This week I was in full-on edit mode of my new book, and, while typing away fixing plot holes, I thought: This seems very similar to one of the newer theories of quantum physics. Could the process of writing a book show how superposition may actually work?
I’m a “pantser”, writing books by the seat of my pants, rather than a planner. I have a rough idea of the question the book is asking, and an equally rough idea of the answer it will most like give. How the two meet is anyone’s guess, including, at the very beginning, my own.
So, as part of my editing process, having done a first draft and a major re-write, I took the plot and logically dotted the I’s and cross the t’s. I set my novel’s timeline out, project plan like in Excel, to make sure the logic is still good. I created a mind map linking the various concepts and the relationships. I knew what passages are klugey and need a rewrite (well, kulgey at this exact moment, it is an ever shifting sand). I knew what I wanted to change in the beginning and middle of the book to satisfy the flow and logic of the plot at the end, and I knew, at that moment, I was enacting an almost perfect metaphor for TSVF - two-state-vector formalism, the theory I mentioned in the blog’s lede.
Superposition is that freaky bit of quantum mechanics that says a particle is a wave, and a wave is a particle. The term in physics is a wavicle. In the process of being both, the wavicle can be over there and they can also be over here. Essentially, they can be everywhere and everything, within reason, until, that is, we actually observe. Then the end result becomes frozen, looking, I imagine, both alarmed and guilty; rather like the precarious position my four year old finds herself in when we play statues.
The most famous thought experiment to explain superposition (and really a lot of quantum physics) is Schrödinger’s Cat. You know the one: Cat. Box. Poison. Radioactive Decay. The cat is both alive and dead at the same time, until we actually look. Now, I would assume that Schrödinger was not au fait with the modern preclusion for all things Zombie Apocalypse because, if he was, his thought experiment would conclude that, all things being equal, an undead cat might be a perfectly predictive (if somewhat unhappy) outcome when the box was opened.
Ignoring that possibility, we are left with the logical problem of cat’s state (other than pissed off), which is exactly what Schrödinger was trying to articulate: alive and dead are binary propositions, one is either/or. The cat cannot be both. Yet, in quantum physics, that is precisely the cat’s state, until we look. I must admit this concept is much harder for me to grasp than the one where the same wavicle can be in two places at the same time: I refer you back to my four year old who seems to manage the same feat on an hourly occurrence.
A new paper posted on the Scientific American website posits a theory on how superposition works, and in reading it, I realized that when writing I construct the plot in a similar way. The idea, as much as I can grasp it, is this: time does not affect the wavicle until the observation occurs. It/they can move freely backwards and forwards. Essentially, Causes can occur after Effects, rather than the other way around as we would expect. (If you want a fuller explanation on how time works I will refer you to the marvelous The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.) When we observe the wavicle the superposition dissolves and we observe the effects, regardless of when causation occurred (before or after from a time perspective).
How does this all link to writing? Well, as I mentioned, I am not a planner. There are some folks, and all power to them, who take (in project planning parlance) a waterfall approach to writing. Each scene is planned and outlined. The plan is written, you work the plan, the novel is constructed. A logical, mostly linear approach.
My approach is more agile (in project planning terms). I do not know all the scenes, or all the characters. The plot changes, ebbs and flows as the logic of the book takes shape. The rough first draft is the equivalent of my plan (linear), but, then I skip around, zipping backwards and forwards, filling in the gaps, adjusting the plot: adding clues, McGuffins, red herrings and twists. Removing whole scenes or even characters. I liken the process to making a movie. My books are not constructed in a strictly linear fashion, the logical time of the story does not apply to its construction. This was probably one of the biggest lessons I learnt when I first started out on my writing career. My books have copious bloopers and deleted scenes.
The plot of the book is the equivalent of the quantum particle in this analogy. Like the TSVF answer to superposition, when editing, I often construct the plot's causes after the effects have been written into the book’s conclusion. But, just like superposition, once the book is finished, or observed, my readers can only really approach the plot from a linear perspective, they cannot affect change within the confines of my manuscript. Essentially on observation, the plot is frozen, regardless of whether, in the writing of the novel, the effect’s cause was constructed before or after the effect itself. The observed end does not care how it arrived at such a state.
For me, as the writer, I do not have to construct the plot in a linear fashion. The plot’s construction can flow in either direction until the book is delivered to a reader, until it is observed.
But, for my readers, the plot, like time’s arrow, like the collapsed superposition, is fixed.
And thankfully, no cats were harmed in the process…