Getting Your Legs Kicked Out From Under You,or, It’s All President Clinton’s Fault

Here’s my current favorite joke of all time:

This rabbit escapes from its laboratory cage and makes its way out the door, across the parking lot, through the fence, and over a hill, where it finds a sunny meadow filled with other rabbits. He goes over to the nearest rabbit and says, “Excuse me, I’ve just escaped from a laboratory where I’ve lived my entire life, and I’d like to learn how to live happy and free like a real rabbit.”

The other rabbit, a girl, says, “Very well, come with me, and I’ll show you how rabbits live.” She takes him into the meadow and says, “The first thing we do is stuff ourselves with grass and dandelions all morning long.”

So they spend the morning eating. At noon, their tummies are full and the sun is burning overhead. The boy rabbit says, “What next?”

The girl rabbit says, “Next we spend all afternoon taking a nap in the grass.”

So they stretch out and doze off. When the boy rabbit wakes up the sun is going down and he says, “What do we do now?”

And the girl rabbit says, “This is the best part. We go down into our bunny lairs and spend all evening mating.”

So they go down into the bunny lair and spend the evening doing the little bunny thing.

When they’ve finished, the little boy rabbit says, “Well, this has been just wonderful, but I need to get back to the lab.”

The little girl rabbit protests. “But I thought you wanted to be with us and live happy and free as a normal rabbit.”

“I do,” says the little boy rabbit. “But I’m just dying for a cigarette.”

If you know me, you know why I love this joke – it suits my twisted and somewhat dark sense of humor. But what maybe you didn’t know is that this joke has kept me from writing a book.

One of the thing I’m fascinated by is Funny Animal Characters, or more precisely, what a Funny Animal Character would be like in real life. I was once nurturing an idea called, naturally, Funny Animals, in which cartoon characters were actually really actors who married and divorced, battled drugs and alcohol, aged, and had trouble finding good scripts. The hero, Harry the Hare, was a broken down cartoon rabbit who was reduced to living in his car at the novel’s start.

If you’re thinking that there are a lot of annoying similarities between this and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, well… I had this idea years before that movie, or the book that inspired it.

So Roger Rabbit showed up, but Harry the Hare never completely went away. He showed up in a radio spot for a pet store that I wrote in the late 80’s, and surfaced again in my song Dirty Old Rabbit.

But the anthropomorphic idea never completely left me, and it eventually evolved into into a project called The Rabbits of Happy Hollow, a fable of sorts about happy rabbits in a sunny valley of plenty, and how things change when they are told how miserable they are by a nicotine-addicted rabbit who has escaped from a nearby laboratory. I even went so far as to write darkly funny opening scene, where the leader of the rabbits is “called up to that great grassland, with the only sign of his ascent to greatness being the traditional marker, a few drops of blood and a large brown feather.”

Unfortunately, fables are even less in demand than brilliant satires about the advertising industry, so Rabbits was always just two or three ideas down from being written. And then that joke came along, and pretty much said everything in two minutes that I wanted to say in 50,000 words. Well, more or less.

Why does this happen? I don’t have a precise explanation, but it probably relates back to the whole idea of their only being 37 dramatic situations in the whole wide world. With thousands of writers exploiting them every year, there’s bound to be some treading on toes.

What do you do when your creative legs get kicked out from under you? Do you give up, or do you rethink the project?

For many years, my agent has been asking me to finish a thriller that puts a twist on amnesia as a plot device. The problem is that my MacGuffins keep getting stolen or undermined. Yes, I know that the MacGuffin is allegedly “what the audience doesn’t care about,” but still, it needs to be important enough to have high stakes involved, ones that can be raised as needed.

So my first MacGuffin: a pharmaceutical company was doing illegal trade with Vietnam. I liked that one a lot. Then then-President Clinton normalized trade relations with that nation, and my plans evaporated.

No problem. Instead, I had the pharmaceutical dump a bunch of money into a new medication, only to find that it caused liver cancer. That was better in a way, I thought. Until I went to see the film version of The Fugitive. I left the liver cancer in the theater when I walked out.

After that I gave up and decided to move the business into another, more stable milieu – the computer industry. But most of my thinking in that area was obsolete before I could think of how to wedge it into the plot. So the book is sitting there for the moment, just waiting for a fitting business disaster that won’t hit the headlines the day after I type it out.

However, some books, once they make it into print, are perfectly capable of surviving outmodedness. I’ve mentioned many times the woes that have befallen A Death of Honor, but they haven’t stopped new people from reading it. Some readers even write to tell me what a great novel it is. When that happens, nobody is more surprised than I am.

I suppose it depends on the the degree of kicked-out-from-underness involved? Did your plot twist show up on an episode of 24? Did it show up in the headlines? How important was the element? Was it a subplot, a minor detail, or did the entire novel hang on it?

You have to look at the whats and whys of the novel, and how much impact your trumped material has on the overall project. I suppose I could have gotten away with the liver cancer idea seeing as how the book was more about amnesia than bad pharmaceuticals. But I wanted the MacGuffin to be up to the task of supporting the plot (unlike the diamonds in The Presidio or the briefcase in Ronin), and I didn’t want it to look like I’d hopped on the liver cancer bandwagon.

It’s discouraging when something like that happens. You work hard on your plot and circumstance, struggling to come up with something unique, only to have someone else get there first.

Well, hang in there. Depending on your vision, it may be not be the death of the project. It may be something you can exploit (“Torn from today’s headlines!”), or something you can ignore. Instead of a book-stopper, you may just have a delay or a detour.

Like me. My amnesia novel is not dead yet. I still would like to get it finished. But now I have another project in mind.

Yeah, I’m thinking of writing The Rabbits of Happy Hollow – in spite of my favorite joke. And I’m thinking of letting all of you watch me as I do it.

Ah, but more on that later.

don’t be hanging around my friend i said
i’m all twisted up in wires
and even though you know it’s best
you never get out – you never get out

(via iTunes shuffle play)


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