Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The MG Novel Hidden in a Christmas Carol by Jim Hill

A disclaimer. The title of this piece is only there to lure you in, to catch your fancy long enough to get to the real point. Gentle reader, consider yourself advised.

‘Tis the season of A Christmas Carol, the ATM of American theater. Production companies large and small trot it out annually, secure in the knowledge that the funds it generates between Thanksgiving and New Years will keep the lights on in April. Dickens crafted a redemption story that predates the felonious Grinch, inspired a thousand variations (I’m looking at you, Magoo), and that has political resonance as timely today as it was in 1843.

I attended Trinity Reps’ current run this past weekend. As always I was caught up in the story, the imaginative staging, and the engaging performances. I was also inspired by the hidden middle grade novel waiting to be told. I mean, it’s just lying there waiting for a clever writer to put pen to paper and breathe life into it.

Which begs the question writers are so often asked: Where do you get your ideas?

If writers were paid a few bucks every time they hear that question they’d have a nice little coffee-shop-annuity.

Before I started writing with intent, the thing I was most afraid of was not having enough ideas. I knew I had one story I wanted to write, but what if I never came up with another one?

Here’s the thing. Once I committed to writing that one story down on paper (okay, screen…) the flood gates opened. Ideas are everywhere, and I had awakened my senses to them. An eighth color was added to the rainbow.

So what happened? I dared to observe the world and ask questions of it. Curiosity kicked down the doors of fear, and gave birth to a thousand mangled metaphors.

Have you thought about that hidden middle grade novel tucked away in a Christmas Carol? I wonder if we’re thinking about the same one.

I took a week long workshop at the Cape Cod Writers Conference with Sara Pennypacker. When asked “the question” she was ready, primed even, with her answer. Ideas are everywhere. She walked us through a trip she took to the grocery store and catalogued a series of ideas triggered by asking a simple question – why?

Why is the wheel on this cart wobbly?
Why is that person only buying candy?
Why did that car come from Ohio to this particular store?

The world is a grocery store stocked with pyramids of cans. Why is the can opener. Fill your cart.

Now that I think about it, there are at least three middle grade stories waiting to hatch out of a Christmas Carol. How’s your list coming?

I just completed Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo, and have a brand spanking new list of thirty one ideas ready for some serious writing time in order to turn them into actual stories. One idea a day for the month of November, plus a bonus I couldn’t resist from October 31st.

I was in a bookstore (shocking I know) and overheard this amazing piece of dialogue:
"For once, can't we just live in a castle? We haven't lived in a castle in my WHOLE LIFE. Not one single time.”
Boom. My brain exploded with possibilities. Why would a character say that? To whom are they speaking? What’s the answer?

Ideas are everywhere. But ideas are not books. Yet.

Neil Gaiman has a wonderful essay on this topic. Of course. The bits of genius he doles out have stayed with me. It’s about asking questions, like Sara said, and paying attention to the answers, and following the breadcrumb trail that leads to the next question. And writing it down.
“The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.”
A Christmas Carol has been around for a long time. Surely I’m not the first writer to see it and ask questions about things hinted or futures made bright. I’m not even going to Google it to see. We’re a community of idea generators, ideas are easy.

Look how far I’ve come. From the fear of never having another idea, to the realization that ideas are easy. Easy like a Sunday morning.

Pay attention. Ask questions. Question the answers. Follow the clues.

Write it down.

Oh. That middle grade novel in a Christmas Carol? I’m not going to tell you. If you get the chance, see the show, read the book, or catch the movie and ask your own questions.

You can thank me in your acknowledgement page.


  1. This is excellent! I have to confess ideas are really hard for me. I am more of a glimmer of something that I latch onto -- a place, a feeling. "What if" is where I try to go next.

    When I taught, I had my students keep "author's notes" lists for a few weeks. I wanted them to pay attention and observe and ideally use a detail or a full-blown idea in a piece of writing.

    1. That's a really great idea, Caroline!

    2. Attention takes practice. The author's notes idea is great. I bet they came up with some amazing material.

  2. Young scrooge and his dynamic with his father/ schoolmates? Tiny Tim's perspective or one of his siblings? The goose boy in the street?

    Way to build suspense and curiosity, Jim. You must be, like, a writer or something. ;)

    1. Ha! Busted. I am pretty good at page turns and the end of chapters.

      I hadn't even thought of the goose boy! *makes note*


  3. Yes, the ideas aren't the hard bit. It's the getting them down RIGHT that's the difficulty. On screen and on paper, they are never as bright and shiny as they are in my head.

    1. That's why revision never really ends until someone else sets a deadline. Right?

      I think of George Lucas and his terrible revisions to Star Wars. He was the one guy that could keep updating, and it never got better. We should all learn from that.

  4. Love that castle kid!

    1. Tara, it was pure magic. I love eavesdropping in the bookstore. So hard not to intervene sometimes though.

  5. Lovely post, Jim! I think I saw you post about the castle kid on Facebook. That is such a great line. Such a great question!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!