Sunday, October 9, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Beaten-Down Path

Rain, rain, beautiful rain! It rained last night and it's raining now and it should rain for the next two days, which should make everyone happy, but people are going to grip about it. I never have taken the gloomy view of rain that most folks do - I'm a plainswoman, experienced in drought, and due to certain peculiarities of my system I am sensitive to atmospheric pressure, so rain starts out as a relief from drought and discomfort and has to go on for a long, long time to become oppressive to me. I wear short skirts and go barefoot when I have to go out in the rain, because skin dries faster than cloth. You can put your shoes on when you reach your destination and be dry and comfortable all day, instead of squelching around in wet feet with wet pants flapping around your ankles. Men, poor things, seldom have these options. Men generally get shafted in the sartorial department.

All this is every day common sense - to me. Yet the weight of culture is against me and I have yet to convert even one person to the barefoot-in-the-rain habit, though many people have seen the benefits in action. Received wisdom is an ogre that can only be ground away at slowly, over time, so gradually that people don't notice their habits changing and in many cases will deny that their habits have indeed changed. If you show them a truth that is too far out of their accepted way of thinking, they will not recognize it.

That's why what used to seem to me to be an obvious method of story generation does not often generate saleable stories. Inside of every cliche, I believed - and for what it's worth, I still believe - lurks some good story that has been overlooked due to the tendency of minds, like feet, to follow the best-worn trackway. If you turn a cliched idea on its head, explore it from a different angle and forge a new path through it, you should be able to provide the editor with the "fresh take" they're always asking for, while providing the public with the familiarity they have consistently displayed their willingness to spend money on.

I have a number of notions like this in the back file. Like this one (from internal evidence, this cannot date from later than 1985):
"There are Rules, Ms. Czimzik." Susie Czimzik answers an ad for a secretary for the Luz Finance Co. Although the company occupies the entire 13th floor of the Tower Life Building, she is the only clerk. Mr. Luz has agents, but they are not friendly. The company loans money on peculiar principles and has odd employment requirements; however, Susie finds Luz himself charming at first; besides, she needs the job. In course of time, she needs a loan, but has no collateral. Mr. Luz offers to do her a favor and let her have what she needs for nominal collateral - her soul. The loan is set up so that she cannot pay it back; realizing this, Susie comes gradually to realize who Luz is, and falls into despair - until an old lady - a derelict, slightly off- quotes the eleventh hour scripture to her and she realizes that the contract is invalid by nature.

Why exactly so few writers who profess the Christian religion notice the logical implications of that eleventh hour dogma for the old-fashioned "Deal with the Devil" plot, when it looks so obvious to this agnostic, is not a question subject to my answering. I think most of the time when we see this story, it is set up more as an exercise in Schadenfreude than anything else - the writer, and the audience, prefers punishment to redemption for the central figure, and the consolations of religion be damned. But it's not for me to say how anybody else's process works.

I never got any farther on this story than the above. My main interest in it, really, was to set a story in the Tower Life Building, which is one of the prettiest skyscrapers you will ever see (for my money, prettier than the Chrysler Building) and, of course, has no 13th floor.

I couldn't figure out how to do it without its appearing to be an attempt at evangelism. I'm not evangelical at all, and living where I do, I am all too aware of how violently people (including Christians!) who are used to the clumsy attempts of streetcorner preachers to evangelize them react to any hint of that. But even if I had solved that problem, and created Susie Czimzik as a more than usually attractive character, and played carefully with every tired trope I wanted to play with - the moment most editors realized it was a "Deal with the Devil" story would be the moment they stopped reading. The moment the rest realized that I'd broken the rules of the storyline would be the moment the rest of them rejected it. The path of the cliche is worn too deeply in our collective brains. The ones with the patience to wait around to see if you deviate from it are the ones who like this cliched path, and prefer not to deviate from it.

The problem is far from insurmountable. I've surmounted it a few times, myself. But it's tricky; and you have to read a lot of cliched stories to figure out how to subvert them acceptably.

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