Have you ever driven to somewhere unfamiliar to you, taken a wrong direction, and had to turn back? I have. Actually, I do it pretty frequently, in life and in writing.
One of the most painful writing conundrums to me is when I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into a piece (usually a novel) and I realize suddenly that the story has taken a wrong turn. I thought I knew the way; I had mapped out my route, knew my characters, and at some point felt I was going in the right direction. But then one day it hits me: I am in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve reached a dead end. I feel like a cartoon character driving on a road when one of those big ol’ red-and-white barricades shows up in the headlights and the next thing you know, you’re over a cliff and your car is exploding on the rocks. Of course, if you’re a cartoon you always walk away unscathed. Writers, not so much.
This happened recently for me with my novel Out. I was cruising along the story road, confident and happy. I knew where my character was going, and I was in the backseat, happily watching the action. But somewhere along the way, it started turning into a kind of spy novel, full of secret meetings and messages and clandestine drop-offs. It was sort of fun, but I realized that the core of the story, the thing that should drive it, had faded away in the glare of this fantastic espionage twist. I tried to convince myself that I should just keep going, and that it would work out for the best. I really liked some of my cool twisty spy stuff! But that annoying pixie of conscience or good judgment or the universal collective knowingness kept tapping on my psychic shoulder, reminding me that, indeed, this was the wrong way.
I eventually paid attention. I ruthlessly chopped fifty pages, which was like chopping off an arm. I went back to the place in the story where the heart had been, where the roots had been, and restarted. At the time, it was very depressing. I mourned my lost words. I grieved about the wasted time, a precious commodity in my chaotic household. I tried to be gentle with myself about the missteps, knowing that they were all part of the ultimate plan, and that they would reveal the truth to me.
I went back to the beginning, recrafting the story from the start, infusing it with the love story I felt was missing. When I’d finally done that, I saw what a half-done job it had been before, and I was glad that I’d spent the blood, sweat, tears, and time to retool it. I had the lovely experience of reading the previous day’s writing and being disappointed that I had stopped because I wanted to read more! That was when I knew it was good.
I can gladly say that now, almost a year later, I am almost finished with this book, and the direction in which I chose to drive was the right one. I believe it, no matter what anyone else says about the story. Of course I want people to like it, to relate to it, to comment on its brilliance and such, but mostly I feel proud that I paid attention to whatever it was that tapped me on the shoulder and begged for my attention.
I’m glad I asked for directions, even indirectly.