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Step one was determining who my characters were, which also meant determining when they lived.
I wanted them to be readily identifiable to my target audience (i.e., North American readers). I have no problems re historical fiction, but I wanted my readers to feel familiar with my characters’ background so I could focus more tightly on the challenge of survival.
It’s awfully hard to lose a bunch of school kids in the 21st century.
They will be missed, somebody will come looking for them.
In Lord Of The Flies, William Golding handled the issue by integrating it into the core of his story: Though never stated explicitly, the world his boys inhabit is engulfed in a great apocalyptic war. The insane evil of nuclear brinksmanship was reflected in the deterioration of his characters’ civilized behavior.
Exploring the morality of nuclear war was not my intent; I wanted a story focused on survival, not conflict.
(Besides, it’s one thing to crib
the idea of kids shipwrecked on an island;
lots of books, movies, and comics have done that.
Using those kids as a metaphor for the collapse of
modern civilization is exclusively Golding’s idea.)
I briefly toyed with the idea of a great natural or astronomical disaster but quickly passed on that; I couldn’t see how the story could not be about the disaster instead of the desert island fantasy.
I use “fantasy” advisedly. There’s no magic in Savage Angels, everything is within the realm of the possible. But the idea of the desert island as a new Eden, as a place to begin again, to somehow Get It Right This Time holds a fascinating allure to writers and readers.
Then I wondered, what am I thinking about when I say “contemporary”?
(to be continued)
I could backtrack a long ways to get to “the” origin of SAVAGE ANGELS, but let’s set our marker down here:
SERENITY started life as a monthly magazine concept; each issue would have a 45-page Serenity story, a couple of short stand alone stories, and an ongoing serial.
HITS & MISSES was supposed to be the first of those serials, Savage Angels was to be a follow-up.
Well, things changed. Magazine publishing plunged into the toilet just as I started looking for partners so, finding no takers for a monthly mag, I went the original gn route.
…but that’s another story for another time.
Savage Angels came about during a long idea generating period where I was trying to come up with as many ideas as I could for the tween-to-teen / YA market (Angels is just the tip of the iceberg; wait till you see what we have on deck!).
I’ve always enjoyed shipwrecked-on-a-desert-island stories. As a child, my grandmother and aunt gave me a wonderful slipcover edition of Swiss Family Robinson; I still have that book even though I almost read it to shreds while growing up.
And of course there’s the great-granddaddy of them all, Robinson Crusoe.
And even Gilligan’s Island.
And, probably most importantly re the origin of Savage Angels, Lord Of The Flies.
William Golding’s book is a harrowing tale of young boys stranded on an island descending into naked feral savagery. It’s a kill-or-be-killed tale, and it does not offer a comforting view of humanity.
So I wondered, would the story have been any different if it was a group of girls, not boys?
…and the gears started turning.
(to be continued)
Coming soon from Snokies Stories
Preliminary art (not final) by Drigz Abrot
Savage Angels (c) Buzz Dixon & Snokie
Things change, things stay fluid, things are in a state of flux.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.
The Old Indian was in my story from the very beginning.
Years and years ago when I first began organizing my ideas for The Horse Story, I saw The Old Indian playing a brief but crucial role in the climax.
Mentally I cast Chief Dan George in the role.
And as will happen, on my way to the climax I started re-thinking some of my ideas.
This is a YA novel aimed primarily at female readers; I looked at my characters and, even though my four heroines were of the female persuasion, there was far too much testosterone in the rest of the cast.
So, easy enough to change: Here and there, where logical, supporting characters got gender reorientation editing.
The last one to go under the metaphorical knife was The Old Indian.
I describe her thusly:
She could be 40 or 400. She wears a black bowler style hat, a long sleeve tribal dress of vivid color and design, and — incongruously — hot pink running shoes.
You couldn’t do that with Chief Dan George.
She wasn’t supposed to die.
She wasn’t one of the horses in peril, she was (more or less) an innocent bystander dragooned into service.
And when her part of the story was done, she was tired and scared and cold and hungry and thirsty and was desperately looking for some human to take her back home to her nice warm stable…
…and in a fit of pique The Bad Guy puts a bullet right through her eye.
I didn’t know it was going to happen until about three paragraphs before I wrote the scene where The Girls had to abandon her.
