364. The Core Story

photo by David Mayer

For the last month, these posts have been coming later in the day, in hopes of finding new readership in other time zones. I haven’t been happy with the results, so today I am reverting to the old posting schedule.

Over in Serial today, I begin presenting the novel Spirit Deer. I had some hesitation about this.

As it stands, Spirit Deer is a juvenile, not a YA. It would be suitable for most of the kids I taught in middle school, but too young for teenagers. It would stand with Island of the Blue Dolphins, not with Twilight.

It didn’t start out that way. When I originally wrote it, as an experiment to see if I could I write a complete novel, Spirit Deer was a book for adults. Tim had a last name, a wife, a job, a backstory, and other adult considerations. When he got lost in the woods and had to find his own way out, it was a catalyst for changing his life.

It was only 45,000 words however. That was too short for a western or a science fiction novel, even in the seventies, and way too short for a regular novel. And while the lost-and-found part of the story was fine, the relationships part wasn’t ready for prime time. It didn’t deserve to be published, and it wasn’t.

I moved on and my second novel,  Jandrax, and it was published. Fair trade; Spirit Deer had done its job by teaching me to write. It could be put away with no regrets.

But it wouldn’t die. The problem was, once you strip away the wife and the job and the friend and the adult concerns, the core story of how to keep alive when nature is trying to kill you was still powerful.

After a lot of years, and several other novels, I went back to Spirit Deer and stripped it down to it’s essence. At that level, Spirit Deer could have been about any male above the age of thirteen, all the way up to senility. To be fair, a woman could have endured what Tim endured, but I don’t think a woman would want to read a book about it. At least not in the eighties and nineties when the core story was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Don’t give up on me.”

Spirit Deer became a juvenile because of its length. When the wife and friend and backstory went away, there were only about 25,000 words left.

Consider this:

Man against nature, other men, or himself, is a story.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus gunfights, is a western.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus thugs, is a thriller.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus spies, is James Bond.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sweet sex, is a romance.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus rough sex, is men’s action — a genre which has all but disappeared.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sex, catching a big fish, and death on the last page, is Hemingway.

I didn’t want to add any of those plusses, and I didn’t want to make Spirit Deer artificially longer, so it became a juvenile. It’s still a good story, it taught me a lot, and it provides a lot for us to talk about as writers.

That is, I assume you are or want to be a writer, or I would have lost you in the second paragraph.

Spirit Deer will be presented in forty posts over in Serial, and there will be posts over here on A Writing Life expanding on the story, on being a beginning writer, and on how many ways a writer can present a core story.

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