Welcome to A Novel Approach, a weekly (more or less) note about writing. Join us and follow us. I’ll post the tip on Twitter at JWLBooks and the full note on Facebook at Jack Woodville London, at the MWSA site, and right here. And, by the way, this installment is in honor of my good friend Maria Edwards, who is smart enough to have sorted this out without me.
It is a miracle that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon — the Apollo 11 was off course ninety per cent of the time from launch to lunar landing. So, how did it make it to the moon at all? The answer is ‘mid-course corrections.’
I have never written anything (including this episode) in one draft. Between my first sentence and where I intend to land, I invariably drift off course into the land of clever comments, characters who turned out to be more interesting than when I first thought about them, events that are too absorbing to treat lightly. Not until I read what I have written is it apparent that the story in progress is not the one I set out to write.
As absorbing as she is, A Farewell to Arms is not about Nurse Barkley. Despite that Boo Radley is not what he seems, To Kill a Mockingbird is not a story about the odd neighbor next door. Without continual awareness of what their stories really were, it would have been very easy for Hemingway to drift off into a tale about alluring army nurses or for Harper Lee to write a tale a tale about the night the recluse who lived in the haunted house took care of Bob Ewell.
Good authors diagram from beginning to end the story they set out to write. They put it down on paper, on notecards, on powerpoint slides, on whatever works for them, to plot the story and keep the essential characters, events, and relationships on track. Inevitably, while reviewing drafts, it surfaces that some characters are only fill, some events detract, and some relationships don’t add anything. No matter how much the author loved them when writing about them, how hard it is to toss two or twenty or two hundred pages, they have to go.
The goal is not to finish a book but, rather, to finish the story you set out to write.
Course corrections — if they work for NASA, they will work for you.
Jack Woodville London is the Military Writers Society of America Author of the Year for his novel French Letters: Engaged in War. Visit and browse book reviews, news, tips, and The Letters Project at http://JWLBOOKS.com