One more thing I forgot to mention about the writing, and which is absent from my sidebar: there’s a contest on at Highlights for Children which offers prizes of $1000 for (very) short stories (ie. of 800 words or so) set in the future. I thought of Stephanie when I read that, but I don’t know if I mentioned it to her. Me, I find any contest with no entry fee tempting, and when it’s stories for kids set in the future, man, I can’t resist.
So, predictably, I’ve popped out a couple of things and been tinkering with them — one called “Why Space Cooties Aren’t Such a Big Deal” (about being the outsider in a group of kids, and how to deal with it) and the other titled “In My Time” (which is about looking at school from the point of view of kids in the future who don’t have to go to school, and can’t believe the indignity of having to ask permission to go pee, let alone the bad health promoted by a childhood of desk work… except it’s playful, you know?). There’s a little tinkering left to go on one of them, but really, it should be ready for the January postmark deadline, I think.
I’ve got this other thing, “Tanker King,” going on, but it seems to want to be more than 800 words long — maybe closer to 3,000 or 4,000; and there’s a kind of dark undertone that I found myself suppressing, because a kids’ magazine wouldn’t probably be interested in what kinds of nasty stuff a teenaged boy needs to do to remain captain of a crew running a retooled oil tanker that plies the sea lanes, pirating fresh water and selling it (at cutthroat prices that local governments cannot afford to refuse) to desperate cities where no other sources of fresh water are available. When I caught myself cutting the part about his dad being torn into the sky through the roofless top of his house during the worst Greenhouse storm ever (and probably landing in water and being eaten by sharks, since his biodegradable-upon-death tracker implant stopped transmitting a few hours after his disappearance, and a few hours before the end of the storm). I started to think the story might be something not for Highlights, as much as, oh, who knows… somewhere they like short, dark stories.
That’s set aside, though. I’m trying to figure out what I can do with high-end biotech and humor that would be suitable for kids. You know, “But Mom! Of course I backed up my brain before jumping out of the airplane!” kind.
(“Well, and do you remember what falling from the airplane was like?”
“No,” he said sadly, shaking his reconstructed head and wondering if his sister Lila was right, that boys were just plain dangerous until age fifteen or so.)
Yeah, I think probably having your protagonist defend doing dangerously stupid stuff because his body can be rebuilt from scratch might not go over so well. But I don’t want to only send didactic stories. It’s weird, writing for kids: one — or is it just me? — almost naturally begins to slide into a didactic mode. That’s a mode that I always resented, and sometimes outright decried — as a kid myself. “Why Space Cooties…” is a little bit in this vein, though at least the narrator shows a little cleverness, and confronts the fact that some people will never like you, for idiotic reasons. With “In My Time,” there is a kind of reverse cautionary tale — a story warning kids about buying into the present, I suppose, because the future can be better and because elements in the present can be (and definitely are) both arbitrary and silly. In its way it’s just good old-fashioned holding-the-reader’s-hand-under-the-table subversiveness of the I’ve-Been-There-Too-Kiddo-And_Yes_It’s-B.S. type. I think the subversiveness is cool — it’s something I always appreciated in fiction as a kid, especially fiction about kids by adults: this sense that, yeah, man, those adults are nuts, and we know something they don’t, man! And all the while, I’m actually just pointing out the facts about the dumb, officious, unimaginative, and respectless dolt adults that so many kids have to deal with… not all adults, just the ones who rule most kid’ (and most adults) lives.
I’ve gotten somewhat quicker at figuring out where the conflict in any given story needs to lie, which is why I can boot out some of these pieces so quickly. But I’m also thinking of trying that Third Option exercise that Kate Wilhelm mentioned in her book Storyteller, which I just finished reading. You know, you come up with an ending. Cool. Now go back and find a second solution to the problem; make the (obvious?) one you came up with before impossible, and use another. Got it? Done that? Good. Now render that one impossible and work for a third option — yet another solution to the character’s problems. That’ll likely be the one the reader never anticipates, the one that surprises, entertains, and blows the reader out of the water. I think “Why Space Cooties…” is okay as is, but it could do with something more surprising. Going to the teachers for help is the obvious second option, but this way lies social death for my protagonist, so now what can she do? Craftjack the family shuttle and take the bullies at school for a ride?
Hmmm. This Third Option thing is tougher than it sounds.