This is a post about writing, but one can apply it to all kinds of life activities. It’s about that moment when I’m cooking along, writing, thinking “Oh yeah! Just gonna let the story take me where it will.” I’ve got the pedal to the metal, the radio blasting, letting the scenery flow past. After a while I slow down a little and wonder exactly where this thing is going, but I’m determined to not get in the way of this wonderful, organic process. After a while I reach a signpost. Which direction should I take? A few possibilities spring to mind and I pick one, telling myself that any direction is better than sitting still. I keep on going. Hey, this is great! Rocking down the road.
Wait! What’s that noise? Is it the transmission? Did I run over a branch and I’m dragging it? Uh oh. My heart sinks. I know what’s happening: The wheels are coming off. I screech to a halt and climb out to take a look.
Groan. It’s happened again. I’ve taken a wrong turn in my writing and the wheels have wobbled and wobbled….until they’ve fallen off. How do I know this is what’s happened?
1) The action has ground to a halt and I don’t a clue what can possibly happen next.
2) I’m bored. If I’m not excited about the story and where it’s headed, I can be sure my readers won’t be either.
3) The characters seem to have wandered away and are doing things that have nothing to do with the story.
4) I’m suddenly enthralled with the idea for my next book and think it would be a fine idea to start working on it right now.
5) I self-righteously remember that I’ve been neglecting my promotion activities—especially social media. Time to go to Facebook and take a few quizzes that enlighten me about what color my aura is, or where I should be living. Hmmm. New York City? Maybe I should start packing.
Okay, now what?
I kick the tires. I whine. I wander around the house thinking of all the chores I should be doing. But oddly, none of these appeal to me. I do more social media. I clean the refrigerator.
But at some point (like I remember that I have a contract deadline looming), I turn around and trudge back down the road to find out where I went wrong. Invariably I’m shocked at the rookie mistakes that I’ve stumbled into that have taken me out of my story and led to the breakdown. Here are a few signals I look for to get the wheels back where they need to be. I list them from the mundane to the most serious:
1) Remember when I said I was flying along “letting the scenery flow by?” Bad idea. When I stop grounding my characters firmly in their setting, that’s when they get the notion that they can go where they please. It’s all well and good saying, “the characters seemed to take over the story,” but in the end I’m responsible for them. It’s my job to keep them on task.
2) Odd dialogue. I start looking at dialogue and sometimes I realize that one of the characters has said something that another one should have said or is completely out of character. They are trying to find their way back into their proper roles, and I’ve let them wander away.
3) I’ve included some activity that doesn’t move the story forward. Action doesn’t always have to feed the main story line, but if it doesn’t it still has to have a real purpose. In a series, it may mean that a relationship or a back story is developing over time and the scene plays to that. What it doesn’t mean is that a character can kick around doing something unrelated to the main or sub-story. Any development has to feed the story. If it doesn’t it’s going to stop me down the line.
4) The premise needs tweaking. This can be a serious problem. It means I didn’t fully appreciate all the ramifications of the story idea and I may have to go back and do some serious rethinking. I’ve had to do it, and it’s a bear. But if I don’t do it, I’ll be on foot limping to the end—and then I’ll have to go back anyway and start over.
I said at the beginning that this doesn’t just have to be about writing. We all hit moments on any life project where everything stalls out. That’s when it’s time to go back and figure out where you ignored the signs that told you to go one way, and instead you went another. And to figure out what you have to do to get back on track.