Asking “What If” Questions & Pulling on Threads: A Short Sample from “Justin Fisher Declares War!”

I’ve always loved the writing process, how a jumbled ball of yarn becomes an actual sweater. Conversely, it’s amazing to me — pulling on that thread and watching how the fabric unravels.

Back in September, 2008, I wrote this on my blog:

I have an idea for a character who gets into trouble at school. The book is about this kid, and, in part, the surprising relationship he builds with the school principal. But how and why does this boy get into trouble? What does he do? What kind of hilarious escapades can I conjure? Then one notion hit me over the weekend: He smuggles a goldfish into school!

I love that idea. I can WORK with that idea. That is: There are possibilities that appeal to my sensibilities. So then begins the series of questions: How does he do it? Why? What goes wrong (because something must go wrong)? I’ve already daydreamed over a host of options — involving a thermos, soup broth, and a swallowed goldfish — but I know I’m not there yet.

Below, please find a brief scene from my upcoming middle-grade book, Justin Fisher Declares War! (Scholastic, August 2010). The scene represents the realization of those bloggy wonderings. Yesterday I read this passage aloud to a group of foruth-graders. We’d been talking about the importance of asking “what if” questions. In this case, what if a boy wanted to smuggle a goldfish into school. How might he do it? The answer to that question is the scene you write.

If writing fiction is anything, it is asking “what if” questions, following the logic and playing with those possibilities — thinking it through. After all, “what if” questions are at the core of what’s now called “Speculative Fiction” and, I hasten to ask, what brand of fiction is not speculative? We’re all daydreamers here.

Here’s the scene:

Justin understood that he’d never get past the front door carrying his sister’s goldfish bowl. She’d freak out and wail like a siren, and his mother would end up yelling. No, Justin needed to come up with a foolproof plan. And after a few minutes of heavy-duty thinking, he did.

The next morning, he asked his mother for tomato soup for lunch.

“You never eat it when I give it to you,” she said.

“This is different,” Justin assured her. “I really need soup today, Mom. It’s like . . . Soup Day in school and . . . all the kids are bringing in different kinds of soups and –“

“Soup Day?” His mother raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Okay, okay.” His mother relented. She opened the cupboard, shifted a few cans around, and said, “Sorry, we’re all out of tomato. How about chicken noodle?”

“Perfect,” Justin clucked.

Operation Goldfish was in effect.

At the next opportunity, Justin snuck into the bathroom, dumped out the soup, and rinsed the thermos clean. Then, on tip-toe, he entered the forbidden zone — his sister’s room. The room itself was hideous, a monstrosity of purple and pink, with Disney posters and stuffed animals. Justin couldn’t imagine how his sister managed to sleep in there.

Justin paused by the door, listening. Lily was downstairs, eating Pop-Tarts. Justin poured water from the goldfish bowl into the thermos, spilling only a small puddle on the rug. With a net, he fished out the goldfish and dropped it into the thermos.

What about air? Justin wondered, as he screwed the cap on. I can’t suffocate my sister’s fish.

He thought about trying to find a hammer and nail. Maybe he could drive small holes into the screw top.

“Justin? What are you doing up there?” his mother called. “You better get moving if you want to make it to school on time!”

“Coming!” Justin hollered. He placed the thermos back into his lunch box, stuffed that into his backpack, and hustled down the stairs. He figured he’d open and close the cap every hour or so, just to make sure the goldfish got enough air. He might have been a little mischievous, but he wasn’t a cold-blooded fish murderer.

I’ve called this “my rebound book,” since it comes after the more serious, precise Bystander. This one is loose, light, short, funny. Rereading my early notes from the blog, I realize that I changed Justin’s relationship from the principal to his classroom teacher, Mr. Tripp. That struck me as more immediate, more natural, and allowed me to make his teacher more sympathetic. Originally, I conceived of the teacher as sort of a one-dimensional uptight obstacle, but it got much more interesting when he became a well-rounded person — a first-year teacher, nervous and well-intentioned, who makes some mistakes in handling an attention-seeking student.

Aside: I think the single worst character in the Harry Potter series — the character I consider a major failure — is the one-dimensional Dolores Umbridge, appointed High Inquisitor of Hogwarts in the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Lacking all shade and substance, she ruined much of the book for me.

I hated her, but not in the way J.K. Rowling wanted me to hate her.

2 comments

  1. Eric says:

    You hated Umbridge? She’s my favorite from the series! Interesting.

  2. jimmy says:

    Thanks for that comment, Eric, I’m always happy when there’s a little bit of back-and-forth.

    Hopefully it’s obvious that I have great respect for J.K. Rowling — on many, many levels. I think she’s great. Just not perfect.

    For me, Umbridge was not a believable character; she was more of a one-note “idea” than flesh and blood. I saw her more as a plot device than a character. She comes in a tortures Harry right off the bat. She’s ignorant, wrong, stupid, vindictive, and as evil as Voldemort in many ways. And, oh yeah, head of Hogwarts.

    I just didn’t buy it. Hey, I don’t like Dick Cheney either, but at least he’s ruled by a rigorous set of hard line ideas and principals. You can respect his intelligence, his experience.

    I felt Umbridge needed a few more redeeming characteristics for her to be something more than a stock character standing in for an idea.

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