First, a visual aid: me @ JCC camp, c.1986/7(?): lost in the shuffle, maybe the hustle.
Because K’TONTON, idk.*
Anyway, isn’t some Throwback Thursday thing; I’m just setting the scene so that I can continue talking about The Ninth Child in particular — and failure in general.
Because, all told, training a bunch of tiny and argumentative**, yet totally fabulous*** campers to perform choreographed song-and-dance routines to stunningly execrable Israeli pop songs is not that dissimilar to writing a novel.
“A Cast of Thousands.”
In life as in art, siblings can be difficult to tell apart. My own family, at least to outsiders, was a smaller, rowdier version of the Borg. (To be fair, we did tend to operate as if we were interchangeable components of some squabbling, candy-seeking hive mind.)
Thus, in fiction, giving eight very closely related characters enough personality to distinguish them from one another is a challenge, especially when you’ve got limited space in which to do it.
An even greater challenge is developing characters while still maintaining that impression of utter chaos — not only for verisimilitude, but because the entire plot hinges on the fact that there are so many kids, no one could possibly keep track of them all.
And, of course, it’s got to be somewhat controlled chaos, because narratives need to be if not strictly linear, than at least comprehensible…unlike kids.
Someone once asked me, “Why is Gideon the main character?” and I have to admit, this person had a point. The easy answer is, “Because he’s the one telling the story,” and that’s true, Gideon is the narrator. But does that automatically make him the protagonist? Moreover, does it make him the hero? (Answer: not necessarily)
In the earliest versions (and arguably, the current version as well) Gwen is the problem-solver. There’s a long tradition of “stealth heroines” in children’s literature — think Hermione Granger — who tend to be the ones with sufficient brainpower and personal agency to figure out what’s happening and then to come up with a way to deal with it, even if the spotlight doesn’t shine directly on them.
Initially, Gideon became the narrator because his was the voice best suited to tell the story, and the main character because, for several reasons, he was the first to identify the Ninth Child as a threat — despite the fact that he was powerless to do anything about the situation.
In revising, I ended up amplifying the conflict between Gideon and the Ninth Child, mostly by having the Ninth Child taunt and to some extent target Gideon. By emphasizing this adversarial dynamic, it made the stakes higher and ratcheted up the tension. Was it a successful strategy? F*ck if I know. Nevertheless, that’s how it played out.
There’s a bit of an unspoken rule in children’s literature — or, indeed, any entertainment aimed at young people — that parents, whether or not they love each other, must love their children, absolutely and unconditionally.
This, frankly, is bull$#!+. Some parents don’t love their children; plenty don’t even LIKE them. And really, why should they? Children are monsters and — although I have no firsthand experience of this — raising them from infancy seems akin to an extended tour of duty in Vietnam or Afghanistan, i.e. you know you’re going to lose (if you haven’t already) but you’re kind of stuck. You have no choice but to see it through, however ugly the result.
One of my lasting regrets, both during and after revising, is that I had to “tone down” the adults. For example, the character of Mom used to be awesome. It hurt when reader after reader complained, “She’s an unfit mother! YOU CAN’T DO/SAY THAT TO YOUR KIDS!” and I was like, “What do you mean? Why not?”
This is because I come from a generation that was a bit more laissez-faire about child-rearing. Seat belts were not mandatory, especially in situations where there weren’t enough seats to go around. TV was still considered a godsend for exhausted, overworked parents who just wanted — nay, NEEDED — everyone to stay out of their hair for 20 minutes so that they wouldn’t snap and kill us all. The world, in general, was not especially child-centric.
For example, if you were foolish enough throw a tantrum or swear at/talk back to your mom or otherwise act like an obnoxious little brat, you didn’t get a time out or, worse, an earnest discussion about How Your Misbehavior Makes Other People Feel (Which Is Hurt and Sad). No, you got a big, scary grown-up who would lunge across the room, scruff you like a puppy, and then backhand you for being an obnoxious little brat. Similarly, when it was time to visit relatives or neighbors, you were expected to shut up, play with the other kids (and if there weren’t any, study the wallpaper like you were going to be tested on it the next day), and generally stay out of the way so that the adults could enjoy a cup of coffee and a chat…which, invariably, had nothing to do with your developmental milestones.
I find myself rather nostalgic for this gone-away world in which there were few, if any, special snowflakes.
Besides, I always really enjoyed my parents’ dark humor. I remember one time, watching the news and seeing a story about a woman who was arrested for attempting to murder her child, screaming at the police, ‘But you don’t understand! He’s EVIL!’ Upon hearing that, my Mom thoughtfully sipped her tea, paused, and remarked, “You know, I totally know get where she’s coming from.”
