Jen Parks Writes a Novel, part 2: Lost in a Good Book
By Jen Parks, Bluegrass Writers Studio
I like to think that I have a good sense of direction. I can usually remember how to get to a place, even if I’ve only been there once, committing to memory tiny details like: turn right at the mailbox with the cardinal picture on it or turn left at the house with the tractor tire on its side in the front yard. Every once in a while, though, despite my memory, I get lost. Really lost.
Once, after a high school cross country meet, some friends and I decided to run a “cool down” mile together. Since the course was still occupied with runners, we chose to take another trail that we were fairly certain would loop around and bring us back to where we started. We had no map for the state park that we were in. No trail guide. We were going on gut instinct alone, gauging the trail’s direction based on the surrounding hills and the late afternoon sun.
When we started jogging, we could hear through the forest the sounds of people cheering on the finishing runners. Though we couldn’t see them, hearing them was enough to convince our teenage logic that we were on the right path. We pushed on, believing the end was just around the next turn. But the next turn came, and the next, and the one after that. The sounds of people faded. Then someone said, “I think we’re lost.” Someone else said, “I think we’d better go back the way we came.”
I’m reminded of this story now because I recently had a similar experience in beginning my novel. I had a vague idea of how to start, knew a bit about my characters and had a sense of the story I wanted to tell – in the order I thought I needed to tell it. So, I set out on a path that I thought would bring my characters’ stories together. Over the next few weeks, I spent countless hours alone, hunkered down in a yard sale wingback chair, pushing out word after word onto the page. When I had written around thirty pages, I sent them off to my instructor and fellow classmates for critique.
But instead of feeling the relief that one might feel after having completed an assignment, I felt panicked. I had no clue what was supposed to happen next. By thirty pages, I was hoping some sort of writer's instinct would kick in, that some sort of sign inherent to novelists would pop up and show me the way. After all, something got me through those first thirty pages, right? And what about those few “ah ha!” moments where my fingers could barely keep up on the keyboard. What was wrong?
What was wrong, I came to realize after reviewing my workshop notes, was that I had written myself into a dead end. I couldn’t get my characters anywhere near where I needed them to go if I stayed on the same path. I had to go back to the beginning and ask myself (and my characters) some hard, objective questions. When I listened, really listened, I found the answers I was looking for, and in turn, made some changes that propelled the novel forward in an organic way.
For now, the changes are working. However, I am not too naïve to believe that it won’t happen again. Somewhere along the way, I’ll get lost again. And when I do, I’ll have to go back the way I came.
Published on October 15, 2014