Sunday, May 1, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: When Queen Bees Collide

Got up this morning in one of those weird states - physically robust for once, but inexplicably wanting to cry; then it was game day and I got over it, but I haven't had a lot of brain with which to pick through garage sale ideas. However, part of the point here is to demonstrate that it doesn't matter. You don't have to be inspired to have an idea, even a viable one. You can do them off the cuff.

So, let's walk through this. Story = Conflict + Character. If you want a plot you have to add Resolution, but we don't need that right now, we're just after the Story Idea. That's a little broad, though, so we have to set parameters.

Age group? YA. Y not?

Genre? Contemporary, because that's harder for me than fantasy or historical but requires less research.

Protagonist? Female. Name's Annie (because a little girl who visited the other day is reading Anne of Green Gables). Just moved to town - cliche but for a reason. New town and school and situation means a whole new set of problems and very little need to create backstory. Downside for me: I'm an Air Force brat. Any new kid in town I write risks being just like me.

So she's not like me, how? She is not the middle child of three, she is not a bookworm, she gives a care about her school's social hierarchy.

But why does she give a care? If she values status for its own sake I'm not going to like her - I loathed those girls. If she wants it because it's easier to get along if you have a certain place in the hierarchy, then she wants a lowish place, and that's fairly easy to come by if you're enough not like me.

So why does she care?

Because her twin sister Diana does. Diana is a queen bee and the dominant twin. Annie's comfy place is in her twin's orbit.

So, where's the conflict, and why is it primarily Annie's conflict rather than Diana's? Fighting over a boy is RIGHT OUT. The minute I see best friends, much less sisters, fighting over a boy on a book jacket, I put it down.

Well, obviously the person with the vested interest in keeping Diana from assuming her rightful place as Queen Bee is the current Queen Bee. Whose name is...(pulls down baby name book, opens at random, and puts finger down on a page of male names. That's no good. Try again.) Gabrielle.

Gabrielle is black. Don't ask me how I know that, it's enough that it already makes her different from 90% of popular girls in American fiction. I pulled that statistic out of thin air, but you know what I mean. This isn't the 60s, though, so the fact that she's black can't be made a big deal of on its own. She has to be individual. Not the nasty enemy Queen Bee with whom we're all familiar. She has to be someone who we can understand becoming popular, someone who isn't mean by nature but can play high stakes high school politics. She has to be an attractive character.

She has to attract Annie.

There we go. That's Annie's problem. Her beloved sister, on whom she is emotionally dependent in this new situation, is deploying her as a foot soldier in her war against this dazzling girl that Annie's falling for. It doesn't have to be a coming out story, but it will inevitably be a story of internal identity conflict, a conflict of loyalties, and also a story of external, interpersonal conflict. You want a real eye-for-an-eye savage popularity contest as your action track. You want a political thriller. You want the choices Annie makes to be hard, the reader to back Diana and Gabrielle alternately, to have at least one scene that makes her wince in recognition.

And all that, of course, is the hard part. The idea - pfft. That took half an hour from conception to this sentence.


  1. oh Peni, as always you make it seem so simple. I'm back to blog reading again and looking forward to getting caught back up in your magic.

    Hope tomorrow you wake up in good health and good spirits.

  2. Hi, Susan, welcome back to the world. I don't make it seem simple; it is simple. Which is not the same as easy. Producing ideas only gets easy with practice; which makes it exactly like every other skill.

    The truth is that most things people find impossibly hard are so because they're staring at the task thinking how hard it is and that they don't know how to do it, rather than thinking about the task and how to accomplish it. Nobody ever got anything done by staring at her own navel.

  3. It's a lot LIKE fighting over a boy, but very different, too. I like that aspect.

    Reading Scott Westerfeld's alternate WWI stories (and thanks again for the tip) has inspired me to write an alternate historical myself, and I have really started to notice how the characters tell me who they are.

  4. In a lot of ways it's a pretty standard plot. Most plots are. Execution is everything.

    Yep; that's what makes them characters and not plot elements! And okay, technically you're talking to yourself when they're talking to you, but - so what? It gets the job done and, I hope, puts people in touch with the commonality of humanity underlying the differences that still make us unique. You know it's hard to get some people to understand even how easy it is to portray a character who loves tomatoes if you don't happen to love tomatoes. They think people can only write about characters who are like them, and by like them, they mean really superficial stuff!

  5. Yeah, I love characters. When they start talking to you, you know you've got it right; that they're characters, not plot elements.

    I know technically it's yourself talking to yourself, but it's a mug's game to dissect the goose to find out where the golden eggs come from.