Ask a Writer #4

Hi everyone! And welcome back to my “Ask a Writer” column. My last request for questions on Twitter got a LOT of responses, and they were such good questions I didn’t want to try to lump them together in one long post. I’d like to take the time and give them each the focus they deserve, so for the next few entries I’ll be answering them in the order I got them. Thanks as always for your continued interest!

Speaking of which, the first question comes straight from a good friend of mine in the writing community (with a great book besides), Kelsey Connors.

@KelseyLConnors: What first inspired you to write your story?

If I’m being honest, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this very question, because I’ve been thinking of an answer forever. I apologize for slightly veering off the subject, but this also kind of becomes a story about how I got into writing in the first place.

I’ve always liked writing, really. I just always seemed to have the knack for it. In school, while other people dreaded essay assignments, I found them so much easier than doing anything else. Especially math problems. Ugh, I hate math. Numbers are evil. Anyway, this sometimes extended into my making up little stories for class assignments and trying to get more creative with things than was probably normal for the “cool” kids my age. This extended to me actually creating some fan fiction stories (my first, most early actual attempts at true writing) based on TV shows I love, like Stargate and Star Trek. But there were a few major events in my life that proved to me I had what it took to be a writer and create what I think are well-crafted and entertaining stories.

First of all, when I was in my middle-school/high school years (I don’t exactly remember which it was), an English teacher of mine assigned us to keep a writing journal for both personal reflections and as a place to plan out and develop our in-class writing work. I, of course, being the rebel that I am, instantly resented the idea of being made to show my work. I mean, it’s such a waste of time, right? Take the dreaded math, for example. Who cares how you got to an answer as long as it’s the right one? Why should I have to show my work? In any case, as an act of rebellion on my part I instead turned my writing journal into a wild, nonsensically rambling sci-fi/fantasy epic in about twenty chapters about Martians invading the world and several characters going on an interplanetary odyssey. There was really no point to it at all and it was very shoddily put together, but the ease with which I came up with the ridiculous goings-on in the story made me realize that perhaps I had some creative gifts. Plus, my friend thought it was funny and published it on her social media page. Oh, my. I feel really awkward about it now, but at the time I was pretty humbled and honored. Very much hope that’s not still floating around out there somewhere…and no, that’s not an invitation to go looking it up. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

Part two of my journey happened in 10th grade English (this I remember very clearly because my teacher, who was a super nice lady, was constantly embarrassed and discomfited by my sarcasm, wisecracks, and tomfoolery in class. Yep, I was that kind of student. If you’re reading this: sorry!). One of the books we read as a class that year was Homer’s Odyssey. You know, the story about an ancient Greek general who was just totally irresponsible and neglectful and boastful and a terrible human being taking his sweet time getting home to the wife he totally didn’t deserve. Yeah, I said it. We were split up into small groups, each with the assignment of taking a single chapter from The Odyssey and adapting it for the stage, putting on a little play for the class. I guess it was to show we actually read the book or something? In any case, it once again got my creative juices flowing (it may also have been the fact that I was heavily into Monty Python around that time), and it didn’t help that my group got assigned a kick-ass chapter: the one where Odysseus and his men journey to the island of the hypnotic, zombie-like Lotus Eaters, and then the island of the man-eating cyclops. You know, the highlights. It was agreed among our group that I would be solely responsible for writing the script, mostly because no one else wanted to do it. And the result was that instead of the relatively straightforward assignment we were given, my group and I put on a show that included the Lotus Eaters acting very much like stoners and dropping thinly veiled references to smoking pot, as well as a commercial for a fictional brand of eyedrops while Odysseus and his men are fighting the cyclops by stabbing him in the eye. What can I say? I saw the opportunities for satire, and I took them. Pretty sure my teacher was horrified, but I had fun at least. And by the way, that script you CAN look up. Don’t think you’d find it, but I was and still am very proud of that one.

The crowning glory of my early writing career was my junior year of high school, when that same friend I mentioned before (who published my weird rambling Martian story) asked me to help her write a film for our high school’s yearly film festival. She gave me a vague idea of a theme she wanted to convey–random people being brought together by a web of circumstance–and from that foundation, I wrote “The Note”. It’s a short film about several students, each with their own problems, who finds a note on the floor directing them to tell each other how they really feel. This same note and advice leads to the resolutions to all their problems, from healing friendships to starting relationships–and the twist is, it’s all just based on a note that one of the side characters (played by me!) wrote to himself before tossing away, as he continues to do so around the school. Is it Oscar-worthy? Probably not. But it was fun, and it fit what I was asked to do. I’m proud of it. And the best part is that the film won five out of seven awards our school film festival gave out, the most ever won by a single movie–including, of course, one for Best Writing. I still have the little wooden trophy on my desk.

So what was the original question? Oh, yeah: where I got the inspiration to write my story. But since I have two books published so far, that’s sort of a two-part explanation as well.

