“My notes are written in blood on the sand, the same as any writer.” — J. Michael Strackzynski
It’d be so easy to just say “Yup” and move on. I don’t think any writer’s story has ever turned out exactly the way they imagined it would when they started. Even if your ending is what you imagined, and the big scene in the middle hit all those right notes that came to you like a vision in the shower, it’s still not exactly what you thought it would be. Somewhere along the way, you write something and it comes out…different. Maybe it’s the heroine’s cat or the old friend you didn’t know your main character had. Maybe it’s a allergy to citrus or a shiver that passes over their skin if they touch raw wood. Maybe it’s just a minor detail that adds color and maybe it’s something that sends everything careening in a different direction that you didn’t anticipate, but you know that this is a thread you have to follow.
Since I’m something of a pantser, I can roll with that idea. Some of my best stuff has come from things I absolutely didn’t know was going to be there. But I’ve seen friends who are determined, dedicated plotters faced with that, and often all one can do is feed them chocolate and help them get through the panic. Once they can deal with the fact the story absolutely insists on going in that direction because their subconscious has made some leap they hadn’t anticipated, they’re usually much better at figuring out just how deep the rabbit hole goes and are back on track while the rest of us are still digging.
So how do you know if you’re on the right track when things start veering wildly? Ask a few questions:
Does it fit in somehow with what you’ve already written? (A new start for the book or between existing scenes? This could be good.)
Will adding this cause you to do extensive rewrites to the story while you’re in the middle of drafting? (Not necessarily good, but if you feel really strongly about it, you may decide that’s worth the risk.)
Does this idea have absolutely no connection to anything you’ve written to this point and you’re going to be leaving all that behind? (Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!)
Let me confess that while the intent of NaNoWriMo is that you start something and finish it. I have had years where the story you start to tell really isn’t the story you need to be telling at this point. I have dumped a week of work and started fresh with a new idea that was burning in my brain, racing to catch up with my word count. That’s usually worked pretty well because the idea hit me so strongly that I had to work on it now or I was going to be unhappy.
I’ve also been a victim of “Look! Shiny!” on more than one occasion. That’s your inner editor talking, teasing you with the idea that the idea you’re not writing is the better one. We try not to speak of those times in my house.
So how do you know when to leap and when not to? You have to stop and listen to your gut. There’s getting inspiration and there’s deciding to jettison a bunch of hard work on a whim. If you stop and think about it and trust yourself, you’ll know. Remember, NaNo is all about trusting yourself, and there’s no harm in scribbling that brilliant idea down in a notebook and moving on.
Besides, the advantage of notes written in sand is that it’s easy to change things if necessary. Just make sure the tide doesn’t come in on you.