Occasionally I’ll take a walk with the specific intent to shoot photographs. More often, though, I take a walk just to…well, to take a walk. To get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air, to stretch the muscles and make the blood pump just a wee bit faster. And it helps me clear out the cobwebs when I’m having writing issues — like when I’m unable to think of a metaphor and I have to resort to a cliché like ‘clear out the cobwebs.’
Sometimes when I take a walk, I’ll stick my little Fujifilm X10 in a pocket. I almost never take it out. Almost never is another way of saying Sometimes I do. On a strangely warm morning back in January, I did. I took the camera out because as I walked through a small suburban park, I saw these two trees:
Here’s the problem. I’ve been working on a novel for a while. A novel is as much an exercise in persistence as anything else. I’ve published a lot of short fiction in various genres, I’ve published several nonfiction books, but I’ve only published one novel. So I very much want to get this novel manuscript finished and out the door. But I’m also heartily weary of the damned thing. Don’t get me wrong; I think the manuscript is good — but at this point I know everything there is to know about the characters and the plot. That leaves me with nothing to do but put words in a row. That’s not easy, of course. They have to be the right words. And that can be fun sometimes. But the real fun of writing fiction is, for me, the bit where you’re actively making shit up.
Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because it means my mind has already moved on to other projects. My mind can be a real asshole. When I take a walk, instead of thinking about my current project, my mind is kicking around ideas for the future. So when I saw those two trees, my mind began to build a scene around them. An anonymous guy running slowly between them. A guy running from something? Or toward something?
I turned around to see what he’d be running toward. And I saw these two horses:
Here’s another part of the problem. I’ve only written for an adult audience. Not ‘adult’ as in ‘adult movies’ but adult as in ‘not young folks.’ But a lot of the most creative fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years has been in the Young Adult genre. I find myself wanting to write a YA novel. Most of the fiction I’ve published has been in the mystery and detective fiction field — and I’d like to try something altogether different. Over the last few years I’ve been drawn to the sort of world-building that takes place in fantasy fiction. However, I can’t really abide stuff with dragons and wizards, or magic swords, or those grand epic stories in which the pot-boy turns out to be the bastard-heir to the throne. If I ever write anything like that, you have my permission to stab me.
I much prefer stories that drop ordinary folks into extraordinary situations. So I’ve been wanting to write a YA novel revolving around a fairly ordinary kid who gets caught up in a situation having fantasy overtones. When I saw those two trees and those two horses, my asshole mind began to concoct an opening scene. An ordinary kid sitting on the bench near the horses sees an anonymous guy running slowly in his direction from between those two trees. The kid, of course, would be the protagonist. And the kid would have to be asking the very same question I was asking myself as a writer.
Tension. It’s almost always the driving force in fiction, and it often expresses itself in some form of question. Like Who is that guy and why is he running towards me?
I kept walking and considering possible answers to that question, and soon found myself behind the local Salvation Army store, where there was a rubbish hatch tucked away between two bollards. A great place to hide, if somebody was chasing you. But who is being chased? The kid? The guy? Maybe both of them? Maybe the guy was being chased until he met the kid, and now the kid is being chased by whoever was chasing the guy?
I checked the rubbish hatch; it was locked from the inside (of course it was — this is real life). But one of the advantages fiction has over real life is that it doesn’t have to completely conform to reality. It only has to conform enough to be believable. There are a lot of ways to deal with a locked rubbish hatch. But what we’re after at this point is tension, and one way to ratchet up tension is to offer a release from the tension — then snatch it away. You show the protagonist (and the reader) the convenient rubbish hatch, you let them think a solution has been found. then you turn the apparent solution into another problem.
This is how writers torture readers and make them happy.
I walked along, thinking of various ways to construct the scene. You’d want the kid (and maybe the guy) desperately trying to open the hatch, looking back over his/her/their shoulder for whoever the hell is chasing him/her/them. Maybe have the kid and the guy (if he’s there — and there would be some distinct structural advantages to having the guy there) run off together. Maybe have them run off separately, never to meet again. Maybe have them run off separately, only to meet later in the story. Maybe have the kid run off and the guy stay behind to face whoever is doing the chasing — give the kid a chance to escape. So many options.
As I walked I saw two potential avenues of escape. The first, a shiny railroad track passing between two crossing signals. Hop a slow-moving freight train? Maybe one that picks up speed and becomes too dangerous to hop off? Lots of potential there — an ordinary kid sitting in a suburban park, and half an hour later he (or she, of course) is on an express freight high-balling out of town toward some unknown destination.
