Sunday, October 28, 2012

Getting Lost In Your Manuscript

Last weekend, I got terribly lost in a corn maze.  On purpose.

Rainy weekends and soccer schedules made us miss out on apple picking, and we were determined to get one fall staple checked off.  While my husband and I referenced weather reports, sliced oranges, and programmed the GPS, my kids popped on boots and ran circles around the yard in happy anticipation. 

As the sun rode high, there we stood at the entrance to the maze, listening to the wind click-clack through the dried-out corn stalks, and wondering what the next few hours had in store for us and how many children we’d be carrying on our backs by the time we exited. Then we stepped into the unknown. 

My eldest son (though he doesn’t know it, because we tell my twins we “forgot” who came out first; no one needs that kind of one-up over a measly minute) had a plan in mind: a left, right, left pattern he determined to use at every juncture. Incredibly and without actual reason, it worked!  Ten minutes later we were standing in the same spot, having just exited the maze.  We were giddy with accomplishment and breathless at the staff’s shock.  And then we were… disappointed.  That had been far, far too easy.  And now it was over.  No fun!

We looked sideways at one another and my youngest (and yes, she knows it and uses it to every advantage) proposed, “Let’s go again!” So we turned around and plunged back in, this time with no intent but to get good and lost. 

About 45 minutes later, with nothing but towering stalks on all four sides of us and out of hearing range of the hayride circling the perimeter, we held our flag high above our heads to signal for help.  A staff member located us within minutes and gave us a choice.  He could escort us directly to the exit or we could follow him onto a wooden bridge in the center of the maze that would allow us an overview of the entire labyrinth. No one needed carrying yet, so we opted for the bridge. 

“Hey,” exclaimed my other son, “The maze is shaped like a rocket ship!” From far above we could see shapes and patterns. We could see the outer space theme and we could see the way we needed to proceed to reach the end. We took deep collecting breaths and descended back into the corn with purpose.  We got a little lost again, but this time we course-corrected more easily.  With the sun riding low and the corn casting shadows, we again stood (or in the case of my daughter, rode piggyback) at the exit, more tired, but far more accomplished for having done the real work of solving the maze.  Of course, there was no real time for reflecting: hot cider donuts awaited.

Now you’re all smarty-pants writers, so I know you’re picking up on my analogy here, but let’s be corny (get it?) and talk about how this could relate to your writing.

You may approach your novel as a plotster, analyzing the publishing market for your genre the way we checked the forecast, preparing outlines the way we programmed our GPS and envisioning possible disaster scenarios the way we packed food and water for the inevitable mid-maze hunger meltdown. Or perhaps you’re a panster, whipping out your laptop in the same manner my kids slid on boots and bubbling over with happy anticipation at the murky mess that awaited.  Either way you find yourself at the beginning, staring into the unknown. 

Perhaps you have a formula to follow- a left, right, left of plot turns and characterizations.  It may even bring you to a smooth and quick finish.  The excitement! The envy of all around you!  The… let down.  That was too easy, not nearly satisfying enough.  And if you felt that way writing it, chances are your readers will feel that way reading it.  It may be time to get lost on purpose. 

Dive back into your manuscript, take all lefts until you’re good and stuck in the middle.  You know what to do now.  You have your flag.  Send it up to summon a critique partner or two or ten.  Bring them to join you in the mess and then let them show you to a bridge.  Stand above at a good distance from your story and see if you can spot the overriding themes.  See if you can spot the places you made wrong turns and the path you need to take to reach the finish line.  Let them point you in the right direction. Dive back in. Get a little more lost, but with assurance, knowing you’re close. Very close. Reach the end, exhausted but happy, accomplished, having put in the work to solve the full puzzle. You may be on your own two feet or you may be getting carried out by an agent or an editor, but you’ve done it nonetheless. Bask in the glory! Go forth and seek out hot cider donuts.

And whether your autumn plans include an actual corn maze or whether they include 50k worth of NaNowriMo, have fun getting lost and found.


  1. Hi Jen! First off, I'm so jealous that you made it to a corn maze. With the weather being so weird and our crazy schedule we didn't get to do a corn maze this year :( But, I love the analogy. I am definitely a "get lost" writer when it comes to my 1st draft. No outline, no plan...just GO! And I've definitely managed to get lost going down the wrong path, but it really is fun! I love to see where my characters take me! I have most of the plot for my nano story in my brain, but for the rest of it, I'm just going to see where the corn maze leads!

  2. What a cool post! And a great metaphor for writing. I think getting lost is fun-- your characters show you who they truly are and cool stuff happens that you'd never expect.

    And, as Nano is just around the corner, here's to getting good and lost this November!

  3. Thank you for posting this. I have been afraid to just go where my story takes me because I am worried that I will become so lost that I will never make sense of it and find a way back out. I found your post to be timely and encouraging.

  4. I love - LOVE - that your twins don't know who came out first.

    LOVE IT!

    You get the Mom-O-The-Minute award!