Six impossible things

Second Opinion, anyone?

I have this new project, which I have been wrestling with for a couple of months now. Mostly pleasant wrestling, as there are a lot of elements that please me. The problem is, I couldn’t get the thing started.

This is extremely unusual for me, but it was pretty obvious why: the thing starts in the present-day USA, and I have no real interest in writing contemporary fiction. Zilch. To the point where I was trying to start with the Second Evil Minion knocking on my heroine’s door and whisking her entire family off to wherever they’re going well before the end of the first chapter.

I had a couple of good reasons for doing it this way – not making false promises about where the story will happen, not introducing a bunch of characters who won’t be in the entire rest of the book – but it really boiled down to “I don’t wanna write present-day stuff! Wah!”

Which, I eventually admitted, is a totally wrongheaded reason for writing something a certain way. Also, it didn’t work. At all.

Unfortunately, that left me with trying to write at least a chapter or two set in present day, without introducing extraneous characters and without misleading readers. There’s also a little matter of foreshadowing a bunch of developments that will happen later on…some of which I have no clue about as yet. And, incidentally, writing all of this in a present-day setting that a) wasn’t a total cliché, b) didn’t necessitate making up a lot of one-page characters who’d look important (like teachers and friends), but who won’t be appearing in the rest of the book, and c) didn’t bore me to write about.

So I did what I usually do when that kind of thing happens, which is go to a coffee shop or restaurant with friends and complain. (This turns out to be a vital, downright indispensable part of the writing process for nearly every writer I know, though it is seldom mentioned in how-to-write books.)

There was some back-and-forth discussion, and then one of my compatriots pointed out that what I needed was to have my heroine appear first in a setting that was inherently temporary and obviously ending soon, like the last day of the family vacation, or summer camp, or a visit with grandparents. That way, readers wouldn’t be expecting to have to remember a lot about the place and people in the immediate opening, but I’d have time and space to develop the character and get some of her backstory nailed down before everything goes pear-shaped for her.

That sounded very promising, though the specific suggestions didn’t ring any bells. The general idea – starting in a place and at a time when things were obviously not everyday business-as-usual – felt spang on the money. We kicked it around a little more, looking for other possibilities, and then the obvious one occurred to me: the State Fair.

The Minnesota State Fair is an annual event, so it falls within the realm of “normal, recurring, part-of-everyday-life” for folks around here, but it only lasts twelve days. So it is inherently temporary, even if people go every year. There are weird things at the fair, and not just on the Midway (crocodile on a stick, anyone? Maybe the bacon-flavored ice cream?), so Second Evil Minion can show up without causing undue comment (other than “What’s he advertising?). And it starts next week, which means I can go and do some actual research, instead of having to rely on my memories of State Fairs past. Most important of all, it will be fun to write about, which will (I hope) get me to stop trying to move everybody out of town faster than they ought to be going.

Oh, and it is really, really going to be fun to see how Second Evil Minion copes with the butter heads, the llama costumes, and the crop art, among other State Fair perennials. Plus, I think the whole group can vanish in a puff of smoke in front of a crowd, and everyone who saw it would just assume it was a publicity trick or street theater or advertising or something. Which would be handy if and when my heroine has to come back, assuming I want to finagle the time differences so that she hasn’t been gone for months and months.

The trick at this point is going to make sure it doesn’t turn into a “Second Evil Minion does the State Fair” book. Not yet, anyway. Maybe a sequel…

The thing is, the story is moving. And I am pretty darned sure that it wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t gone out and whinged at the right people. I was spinning my wheels because all I could see was “writing boring contemporary school scenes – ugh!” (and trust me, if I’d had to write them, they’d have been boring!). I was so focused on what I didn’t want to do that I wasn’t looking for the right kind of alternatives. It took somebody who had no particular list of “things I want to avoid writing” (because she isn’t writing this book) to see what I needed in order to get around the initial problems: a setting that was both obviously normal and contemporary and obviously temporary rather than someplace readers would expect to come back to.

That kind of stuckness is especially frustrating because it isn’t what most folks think of as “writer’s block.” (It’s also a heck of a lot more common than all of the different kinds of “writer’s block” that I can think of, put together.) I know what the story is; I know where it’s going; I know more or less what has to happen next. I just couldn’t get it moving, because I could only see one way of getting it all started, and I really, really didn’t want to write that.

Every person looks at stories from a different angle, and sometimes that’s just what you need to break loose this kind of stuck. It certainly worked for me.

13 Comments
  1. Yay!

    And, Brilliant.

    Ta, L.

  2. If it does turn into “Second Evil Minion Does the State Fair” please go ahead and publish it! I’d love to read something like that.

  3. Love that idea! It’ll be fun for your Minnesotan readers to have a familiar event featured, too. (I went to the State Fair once when I was a kid, with my grandparents who lived in the Minneapolis area. Mostly what I remember is my dad and uncles eating mini donuts.)

  4. Writing buddies are the best. I couldn’t live without mine.

  5. Brilliant. Also, thank you very much for speaking in favor of a little creative whining.

  6. If it’s any consolation, it’s comforting to know that even very experienced writers have these sorts of problems… because this all sounds extremely familiar.

    And the State Fair sounds like a great solution to this particular blockage. I hope it’s as much fun to write as it sounds like it will be to read!

  7. Mostly I do these kinds of discussions with my family.

    Which works, but with as many creative persons as there are in our household (game designers and artists and writers, oh my!) such discussions tend to happen way to frequently to make a good excuse to go out. So I guess I kind of miss out on that aspect.

  8. “So I did what I usually do when that kind of thing happens, which is go to a coffee shop or restaurant with friends and complain. (This turns out to be a vital, downright indispensable part of the writing process for nearly every writer I know, though it is seldom mentioned in how-to-write books.)”

    _The Starbucks Writing Guide_ by Patricia C. Wrede, anyone? Their confusing terminology for sizes will fit well with novellette/novella/novel/whatever.

    ‘There are weird things at the fair, and not just on the Midway (crocodile on a stick, anyone? Maybe the bacon-flavored ice cream?), so Second Evil Minion can show up without causing undue comment (other than “What’s he advertising?).’

    Or he could show up at a local gas station which just got some weird potato chip flavours: Jalapeno Macaroni and Cheese (not too good), Tsatziki (nice but bland), Cinnamon Bun (I doubt I will try them), and a poutine flavour (which I have not seen yet).

  9. I’d never be able to write if I couldn’t whine a bit during the process. Group brainstorming is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

  10. WIKTORY.

  11. As a Minnesotan, I am in favor of this plan. 🙂

    I’ll also second KT, because I would definitely read “Second Evil Minion Does the State Fair.”

  12. It is hard to solve your own problem – being locked into the box with the crowbar on the outside.

    Much better to bounce the problem off your friends, who have plenty of crowbars, screwdrivers, hammers, weird pointy things, and above all, are OUTSIDE the darn box.

  13. I too would /gladly/ read “Second Evil Minion does the State Fair” 😉

    Maybe a short story?…

    This sounds really exciting though, especially as a Minnesotan myself 🙂 and by the way, fried pickles are surprisingly good, at least with the sauce.

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