The second, by turning the other direction you see two muddy ruts leading to some old out-buildings.
More places to hide. And who knows what might be stashed away in those out-buildings? Farm implements, maybe. Rows of high-stacked pallets filled with potting soil and fertilizer and grass seed. Maybe rusting circus equipment. Or a meth lab. I spent the rest of the walk thinking of things that might be found in those buildings — everything from a secret missile defense system to the bastard heir to the throne who’d been turned into a dragon by a wizard with a magic sword. (I told you my mind can be a real asshole.)
That was back at the end of January. This is early April. Over the intervening two months I’ve continued to grudgingly work on the existing novel manuscript — but almost every time I set out on an idle walk, my asshole mind returns to this story idea.
An ordinary kid sitting alone in a park at dusk, a stranger slowly running towards him.
Dreamy, gorgeous photos Greg. You were cut out to make stuff like this.
Thanks Jody — but the truth is I feel more at home in alleys.
And, Yay for more books!
Yay! Assuming I ever finish the damned thing. And assuming I finish it AND a publisher makes an offer on the manuscript. Why couldn’t I find a less stupid way of making a living? Like rodeo clown or something.
Why not incorporate a bit of magical realism into the story? Not the kind involving vampires, wizards, or other makeshift young adult fantasy creatures, but something more along of lines of David Lynch (e.g. Jeffery finding an ear in a field in Blue Velvet). I guess that would be more along the lines of surrealistic noir. Still, a YA story leaning more in the direction of realism with a smattering of magic would be more than welcome and I know you’d be up to the task (if your mind can stifle the asshole part for a bit). Ok, I’ll shut up now.
I have a half-formed (maybe malformed would be more accurate) idea about how to incorporate an element of fantasy without making it very fantastical. I’ve made a few notes, but not very many. I figure if the ideas are good enough, I’ll remember them. If I forget them, they can’t have been very good.
I think you’d write an exceptional YA novel. My guys are 12 now and heavily into that category of books, but they *really* crave more gritty realism and adventure than most of the existing YA books provide; there’s a surfeit of fantasy and (girly) vampirism out there right now. I’d think that your ‘voice’, with your wry humor and an unwavering and unapologetic acknowledgment of the dark side of humanity, would really appeal to these guys. They happily will buy into an element of fantasy if the rest is believable (as you know) but they absolutely crave a protagonist who is a regular kid, like them. We’ve had discussions about all that ‘chosen one’ stuff and how it excludes them. They so want to be able to believe that it could be them in the story.
So just for some background on books they really love, (if you’re curious about your potential target market, despite what publishers may or may not want) they loved the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan (which I realize goes against most of what I said above, but they feel the books are well written and the characters resonate with them), and Hatchet, Dogsong and some others by Gary Paulsen (met him, and man, is he ever a complex and interesting, difficult person).
I think, based on what I’ve read of your writing, that your story and your voice could speak to these kids who are feeling that nobody out there is really speaking to and for them…
There’s an aspect of that whole ‘Chosen One’ routine that I find really intriguing, but aside from Buffy the Vampire Slayer,it rarely gets addressed. I’m intrigued by the notion of the absence of choice. Whoever gets chosen doesn’t have any real say in the matter. It’s like some mystical form of conscription. The ‘Chosen One’ is drafted and has to serve. There’s always some sort of ‘reward’ for being Chosen — super powers or something — but basically that concept is depicted as a form of destiny.
But what if it wasn’t destiny? What if the ‘Chosen One’ was chosen by serendipity? What if it was more something like being the millionth customer to walk through the doors of Pizza Heaven? And what if there was no useful reward? No super powers, no bucket of gold, no magical sword. What if you were the Chosen One, but you were still just you — and you still had to make car payments and do your laundry?
I don’t think I’ll take that route, but it seems a shame that hasn’t been explored (at least to my knowledge it hasn’t).
Well, I know the Harry Potter series takes a lot of flack, but I do think Rowling tried to explore the Chosen One trope there with Harry being the ‘regular’ baby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and thus ‘chosen’. She did try to depict him as a rather average student with no special abilities aside from those he shared with Voldemort, and those were rather unwanted abilities at that. She explored the whole aspect of just wanting to lay down the burden of being The One fairly well. Or at least fairly well for my guys when they read the series in 2nd and 3rd grade. It made an impression on them, made them think about the extra burdens of being special and having unique abilities thrust on them and what they’d do about it all.
