Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Future Looks Bright

by Marcus Sakey

So as all of you know, the One Book, One Chicago selection this year is Raymond Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE. Because of that the city has graciously included The Outfit in a number of events, most of them thrown by the Chicago Public Library system, and all of them free. This last weekend, we were asked to teach a class to aspiring teen writers.

As you can probably guess by our posts here, both Kevin Guilfoile and I jumped at the chance to warp the minds of the next generation.

After a long winter, last Saturday was the first indisputably beautiful day of the year, and we had a feeling we might end up in the library alone. But instead, we were joined by a group of teenagers who
were not only interested in learning about writing, but had, on their own, written short stories and poems, and even started novels.

For the record, at that age, I put most of my effort into skateboarding poorly and playing Nintendo.

Kevin and I had discussed our plan ahead of time, and decided that rather than give a long and boring talk, we'd chat a little about Chandler, then introduce some brief writing exercises. To begin with, we talked about Chandler's language, especially his descriptions ("She was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."), and then we asked the students to write a couple of their own. Not, to be honest, expecting much.

Boy, were we surprised.

These kids, all of them, they not only got what we were talking about, they could work with it. They played with metaphor and rhythm and style.

So far, so good. Ice broken, we moved onto the fun part. We asked them, as a group, to plan a crime. I'd no sooner said, "What do you want to do?" then one of them piped up "Kill someone."

My kinda people.

"Yeah?" I asked. "Who?"

"A dance choreographer," another said.

"And why are we killing her?"

"Him," a third replied. "Because he made deals to give money to some gangsters, and then he didn't."

Not bad. Not bad at all. We kept going in that fashion, and I'm not blowing smoke when I say that these kids got it. They understood the basic ideas of plot and complications, of how you make a story. Of the importance of obstacles and surprises. They debated whether to kill the choreographer themselves, or to hire someone; whether to do it on a city street or in a country cabin; how they would get the victim there, and from whose point of view the scene would be written.

As an unabashed addict of story, I gotta say, it was heady stuff. Because if these kids keep at it, if they keep reading and they keep writing and they fight through the frustration and doubt that come with trying to write for a living, then we've got a bright future ahead.

After we settled on the details of the scene, we asked each of them to spend a few minutes writing the first paragraph or two of the story. Some wrote as detectives, some as killers, some as the victim. They wrote in first and close third, and they started in the action.

In short, they did great.

At the end of the session, we asked the students to ask their parents if we could post excerpts from what they wrote here. Thus far, two have gotten consent and sent us their stuff; hopefully some of the others will as well. What you see here is unedited, untouched by Kevin or me, and it was written on the spot. Check it out, fellow readers--and imagine what they'll be capable of in ten or twenty years.

Freddie (Jones College Prep):
Desmond promised himself that he would retire three years ago. He made an oath to get away from this gore-filled life of violence and crime. There was just one problem, it was just too fun. To him there is nothing more exciting than searching for a place to dispose of the body before the cops realize that his “client” is missing. There was no sound more pleasing than the deals and bargains his clients try to make that turn to squeals and whimpers as they realize that all hope is lost. Tonight, Jasmine Lawson would find out just how comfortable the trunk of a Lexus really is.

David (St. Ignatius College Prep):
I lived in a time where rules were broken, where people controlled each other and some of the most powerful ones controlled the government. I know only one name, and I’ve kept this name ever since the years of my childhood. This name has haunted me and poisoned my mind. This name was Danny Anderson, the most known and popular fella in our town. He ruled our streets like a king, demanding respect from all. Many never saw him, few knew him. My only connection to him was through my father, who was a close friend of his and worked for him. In what, you ask. I bothered my father with so many questions it was like shooting bullets from a semi-automatic pistol. He responded with short answers but never into detail and eventually he would flame up. I never knew what he did as an occupation. I never knew who his friends were. I never knew… It wasn’t until that cold, frosty, dark night… when I snuck out for the third time to follow my father.


Pete said...

All of you Outfit folks had better make your big crime-writing bucks now, while Freddie is still preoccupied with his SATs. Because once he hits the crime fiction market, watch out!

Libby Hellmann said...

WOW, Marcus! It sounds like you and Kevin had a ball. And the excerpts you shared with us? Well, I'm jealous... I was still struggling with words and syntax and metaphors as a teenager... (still am, actually).. but these guys read like the real thing. It does make me feel warm and gooey... there is hope for the future. Thank you for helping make it happen.

JD Rhoades said...

Great stuff. My own young 'un (16) is writing now. And I'm not just saying this because I'm his of these days he's going to blow me off the road if he keeps at it.

Libby Hellmann said...

That's exactly what I say about my daughter, JD...

Pamela said...

What a great opportunity for you, Marcus. I'm relatively new to The Outfit's blog, but felt compelled to jump over from Murderati as I'm from Chicago. (And quite homesick for all things Chicago - except the weather.) Thanks for the post.

Wilfred the Author said...

Very cool, Marcus. I love the concept of your workshop. It sure gets the creative juices flowing.

I sat in on a D. P. Lyle workshop at Forensics University, here in St. Louis. He had the group plot the perfect crime.

Very cool stuff that you can do with the Mystery Genre, sepecially.

Katie Bell Moore said...

What a cool thing to do! Gold stars for both of you!

Jude Hardin said...

I love to see stuff like this from young people. Thanks for sharing!

Rob said...

"Tonight, Jasmine Lawson would find out just how comfortable the trunk of a Lexus really is."

Freakin' great!

savvymegs said...

I agree with Rob - that's awesome!!

Sean Chercover said...

Wow. I agree, this is some seriously impressive stuff!