sixteen // finding your way when you’re lost

sixteen // finding your way when you’re lost

Inevitable it happes. At some point in the writing process, you will lose your way. And doubt your ability. And want to cry in a closet because if you can’t write then what else is there? 

Whether you’re drafting for the first time and don’t know which choices to make, or grooming a manuscript and suddenly feel as though you have not a story, but only a collection of beautiful and finely-picked words, you’re not alone. I’ve been in that dark place more than once, and even recently my editing has stirred up a lot of trouble in my heart over the strength of my novel.

In editing, I tend to focus strongly on the prose and spend a lot of time with a thesaurus. I love words, and finding the perfect synonym to suit a sentence is a bit of a rush (I don’t have a very exciting life if you haven’t figured that out already). But usually at this stage I get so caught up in my word choices, I tend to disregard the actual plot and halfway into a manuscript find the story doesn’t work. At all. I try little fixes like rearranging plot points, drawing out scenes for pacing, adding characters, killing characters, but when I begin fretting over the substance of the story and find holes at every turn, I know these little fixes can’t help me. Rather, I’ve lost sight of the heart of the plot and need to get back to the bare bones story.

For you it may be subplot or a tricky plot twist or an unreliable narrator that distracts you from the storytelling, but if you’re feeling lost, or are anticipating feeling lost, not to worry! You don’t have to scrap your story and start over, or focus on a different project entirely (unless you want to). If you really want to make a lost story work, I have a reliable process I’ve used many times to dig myself out of this kind of hole. Technically, it’s the first step to the snowflake method (which you can work through in full if you need extra help), but all you have to do is distill the story to its roots. In other words, what is your story really about?

To do this, you have to slice your story down to a sentence of about fifteen words. This can be difficult, and if you’re particularly derailed, it may take a while. But think about it: is your story about two enemies trying to flee a tyrannical kingdom ruled by one of these character’s evil twin, or is the story really about one of the enemies falling in love with the other? Is your story about a girl working up the courage to play a personal piece in a piano competition so she can win a good sum of money, or is it really about the girl’s relationship with her father? Get to the skeleton of your story, and all those other fancy things will take shape around it. It may take a while, and it will involve a lot of backtracking at some point to form coherence, but you must establish where the true plot lies and what your readers can expect the story to deliver (and then, deliver it!).

If you can’t cut the fat to form a sentence through all the muck, your story may be sufficiently buried under those non-story things (pretty words, unruly twists, narrator styles). In that case, return to your characters, their goals, their motivations, their flaws. These are the foundation of your story, after all, and they must be strong enough to uphold it, opposed enough to create conflict and tension. Make sure you know what your characters are fighting for and what they stand to gain or lose from the battle. Is your character really motivated by pride, or do they secretly love that person they’re supposed to hate? Is your character trying to win a competition or is she vying for her father’s attention? Sometimes giving these elements the time and understanding they deserve is all you need to uncover your story’s true plot. 

Remember that it is natural and expected to lose a grip on your story, and it is certainly natural to doubt yourself. But if you have the pieces and the drive, enough time and effort will yield results, and a completed, final manuscript is what we writers are all after. Because even though I’d love to be published one day, and that is the goal I’m aiming for right now, I’m beginning to realize that writing itself is the true reward, and no matter how lost I get in with a story, it’s part of the fun to be able to chart my way back.

/// E.S.T.

NOW TELL ME // Have you ever felt totally lost with a story? What did you do to get back on track? Give me your best advice below!

photo by: Denise Jans

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