Sunday, January 2, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: New Year's Cat

I slept badly New Year's Eve. I always do. The local firework ordinance isn't enforced even when you call in a complaint - the switchboard gets overwhelmed - and the local fireworkers start setting them off way before dark. Despite knowing this, we carelessly did not catch Thai and put her inside before we left for our New Year's Eve game, and by the time we got home she had thoroughly hidden herself. I called her every 20 minutes, walking all around the house and back to the property line with the flashlight. She must have known I was looking for her, and furthermore, not being stupid, that once I had her she'd be safe from the Awful Noises, but I went to bed at 1 in the morning without having caught her. She was waiting at the front door when I came downstairs. When we returned from getting groceries she met us at the run, mewing anxiously, obviously relieved that we had come back before Awful Noises started again.

Probably she spent all of New Year's Eve curled up tight in the least accessible area of our crawl space, too terrified to move; but it doesn't take a professional to think of other things she might have been doing and reasons she might not have come to me.

She might have taken refuge with the raccoon, possum, skunk, and squirrels that make use of our property, one big mammalian nest of normal mutual indifference taking refuge against the common threat of the Awful Noises. Probably not the mice, though. They would have just burrowed deeper into the compost heap.

A kind neighbor with whom she spends part of her time when she's out of the house anyway may have taken her in, perhaps when Bad Children tried to torment her by tying firecrackers to her tail. (I've never seen anyone tie anything to a cat's tail, but it seems to have been shockingly prevalent during earlier epochs.)

She might have been taking part in the annual protective hunt undertaken by cats worldwide to track down and slay the monsters that enter the new year through the crack in time at midnight.

She might have gone on a spiritual journey with the ghosts of previous cats who died on this property, notably the late Bast, Eric, and Margo who used to be part of our household; but also any of a succession of Compost Cats who treated our yard as prime real estate - Thai's mother Squeaker, Margo's second-in-command Minion, Thai's old friend Hunter, and so on. I'm not sure what kind of spiritual journey a cat would need and she seems just the same as before, though.

Anyway, this is the sort of idea that we run across all the time in the children's literature business. Retirees with pets and/or grandchildren are particularly prone to them. Something happens in real life to the pet or grandchild with an unknown or intriguing component, and the retiree thinks "That would make a good children's book." So they go around talking about the idea, perhaps write it a bit, but have a hard time developing it and get distracted by peripheral things, like worrying about how to publish it and whether they'd have to provide the illustrations, before they even finish the first draft.

And sometimes they're dabbling and never go anywhere, and sometimes they produce a book, which may be anywhere in the vast spectrum from "A vanity publisher would charge extra to produce this" to "National Book Award contender," because it's hard to start a writing career from scratch late in life, but the people who do it well are often the best of the best, as they bring a lifetime of experience and good work habits to it.

So what do you do if you're not a writer, and you've had an idea like this, and you don't feel a need to be a National Book Award contender but wish to avoid paying extra to vanity presses? How do you know if the idea is good enough to proceed with?

You don't; because the idea is neither good nor bad till you execute it. I thought "Dystopian future with gladitorial games" was a horrible idea, and then I read The Hunger Games, and I still think so, but Suzanne Collins overcame the lameness of the idea with strong characters, relentless suspense, and a strong underpinning of topical relevance that never turned into overt moralizing.

The way you find out if it's good enough is, you write it. Don't worry about the publishing process yet. That's like worrying about how to get funding for a Channel swim while you're mastering the dead man's float. Look at the idea. Think about what you want to do with it besides showcase the superior qualities of your pet or grandchild, teaching children kindness to animals, or venting your anger at local enforcement of firework ordinances. What are the most intriguing things about the concept? How will you go about characterizing the cat: Do you give her a voice? If not, how do you convey her interior states and motivations and character arc, if any? Is the cat the real protagonist, the one who does the interesting things? Do interesting things actually happen, or are you only eager to invoke a mood or image?

Doodle with it. Play with it. Read it aloud to the cat. Relax with it, but work at it. Understand that, because people have ideas like this all the time, if you want to take up anybody else's time with it, you better do wonderful things with it; but if you're doing it for yourself, you only have to please yourself.

And you'll have a good writing year.


  1. This is a great post for me right now, as I've been in one of those funks...You are so right, I'm one of those older writers. I have to remember to play with my ideas and to please myself, remember to have fun.

    Thanks Peni.

  2. You're welcome. If I can get one person to realize that creative writing is a good in itself, independent of the hard work + crapshoot of publishing, keeping this blog will not be a vain undertaking.

    Personally I think you're a reasonable candidate for the "NBA contender" end of the spectrum, but that bit's out of your hands. You wouldn't be the first person in the world to deserve something and not get it. This job is too hard, and too dependent on uncontrollable contingencies, to pursue if you don't love the act of writing for itself. I think if you tried to stop, you wouldn't be able to.