might be able to prevent the death of her new friends.
Both Sam and Claire travel in time, but their ability to determine where, when, and how influences the overall story.
Second, is the timeline fixed or not?
If the timeline is fixed, the only thing the characters can do is survive. Think of Timeline by Michael Crichton where the characters are stuck in this train wreck of a time period hurtling toward a battle. What works isn’t that they can change history, it’s the parallels between what they notice before time traveling (“What bastard would destroy this beautiful art?” – me paraphrasing Timeline) and them making the decisions they saw the consequences of (“Me. I’m the bastard.”)
It’s compelling because we see the consequences and the very real internal turmoil that led to those choices.
An unfixed timeline is usually coupled with intentional time travel so the plot revolves around attempts to change time, or stop someone else from changing time.
Third, is the focus time travel or something else?
Not all books with time travel are Time Travel Books.
Consider Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. In it, Vimes travel back in time as he pursues a killer. Vimes is caught in a very intense moment of history (The Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May: Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, and a Hard-Boiled Egg!), but the plot is a basic Discworld Watch plot. Vimes is chasing Carcer. Vimes is stopping crimes. Vimes is outthinking everyone. Vimes is making the world a better place one night at a time. (I love Vimes.)
Compare that to The Chronic Argonauts by H.G. Wells where the inventor, Dr. Moses Nebogipfel, has created a time machine for the sole purpose of finding a time that better suits him. What happens where he goes doesn’t matter; Moses just wants to find a place where he belongs.
Last but not least, every time travel story must have strong characters.
At the end of the day, time travel is a gimmick. It’s a way to explore another layer of possible reality. It’s a way to view the past, present, and future in a new light. And it only works if the narrators of this adventure are compelling. Not good, not physically tough, not edgy – just compelling. The reader needs to care about the character enough to tolerate the unexpected.
If you keep these three key points in mind, there is a possibility (a very slim possibility) that you will be able to write a time travel novel with your sanity intact. Best of luck. May your voyages into time and space be a story worth telling.
* Apologies to my editor. He really is an awesome guy.
** This is a lie. My editor never sends me GIFs. He does ask me to come up with sexier viruses though.
*** This part is actually true.
**** The machine is in Wes’s basement. He’ll let you use it if you volunteer to babysit his kid.