(Originally I didn’t even know her name, she was just an ambulatory prop, but once I realized she was doomed then suddenly she became a character: Buttercup, an older mare; good, steady, dependable ranch work horse. Really deserved a lot better than what happened to her.)
I didn’t even know a horse was going to have to be abandoned until I realized the peril had to be ramped up an extra notch, and my four heroines — now reduced to 3 horses (two girls must ride tandem) — needed to have even more problems before the resolution.
So take another horse out of the running (literally) and force the last two girls to double up.
But what happens to the abandoned horse?
And then I realized that the Bad Guy would not — could not — let her live.
There is an ugly, cold, irrational rage deep inside him; there wouldn’t be a story if he could be bought off as any rational person could.
And that rage would manifest itself at something.
An innocent thing.
A thing looking desperately to him for help and hope and salvation.
To my surprise (and relief!) I find myself able to do a considerable amount of writing while at the gym.
Jes’ set me in the recumbent exercise bike, hand me my smartphone, and I’ll pedal away for hours while typing.
(I can’t read the tiny screen while wearing my glasses
so I have to take them off & hold it close to my face.
Since the gym pumps a neverending 80s hit parade over the speakers,
I’m able to enter quickly & completely into my own little world.
42-inch flatscreen HD TVs may be Seriously Overrated.)
As posted previously, The Horse Story involves moving a herd of horses from Point A to Point B, with problems along the way.
The herd has an alpha male, Old Blackie, but his luck runs out on the trek. He breaks a fetlock, and circumstances are such that he can not be rescued, can not be saved, and just abandoning him would only leave him helpless in the face of ravenous predators.
So my heroines decide to kill him.
I’d like to think it’s a heartbreaking scene; it’s certainly shocking.
I will say nothing like this ever happened while writing My Little Pony.
The redoubtable Kip Williams sent the following comment re this post:
I remember having the same problem, albeit as a thought experiment, as
you are having writing your novel. It happened when I was reading a
Superman comic about Luthor or Toyman or somebody making “toys” that
consisted of a realistic replica (and you know how realistic those could
be in DC comics!) of a crime scene, complete with the crooks making one
mistake that brought a toy Superman in to arrest them. The twist was
that all they had to do was avoid that mistake, and they had a plan for
a supposedly foolproof crime.
And that’s when it hit me. Do you want to be so realistic that you tell
kids — or anybody — how to commit a crime? If you’re not, you’ll get
snooty letters from knowitalls anxious to show their cleverness. Do you
fudge over the details? What?
As I recall, I ended up without any firm answers. I’m personally okay
with fictional plans that don’t work in the real world, I guess. I did
get a National Noid cover out of it — the one showing a crook escaping
from a jail cell while watching a TV showing how to do it.
Crooks get ideas for crimes by watching a TV police show, taking careful notes to avoid doing the things that get the TV culprits caught.
Dimbulb Office Toody (Joe E. Ross) is also a big fan of the show, and he astonishes his fellow officers by figuring out the seemingly impossible to solve crimes.
However, when his superiors realize he’s getting his solutions from a TV show, they also realize the crooks must be using the same show for pointers, so they contact the network which cancels the show and replaces it with a children’s puppet program.
…and the next night the crooks try to rob a grocery store dressed in bunny costumes…
It occurs to me, belatedly, that I’ve found the reason so many Star
Trek plots resolved with the judicious application of Bolognium in the
Bafflegab Matrix: They just don’t want to give any ideas to criminals
in the future. It’s really pretty admirable.
I was working on The Horse Story the other day (not the actual title, but it’ll do for the purposes of our discussion) and, as I mentioned before, I don’t plot things out in advance in great detail.
I came up with the basic idea for The Horse Story about 10 years ago. Three or four years ago I fleshed it out: Came up with the main characters, drew up a list of possible incidents that could occur during the unfolding of the story (it has a strong linear storyline: Our
guys gals are trying to achieve Objective X, so the plot hinges around whatever obstacles get thrown in their way).
Our gals consist of four YA girls: The Leader, who is somewhat brusque and standoffish but is smart and competent; The Focal Character, who is the 2nd-in-command, almost as smart and equally as competent (the story unfolds through her POV); and The Comic Reliefs, who are there just because the main two heroines can’t do everything by themselves.
