Writing off the rails ...

I was dry for a blog topic this week and Alex Bledsoe posed an excellent suggestion. He recommended writing about how to know when you've gone off track while writing a new story. The answer to this type of question will be as unique as the authors answering it. [Alex did his own version of this topic over at his blog, so when you're done here, flip over and read how he avoids Shark-Jumping--an excellent post on keeping a series fresh.]

I know a lot of writers who are thrilled by the blank page. These intrepid souls just jump right into the storytelling process and turn out reams of words and characters that are believable and fun to read on the first draft.

I am not one of those writers.

Taking something so ethereal as thoughts and breathing life into people who really don't exist is hard work. It's a process that sometimes moves very quickly for me and sometimes very slowly. It depends on how new the work and characters are to me.

With the blank page before you, though, anything is possible. So how do I know when the story slides off the rails?

First of all, I never open a story without any idea of where I'm going. That's like getting in the car and driving with no destination in mind. A lot of the work on my novels begins on the front end with a synopsis and character biographies. I have a general idea of where I'm going, and while side trips can be interesting and reveal new things, I can never let myself forget the story's ultimate destination.

I don't have an exact method for knowing when the story goes off track. For me, it is a gut feeling that the story isn't coalescing the way it should. Then I usually hit a point where I can't move the story forward. It's a lot like looking at a puzzle where you have one piece that appears to fit but doesn't, and no amount of work will bring the picture together.

This summer I deleted 10,000 words of The Garden and began again, because the story had gone off track. It was a hard thing to admit. I wanted to keep building on that word count for a viable first draft, but no matter how I tried to rework the story, it simply was not working.

I understand my weaknesses as an author, so when I come to the point where I can't think of how to move my characters from point A to point B, I start looking for weak areas in the story.

I start with the emotional level of the work. I belong to the school of what I've nicknamed method writing. I need to be in that character's head, thinking their thoughts, and living their lives; otherwise, I feel like I'm writing a thesis--and trust me, you will feel like you're reading one. When my scenes and chapters are filled with all action and dialogue without a lot of thoughts and emotion from the point-of-view character, I know I'm not connecting with the story at a visceral level. Until I reach that point, the story feels off balance and the characters' words and actions don't ring true.

When I feel positively uninspired, I plug in my novel's soundtrack and go online to find images to kick-start my brain. [I do feel it is incumbent upon me to warn you that this kind of random searching can sometimes take you places best left unseen. Go on, search cyclopia in Google Images, I dare you. And remember to thank Scott Carney* for those nightmares when you're done.] It's not all creepy and horrible, though. I've searched images of Aragon, fantasy images, or Tumblr [Tumblr, Tumblr, you can be SO naughty], and I keep plugging search terms until I hit an image or group of images that inspire me. Sometimes it's a face or a setting or a piece of art, but I eventually locate something that evokes the mood I'm trying to achieve.

If I feel that I can easily slip in and out of my characters' minds and the story still feels flat, then I start looking for places where there is a lack of conflict. I like to maintain tension between all my characters, even the ones who "like" one another. Relationships are messy, complicated things, even with those we love. There is a constant balancing of needs (mine vs. yours) and that has to translate onto the page for me. So when the characters are moving through the scenes with a blasé attitude, then I have to examine why the relationships are moving too smoothly, especially between people who have just met and don't yet understand one another.

Usually everything is moving too smoothly because I'm being too nice to my characters. No one wants to read about normal people in a healthy relationship. Yes these people do exist; however, they provide little impetus for a riveting story. So when I hit that terrible stopping point where the plot will not move forward or back, then I have to go through the manuscript and look for places where the characters have it too easy. Are they working together for the common good? If they are, then something is wrong. I'm missing that vital link between self-interest, motivation, and conflict.

All of that self-interest, motivation, and conflict must revolve around one character--the protagonist, because there can only be one star of the show, and in my stories, it will always be a person, not a world. I enjoy interesting worlds, but the world is a backdrop, scenery. The other characters are satellites that influence and determine the protagonist's trajectory in the story. They will all have their own stories, their own histories, but they are not the star. The story is not about them, it's about the protagonist.

It's not that I don't like or think other books should be written with only one protagonist, some authors can carry multiple protagonists with aplomb. I've read novels where authors have juggled multiple protagonists and plot-lines with skill.

I am not one of those authors.

I stick to keeping my stories tight because that is what I like to read. I'm also old and I get confused easily. Trust me. We're all better off like this.

So if I feel the story is off-track, I go back through and look at all my scenes. Do all these scenes relate back to my protagonist? I had a problem in Miserere where I slipped off course once with Rachael. Rachael was a hard character to write, because there were times when she stepped in and tried to take the story over. She is much more intense than Lucian. Where Lucian wears his every emotion on his face, Rachael is locked down tight.

I had a chapter with Rachael that ended up on the editing room floor, because the chapter had no mention whatsoever of Lucian, it was all about her. The story had taken a side journey into Rachael's past. It was very helpful to me for characterization purposes, but it did nothing for the story. I was lucky that two critique partners picked up on it and both of them nixed the chapter. If it hadn't been for them, then I would have spent a lot of time writing, only to find that I'd slipped off base.

Diago almost hijacked The Garden. Guillermo has had a hard life, but he knows nothing of the constant shadow of fear that follows Diago. Of course, this makes Diago the more interesting character to me even though some readers might not find him likable. Mateho, my antagonist, was too focused on Miquel and not Guillermo; I had to bring Mateho's focus back to Guillermo. Belita was too competent, so by twisting a few sentences, she became more grotesque.

And so it goes. Small touches, a sentence here, a paragraph there, a shift in focus, a removal of power, all those things finally brought The Garden back on track. The sacrifice of 10,000 words made the story better, and my crit group is now deep enough into the book to reel me in if I slide off on a tangent.

What about you? Do you know when your story has slipped off track? How do you know when you're writing off the rails?

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*Scott Carney is the author of The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers / Excellent piece of investigative journalism, by the way.