Imagine that’s me huddled in the rocks beneath an infinite sky with a story I’ve written cupped in my palms. Do I release it like a dove to the big wide world, or not. There’s no easy answer for a pantser writer like me.
It all starts well, but somewhere in the process I always get lost by straying from the story arc in search of a new trail. As a friend cautioned, I’m susceptible to the antics of the antihero, Captain Tangent, defined by Yogi Berra’s famous quip, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
I am the master of the side journey and story scenes that entice me toward a glimmer of light on a dark trail with promises of enhancing the story arc, only to lead to a dead end. I write with a story mindset easily seduced by a maze of infinite paths, unable to see the pitfalls around the next corner. You need to be more disciplined, make notes, follow a plan,” literary superheroes tell me. I do make notes. I just – tend not to use them much. Why is that, Captain Tangent? My story telling imagination is a twisted spaghetti junction of chaos. It’s where all the fun is, where the best story elements lie, waiting for me to grab on while riding a hundred-mile-per-hour carnival ride.
It’s hard to describe what I go through in words. How ironic is that? I like visuals you can sense, and I’ll turn to the amazing photography of talented artists from Unsplash.com to help me.
Like most writers, I get a story spark from an ocean of ideas, and nurture it to the seedling of a first chapter. It sprouts robust and green in the dung ball I planted it.
I have a sense for how I want the story to conclude. It’s that subtle glimmer on a distant mountain in the dead of winter, of which I must return the story back to the shores of where the spark arose and result in the sunset of a good ending.
A little studying to research best conditions for the seedling to grow, followed by rifling through the card catalog of genres to repot it in – science fiction (soft or hard), dystopian, alternate universe, contemporary or fantasy. Who decides where it fits? So many choices, just write the damned thing.
What must sprout first in the story’s first chapters? Characters of course. Some writers claim to have a clear visual of the protagonist, some prefer to obscure individual traits and leave it to the reader to decide. Me? Physical traits tend to change as I write, and often remain a featureless manikin until it’s decided how to dress it.
Voice. I’ve learned the hard way how important it is for setting the tone. Important characters with a voice thinner than a sheet of paper will result in boring drivel.
Will my characters navigate the journey within the noise of many?
Or walk alone?
Do one last setting check, like a director framing a movie.
Okay. I’ve got a handle on the beginning and the end. My plotter superheroes staple notes to my forehead. Hey McFly, take the straight and narrow road. Use the bridges. And for God’s sake, don’t go off again on those hairpin roads to nowhere.” They want me to turn off the GPS in my head knowing all too well it rarely works in remote terrain.
Think I’m ready now. The trail is clearly marked, and though it’s a little foggy and the path covered in leaves, I’m ready to take the first step.
Chapter one. It was a dark and stormy night … read to the sounds of a phonograph needle scraping across a vinyl record. Yeah, I know, don’t start with the weather. Just checking to see if my ADD medication has kicked in yet. Oh, and no waking up from a dream either.
How about this for a start.
‘Historical archives painted a somber scene of the few humans still surviving before extraterrestrials showed up like benevolent gods to save us from ourselves. Not like humankind had a choice. Do as our alien saviors suggested, or they would leave with all their advanced technology and return the planet to the state they found it in, and oh-by-the-way, will the last human standing, please turn off the lights.’
Enter the protagonist, the human who will guide us in the tale, resolving from the mist of my imagination.
‘Though I cemented my reputation as class gadfly with poly-metal-ceramic fiber, twenty-four hours from now, I will still join others in my age group, newly minted adult females in our so-called Utopian Matriarchy. We don’t fail these things. But gee whiz, Behr, think you could have spared Aunt Victoria major embarrassment? To dump fuel on a burning shuttlecraft, Aunt Vic is going to kill me when she learns I accidentally dropped off the balcony, a dress she selected for the Presentation Day Ball.’
Four chapters written, the path looks clear ahead. I need a reality check. Did each chapter hook ’em, and did I leave ’em hanging at chapter end?
Ten chapters now completed, and it’s time to check the basics before continuing.
Showing versus telling – Roger Ground Control, we have a green light on all sensory detectors.
