Monday, March 7, 2011

When You Get Lost on the Road

You're driving down the road, a long drive. You have a general idea where you're going. Everything seems fine 'til you come to the proverbial fork in the road. Like the guy in the poem you look down the road in both directions as far as you can see, and you pick one on a hunch and start driving.

That's what I did. At first I thought the road I'd taken would get me to more or less the same place as the other, but pretty quickly I wasn't so sure. Then I began to wonder where it would take me, and now I've finally realized, too late, that this road doesn't go anywhere at all.

When you've taken a wrong turn you have two choices. Look for a bypass that will get you back on track, or stop, turn around and go back to the wrong turning and start over. You lose time that way, but what else can you do? Where you are isn't going to get you anywhere, it's a dead end. So you turn back.

This weekend I realized that's where I am with Bones. I've been driving down the wrong highway – literature-ally, if not literally, the story is about a road trip, after all – for the last few weeks. I made a wrong turn, introduced two characters and a new situation that seemed full of promise, but are going nowhere.

At first I figured if I just plowed ahead it would take me eventually to where the story needs to be. But it hasn't. The last couple of weeks I realized that the first half and the second half go together like a Ping Pong table and a killer whale. Not at all. I've been desperately searching for a way to turn off on a side road and make my way back to the highway that is the original story idea.

And now I understand there's nothing to do but turn around, go back to where I made the mistake, and start over.

That means I'm jettisoning about half of the 38,000 words I've written. And once I made the decision, I relaxed. I know it's the right thing to do.

There's no guarantee, of course, that the other 19,000 words are going to get me anywhere worthwhile, but at least I'm back on the right road. There was some decent bits and three interesting characters in the stuff I mucked out. They may show up again someday, in a story where they fit. In this case, none of the material served the story, and sometimes you just have to have the guts to accept your losses and move on.

So Dan and Brian, no last names given, the two gas station robbers who were hounding the kids and haunting my dreams by not carrying their weight, are gone. So is Gina, the girl from the carnival. And I'm breathing again. I can see the story again.

I've actually done something like this once before, with Gladys. I started with a great premise, at least I think it is, and started writing. But after six chapters and about 17,000 words, I realized that while the writing was good,maybe the best I've done, it had nothing to do with the story. It was a lot of really well written throat clearing. So I scrapped them, all 17,000 words, and started over. There was nothing left but the main character's name, the year (1718) and the town where the story starts, Hampton, Va. And the story took off.

So I'm happy to be back on track and now see the first draft being finished inside two months.

Being willing to go where your characters take you is one thing. But throwing a roadblock in their path (Dan and Brian) for no reason, just to see, and let the roadblock take over the story, makes no sense.

I'm back on the path.

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