The idea for my first book, The Showstopper!, grew out of my time spent involved in high school and middle school theater. I was a big music and drama guy at one time: I loved the atmosphere of the theater, the camaraderie and teamwork, the singing, and the recognition that came with it all. I was just frustrated oftentimes by the feeling that I wasn’t getting as much attention as I deserved (although I’m now mature enough to recognize it’s because I am a lousy actor), and the fact that there was a lot of “drama” in theater. See what I did there? I mean lots of sniping, backbiting, and interpersonal problems that ended up getting in the way of things and complicating relationships really unnecessarily. It all lead to me expressing my anger to a friend of mine one day during rehearsal. Feeling much the same way as I was, he joked to me that it’s too bad there isn’t a hitman you can hire to wreck plays instead of people. I laughed it off at the time, but something about that idea stuck in my head. It kept nagging at me, and the more entertainment I consumed over the following year–which included “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and the original Batman movie, as well as the more recent Christopher Nolan ones–I started to imagine a character in my mind: an unassuming person who dons a mask, a costume, and various devices to destroy Broadway shows for money. That’s how Tom Wilkins, a.k.a. the Showstopper, came to be. I was also influenced by my school reading at the time, which included period pieces like The Great Gatsby, to set the story in the 1920s–both because I loved the time period, and because the limited technology at the time provided a much greater challenge for my main character to overcome. I used what I knew about the period–the plight of immigrants, yellow journalism, and the problems actors faced then and now–to fill out the rest of the cast and their backstories, and that’s how my first novel was born.

The tone of The Showstopper! could be light and humorous in many places, but overall it was rather dark, tense, and sometimes depressing. By the time I was done with it, I was feeling the need, and had been for a while, to lighten up somewhat. Fortunately, I had another idea that had been brewing for some time, based on another series of stories that were quite popular while I was growing up: Harry Potter. You have to understand that I am in no way demeaning the Harry Potter books when I say any of this. I have great respect for what J.K. Rowling accomplished as a writer, the beloved story she created, and the new horizons of storytelling she opened up to aspiring writers like myself. But that said, I’ve never been a huge fan. Harry Potter is fine, but it’s just not my favorite thing ever. I can’t say the same for my family, however: they all are crazy about it. Harry Potter trivia is their favorite pastime, and the references are endless. The same is true for many of my friends. In true hipster fashion, I came to rather dislike Harry Potter for the simple fact that it was so overwhelmingly popular and I didn’t understand why. So I never lost an opportunity to poke fun at the story, point out the plot holes, and stew about things I would have done differently. One thing I noticed was that as a whole, Hufflepuff House is never really given a ton of recognition in the books: probably the least of any house. This was because, I theorized, that Hufflepuff was the place where all the “normal” and “average” young wizards got placed. Therefore, they probably had the best parties. This focus on the idea of such mediocre exceptional people was funny to me, and got me thinking about one of my favorite comedies of all time, Animal House. What if, I thought, I could blend the two? Bring some more mature, college-age humor to a Harry Potter-esque universe?

This concept seemed brilliant. Unfortunately, I ran into a brick wall trying to figure out the details. I knew that no matter how I set up the story, it would probably just be seen as a carbon copy or rip-off of Harry Potter. All my early ideas about creating my own school for wizards got scrapped and thrown out because it sounded too similar to what had already been done. That is, until I was a movie that changed my mind: Moonrise Kingdom. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the brilliance of Wes Anderson, go see this movie. The point is, one of the main focuses of the film is on a Boy Scout-style summer camp with a group of unusually perceptive and intelligent youngsters, lead by a bumbling, incompetent scoutmaster. This was the breakthrough for me: what if I didn’t set the story at a school at all? What if it happened at a camp? Imagine how differently that militaristic style of setting would play than a high-class institution like Hogwarts.

The rest of the story framework rose up very quickly after that. I had always intended the story to be at some points a social satire, making fun of political and societal topics that I’ve remarked on in the past through the eyes of the young wizard characters. The characters were also pretty easy, as many of them have echoes in the Harry Potter universe: Scoutmaster Hasselberry was created as pretty much the anti-Dumbledore, as boorish and closed-minded and cruel as Dumbledore was kind, understanding, and wise; Drake Masterson is similar to Draco Malfoy, but with a powerful talent to back up his tough talk and far more of a backbone; and Jack Ferguson, as the protagonist, is effortlessly gifted with magic, but far less driven than Harry ever was because I wanted to explore the concept of a born slacker with wizard powers. I borrowed some concepts from Harry Potter than remain in the story in its published form, but edited out many over time as the story became more and more its own unique world and less a parody of an existing work (fun fact, there was an actual Harry parody character in the early drafts who was tasked with protecting the camp from real, massive threats, but was always unknowingly put in mortal danger by Jack and his friends’ antics). I also added a lot of ideas of interest to me personally: mixing magic with technology; wizards who didn’t believe in magic; wizards who didn’t want to be wizards; a standard, bureaucratic government agency in charge of monitoring these extraordinary individuals; and setting it in the U.S. instead of the U.K., of course, with all the cultural baggage that entails.

In the end, Camp Ferguson is a great point of pride for me because, while it took three total rewrites and several years to finally edit to a point where I adequately balanced humor with plot, it didn’t end up being a copy of Harry Potter. Drawing on those books as inspiration, I managed to create what I think is a living, breathing world of its own that’s completely distinct and unique, and stands on its own, with characters that I feel I’m better friends with than many actual people I know. It’s truly a special feeling.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, keep on writing!

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