When a Pee-Wee-Sized Idea Turns into a Bases-Clearing Home Run

It’s happened to me more times than I can remember.  An idea strikes, out of the blue, an inspiration from the creative ether, and I feel energized, inspired, eager to begin a new story.

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But then a funny thing happens.

I realize, sometimes after keying in the first few sentences, sometimes while thinking about the idea more fully, before having written a single word, that my construct, this gift from the muse, is in fact woefully underdeveloped.  Perhaps it represents a situation, a concept, a character’s epiphany, a new twist on an old theme–it is a good starting point for a story, but it is not, by itself and in itself, a story.  Not even close.  Once the white-hot glow of new creation cools to a steady simmer, once I step back and examine things with a cool and analytical eye, I realize I am nowhere close to beginning a story.  There is still much to flesh out.

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This is precisely what happened with The Eye-Dancers.  One night, while still in high school, I had a vivid dream of a girl outside my bedroom window.  She was just a child, maybe seven years old, standing in the light of the street lamp, out in the middle of the road.  But she was no ordinary child–the light went right through her.  She was more ghost than girl, more apparition than flesh-and-blood human being.  She beckoned for me to come outside, and I remember, all these years later, how real it all seemed.  When I woke up moments later, the bedsheets were in a tangle at my feet, and my skin was wet with perspiration.  Immediately I jotted down the essentials of the dream, knowing, instinctively, that this was the germ of a story.  The girl from my dreams couldn’t be wasted, tossed into some discarded literary oblivion from which she might never be heard from again.  She needed to come alive, on the printed page, the centerpiece of a story I was sure I was meant to write.

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The thing is, it took twenty years for that story to materialize, two decades for the pieces to fit together into a coherent and structured whole.  Many times, I doubted if I would ever be able to work this “ghost girl” into a story, but finally, in a far-off and futuristic 21st century, Mitchell Brant and Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton and Marc Kuslanski emerged, one by one, against a backdrop of parallel worlds and nightmares come to life, and the “ghost girl” at last had a home.

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But that’s the way ideas often are.  Every now and then, when we’re lucky, they arrive fully evolved, fleshed out, ready to lead us where they will. Much more frequently, at least in my experience–they come in pieces, bit by bit, at their own pace, and in their own time.  They cannot be rushed, and they cannot be forced.

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They demand our patience.

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Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was so small as a child that he didn’t manage to get onto his high school baseball team until his senior year, and even then it was for only six games.  Nicknamed “Pee Wee” as a boy because of his mastery of playing marbles, Reese weighed all of 120 pounds as a high school senior.  Few talent scouts indeed would have predicted a future in baseball for the diminutive infielder.

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But Reese continued to play the game he loved, and when his amateur church league team played their championship game on the minor league Louisville Colonels field, personnel for the minor league club were impressed by what they saw.  Maybe the small kid with the slick glove and quick feet had a future in the game, after all.

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Within two short years, Reese was playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the Major Leagues.  His big-league career got off to a rocky start, as he broke a bone in his heel during his rookie campaign of 1940, and then the following year, Reese led the Majors in errors.  But as time went on, it became clear that Pee Wee Reese was a keeper.  The Dodgers never traded him or released him; he would go on to play for the heroes of Flatbush for sixteen years.

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Never a great pure hitter, Reese still managed to get on base with regularity, drawing walks and using his savvy to set the table as the leadoff batter in the National League’s most feared lineup, featuring the power of Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, the skill of Junior Gilliam, and the all-around mastery of Jackie Robinson.  It was in regard to Robinson, in particular, where Reese made his most profound mark, helping his teammate along during Robinson’s trailblazing and tempestuous rookie year of 1947.  Reese, the team captain, played such a pivotal role that Robinson later wrote, “Pee Wee, whether you are willing to admit what your being a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant.  May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours.”

