“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was …”—Dante
Have you ever been really, truly lost? When my oldest daughter was just four weeks old, my husband and I flew across country to attend his brother’s wedding. I didn’t plan to go to the wedding—I couldn’t leave the baby for that long—but I did make it to the rehearsal dinner, then ducked out early so I could get back to nurse the baby. Only when I left the rehearsal dinner it was dark, and the roads that were barely familiar to me during the day in this town I didn’t live in weren’t recognizable at all at night. I didn’t have a cellphone or a navigation system in my car. What I did have was a hungry baby waiting for me at home, and a growing sense of desperation. I drove and drove and drove, through a rural backwoods without a gas station or store and few houses. At one point I pulled over by the side of the road and cried. I tried to turn around and retrace the route I’d driven, to get back to the rehearsal dinner, but I couldn’t find that either. Finally, after more than an hour of aimless driving, I saw a stone wall that looked familiar, then a street light, and I knew where I was. My baby was fine; I was fine. But I’ve never forgotten that sense of being utterly, hopelessly lost, without any idea where I was, where I was going, or where I had been.
This anecdote is an apt metaphor for what’s happened to me in the course of writing my fourth novel. I wrote 100 pages of a novel that neither my agent nor I liked very much, then put it away. I didn’t write for a while. Then I started a new novel, a novel I like very much, but 100 pages in I realized I was lost. My story was too complex; there were too many characters, too much drama, too many layers. I had no idea, really, where I was going—heck, I wasn’t even sure where I was.
So, as a seasoned hiker (and author), I did what you’re supposed to do when you’re lost:
- Stop moving and notice where you are. Read your manuscript all the way through. Look at where your characters are right now, and at what has transpired so far to bring them to this point. Does it make sense? Does it feel urgent? If someone asked you to sum up your story in sentence or two, could you do it? What would you say?
- Go back to the beginning. Why did you start writing this story? What was your original vision? Why was it important to you to tell this story? Review some of your original notes, or your earliest, roughest drafts of the first few chapters. How do they feel to you now?
- Consult your map and compass. Your map is your outline, or whatever your version of an outline is (for me it’s a rough—very rough—chapter by chapter synopsis). Has your story strayed? If so, are those different paths necessary and compelling and leading you in a better direction, or are you lost? Your compass is your inner compass, the thing in your gut that tells you “this is really good” or “this isn’t working.” Some parts of my fourth novel are the best writing I’ve ever done; other parts are mediocre at best. I want it ALL to feel like the best writing I’ve ever done. So I keep the parts I know in my gut are great; the rest is what I need to dig in and revise (or toss).
- Go to high ground and look around. Once my family and I went hiking in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. We had a guidebook that included instructions like “look for a pile of stones and bear left” and sure enough, after walking for an hour or more we were lost. But we were also on a treeless, windswept island with few roads. My husband climbed to the top of the nearest hill, looked around, and spotted the road (before an angry ram chased him away) and we walked to the road and weren’t lost any more. Do the same thing with your story. Look at it from a distance, at the whole thing, and try to get your bearings. When you look at what you have, does the story have a natural arc? Is it clear who your character is? Can you see what your character wants, and how to get there?
How do you get your bearings again when you lose your story?
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