How to write yourself out of a dead endS

It's NaNoWriMo week two — and if you've been keeping up with your word count, then chances are you're already into the tricky middle of your novel. Here's the part where you're most likely to go way, way off track.

Why is the wrong track always so tempting? It seems like a big part of the process of writing a novel is realizing that at some point, 10,000 or 20,000 words ago, you took a detour that you're going to have a hard time writing yourself out of. You may just have to hit the "reset button" and pretend those most recent 10,000 words didn't happen — and that's if you're lucky. Sometimes, it's not that simple — you have to untangle the good ideas from the bad, or figure out what "really" did happen to your characters, and what actually makes sense here.

This is a topic that is close to my heart, because I go off the rails in my fiction all the time, in short fiction as well as the nobbly fiction. In fact, I'm working on a novel right now where I've somehow taken a bit of a wrong turn into WTFland, and the characters are starting to notice. That's the thing — if you really take a hideous detour from the "right" track, your characters will get more and more uncomfortable. Because if your characters are any good whatsoever, they have unfinished business, and your detour is taking them away from it for no good reason.

The thing is, it's tempting to think of the wrong turn as just that — you went the wrong way, because your feeble writer brain got confused and you lost the thread. But most of the time, the wrong turn is actually a symptom of a larger problem with your story. Because, nine times out of ten, you wouldn't have gone off track if your original storyline had made sense. Consciously or subconsciously, you "felt" there was something hinky about the plan you'd made for your characters and plot, but you hit on the wrong thing. That's been my experience, anyway.

How to write yourself out of a dead endS

So to figure out why you took the wrong turn and how to fix it, you often have to go back to before you went awry, to see what you were doing when you were on the "right" track and how it was or wasn't gelling.

Think of the unscheduled detour as an opportunity — you have a chance to reevaluate your story and make it stronger, and all it cost you was those wasted 10,000 or so words. Sometimes the wrong track will tell you something important about your characters that you wouldn't have learned if you'd stayed on the right track — at the very least, you'll learn, "They wouldn't have gone that way."

Early warning signs of the dead end:

Like I said, you will eventually know you're in a blind alley, because your story will grind to a halt and your characters will be confused. The whole sequence of "and then this happened, which led to this other thing" will be borked, because there's no next thing. But that's not an early warning — that's your final warning.

So what's the foolproof early warning sign that you're going, as Starbuck would put it, the wrong way? I wish I knew. I've never found one. Oftentimes, the seductiveness of the detour is, in itself, the warning — the detour may appear to be a clever twist in your plot, or a cool idea for shaking up your characters and putting them into a different situation. Also, you may feel tempted to leap through a wormhole into a different universe of story logic, because you're getting bored with the story you originally came up with — in which case, it's better to stop and figure out why you're bored than just go gallivanting off in a new direction.

How to write yourself out of a dead endS

Part of why it's hard to recognize a wrong turn when you're taking one, of course, is the fact that sometimes a sudden idea for taking the story in a different direction or putting two surprising characters together does turn out to be a great idea, and winds up making the story as a whole much stronger.

On the other hand, if you have two characters who really need to talk, and your story depends on the two of them talking, but you keep finding silly reasons to keep them apart — chances are, that means you're just being lazy about writing that crucial conversation, or feeling blocked about what the characters will actually say to each other.

Can you salvage anything?

So you've got 10,000 words (or 20,000) of your novel heading down a sinkhole. Can you pull anything useful out of it? Maybe. Painful though it probably is, you may want to re-read the whole mess and see if there are any neat ideas in there. There may be a few interesting lines of dialogue, a revealing moment for one character, or something else that you can lift out and drop into your new, pristine "on the right track" storyline. In any case, don't delete those wrong words — save them somewhere, because you'll want to look at them when you're revising your first draft and trying to figure out how to add some more sparkle.

How to write yourself out of a dead endS

Also, like I already said, chances are you can't just go back to your original plan. The fact that you veered off course means you need to rethink what you're doing, and maybe backtrack quite a bit to find where you lost the thread. So even though this other direction you went off on is completely wrong wrong wrong, you may be able to take some hints from it about where you actually should be going from here.

Is it better to pretend you were on the right track all along?

Let's be honest, here — this is your first draft, and it's going to be poodoo. You're going to wind up tearing the whole thing up and starting over. So why not cheat a little?

Here's what I mean: Maybe you know where you ought to be in your novel, if you hadn't taken that wrong turn. Your characters were supposed to arrive someplace, or discover something, or reach the next stage of the plot. And maybe you can sort of see how you would have gotten there, if you hadn't gone totally the wrong way — so is it just wrong to pretend that you wrote the right section instead of the wrong section? And move forward with your characters where they're supposed to be? Then fix it when you do your second draft later?

This can actually work sometimes. I mean, most of the time your second draft is going to involve tearing up massive chunks of what you already wrote anyway, and replacing whole sections. So sometimes it may make sense to tell yourself that you'll fix that blight on your novel, along with the many others you'll no doubt find, when you do the rewrite.

How to write yourself out of a dead endS

There's only one thing that might prevent you from cheating in this way — if you can't move forward unless you actually go back and write the sections where your characters get to the point where you want them to be. If there's something that has to happen with your characters or your plot in the section you failed to write when you went AWOL, and you can only understand that thing by writing it, then you just have to grit your teeth and go back to where you went wrong. Otherwise, maybe you can just pretend you were right all along — just remember that you're storing up trouble for later. But isn't that always the way?

Final thoughts:

I like to believe that nothing in the creative process is ever a waste of time. (Including the midnight donut runs.) Whether this is true, though, it's definitely the case that agonizing over mistakes in your nobbelizing process will just slow you down — deal with it, learn what you can, and keep writing.

Pulp magazine cover scans by Hatwoman, Terry McCombs, Jovike and Pixeljones on Flickr.