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Pee Wee Reese retired from baseball as a player in 1958, the year after the Dodgers moved to the West Coast.  (He lost three years of his career in the 1940s while serving in World War II.)  In 1984, deservedly, and long overdue, the Little Colonel, the captain of the Dodgers, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

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It’s easy to wish that all ideas, when they come, arrive fully formed and ready to go, complete with all major plot developments, character motivations, and even, perhaps, subthemes and story tangents.  And sometimes they do.  In particular, there have been times when an idea for a short story has hit me with such force, such actuality, I knew it was a winner, and all I had to do was sit down at my keyboard and let the tapestry of the idea unravel, word by word.  Ideas like this are the phenoms, the high school superstars who even the most nearsighted of scouts can discern have a bright and accomplished future.

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But you can’t count on them.  They are the Halley’s Comets of the literary world, only coming round once every blue moon, teasing us with a glimpse, a flourish, and then vanishing, like mist, once again into the farthest depths of the cosmos.

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No–most ideas take work, thought, honing, patience.  It’s often easy to become frustrated with such ideas, works-in-progress as they are.  But if we allow these soft-spoken and demure gems the time they need to grow and mature, we may just have a winner on our hands.

Sometimes, even a Pee Wee can make it all the way to the top.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Making the “Impossible” Perfect Game Possible

The 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the old Brooklyn Dodgers would go the full seven games, with the Yankees ultimately coming out on top.  But the game that would forever stand out was Game 5.  The series was tied, two games apiece, making the fifth game a pivotal tiebreak affair, which would give the winner a decided edge in the series.  It was October 8, 1956, at the old Yankee Stadium.  And the Yankees trotted out Don Larsen as their starting pitcher.

All he did was pitch the first and, to this day, the only perfect game in World Series history.  He faced twenty-seven batters, and each time, they failed to reach base.  The performance was remarkable for a number of reasons.  For one thing, the Dodgers fielded one of baseball’s most feared lineups.  Their scorecard was full of famous names and future Hall of Famers, from Pee Wee Reese to Jackie Robinson to Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges.  The likelihood that anyone would throw a perfect game against that group seemed near-impossible.  That it was Don Larsen who threw it?

Well, that was impossible.

Larsen was the very definition of a journeyman pitcher.  Look up “mediocre” in the dictionary, and you might just find a smiling Larsen looking back at you.  He never topped 11 wins in a single season, and his career record of 81-91 won’t win him many prizes.  But on that October day in 1956, he was unhittable.

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They say that truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of Don Larsen’s perfect game, this is certainly the case.  If you were to write this as a piece of fiction, no one would believe it.  There was nothing about Larsen’s history that would have suggested such a performance possible, especially against such a powerful opponent.  Even Larsen’s manager, Casey Stengel, once said about his night-owl pitcher:  “The only thing he fears is sleep!”

So imagine, if you will, creating a character like Don Larsen in a novel.  He’s a fun-loving guy, not a bad pitcher, but far from a great one.  He’s just one of the guys.  And on the biggest stage in sports, against the best team in the league, in a pivotal game in a tie series, he pitches the greatest game in baseball history?  Readers would toss the book across the room.  “Nonsense,” they’d say.  “This kind of thing could never happen.”  “Leave that kind of corny stuff to Stallone!”

In fiction, even when a character does an about-face, when he or she rises to a challenge unexpectedly, there has to be something, some hint, some trait, that the reader can at least refer back to and say, “Okay.  I can buy it.  I can see the seeds of this big scene taking shape back in chapter five. . . .”

In The Eye-Dancers, the main characters all must come to terms with themselves, overcome something about themselves if they want to survive.  One of the most tense moments in the book, in fact, is when Ryan Swinton confronts Joe Marma.  Ryan has always been the follower, Joe the tough-guy leader.  They’ve known each other their entire lives, and Joe has always been in charge.  So when Ryan stands up to him in a difficult situation, late in the book, it has to come off as believable.  It can’t come out of nowhere, a character deus ex machina just to help propel the plot forward.  It has to be earnestly won, with foreshadowing and indications earlier in the story that Ryan has it in him to stand up to his take-charge but impulsive friend.  And hopefully those signs are there, and his moment of truth comes off as genuine.

Because if it comes off too much like Larsen’s perfect game, completely out-of-the-blue, then it won’t work. That kind of thing can’t happen in fantasy.

Only in reality.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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