Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

“No way out but to die!”

Or, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hack.

So, shortly after moving back to the Chicago area, I began to seek out the elusive beast called Gainful Employment. It is a tricky creature, it is, stubborn and authoritative, the sort of game that has to want capture before it will allow it. For most of that summer, I was forced to live off of temp jobs, the quails and squirrels of the job search.

And there was also the freelance writing job. Which, on paper, sounded like the very thing I was looking for.

The company, Long Hill, produced books and various other media for children, and operated entirely out of a small house in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. I answered an ad in the suburban newspaper, and within a short while, I found myself working on a project called Claud Braggart: The Laser Files (hereafter CBTLF). The company had, for some time, been making a decent living with books for the under-10 set, introducing to the world such delightful [1] characters as Outer Space Earl, Rochester & Merle, and The Yuggs. When I met them, they were considering branching out into the dimension of early teenage adventure books, i.e., “chapter books” like the recent (and possibly still going) Hardy Boys Casefiles series of paperbacks [2]. Claud Braggart, a sort of arrogant-yet-charming junior detective who lived in Chicago–Encyclopedia Brown with less book-learnin’ and more ego–was to be their flagship character for these books.

I was handed an outline of the characters and a classic MacGuffin [3]–the aforementioned Laser Files. I went home and hammered out 150 double-spaced pages of plot-heavy, action-oriented “mystery” novel around these elements, handed it in, and as per my contract under this work-for-hire program, I was compensated a hundred dollars and a promise that my name would appear as an author’s credit. By my standards, CBTLF is horrific: The story was atrocious, the deus ex machinas and Moments of Peril (TM) came thick and fast and often without reason, and there’s only so much charm you can infuse into what is essentially a cocky teenager playing Sherlock Bond. They loved it.

That was two years ago. To the best of my knowledge, this book still has not come out, although it remains on their website’s “Coming Soon” list [4]. As far as I can tell, the only progress they’ve made on the book is to have commissioned cover art.

I bring this up because it occurred to me to check the website this morning, and I realized that, with the meltdown of my old computer, I no longer own a copy of my monstrous adventure narrative [5]. And I don’t know whether or not this saddens me. If the book were ever in danger of being published, I might ask for a complimentary copy, but otherwise, do I really care if I never read the book again? Someday, perhaps, I may want to consider my failures and chuckle to myself knowingly, saying “My my, Bilal, you were so young.” But right now, the presence of such a book in my life might be akin to the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, even if it were highly unlikely that anybody would read it. I’m not sure. I haven’t sorted out my feelings about it, this lost creation.

Politicians fear the day that the old photographs resurface. Do writers fear the day that books like CBTLF find the light of day?

[1] Or so I was told.

[2] Which I readily admit I devoured at that age. They were pulp, as expected, but if nothing else, they did help inform the sort of narrative arcs and beats required to create CBTLF. The title of this entry comes from my most vivid memory of these books, which came from, if I recall correctly, Hardy Boys Casefiles No. 7: Deathgame, in which Fenton Hardy’s intrepid sons find themselves at the mercy of a survivalist acting out the classic wish to hunt and kill “the most dangerous game.” If I recall correctly, at some point, Frank Hardy–the computer-savvy, black belt older brother–found himself cornered by said survivalist and his machine gun. The passage that ended the chapter went something like this:

Frank looked left. Frank looked right. Everything was blocked off. There was no way out. No way but to die!

[3] For non-cinephiles, a MacGuffin is anything that, in action movies, everybody is after (even if it turns out that this item is more or less meaningless). The term was first popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and has in recent years come to mean any such distracting element in the narrative. The Glengarry Leads in Glengarry Glen Ross might be considered a sort of modern MacGuffin.

The term “MacGuffin” comes from an old joke: A Scotsman and an Englishman are riding in a train compartment together, and the Englishman finds himself curious about the large, oddly-shaped baggage the Scotsman has stuffed into the storage compartment. Finally, his curiosity gets the better of him:

“Excuse me,” the Englishman asks, “might I ask what you have in that trunk?”
“Aye,” says the Scotsman. “This, muh boy, is a MacGuffin.”
“A MacGuffin? What on earth is that?”
“I’s a device fir huntin’ loions in thae highlands.”
“Lions?”
“Aye. Loions.”
“But . . .” the Englishman sputters, “but there aren’t any lions in the Scottish highlands!”
“Then that,” the Scotsman huffs, pointing at the trunk, “is no MacGuffin!”

[4] Mark your calendars! It’s due out in the summer of 2002!

[5] I’m also missing a non-fiction book I wrote for them about modern treasure divers in Florida, which I also care little about. As far as I can remember, though, the only things I lost in the meltdown that I cared about were an essay I wrote critiquing the differences between Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the film adaptation thereof (for the record, I found the movie a pale, pale shadow of the book, which I consider brilliant), and a story I wrote to my girlfriend when we were still in the early stages of our relationship. I’d written an original myth using the pantheon of Mayan gods, particularly discussing the last days of Quetzalcoatl, the Great Plumed Serpent, and it all ended up being a story about how gorgeous her eyes were. I owe Neil Gaiman a lot for that story, since it was the storytelling tones he set in such Sandman stories as “Tales in the Sand”, “Ramadan” and “Exiles” that led me to try it myself.

Current music: MP3 list, Bono with Gavin Friday, “In the Name of the Father”

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2003 by in Books, Work, Writing.
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