Finally, the faces have resolved in my head.
How’s that romance tension coming along?
Reread last few scenes, check action sequences, and see if there’s any road bumps in the dialogue and narrative. Looking good.
Time for a little mirth, give the reader a breather. Send in the clown.
Doing great. I love where the story is going. Oh look, need to make a plot decision to go right or left.
Pantser check light just came on. Ah – we’re fine. I ignore the warning. Go left.
Wait a minute, where’d these guys come from? They’re blocking the path. Can’t see where I’m headed.
Let’s turn around, see if we missed a road sign.
Okaaaaayyyyyy – this doesn’t feel like the right direction, but maybe it ends up on the highway.
Oh, shit. Now what?
Hmmmm, I don’t remember this bridge, but hey, looks like a well traveled road. Onward.
Sure getting dark in here. Maybe I should just go back and rewrite the last few scenes.
Ooh, look, pretty light. Must be the oasis of better story telling. Let’s check it out.
Uh oh. I can’t believe I went down this tangent. One thing for sure – ain’t going down that hole.
Pantser light just winked off. It must be the battery, or it just gave up on me.
How do I write my way out of this?
Let’s try it this way. Little dark down there, but the cross-bridge looks intact. What could go wrong?
WTF. Where the hell am I? I should have listened to my friends. What part of ‘don’t go down tangents’ did I not understand?
I’m three-quarters through my word count budget, and I can’t see the horizon.
Wait. Headlights up ahead. Yeah, always room for a new character. Hey buddy, you know how to get back on the story highway? You can’t get there from here, he says, but if you go back a few miles, look for a weather-beaten sign with “Pantser Exit – Turn Right”, keep going until you see an old billboard with “Carnival of Unfinished Stories — Fun for the Whole Family”. Turn left until you come to it ends in a T. Go right, you can’t miss it.
Son of a bitch. I turned right at the T like he told me. Was that bastard just messing with me? Now what? Flashlight of ideas is about to go out, and the story is colder than glacial ice.
I give up. It was such a great story idea. Why do I always do this? Write 20K words, trash fifteen. Rinse, repeat. I can’t do this anymore. I plant my ass in the cave, and stare at nothing. I feel like my characters when they reach the end of their rope – drifting in endless woods of tangent side stories, my feet unable to find the way. Every time I reach out in the darkness, my hands find nothing.
I sleep on it. Maybe something will pop up in the morning. Daylight arrives, and I get my first good look at the world I’ve created, piled in the cave of discarded tangents of the past. I call one of my writer friends. What’s up dude? He shakes his head when he enters the cave. Whoa, you need to clean this mess up.
I try a little levity to dull the sting. I tell him if I ever get out of this, I need to hang a sign above my desk. “Hi. I’ve lost my mind. I’ve gone to look for it. However, should it get back before I do, please ask it to wait.”
Like a good critique partner, he beckons me toward the cave entrance. I crawl out of the frigid waters of stories gone lost, wet and depressed.
Staring at a story that lost its wings, he reviews a checklist of parts that might get it air worthy.
The strangest thing happens. A shimmer of kaleidoscopic light appears over the wreckage. I say thanks for pulling my ass out of tangent hell, wave goodbye, and follow the inkling of an idea.
Well, I’ll be damned. My feet touch the asphalt of a well-written road several chapters back.
The road widens beneath a canopy of trees in their autumn cloak when I approach the story’s ending. Why didn’t I see this before. Writing a story is a lot like the seasons. They change depending on the elements, but the tree roots of a plot line remain firmly affixed to the ground in which it sprouted.
OMG, is that who I think it is? My characters silhouetted by the setting sun, embracing in the end, just as I envisioned when I first started.
I dash toward them, heedless of undulating, ivy of tangent side stories reaching to ensnare me on the last page of the manuscript.
I’ve found it. The end.
The last page written, the little sprout that could, has become a full-grown story.
Thus completes my picture book, The Perils of Captain Tangent, a Pantser’s Writing Journey in Pictures. May you never be cursed with an addiction to a malaise known as “Going-off-on-a-tangent.”
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