You know how people will joke, “Oh, he got dropped on his head when he was a baby,” or “I swear, her mother must have been smoking some crazy $#!+ when she was pregnant”? Well, I have peers for whom that is literally the case. And you know what? They’re fine. Mostly.
But I do see the logic. From a strictly narrative standpoint, having wacky, child-endangering parents distracts — detracts? — from the antics of the kids. And really, that was the only thing that stayed my hand. I had to cut a lot of great lines and scenes because they are, alas, relics of a bygone era.
So, in the end, I compromised by making the parents too exhausted and burned-out to notice much of anything, let alone do something about it. Which I think was the right move. Parents who are working and raising a large brood tend to be tired all the time. In fact, my mother once confided in me that parenthood — for all of its drawbacks — divided everything in the universe into two tidy categories: Matters of Life & Death and Other.
One of the biggest problems I had involved Gideon’s voice. My earliest readers felt that it was authentic, but maybe too authentic.
Basically, in channeling an almost-ten-year-old boy, I gave him a child’s utter inability to shape a narrative. As anyone with children in their lives can tell you, kids have trouble getting to the point. If you are not acquainted with any, let me just say, the signal-to-noise ratio is staggering.
Somehow, in the process of telling you that they just don’t know what happened to their other shoe, they end up making lengthy detours through topics including but not limited to:
- Their impressions of what life was like when they were little, as well as why it was better (the tipping point is frequently the introduction of a sibling)
- Their personal opinions of everyone they’ve ever met, culminating in a near-algorithmic list of “all-time favorite people” (on which you rank #27, well below your dog; some other child’s grandfather who, that one time, showed off his Navy tattoo and then pretended to pull a quarter out of the kid’s ear before giving him or her the coin; and Iron Man, who is fictional.)
- A dance break
- Their musings on What Happens When We Die (and is the experience appreciably different for, say, Pokemon, or the cast of Disney/Pixar’s Cars?)
- Why so-and-so is their best friend, and why so-and-so-else isn’t.
- The entire plot of their favorite movie, complete with dialogue, incidental music, and commentary.
- All the knock-knock jokes that ever were.
It’s delightful, in its way, but it’s also not designed to move a narrative forward with anything like efficiency.
Hence, footnotes. In addition to providing scope for characterization and back story without disrupting the main narrative, it was also really fun to do.
Losing (or Winning, But Mostly Losing) Your Religion.
Children have very evidence-based worldviews. Adorable Nephew once asked what had happened to one of our birds.
“It died,” I answered, because it had.
“How?” he inquired.
“It got eaten,” I replied, because it did.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because some other animal got hungry, I guess.”
At which point he nodded and that was the end of it, because what else was there to say on the subject?
My point being, I suspect that spinning stories about how chickens go to Heaven to live with the Baby Jesus (or whatever) may be much more scary and confusing than simply telling the truth, which is that this chicken is no more, has ceased to be, etc.
As someone who was exposed to a broad spectrum of organized religion from an early age****, I can tell you that I had no f*cking idea what was going on, EVER.
Maybe if someone had said, “This version is true; the others are nonsense,” it would have cleared things up for me — but they didn’t, so it was like religious Rashōmon. (Tho’ in hindsight, I’m glad that no one did, because it would have likely turned me into a terrible bigot.)
Instead, I was just left in peace to come to my own conclusion, which is that every belief system makes no sense and it’s best to just smile and nod. Going on to study Classics merely reaffirmed this view, that it is best not to disrespect anyone’s deities, just in case.
At best, it’s very rude; at worst, you are basically inviting some vengeful god or goddess to smite and deliver upon you a world of hurt.
The Ninth Child pretty much comes to this same conclusion; as far as the kids are concerned, God and vampires and aliens and changelings and ghosts are all equally plausible. And why not? Based on what the characters observe and experience, they conclude that virtually anything and everything seems possible and — more importantly — that no explanation or system of explanations satisfactorily resolves any of their questions or concerns.
I am aware that if this novel were to ever be published, it would immediately get banned. Which is a shame, because it’s the kind of story I would have found comforting when I was a kid, since I had a lot of questions that I was terrified to ask lest I get in trouble.
And in the End…
Well, “end” is a funny word when it comes to novels. In this case, there isn’t one.
The Ninth Child is currently out on submission, by which I mean, an agent requested the full manuscript and so I cheerfully sent it off and since then I haven’t heard a thing. It’s been long enough that I’m assuming the answer is no…but it’s not as if I can ask.
And thus — like a dead, unbaptized baby — this book currently resides in limbo.
And what do you do when your project is in limbo? Why, you forget about it and write something else!