The number had to be held down to 4 for plot constraints: More than 4 would be unlikely given the circumstances of the book, fewer than 3 would make the objective impossible to achieve.
I had always envisioned The Leader and The Focal Character making a Grand Heroic Stand at the end of the story, then tying everything up with a neat little bow. And it was a pretty good scene: Thrilling, scary, heroic, you’d come away really admiring them for what they did.
But when I was roughly 50%-60% of the way through the story, I was writing a scene where the Bad Guy has forced a move on our gals and our gals respond by continuing to try to achieve Objective X.
The Leader charges the Bad Guy in order to buy more time for The Focal Character and The Comic Reliefs to escape and continue their quest for Objective X.
And suddenly I found myself writing a scene where The Leader does not get away.
She’s caught. Imprisoned. No way is she going to be able to join The Focal Character for the big finale.
What’s more, now The Focal Character has to actually deal with The Comic Reliefs, and that means they aren’t just walking jokes anymore, they’ve got to be actual living, breathing characters with independent hearts and minds.
And all of a sudden I’m off the range and out into unexplored territory and while I think I know where all this is heading, I gotta admit I don’t have clue flippin’ one what’s gonna happen when I write the next scene.
And it gives me chills — the good kind, the goosebumpy kind, the kind that means I can’t cruise on autopilot but gotta really let these characters live and breathe and grow.
It’s always a blast when this happens.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.
Update Oct. 16, 2011: Since making this post, I’ve enjoyed another flash of insight, a potential way to get The Leader back in the story. It involves a logical twist by the law involving her after she’s arrested, another logical twist by herownsef to get away from them, and because of that, it sparks a thought in the law’s head that leads them to the clue that will bust The Bad Guy.
Will I actually write it out that way?
But it sure gives me a new option to work with…
So I was hard at work on book #3 this a.m.
I had left off 2 days ago on the threshold of a sequence that involved moving some horses from one locale to another. Of course, for any good drama there needs to be complications, so I had figured out the sequence would involve scene a which leads to scene b which leads to scene c which leads to scene d.
And in scene d I needed a truck to get us to the next sequence and since trucks need truck drivers, 2 days ago I blocked out in my head who this truck driver would be: An Iranian immigrant in his late twenties. Doesn’t like the loneliness of his job. Easily irritable. A stickler for rules.
Mind you, I didn’t sit down and carefully
craft out what kind of character he needed to be:
I just needed a truck driver to do a specific thing
and in the blink of my mind’s eye I “saw” him.
So today, when I sat down to write the sequence, I had him on deck, ready to go.
But a funny thing happened on the way to his dramatic debut…
I don’t plot my stories out in excruciating detail.
Oh, I know where I’m going with ‘em. And I have a general idea of the rise and fall of the action, the kind of scenes I want to do, maybe even very specific ideas re character and action and dialog.
But I don’t, I won’t hamstring myself by drafting a super-detailed plot & then sticking to it dogmatically.
Does me no good.
Rather, I prefer to let my characters and scenes breathe. I know where I think I’m going, but I’m willing to let things happen, to explore odd side trails, to hear what new & unexpected things pop into my characters’ heads & out of their mouths.
So scene a became scene a, which boosted the next scene from b to B, which showed me something I wasn’t expecting so c became C+ and then the next thing you know it’s not d but “D” because it really isn’t the original scene I thought I was going to write.
And while I still needed a truck, I no longer needed my 28-year old easily irritated Iranian immigrant truck driver.
He’s been replaced by a 54-year old guy, a long time professional truck driver but not a particularly good one, and because he’s not particularly good at his job he inadvertently does something that kicks us over into the next scene.
But wait! There’s more.
In the course of scene B, one of the characters gets bitten by a horse. Nothing serious, but it prompts character #2 to make a comment that gets character #3 to reveal something completely unanticipated & unexpected.
Now you see why scene d has become scene “D”.
This is why I advise against getting too clever too early on with one’s plotting.
You never know what’s gonna pop up and bite you on the tush.
 I work on more than one story at a time. Currently I have three novels in various stages of drafting/completion.
 “You don’t plot your #@$% stories in any kind of detail!” — every story editor I ever worked with