We’ve blocked off our time and we’ve sat ourselves down and we’ve ignored the distractions of our day to get words on the page. But at some point, our enthusiasm winds down. We find ourselves grasping for the next paragraph and then the next line and then the next word, feeling as if our work is going nowhere. We’re lost. Our work has not only veered off the road of its through line, it isn’t even on the side road of an illuminating secondary thread. It’s totally wandered off onto a footpath into the woods. We can’t even point at the main road from where we’re standing.
What happens next? Some writers forge on. Eventually the work limps out of the woods onto a different road, battered and worn and broken. Some writers abandon the work in the woods to die, skeletonize, and never see the light of day again. They begin another, a fresh idea rekindling their writing fire until the day comes when those words, too, wander away. Some writers climb a tree and search for the road from above, looking for where the work veered into the woods and went astray. They mercilessly cut a path back to the road and set out again from a place they know. Guess which writer succeeds in bringing that wayward story or book to successful completion.
Finding the place in our work where we stepped off the road can take some sorting. If I have an outline, I go back to it and modify it to reflect the actual work. If I don’t have an outline, I make one from the work I have so far. Generally, to be aware we’re lost in the woods, we have to have a fair number of words on the page. Your theme, your main through line, and any secondary threads to that point in the work are usually visible if you study what’s already on the page. An outline or partial outline can help you see the work’s end point, the goal your characters must achieve or final lesson your reader must learn or discover. Review your theme, your progression, and where you want to end up. Can you see where your work dove off the road into the trees?
If not, skim the work from the beginning, noting the major events of your through line and secondary threads in separate columns or by labeling them A, B, C, etc. Each major event should help form a logical progression of story or concept within each column. Secondary threads should parallel, cross or merge with the through line. If they remain parallel throughout the work, they must provide some insight to the events of the through line. Can you see where your work wandered into the undergrowth?
If not, enlist the help of a beta reader. When enlisting the aid of a beta reader to steer you back on course in an unfinished work, look for someone who reads widely and is capable of breaking down a work for theme, logical progression, and structure. This may be a reader you know who reviews books in a way you admire or a fellow writer or editor you trust. Another option is a critique group, with the caveat that sometimes it’s hard to see the divergence when reading a work in small portions over weeks or months. Comments such as “something feels off about this submission, but I can’t pinpoint it” or “maybe I missed something, but it’s unclear why character Z is doing X in this submission” can be clues of where the work has left the road.
Once you find out where the last words standing on the road are, climb down from your tree and move your cursor onto the game trail beside you. Hack your way back to the road by deleting as many of those beautiful words as necessary to get back to the road. I’ll repeat that. Delete as many words as it takes to get back to paved ground. That might be 600 words. That might be, as New York Times bestselling author Rachel Caine once experienced, 35,000 words. Cry if you must, but cut them. Your work will be better for it.
We all get lost in the woods. At some point, we all have to cut what we think might be the best work we’ve ever written. Rage and gnash your teeth a bit, but then write on! Please share your thoughts on, or your experience of, writing into the woods. Join me on the first Friday of each month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.