I began NaNoWriMo with a very clear idea of where I was going. “You could say that Stewart Festivus was a special child.” That’s how the story began. Then, I would go on to tell you why Stewart was special, with a series of humorous anecdotes. I planned to build this clever refrain motif, always applying a different word to describe my hero (“special” would give way to “unique,” which would lead into “odd,” etc.) with each section getting progressively more bizarre and (hopefully) humorous. Finally, I would reveal that Stewart was just flat out “weird,” and then I would spend the next 50,000 words telling his quirky little story.
I think I made it all the way to the end of the first sentence before I caught a glimpse of that first tangent, shining just out of the corner of my eye. Like a cat with a laser pointer, I pounced, taking my orderly opening right off the rails. 16,000 words later, I’m still not back on track. Honestly, I think I lost sight of the tracks about 3,000 words ago. Oh well. Cest la vie. Welcome to NaNoWriMo.
Sometimes, tangents can be a writer’s best friend. Think of them like exploring an unfamiliar city. You’re walking down the busy streets. There are street signs, store names you recognize, perfectly normal people sharing the sidewalk with you. In other words, there is safety (or at least the illusion of it). But what’s that, twinkling down that side alley? Should you investigate? I don’t know, man. Looks a little sketchy. But the neon in that shop window looks pretty cool, and you think you can see something totally kitschy on display. What if there’s an adventure waiting down that alley? There’s only one way to know. You take a deep breath, make the sharp right turn and stroll into the darkness.
Sometimes, there really are monsters in the dark. When you’re writing, and you take the chance of following a tangent, those monsters are called “doubt,” and “regret” and “frustration.” We met them during my last blog post. They keep saying you have no idea what you’re doing, that you’re a terrible writer, that you should just quit. “You just got to the bottom of a page, and it’s crap. All of it. You wasted your time. You can’t even stay on track, how can you expect to tell a story that anybody would want to read?” Those monsters can be scary, but they can be easily vanquished.
“You’re right,” you confidently reply. “I don’t know where any of this is going. That’s precisely why I’m going there. You talk a big game, monster-man, but you’re just afraid. Afraid to have an adventure now and then.” That usually shuts them up pretty quick.
Sometimes, there’s not much to see down that alley. Sometimes, you spend two pages describing a character’s trip to the bathroom--and not even the gross stuff that happens once she gets there. I mean, I spent two pages writing about Mira walking down the hall on the way to the bathroom. But even that was an adventure, because she met someone along the way. Turns out there’s a strange old coot living in her apartment building. His nickname is “The General,” and I’m pretty sure he has no business being in this story. But, I think he belongs in some story, somewhere, and I never would have met him if Mira hadn’t spent two pages getting to the bathroom.
And, sometimes, you find exactly what you were looking for, whether you knew it or not. Two of my characters stepped off the boat from Ireland, and met a dock-worker. He was just a throw-away character. I didn’t even give him a name. But somehow, he just kept popping back up. Before I knew it, my Irish couple had actually conned this poor fool into letting them share his apartment. I realized that this dude was going to play a bigger part in my story than I originally thought. So I welcomed him fully into the story with a little joke--something like “Well, this guy obviously has a bigger role to play than I thought, so I guess I should tell you that his name is Phineas Lockheed.”
And Mr. Lockheed does play a big part in the story. I can already see the scenes taking shape. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and this unassuming dock-worker is going to help me get there. Wherever “there” ends up being.