Sunday, April 11, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Enchantment Ave.

We have this class of silly and destructive people here in San Antonio called developers. Their job is to buy up agricultural or wilderness land, bulldoze off all the sorghum, grass, cedar, birds, mammals, etc., divide it up into winding inconvenient streets with ridiculous names, and build ugly houses that, in twenty years, will have already started to deteriorate into second class housing. But the developers don't care because they've long ago sold the lots and used the money to buy more land (preferably over the Aquifer, where they can pollute our drinking water and cause flooding by blocking the recharge processes with concrete). Yeah, I'm kind of down on the whole concept. But. The important thing here is the ridiculous street names.

Nowadays, the street names seem to be determined by a system. As far as I can tell, the developer has a list of street name words in his office - Vista, View, Valley, Ridge, Crest, and so on; and some kind of reference book which someone, I expect the secretary, lets fall open at a random page and sticks in a pin to choose a word. Or maybe it's a computer program these days. Whatever, the chosen word will be paired with all the standard street name words. The main entrance street into the neighborhood might be Whisper Lane, and all the streets branching off it will also be Whisper Something. Actually now I look at it the Whisper Group (yes, this is a real example) is more imaginative than most more recent subdivisions: no Whisper Vista, but Whisper Bow, Whisper Breeze, Whisper Fawn, Whisper Willow, Whisper Wood.

Anyway, these subdivisions tend to run to themes and some of the older ones aren't as bad, with straighter streets and less repetetive names. South of Windsor Park Mall, for instance, there's this cluster: King Arthur, Excalibur, Gawain, Crusade, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, Prince Valiant, Round Table, Mordred. That doesn't suck. My inner ten-year-old even thinks it's kind of cool.

I think it must have been about 15 years ago that it occured to me that one of these subdivisions could be turned into a decent venue for a certain subgenre of fantasy chapter book or MG novel. There's an organizing entity - a Psammead, a coin that grants half-wishes, a magical chemistry set or nanny or even a fruit pit - around which are organized a series of adventures. These discrete adventures may be regarded as short stories with shared characters, though they might occur over multiple chapters. The adventures usually end when the characters voluntarily sacrifice use of the entity in favor of some larger goal, but sometimes they've been working toward a larger goal all along, and sometimes the organizing entity just calls time, like Mary Poppins does.

Say there's an Enchantment Avenue. Some sort of trigger (I decided on a meteorite) enables a group of children(I had two families of two, a white military pair and a black home-schooled pair) to access places in thematic synch with the name of each street in the subdivision. Castle Street, Fairy Circle (don't tell me no developer would be that cutesy! I know better), Wizard's Tower Road, Unicorn Way.

I think I still have the draft I started of this in a file somewhere. It's hopeless. I still think the idea is viable, as far as it goes, but I immediately ran into a couple of problems.

First - I don't know if you've noticed this - I, um, I write long. At that time I'd accepted as part of my process that first I had to write down everything, and then I had to go back and cut out whatever detracted from the story. I'm not as bad now as I was then (is that screaming I hear in the background?), but writing long is a basic fact of my existence. At that time, I would write down a list of chapter headings to guide me through a story and keep it pointed toward its ending; and I took it for granted that every chapter heading represented three chapters of book. Enchantment Avenue was worse about this than anything I'd written since I was 14 and finished my Tolkien rip-off. I took too long getting my two families together; I spent too much time describing the castle; the action took forever to get to.

Second - I couldn't get a handle on how the two families related and what solving the challenges of the adventure together would do for them. The homeschoolers were more interesting than the military family; but the military family was the one with the problem I could articulate. And I couldn't make the adventures suggested by the street names tie in to either. One reason it took me so long to write anything was that I kept trying to explain these things to myself, and failing.

The first problem was soluble if I solved the second one; but I never did. I set this aside years ago, and have since grown past trying to write these kinds of stories.

That doesn't mean I have outgrown them - when someone else writes them. It's a classic form and when done well - The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones, for example; The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit, the grandmother of us all - they are things of beauty and a joy forever. But although I managed something resembling it once, in A Dig in Time, it doesn't come naturally to me. I'm a novelist. I should write novels, not short stories with a frame. Not even when the frame has a plot arc of its own.

Sometimes, we read a lot of books that follow a certain form or contain certain elements, and we internalize those forms and elements as rules. Like: Children's fantasy should consist of an interconnected series of adventures. They should involve magical journeys, quests, a cross magical entity, objects of power. There should be a family of five, or an interracial cast of friends, or one character who suffers a crisis of conscience and gets a big character arc, or a parent in danger, or -

All of these elements have worked in the past and they could work again. But the editors and agents have seen them before. Even at chapter-book level, so have a lot of the kids. If you're setting out to be compared to Diana Wynne Jones and E. Nesbit on their home turf, you better be on your best possible game. You won't do that by imitating the masters or by following rules, no matter how carefully you've figured them out by studying the work. But it doesn't hurt, in the privacy of the rough draft, to try out those rules and see if they apply to you. That's what drafts are for.

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