Anyone want to read about spreading peanut butter? No one, not even the person who invented peanut butter. OK, maybe John Harvey Kellogg (yep, Kellogg Cereal) would enjoy reading about the golden paste, but even he would probably get bored with an ordinary description. Now someone nearly dying of peanut allergy and being saved by a homeless man who’s broken into the house to steal your peanut butter – that could be exciting. (I didn’t say scary or unlikely was out.)
Felt like kicking myself around the block a few times when I discovered the peanut butter in my own story. A writing fact I knew so well, yet somehow it eluded me. I’d written peanut butter – worse, it could even be thought of as a story of cold cereal, and we all know how interesting that is. We recognize weakness in other writer’s stories yet somehow the ordinary event slips into our own as if we’d given it a silver lined invitation.
Don’t ask Mom about this one. She’ll tell you, “It’s a wonderful story, darling, did you get a nice advance?” We all know Mom doesn’t read with discretion. She spreads good cheer, most of it based on how much she loves you and all the glory she expects from you. Let’s face it, Mom cannot hold down the bile of realizing that you, her baby, are all grown up and capable of writing about war, violence, sex, hatred, and evil beings in sinister plots. She’s just as happy to let a story slide along on its lazy butt rather than reveal the darker side of life, the side that’s interesting to write about. The side that’s interesting to read.
Consider a story you know well. Jack and Jill went up the hill. Jack fell down and Jill tumbled after. Expected and predictable and about as interesting as, well, you know what. But you don’t know the whole story. May I elaborate?
Jack didn’t pull up the bucket of water. He leaned across the top of the well and tugged on Jill’s braids, trying to yank her closer. She had braids as thick and supple as a jungle vine, eyes as deep and mysterious as an abandoned gold mine. Jack’s love quotient lurched about three times his shirt size. Didn’t want water, that boyo. He wanted a kiss and puckered up expectantly, hoping his gleaming pompadour and rockabilly swagger were attractive enough to impress the beauteous object of his desire.
Jill however had other intentions, finding Jack’s breath a bit rot-guttish and his opening moves more Don Juan the Creep than Romeo the Sleek. Besides, she was merely thirsty for a plain old drink of water. She planted not a smooch on his cheek but a sock in the kisser. Well, what should have been the kisser. Jack flipped over backwards, heels kicking up the dust, and Jill lost her balance because she’d leaned to land such a hard right. Both kids tumbled down the hill, pell mell, ass over head and head over ass until all parts of both kids landed at the bottom, one red faced and pissed off, the other red faced and sore. Jill’s braids flew behind her like a war pennant, a one person cavalry in wild pursuit. Jack’s teeth bolted from his jaw, a declaration of surrender in ivory and blood.
Jill gave him a swift kick to the, well, you know where she kicked him, and he did too. She smoothed the wrinkles out of her designer jeans, planted her hands on her hips, and flashed burning embers at Jack. “Watch it, buster. I ain’t no cheap carnival bait puckering up for a sloppy bucket of H2O out of the village well.” She stomped her snake skin boot on the ground beside the prone unrequited suitor, the pointed toe jamming him in the ribs.
Jack stood up, very, very slowly, and rubbed the rising proof on his crown of his fall from grace, tongued the new cavities in his mouth, groaned at the pain in his you-know-where, and reassessed the situation. Jill didn’t like him all that much. And she wasn’t that thirsty. As he cast his glance toward the ground where he’d lately been, he noticed a glint of gold among the broken picket fence of his scattered teeth. Jack pocketed the gold, figuring he’d find a more agreeable love interest to share his bounty with.
Pompadour now flat as his ego, our boyo learned a valuable lesson. Don’t try for a first kiss with the fashionable girl at the top of a hill, especially if soft pillows don’t aggregate at the bottom. Get the damned bucket of water, ignore the snobby chick at your side, and seek your trysts like the other kids. Behind the bleachers with the eager tomatoes who wait there. And he brought a better gift than a free bucket of H2O. He offered a bag of French fries, fresh from, well, you know where.
You might not like my new take on an old standard. Trust me, Mom didn’t approve either. She found it lurid and in bad taste. But you have to admit, it’s far less bland than the sing song drill you learned in nursery school. A bit of work and I could make even more out of less. That’s what writing is. An imaginative take on old ideas. Most new stories are fresh takes on old ones. You knew that already and can name at least a dozen re-imaginings that have garnered troops of admirers and taken in bags of loot. Remember the story of a very green kingdom and the young lady who ventured there on a funnel cloud? Now think about how long you stood in line to buy tickets for the musical version, based on the book by a very famous writer. Uh huh. An old tale revamped by a younger story teller.
Now make your staid story exciting. Unpredictable. Quirky. Worthy of an agent and an adoring audience. Yeah, that kind of innovation. Give it a good kick in the you-know-where.