The very first scene of Meddling Kids recounts a nightmare just like the one I had the morning after the book was greenlit. The dreamer, Kerri, wakes up in a dismal apartment that was inspired by my hotel room in Manhattan from three nights before. And Kerri’s dog is a Weimaraner because, while in New York, I couldn’t stop thinking of a woman back in Barcelona who owns a Weimaraner.
The previous paragraph is meant to support my belief that many decisions in writing are the fruit of circumstance, and that long-term planning is therefore useless. It’s also meant to push the story about my pitching the novel down to paragraph four, because I just read another author’s piece on this blog who opened with that, so now I have to do something else.
I always found it preferable to start writing unburdened by large schemes. I envision a few loose scenes before I start, and I try to steer the plot in a way that strings them together, but I don’t see the bigger picture they form until I’m deep into it. It’s very liberating: let your characters speak, let the scenery unfold, start a sentence with no end in sight and then just distract the reader with some oh look paragraph four here it is!
A good empirical argument in favor of improvisation came up during the aforementioned visit to New York. At the time (November 2014, when I stayed in that dismal hotel room in Manhattan, and later moved to an AirBnb in Williamsburg), my favorite thing about my pitch for Meddling Kids was that I had one. Up to then, I had never pitched a novel; I just dropped the finished manuscript on somebody’s desk, shouted, “Give me money!”, and waited for security to escort me out. (Hyperbolic, yes, but it worked several times.) For Meddling Kids, however, I was proud to have a very blunt high concept: Famous Five meet Cthulhu. Or, Enid Blyton meets Lovecraft. It’s the kind of simplistic A+B equation that I tend to find annoying, but not when I come up with it, so I gladly shared it with editors Jason Kaufman and Robert Bloom during a business lunch.
And their answer was, “Who is Enid Blyton?”
Turns out that the Famous Five is much more a British thing than an American thing. I’m neither, so I often fail to observe that distinction. Fortunately, I learned later that similar series in the genre exist in many countries. The genre itself may be called ‘kid detectives,’ and it’s a type of YA literature that flourished in the 1940s, starring everyday tweens who go on adventures and end up capturing grown-up evildoers. The horror component is not compulsory, but entries set in haunted houses and ghost trains are common enough. American examples are Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. In the UK, author Enid Blyton alone created several series that were still popular in my country well into the 70s (it helped that Spanish society wasn’t yet mature enough to be offended by the blatant racism and sexism that was making the books fall out of favor everywhere else). Other countries have their own equivalents. My ‘twist’ on this recipe, if it amounts to that, was to put such a gang of ingenuous adventurers against a truly dark villain. A Swedish author might have chosen a serial killer; I went with the Cthulhu Mythos.
To escape the “who’s Enid Blyton” impasse at the lunch with my editors, I just said, “Think Scooby-Doo minus the horror motif.” It was a good fail-safe resort: like the Famous Five, the Scooby Gang is two boys, two girls, and a dog, only they’re old enough to drive. Kaufman and Bloom liked the project—the Lovecraftian bit met no objections—and I left the restaurant promising to start right away (indeed, that night in Williamsburg I had the nightmare that determined the first scene). And since nods to Scooby-Doo were now to be expected along with other kid detective teams, I set the plot in Blyton Hills, a town on the Zoinks river. Funny.
Two and a half years later, most websites present Meddling Kids as a modern take on the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. And that was neither the A or the B in my A+B equation. So much for plans.
Of course I’m not vexed by that development: I love Scooby-Doo. Read my previous novel, The Supernatural Enhancements: there’s lots of Scooby winks in that one already! But it would be unfair to write up every teen detective trope in the novel as part of a TV show’s legacy. Case in point: the book’s undisputed lead, Andy, has no homologous in the Scooby Gang. I wanted her to be a grown-up, scarred George from the Famous Five—perhaps the only one in the quintet with a distinct personality, an LGBT icon, and everyone’s favorite. Andy carries the whole novel on her shoulders, but she would not exist in a mere Scooby byproduct. On the other hand, Kerri is a composite of Daphne and Velma. But no, I didn’t make her a redhead for their sake. That never occurred to me. I just like redheads.
How about some more examples of randomness to reprise the theme from paragraph one and create the illusion that this post was thoroughly outlined? Andy is an escaped convict only for the sake of a joke in the prologue. (Wickley: “I just got out of jail.” Andy: “Me too. They must have noticed by now.”) The Deboën Mansion owes its name to a street in Williamsburg. I only decided that Peter’s ghost would be a character just as I was writing his first appearance (page 54!). Meanwhile, a certain supporting character comes across as poorly researched to some reviewers because of my choice of words to describe them, when in fact the character was created before the whole MK concept, has a novel of their own, and the words were carefully picked to suit the big picture.
So once more, forget the big picture. Just write. It’s harder to fail when nobody knows what you’re trying to do.
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