When in Doubt, Go with Sweetness

Ideas can strike writers at any time, and often without warning.  They can frustrate and baffle, but they can also give us wings as we soar aloft, above mountain peaks and green, lush uplands where our imaginations roam unhindered.  In short, ideas can be magic.

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But what if, after the initial euphoria has worn off and you step back to examine your idea with the cold, hard light of objectivity, you realize that it’s not a perfect fit for a particular market; it doesn’t neatly fall into a trendy category; it doesn’t reflect what’s on the bestseller lists or the prime display shelves at the local bookstore.

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Even so, you can’t deny that you feel genuinely excited about the idea, the scope, the characters you can create that will populate the pages.  You feel a connection to the project.  It’s a story you feel meant to write, and you know, you are sure, that once you begin, it will be a genuine labor of love.

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But who will read it if it’s not in vogue, if it represents an outlier, a literary orphan as it were, searching vainly for a hot genre or category or concept to which it can attach itself?

Do you rework the idea, a few tweaks here, several major plot shifts there, perhaps a new character or two, to give it the best chance to sell?  Or do you leave it as is, determined to write your story as authentically as possible?

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Friends and fellow writers, agents and editors may offer advice, hoping to clarify the problem.  But you discover that the more advice you receive, the cloudier the issue becomes.

What to do?

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The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the most iconic teams in NFL history.  The Bears that year compiled a 15-1 regular-season record and demolished the New York Giants and (then) Los Angeles Rams in the NFC playoffs, winning the two games by a combined score of 45-0.  Then in Super Bowl XX, the Bears crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10.  Many people consider the ’85 Bears to be the best single-season team of all time.

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The heart and soul of the team, unquestionably, was Walter Payton.  Payton had been a star running back for the Bears since his rookie year of 1975.  For years, while the team around him struggled, Payton set records and reached milestones.  Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his ability to elude defenders with ease, Payton was universally respected league-wide.  As the 1985 season unfolded, analysts, players, and fans were in agreement–finally, after all his years in the league toiling for an also-ran, it was nice to see Payton play on a gifted team overall and have the chance to win a championship.

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No one admired Payton more than his coach, Mike Ditka, himself a former player for the Bears.  Ditka was not shy in proclaiming Walter Payton the greatest football player he had ever been associated with.  And so, with the Bears running away with Super Bowl XX, the stage seemed set for Payton to cap off his illustrious career–not simply with a Super Bowl win but with the honor of scoring a touchdown in the game.

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It would not be easy.  The one thing the Patriots did well in the contest was contain Payton.  They keyed on him relentlessly, and he had no room to run.  Even so, late in the third quarter, with the Bears already winning 37-3, they found themselves at the New England 1-yard line.  Here it was.  Simply hand the ball off to “Sweetness,” and let him score, a fitting reward for one who had done so much for so long for the Bears and the city of Chicago.

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Instead, Coach Mike Ditka chose to give the ball to a pop-culture sensation named William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a 308-pound defensive lineman (in an era when 300-pound linemen were rare) who occasionally doubled as a running back when the team got close to the end zone.  Perry was a decent player, but far from a superstar.  What’s more, he was only a rookie.  He had not played for the team through the lean years of the 1970s and early 1980s as Walter Payton had.  He was a solid contributor, it was true, but more than anything, he was trending, the flavor of the moment, one of the top personalities of 1985.  It can be argued, especially when it came to Perry’s scoring touchdowns, that he was a fad, a 300-pound flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit wonder.

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But it was William Perry who scored that Super Bowl touchdown.  Walter Payton never did reach the end zone that day.

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Mike Ditka was not the kind of coach who second-guessed himself.  Confident, brash, self-assured, he made his calls and stood by them.  But this was one decision that would haunt him.

Much later, years after the Bears’ emphatic Super Bowl victory, and more than a decade removed from Payton’s death to a rare liver disorder, Ditka, now retired from coaching, admitted in an interview that giving the ball to the Refrigerator, instead of allowing Payton–the team mainstay, its leader who had missed only one game in his entire NFL career–the chance to score in the biggest game of his life was the one lingering regret from his coaching career.

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Looking at the expression on the old coach’s face, you could see how much he wished he could go back in time and reconsider his decision.

He should have given the ball to “Sweetness.”

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When the idea for The Eye-Dancers came to me, I knew almost immediately that the four main characters, all boys, would be based on some of the friends I knew while growing up.  I further knew that they would be twelve years old over the course of the novel.  Since publishing the book, there have been some who have criticized this decision.  I should have made one of the main characters a girl, they argued, or made the characters a little older, or both.  And from a purely marketing standpoint, they may be right.

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The thing is, I believe that writing is an act of love.  It is a way–perhaps the best way–for us to share what’s important to us with the world.  It is our chance to tell stories uniquely our own, to infuse them with our experiences, points of view, joys, fears, opinions, and quirks.

I suppose a writer can indeed reshape an original, inspired idea, twisting it, contorting it, redefining it to fit in.  If vampire fiction is hot, then turn the main character into a vampire, even if, in the original conception, he was just a boy, as mortal as any of us.  If dystopian settings are in fashion, then maybe the writer can alter the time and place of the idea and write a tale set against the backdrop of a dark and repressive future age.  Or, if little green aliens with big black eyes are all the rage . . .

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And by all means, if an idea originally strikes in a form such as this, if it occurs organically on its own, then there indeed is another story to tell about vampires or dytopian societies or little green aliens.

But if the idea that hits, suddenly, jarring you to the core with its power, lighting a creative fuse that can only be unleashed through the words pouring out onto the page . . . if that idea does not contain anything that’s trending . . .

Don’t worry about.  Write it the way it is–the way it’s meant to be.  Who knows?  You may unleash a new trend.