I think there’s a lot of room to explore the whole notion of being caught up in a series of events because you just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time, and it ends up shaping your life in some way that you can’t predict. Chosen by circumstance. We’ve all gone through things like that, I think, but it doesn’t seem to get explored that much. It’d be very intriguing to see what you come up with. :) Choices that the character faces become another way of building tension in the story, I think. Will he?
On a tangentially related note, Paul wrote a song awhile back about an ordinary character who inadvertently ends up in a wild adventure and faces several choices along the way. Go for the adventure or play it safe? At the crucial points in the story where a choice has to be made, Paul pauses and has the audience vote for which choice the character will make. Fascinating and hilarious, different with every audience. I think there are 10 different endings to the song; I’ve heard 8 of them at this point, I think. People LOVE getting the choice and frequently pick the less likely choice, and almost always the obviously riskier choice. They crave the adventure in their stories even when they wouldn’t choose it in real life. And they love taking the quiet shy little character and having him choose boldly and heroically. :)
Beckett, I have to disagree with you somewhat about Harry Potter. I loved the books, by the way. He may have only been an average student at Hogwarts, but time and again Rowling shows he’s an extraordinarily naturally gifted wizard. He takes the broom immediately and proves himself to be extremely good as quidditch. He may not be good at his studies, but he has an intuitive command of combat magic. Both of his parents were excellent at magic. Despite being raised by muggles who deny him access to his heritage during the the most formative years, Harry Potter is anything but an ordinary kid. That boy’s got him some mojo.
It’s true he doesn’t want to be the chosen one, and is uncomfortable with that — but he’s the subject of prophecy, he inherited power and wealth from his parents, he gained some of the power of Voldemort, and he’s immediately given enormous social cred by wizarding circles. He’s the chosen one for a reason. And there’s a core of destiny (he’s destined to fight Voldemort) running through all the books.
Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. Everyone in the wizarding world knows his name and they’re (mostly) all prepared to revere him and see him as their big hope. I think Rowling does explore the notion that Harry had to be kept humble in order to fulfill that ‘destiny’, raised under dreadful circumstances (as is rather traditional in the Chosen One stories) so that he couldn’t be prideful or cocky. Harry’s own surprise at his abilities makes him more approachable and relate-able to the readers as well. But it always felt to me like Harry was the ‘chosen one’ through a combination of factors; genetics, circumstances and choice. He made choices all along the path about whether to keep going, though it became obvious in places that he had to make specific, hard choices if he wanted his world to continue. Much more satisfying than stories where the character is just the One without question, it’s all destiny and fate and no questioning or shaking a fist at the universe. I think everyday life may be a key point that most of those stories don’t really explore. Serendipity is an intriguing question, and I think you’re right that it rarely gets looked at.
I think we all go through things where the enormity of what’s happening is so big that it defines our lives for a while, but the surreal, odd part is that everyday mundane life just continues to swirl on around us. Like when you have cancer, or when you have a family member die, or are facing your own death. For a while you are, in effect The Chosen One (within your own small life perspective, at least), where you have no choice but to deal with this thing that is happening to you and you have to find your way through this enormous life-altering event whether you like it or not. You want to just chuck the burden and run away, but you really can’t, you have to keep slogging through somehow to the other side of the mess. I suspect that those ‘chosen one’ stories are ways we look at how we can cope. It’s certainly a favorite theme, but I agree that the idea of an ordinary Joe being ‘chosen’ hasn’t really been explored much. And it’s always seemed to me like the ordinary, mundane bits of life that keep going on around all of the big parts don’t get acknowledged. There’s that whole surreal aspect that nobody talks much about…
I’ve been looking at your photograhic work for a long time now, Greg, and these in this post are on another level, even for you. Especially like #2. That’s print-and-frame worthy.
I got so caught up in your images that I didn’t read your post closely. Just went back to read it. That itch will continue to bother you until you write the story. Write it. The start is there, the jumping off point. Man v man. Man v. nature maybe.
Thanks Mark…and why didn’t I know you had a blog? It sort of pisses me off that it’s so good, because now I have a LOT of reading to catch up on. I’m a big fan or your noir stuff, as you know. The other work has caught me off guard — which is always a good thing.
As to the story, I always have more story ideas that I have time to write them. If this idea doesn’t fade away, the I’m pretty sure I’ll start it when the current project is finished.
I know the feeling – if I had a draw of almost finished manuscripts it would be full. Good luck with finishing yours and moving on to the next one.
Writing is such a pain in the ass, isn’t it.