Writing without a Road Map

Writing without a Road Map

by Jen Parks           

Start with this: Four strangers get into a car...

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? Or, maybe a B movie. What about the beginning of a novel?

Next, consider these words by E. L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Confused yet? Let me back up and explain.

It’s Friday, January 8th and it’s the next to last day of the Bluegrass Writers Studio Winter Residency. All week, I’d attended workshops, craft talks, and readings. As I settle into my seat and open to a blank page in my notebook, readying myself for Lee Martin’s craft talk, I realize I am still hungry, though not for food like you might think. I am hungry for something else. Hungry for inspiration.

I’d just spent months staring at the computer, faced with the seemingly impossible task of editing the first draft of my novel. It was slow going and I am certain I deleted more words than ever made it onto the page.

Throughout the writing of that first draft I had Doctorow’s word to guide me. I kept, in the back of my mind, the idea that it was okay to not know everything. That I would learn about my characters and their story as I wrote. Day after day, I willingly got into the car with a bunch of characters I didn’t really know much about, with little more than an inkling of where we’d end up.

By the end of that little road trip I like to call “the writing of a first draft,” I had learned a lot. My characters surprised me, as I knew they would, taking me on a journey to places I had not realized I wanted to visit. But while surprise in writing can be a good thing, figuring out how to revise that surprise to make it look like I had planned it all along is something else entirely.

So here I am, sitting at Lee Martin’s craft lecture, scribbling down notes as fast as I can, when I hear him say the words I hadn’t known I’d been waiting to hear. “Everything at the end of the story is present in the beginning.”

Though I knew at the time his words would be of great inspiration to me, it took some reflection before I came to realize that Martin’s advice gave me permission to use what I had discovered about my characters and their stories in the revision of my novel, right from the beginning.

Now, when I sit down to the computer to revise, I know who’s going to get in the car with me. I know who needs to sit up front and who doesn’t. I know who can get along with others and who can’t. I may still be driving this novel at night, but this time the headlights burn a little brighter. 

Born and raised in a small town south of Pittsburgh, PA, Jen Parks is now a Lexington, KY transplant. She is in her third year of the BGWS, writing fiction and the occasional line of poetry. Once upon a time she watched flying squirrels fly, stopped in the middle of an Edmonton street to see the Northern Lights, and shook the hand of the real "Patch Adams."

Published on February 24, 2016

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