There will always be another “Refrigerator.”

But there is only one “Sweetness.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Road (Not) Taken

On July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, between games of a twi-night doubleheader, there was a disco explosion.  Literally.  In game one, the Detroit Tigers defeated the Chicago White Sox, 4–1.  There would be no second game.  The reason?  A promotion that turned into a riot.

The White Sox were slogging through the 1979 season, mired in mediocrity.  Attendance was spotty, and the team was going nowhere fast.  Hoping to inject some interest, the Sox teamed up with local radio personality Steve Dahl.  Why not have a hate-on-disco night?  Why not cart thousands of disco records out onto the field between games of the doubleheader and then–explode them!  And so–Disco Demolition Night was born.  It all sounded good to the promoters.  But then things got out of control.

When the button was pushed, and the disco discs were blasted into bits, waves of fans stormed the field.  A riot broke out, and, due to the explosion and fans, the playing field was damaged, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader.

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To this day, Disco Demolition Night remains one of the most ridiculed and notorious  baseball promotions of all time.  It also is sometimes referred to as “the day that disco died.”  Days after the demolition, on July 21, 1979, the top six songs on U.S. music charts were disco.  Just two months later, by the end of September, not one disco song was listed in the top ten.

What happened?  How could something so enormously popular one minute become so mocked and dissed just a short while later?  As the 1970s flickered and died, so, too, did disco.  I remember, growing up in the ’80s, how my two older brothers and their friends would mock the disco craze of their younger years.

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Disco was, essentially, a fad.  It had no staying power, no ability to transcend its generation.  There are still some who enjoy it, and think fondly back to its heyday, and there has even been something of a disco revival among fans.  But, culturally speaking, it enjoyed its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.  And that was all.

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This brings another question to the forefront.  Are things so different with writing?  Certainly there are fads in the literary world, as well.  Trends.  “Hot” topics and genres.  The Twilight series caused an explosion in young adult vampire fiction.  The Hunger Games and its sequels have initiated a surge in dystopian story lines.  Is this a trap writers should avoid?  Is it a mistake to ride the coattails of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, as well as the other best-selling novelists who determine the trends of the industry?

Perhaps it’s better to go in a different direction.  Maybe it’s wiser to write about other things, to explore the realms that are not “hot” today, but may be tomorrow.  Maybe we can be the trend-setters.

Robert Frost famously wrote:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by.

And that has made all the difference.”

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Granted, these lines are taken slightly out of context, used in isolation here.  But the idea is still worth thinking about.  Is it better to travel the untrodden path?  Or the popular one?  Is it better to write what’s “hot”?  Or to deliberately go against it?

I would argue both are valid, and both are misguided.  Because, whether you write about something that’s in vogue or about something that’s currently standing far removed from the crowd, the end result won’t be worth reading unless it’s your story.  You can write about sultry, beautiful vampires with a mysterious and unknowable backstory.  You can write about flesh-eating zombies that create havoc in a world reeling from their takeover.  You can write about erotic red rooms of pain.  Something is not artistically “less than” simply because it fits in with contemporary popular culture and trends.  If you approach the story with your own ideas, and if you write it because you feel like you’ll burst if you don’t get it down on the page–then it’s a valid, original piece of work.  Likewise, if you decide to write the “anti-vampire” story just to prove a point, just to throw dirt in the eye of popular culture, such a work is not really your own.  It’s merely a forced attempt to go against the grain, to be contrary for contrary’s sake.

We each have a unique and layered perception of the world.  Shaped by our experiences, which in turn are distilled and perceived through our personalities, bents, idiosyncrasies, passions, desires, fears and dreams, we each have a story to tell that is uniquely our own.

I wrote The Eye-Dancers because I felt driven to write it.  The initial idea formed after a dream I had more than twenty years ago.  I dreamed of the “ghost girl” who haunts the dreams of Mitchell and Joe and Ryan.  I dreamed of her, wraith-like, frightening, yet unable to be ignored, and I knew I had to write about her.  For years, I didn’t know how or where to put her into a story–until I dreamed of her again more than a decade and a half later.  This time, when I woke up, the genesis of The Eye-Dancers was in place.  Immediately, I began writing it.  There is nothing like that epiphany, that moment when an idea hits, unasked for, unplanned, and you just know you have a story to tell.  It is a high like no other.

And so I wrote.  I wrote about the ghost girl, yes.  But I also wrote about childhood, and the four main characters in the story are inspired by friends I knew growing up.  We used to talk about things, wonder aloud what’s “out there.”  We’d ask questions like, What if this world, this earth we know and live on, is just one of many earths?  What if we each have doubles, triples, an infinite number of “selves” in other, parallel universes?  And what if there existed a connection so strong between two people, two strangers, that, even a universe apart, they were somehow able to communicate?  Questions like these, the kinds of things I’ve always been fascinated by, drove the story of The Eye-Dancers.  And the relationships I shared with my childhood friends served as the heart-engine of the novel.

Maybe The Eye-Dancers is a good story, well told.  Or–maybe it’s full of shortcomings and faults.  Perhaps it’s a little of both.  Ultimately, that’s not my call to make.  I leave that to you.  But what I can say is this–it is my story, something I felt compelled to write, and driven to complete, even on those days when the narrative seemed to bog down or the characters didn’t want to cooperate.

In the end, that’s about all we can do.  Write the things that matter to us as individuals.  Sometimes these topics, themes, and passions yell and kick, demanding to be let free onto the page.  Other times, they are hidden, like fragments tucked away in a secret corner of the heart.  Either way, cultivate them.  Listen to them.  Share them.  They are yours.

A paradox, perhaps.  But a truth nonetheless . . .

When you write for yourself, you write for us all.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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