And we’re off and racing.
Well, maybe not ‘racing’. More like walking at a brisk pace.
Subtitled, The Boy in the Tree, Chapter One begins with our hero, Howard Lune, unsurprisingly in a tree. Why is he in a tree? He’s hiding. Lune, you see, is not the most popular boy in school. In fact, he might just be the least popular boy. There’s nothing really wrong with him he’s just one of those unfortunate souls who has trouble fitting in. Perhaps if he’d been born a year later or earlier he would’ve found more accepting peers. Perhaps, not. Sometimes an individual just has a way about them that marks them as ‘other’ and if there’s anything that can make school a living hell it’s being different.
Growing up I was lucky enough to experience the full gamut of the school social strata. I was never bullied to the same extent as poor Lune, but I was definitely teased and made fun of. When the tides turned and for whatever reason I found myself shunted several rungs up the popularity ladder, I never forgot what it was like to be on the outside looking in. Pain shapes us in unexpected ways and there are few pains as acute as loneliness. Especially for an adolescent.
It’s important to me that Lune is in no way charmed. In the opening pages, he’s persecuted, mistreated, punished unfairly. He is by no means a golden boy. To a degree, this is a well trod Dickensian conceit – readers need to be invested in a characters fate and starting them off at a low point is a good way of doing this. Empathy is a powerful bonding agent. Typically, a Dickens character begins in the darkness and the drama comes from watching them strive towards the light. Pip and Oliver both end their stories in much happier circumstances than where they began. I don’t know if Lune will though? Nothing’s guaranteed.
Lune is attacked by a gang of bullies early in the chapter. I’ve changed the lead bully’s name three times already. He began as Corbin, then Morley, before I settled on Crawley. I went to school with two guys named Morley and Crawley. Both had a reputation for being tough and mean. I never really had a run in with either of them but they definitely made me nervous. I’m sure they’re lovely blokes now. It’s a little ridiculous how much time one can spend agonising over names, especially, over secondary characters, so I try and steal from life when appropriate.
So the chapter begins with Lune hiding and ends with a fight. Initially, I planned on the story beginning with Lune drawing in his bedroom on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Why change it? Pace concerns. I want this story to move faster than the Winter novels which were (justly) criticised for dragging in places. This is a book aimed at younger readers so I need to be mindful of holding their attention. I don’t need to spend paragraphs establishing atmosphere and delving into psychology. In some ways this is a more complex story than either of my first two novels but I think I’m a better writer now and can achieve what I want with fewer words. Less waffling.
Speaking of words, I think I’ve got a handle on the book’s voice. A kind of sophisticated-fairytale style, not dissimilar to that found in Barker’s The Graveyard Book or Gaiman’s The Thief of Always. I’ve been listening to Gaiman’s audio recording of Fragile Things on the journey to and from work, so his voice is clear in mind. If I can imagine him reading my words aloud then I know I’m doing something right.
My main concern with this chapter is the lack of magic. There is no element of the fantastic, no real hint of the kind of adventures ahead. Harry Potter begins with the odd appearance of owls, The Thief of Always has Rictus float in through the window – I have a boy in a tree drawing monsters. I suppose that’s something but I’m hoping something else will occur to me.
Until then, it’s on to Chapter Two.