Take the Long Way Home (some writing advice to my future self)

I just finished the first act of Accidentally Inspired.

This was a surprise to me.  I hadn’t been writing it with a 3-act structure in mind, though certainly I’m aware that stories tend to read well when there’s a structure like that in place (problem is introduced in the first act, characters bang their heads against the problem in the second act, problem is resolved in the third act).  Nonetheless, I’ve never been much of a planner.  In storytelling, I like to learn who the characters are, decide what the central problem is, and then simply write the characters and let them figure it out.

In retrospect, this might be why I’ve burned myself out on writing in the past.  Because as much as any character worth his salt can surely find his way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it helps if there’s a trail of breadcrumbs, a map, or ANY SEMBLANCE OF ANYTHING TELLING YOU YOU’RE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.  Up until the current project — and I mean that as literally as I possibly can mean it, as in I took action against this problem TODAY following my Project writing session — here’s how I write.

Step 1: The idea strikes.

Step 2: A few days / weeks / months pass in which the idea putters around my head like a hobo looking for change.  If the idea is a good one, it will grow, drawing my focus and attention to it like protoplanets gathered matter in the infant solar system.  If it sucks, it withers and dies like every tomato plant I have ever tried to grow.

Step 3: I start to write.  Notice there is no “planning” step.  I simply pick a moment at the beginning of the story and begin to write it.

Step 4: In a flurry of energy and excitement, I write several scenes / pages, typically about five to ten pages or so, and maybe I even take a few character notes (not PLOT notes, you know, things that would help me to tell the story and make sure things stay interesting, but CHARACTER notes, so that I know exactly what kind of patent leather shoes to put on the ANTZhole lawyer character when he arrives at the end of the first act because THESE ARE THINGS THAT MATTER).  Then I get distracted with something; let’s say that it’s painting a bathroom or replacing some light fixtures and definitely not watching Seinfeld reruns.

Step 5: The idea falls from the pockets of my mind like a discarded candy wrapper, to lie forgotten in the ditches of my memory for a couple years, until it reoccurs to me out of nowhere (probably while I’m, again, patching some drywall, and definitely not watching the Lord of the Rings films again), at which point I think, oh yeah, I started writing that idea a while back, I wonder if I still have my notes on it somewhere?

Step 6: While looking for the notes on the original idea, I have an idea for another idea, and the process begins again, cycling back on itself into infinity.  This can occur once every few months or every few years.

So, how can I be sure that it’s FOR REALZ this time and not just an extended step 4?

I’m glad I asked.  For one, and I really can’t pinpoint the exact reason for it now more than at any other time, but I simply want to make it happen.  There’s more drive there and, frankly, I don’t want to question it too much, I just want to ride it like the strong wind that it is.  For another, as I mentioned above, I’ve taken some proactive steps to make sure I don’t bog down.  Like salting the roads before an ice storm (and I live in Atlanta, so enjoy the stupidity and futility of that simile), this will keep my sharknado from spinning out of control.

So I’ve outlined some high points for the story to follow.  Not a rock-solid outline — technically I already have that in the form of the stage play, though in a lot of ways that’s out the window if it’s anything other than a ROUGH outline — but rather some tentpole moments, as my kung-fu master Chuck Wendig would call them (if Douglas Adams is my spirit guide, Chuck is my ANTZ-kicking bearded ninja guru, perching on treetops and dispensing wisdom and beatdowns with one hand tied).  For the moment, it’s a scribbled series of notes: this happens, then that happens, at some point these characters need to make this happen, try to bring this situation about.  It’s what I see in the distance for now, and it’s by those shining points of light that I will steer through the darkness.

But.  (There’s always a butt.)

Translating this story from play to novel has taught me a few things.  First of all, the dialogue is easy, it’s the descriptions that are hard for me.  Being that there is virtually all of the former and none of the latter in stage plays, it’s easy to see why I gravitated to those (and, likely, still will in the future).  Second, stories are living things.

I set out to tell the story of the play in novel form, and it was like tossing a sea monkey on steroids into the ocean.  That thing swelled up and expanded and started growing all sorts of spider appendages and lizard tails and buzzard beaks and IT’S COMING RIGHT FOR US, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES.  As I write the characters, I keep learning new things about them, they keep doing things that surprise me, and as a result, the story is taking odd turns I never expected.  And therein lies the lesson I learned from my work today.

Are you listening, future me?  REMEMBER THIS MOMENT, because you learned something today, and if you forget it, Past Me is going to reach up through space and time and punch you right in the nads.  You hear me?  RIGHT IN THE NADS.  It’ll hurt me as much as it hurts you, but sometimes you have to send a fargoing message.

TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME.  Sure, plot the path.  Figure out how you’re going to get from where you are now to the end you imagine.  But don’t be afraid to blaze a new trail, to take a turn down a side street and see what secrets are hidden off the main drag.  Maybe the end you end up with is better than the end you thought you wanted.  (Whose end?)

Following that advice has led me, as I mentioned back at the top of this post, to the end of the first act of this novel.  The characters are all stuck, they’re all in trouble, they’re all in doubt.  They’re at the edge of a cliff, and it’s hard for any of them to see the way out.  (BUT THE ID-WRITER SEES ALL).  It’s a moment that never existed in the staged version of the story, caused by a character who existed only as a throwaway joke in the staged version, and yet it fits so perfectly (at least in my mind at the moment) that I don’t see how the story could unfold any other way.

For now.

So they’re stuck.  Tomorrow the second act begins, and it’s time to start digging them out.


*evil laughter echoes*

*sounds of struggle*

Sorry about that.  We’ve really got to get a handle on that guy.