The art of course correcting

compass

Silk’s Post #146 — The course to your writing goal is rarely a straight line (a reality writing shares with most other life goals). When you start writing a novel – especially if you’ve done all the work of outlining, or at least envisioning the story arc from start to finish, you think you know where you’re going.

But when you encounter an unexpected impasse, what do you do? Press on ahead, no matter what? Or reassess and correct course?

In other words, can you – and should you – be flexible enough to deviate from your carefully-planned roadmap? Without feeling like you’ve given up, or failed? Or should you go backwards and try to “fix” whatever narrative deficits have brought you to this troubling nexus?

For some writers, the answer is “forward-ho!” Forge on to the predetermined end, and fix whatever problems are causing a sense of discomfort or dislocation in the second draft. Nothing wrong with that strategy, especially if it keeps you on-track with your writing discipline. Mind you, you may be spending a lot more time with your second draft working out stubborn plot or character problems than you had imagined. But it’s a way forward.

And forward is where we must go.

Other writers may pull up the reins, look around at their storyworld surroundings, and realize they’re just plain lost. How did I get here? Everything’s wrong! Feeling trapped in the bog of the mushy middle is no fun, and I wonder how many books simply die right there … slowly sinking into the quicksand of confusion and lost momentum.

To be brutally honest, some unfinished and unworkable stories do need to be given a decent burial rather than continue to suck energy out of their authors, to no good end. But many others are salvageable – maybe even brilliant, eventually – if the writer is willing to let go of the original prescribed plan and let the story bloom in its own natural time and manner.

What happens when an author gets to the narrative’s mid-point, for instance, and realizes – with horror and probably a wrenching ache in his or her gut – that the protagonist should  actually be someone other than the chosen lead character? Or that, even worse, the protagonist is terminally boring, or unlikeable? Or that close third person isn’t working at all, and the story should be told in first person? Or that the whole “voice” of the book is wrong? Or that the story is actually a mystery, not a romance, and needs major structural revisions?

Ah, but these are the lucky authors. The ones who can actually see what’s wrong in the course of the first draft. Why they’re struggling, why they’re swimming against the tide. For many of us, these insights may not come until much later – although “later” is still not “too late” when it comes to a novel. Many resurrections take place in the second or third draft.

However, making a decision to correct course in the middle of a writing journey can be more than daunting. It can be debilitating. Demotivating. Discombobulating. And, seriously – do we need yet more hurdles and self-doubt in our sometimes stuttering writing practices? After all, we’re not out on the high seas in a Clipper ship, our very lives dependent on finding the right course to make a safe landfall. We can just tuck that off-track manuscript in the bottom drawer and go do something more rewarding.

Persistance can be hard, but it can have a big pay off.

Correcting course requires some potentially painful choices. And they can be humbling.

It may mean literally throwing away a lot of stuff you worked hard on, and struggling to convince yourself that it wasn’t just a waste of time. It may mean psyching yourself up to counteract the demotivating experience of having to go backward before you can go forward. It may mean admission that you over-reached, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t work smart enough, or picked a genre that isn’t your forté, or any number of other writing sins.

And sometimes the worst sin of all is simply neglecting your writing practice. Maybe you’ve left your manuscript untouched for so long that it has become a kind of skeleton in your closet, Exhibit #1 in the damning case against your sin of omission, a personal rebuke. Maybe you got stuck somewhere along the way, the going got tough, and you put it aside for later. Now it’s later, much later. Are you going to keep avoiding it? Or summon your courage and seek a fresh direction?

To recognize you need a course correction, you have to admit you’re on the wrong track. And who likes to be wrong?

But this is where the art of it comes in – the art of nourishing your writer’s soul. Writers all work essentially alone. Yes, you may be lucky (as I am) to have a writers/critique group, or an editor, or a mentor, or any number of wonderful, supportive people in your writing life. And that really matters. But when the words go on paper, it’s just you and the blank white page. You are an enterprise with a staff of one: yourself.

You have to look after yourself and your assets – your mind, your imagination, your health, your skills, your commitment, your creative spirit, and maybe most of all your enthusiasm.

So don’t look back. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself huge points for making the decision to get back on track, take a breath, then get to work with renewed hope and energy. Because although writing is hard work, it should be joyful work.

In my own experience, writing feels incredibly good when it flows, when I know my scene, or my character, or my storyworld, or my narrative arc is working well. It only feels bad when I’m grinding my gears because something’s broken down.

