This post originally appeared on Medium in February 2021. 

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

I’d been writing in circles, creating a first draft that was decidedly not working. The problem was that I had two main characters who were alternating as narrators, and I couldn’t keep track of where their narratives intersected.

Well, okay, that was ONE problem. One of many.

I also hadn’t started out with any kind of plan. A scene had arrived in my mind, and I’d written it. Then I’d tried to flesh out the story around it. Who were these two kids? How did they get to this pivotal scene?

It was like starting a jigsaw puzzle by just diving in and finding matching pieces without knowing the picture within the puzzle. I had a cluster of pieces here, a cluster of pieces there.

After much hair-pulling, I realized that the only way out of this maze was to take the bird’s-eye view and draw myself a map. I needed to see where each character’s story started, where it was going, and where it ended. I had to find the places where they intentionally intersected. And I had to make sure that the events of the story were actually driving forward, not stuck in one spot.

I needed not just to hold these ideas loosely in my mind. I needed to see the big picture. So I grabbed my colored pencils and poster-sized paper and got to work.

What is surprising is not that I made this decision, but rather that I hadn’t made it before. I’ve always been a person that needs to see a visual representation of abstract ideas. Flow charts. Checklists. Maps. I rearrange furniture several times before I know where I want it. I need to know what the finished dish is supposed to look like before I start pulling ingredients out of the fridge.

The graph began to emerge; a purple line for one character, a teal one for another. I intentionally chose colors that felt calming as I drew. The lines moved upward as the story developed, reaching the apex of the narrative, the first scene I’d written. I notched each line with the major plot points for each character, noticing where the gaps were and where there was too much too close together. The lines became the lives of these sweet 7th graders who had lived in my heart for close to two years. I could see where they were, why they were there, and where they were going next.

It wasn’t a quick fix, but it was the fix I needed. I posted that graph on the wall above my desk. I added to it. I scribbled things out. And once my first draft was finished, I took down and recycled it.

It had done what it needed to do. I knew where I was going.

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