We often talk about zeroing in on a story in the classic statue example—you start with a big square lump of clay and slowly build and cut and shape and trim until you get something that looks close to the story you're trying to write.
But I'd propose it's more like being in a helicopter, flying over the countryside, looking for something. You're not entirely sure what that something is that you're looking for when you first start out, but you know that you'll know it when you see it. (Kind of like exactly a graphic designer's worst nightmare.)
Even with the best planning, a first draft can still be meandering, exploratory—a quest, really, for the story that we're actually trying to tell, wrapped up in the shell of the story we went in there thinking we'd be telling. Because those two ideas don't always match up—and they don't always have to. Eventually, as you circle and circle around, you start to see glimpses of the compelling story, glimpses of what you actually came here for.
Sometimes the most compelling thread in a novel isn't the one you thought it would be when you started writing it, but there's no way to know until you're already halfway down the road. Suddenly, something changes direction—abruptly veers off, or stands out, or draws your attention.
This comes up a lot in NaNoWriMo: What if, halfway through, I discover something like this? Should I stop and rewrite what I've done?
The responses are always mixed. "Keep going as if you changed it," some camps say. Other camps: "Embrace it! Rewrite it! 50k means 50k anywhere."
I think of it like that old 90s movie, Twister.
Writing is kind of like storm-chasing. You get out there having an idea what you're going to find—a tornado, a hurricane. But it's not until you're actually driving beside it that you really know what you're in for, what kind of story you're going to find in there—whether that tornado is a 3, a 4, or a 5.
Zeroing in on a Story
The helicopter heads lower. You've spotted it. Maybe not "it," but something, a character or idea or plot twist that looks just shiny enough.
Don't get me wrong—I hate revising, as much as the next revision-hating writer. (I've noticed we seem to fall into two groups, us writers: drafters, and revisers. We don't understand each other and we definitely don't want our children marrying each other.)
But revising is where the zeroing really happens; where all the gems in your book have risen to the surface, just high enough, that they sort of glitter from under the dirt. Revising is where we clean them off and start pulling them up into view.
Getting to that point can be difficult, especially when we have to sacrifice so many other characters and sub-plots and story arcs that we really thought we wanted. (My latest revision has been an exercise in word-murder. So many wonderful things we write that don't end up anywhere in particular—sometimes I wonder if there's a word graveyard somewhere in computer land.) But a ruthless hand helps.
You can always rewrite something you removed later and better, but you can't ever discover something you didn't write in the first place.
Stories Morph and Change
What's really compelling about a story isn't always obvious at first. It's not until we explore the moral ambiguities at their edges, at the way they push and pull characters together and apart, that we see what's really worth writing an entire novel about.
And that's all right. If there's one thing I want to say is that it's okay to follow the yellow brick road, and see where it takes you. I write on proposal—I know it's not as easy as it sounds to let yourself be whisked away by a story. But confine it too much, and you risk never uncovering its true potential. Let it spin out of control too far, and you'll never finish what you started.
As always, writing is a tricky business.