Course corrections are positive. They mean you’ve learned something essential. They mean you’re becoming a better writer. And, hopefully, they lead you away from the struggle of wrestling with something that isn’t working right, and back to that euphoric place all writers seek: The Zone.

And The Zone is where I hope I’m bound this week. Because I have to admit that, of late, I’ve been guilty of the sin of neglecting my writing practice. Yes, right in the middle of the 5writers5novels5months challenge. While the hardy NaNoWriMo participants gushed hundreds of thousands of words during November, my writing output barely filled a teacup.

I was stuck with a few pretty major holes in my current story. Who, exactly, is my villain? How does the story end? And what motivates one of my key characters to take the action that unlocks the whole flow of the plot arc?

Yeah. Big questions. Until I answered them, I was paralyzed. I questioned whether the whole book premise even made any sense. I wondered whether I was capable of writing it, given that it’s a story far outside my own personal experience. I felt like a fraud, taking on a complex, dark, “big idea” story as a novice writer living my idyllic life on my nice, safe little Pacific Northwest island.

So I stalled out. I found other things to do. And my underfed manuscript sat abandoned on my drive. And meanwhile, the 5/5/5 challenge clock ticked towards our deadline.

But, almost unbeknownst to me, my mind kept at the story. Wouldn’t let it go. I wasn’t even aware I was processing it until last week, when the answers to my plot and character questions suddenly popped into my consciousness while I was driving to the grocery store. All in one big epiphany!

So I’m back to the keyboard, and it feels good. Not quite Zone-like yet, but I have renewed confidence I’ll get there.

But now a new course correction is needed.

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.

7 thoughts on “The art of course correcting

  1. Good analysis! My closest writer friends (emotionally and physically) don’t get me at all. They write out detailed outlines for their fast-paced adventure novels, then begin at the beginning and speed on through like a couple of freight trains. There never seems to be any doubt in their minds, and they are impatient with my muddled middles, where my word count seems to stall and I have nothing to report when we compare progress. They start thinking that it’s a bust and I’ll never finish, so I should dump it and start something else. But when I first start a story, I have a pretty good idea what it’s about and how it ends. I make notes and I always have my head full of scenes that simply have to go down on paper (USB flash drive, you know what I mean) before they’re lost. Then somewhere about a third of the way, I realize that I’m not sure what comes next or how I intend to get to the end. It’s not a muddle, it’s a big hole. In one novel I was halfway through before I made up my mind who the killer was. (So many choices! :D) But after that it was smooth sailing. Hey, there’s my metaphor! They are speeding trains, I’m a sailboat that sometimes clips through the water at a hell of a pace, and sometimes is becalmed in the middle of a flat empty ocean. Anyway, I’m always under subtle pressure, mixed with barely disquised exasperation, to just sit at the keyboard and get ‘er done. They don’t realize that my mind is working all the time (I could pull in that line, lay the boom over quick, maybe I can catch a little bitty breeze and start moving again). By getting some scenes down before I know what they mean to the story is my way of figuring out where the story is going. Love those epiphanies!

  2. Eugenia, thanks for the comments — it looks like I hit a nerve with you, and you reciprocated! Being a sailor myself, your sailing analogy really resonated. You have to experience being becalmed on a sailboat to truly understand how frustrating it is … and how helpless you can feel. However, it certainly teaches patience and humility — useful things in so many circumstances. The advice you gave that I LOVE is to write scenes before you know what they mean to the story, to coax the story to reveal itself. I’d call that the lilypad technique … envision key scenes, then create the plot that best links them by figuring out a hopping path that works (though I don’t know how many analogies this topic can bear … I might have just gone over the line)! Thanks for reading us Eugenia!

  3. Silk, great post, familiar topics you managed to put a new and interesting spin on many. This is as good as a seminar on writing, because it highlights our trials and tribulations so very well. Good advice and a great read. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks Helga. It’s taken me a few unproductive months to wrap my head around this. It feels like I’ve been going through a “mid-life crisis” as an unpublished author. As I’ve been climbing the learning curve, the unrealistic optimism and excitement of the neophyte writer has been left behind – as would be expected. But the fulfillment of success still lies ahead. It’s like being stuck in the mushy middle of a career … I’ve been floundering (maybe we all have a bit). I’m trying to look at it from that longer-term perspective and it has helped renew my enthusiasm (hopefully this is not just temporary)! You really never know when you’re going to “get there” – I’d sure hate to go 90% of the distance, then quit in the last mile!

  4. Thanks for your self-reflection and changing courses. It all boils down to the decisions we make day to day. Choose writing and it will get done!

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