I don't head out into the wilderness without a map. Well, I did once in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and, despite having a good sense of direction, got totally lost and was lucky to find my way back before nightfall. I remember being confused, a little freaked out and yet still hopeful that I'd stumble across something familiar.
That one time was enough for me to learn my lesson about the importance of maps.
So why has it taken me so long to figure out that I need a map for my writing?
I guess I thought that I knew enough from all my years of endless reading and class attending. But plot structure does not come via osmosis and I'm discovering that the way I've been writing is the equivalent of a hand drawn map on the back of a napkin when heading into treacherous territory. Because really, is there any territory more treacherous than my thoughts? (For those of you who have happy relationships with your thought processes, more power to you. However, my thoughts and I battle each other regularly.)
I recently had this "ah ha!" moment and have put the brakes on the work I've been doing on my book. In the week or so before the "ah ha!" I spent way too much time navigating, getting lost, moving chapters around, questioning turns in the plot and screwing up.
It was not the most satisfying week of work. In fact, I was a big time grump.
But now I know it was because I was lost. And yes, the feelings were remarkably similar to what I felt when lost in the forest except for the fact that it was all happening inside my head and I had plenty of tea and cookies* on hand to help me feel a little better.
So I'm backing up. I've pulled a few books that I admire off the shelf and I'm mapping them.** I'm re-reading them for structure and charting their movements chapter by chapter. And then I'm going to use them as models to map my own book. I can now actually say that I'm looking forward to trying again with my map in hand. It's kind of like getting myself psyched up to climb a challenging mountain, but I won't be going up it empty handed this time.
*Speaking of cookies, I thought I made good chocolate chip cookies, but the newest chocolate chip cookie recipe from Cook's Illustrated in which you brown the butter before making the cookie batter, is amazing.
**One really good side effect of the mapping project is that I've discovered the central idea for my next book and plan to have a map in hand for that one before NaNoWriMo rolls around.