The Prankster’s Favorite Day and Thoughts on Writing Comfortably

There’s nothing better than a really well timed ‘Gotcha.’ While I’ve played my share of April Fools jokes, the best ones have come in my library career. It started with an after Halloween sale when I worked at the old Augusta Mental Health institute. That was in the days when LaVerdiere’s was the main drug store chain in the state. I happened to be in there the day after Halloween when all the candy, costumes and related merchandise was half off. I spotted a battery powered screaming doormat and bought it, thinking that I’d use it when the holiday came around again.

Dang! Another body to hide.

Dang! Another body to hide.

I’d had the husband of the chief psychologist build me a lightweight book return that was installed beside the desk. I had several other places throughout the institute where I taught or retrieved journals for copying, so having a secure return was important. A couple days before April Fools, I realized that it might be fun to put the doormat in the book box and see how people reacted when it screamed at them. The first person to drop off books was a very straight laced psychologist who hardly ever showed any emotion. He dropped off a couple heavy items and turned to walk away. I was in the stacks where I could see him, but not be seen myself. When the scream came, there was two inches of daylight between the soles of his shoes and the carpet. While I caught other people that day, his reaction was the best.

When I took over as head librarian in Boothbay Harbor, I inherited a weekly newspaper column. When April Fools Day came around, I was prepared. Everyone knew the library needed repairs and would eventually need a major renovation. I capitalized on that by writing a column that told the story about how during an environmental inspection, the federal government had discovered a family of Barlow’s Spotted Skinks living in the library cellar. Since these little creatures were on the endangered species list, their presence in the library meant that we would have to close down until a plan to relocate them safely was devised.

Once Upond A Time

Once Upond A Time

I went on to write about a reclusive Asian millionaire named Lirpa Loof, who had a large estate in Edgecomb, the next town on the peninsula. Mr. Loof was going to cover the cost of moving all items from the library to a specially constructed barn on his property, would pay for hourly shuttle buses from the library to his estate and would have his groundskeeper rearrange the gardens so people could read outside in comfort. The reaction was completely unexpected. I thought most everyone would catch the fact that Lirpa Loof was April Fool spelled backward, but apparently not. By the time the dust settled, I had fooled three library board members and two selectmen. I continued to come up with a new prank every year, but the skink one was the best.

When the opportunity to write a weekly column for the Sebasticook Valley newspaper opened up, I was really excited because I knew what a great marketing and P.R. Opportunity it was. When the first April Fools rolled around, I write about my long time friend Dah Nee Buoy. We had gone to Arizona State University together and while I had been fairly studious, Dah had pretty much majored in partying. Time after time, I ended up polishing, or in some cases completing written assignments for him.

Caution: Idiot Zone Ahead

Caution: Idiot Zone Ahead

He was always grateful and when we graduated, he said that when the opportunity came, he was going to pay me back ten times over. I chalked this up to youthful grandiosity. All I knew about Dah was that he came from some unpronounceable island in the South Pacific. It wasn’t long before I lost touch with him.

Fast forward thirty-five years. I get a registered letter from Dah telling me that his father, ruler of a small kingdom, has died, leaving him filthy rich and eager to make good on his promise. He wants me to help him set up the best library in the world. Money is no object, the letter says, and the job comes with a six figure income and free housing. Will I accept? Of course.

The paper hadn’t been out on the street for more than half an hour before the first wave of surprised and outraged patrons called or stormed into the library. They told me that I couldn’t leave. I told them to read my friend’s name backwards.

The absolute best prank came right after we spent a long weekend in California. I saw a small incubator in a gift shop with a baby blanket over the top, The sign beside it said “Please don’t disturb the baby rattler.” Of course, I knew what it was, having been snookered by a similar setup when I was a kid, I wrote a nice column about our trip and told readers that I had purchased an egg in a curiosity shop north of Los Angeles. I went on to tell how I smuggled it through security and had kept it warm all through the return flight. It was now incubating in the library. I encouraged everyone to stop in and view the baby rattler.

One of my volunteers brought in an old bassinet and a baby rattle. We put the rattle inside the bassinet and covered it with an old baby blanket. This time, the reaction was unexpected and hilarious. Somebody in Hartland read my column and completely freaked out, calling the county sheriff as well as the Maine game warden service. I was bringing a box of books up from the basement when two serious looking guys entered the building and asked for me. I identified myself and they asked if they could see the baby rattlesnake. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing as I explained that it was an April Fools Day joke and that nowhere in the article had I said I had a snake. They couldn’t decide whether they should be mad or foolish. There was a young dad trying to read to his four year old daughter while the exchange was taking place and by the time I had explained the situation, he was practically in tears he was laughing so hard.

Excuse me, how far it it to Lubec?

Excuse me, how far it it to Lubec?

What do I have planned today? I’ll tell you in the comments section later today after it runs its course.

Regular readers of MCW know that I’ve struggled to write for a while, in part due to depression. I’m happy to report that the darkness has lifted and I’m working diligently on a new book, one that has been germinating in my head for several months. One thing I’ve noticed while writing this one is how much I got from devouring so many YA books in the past year. The dynamics and the emotional rollercoaster that are a big part of adolescence is present in the new book. In the process, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions that are worth sharing. Some may be helpful to you, others might not be. In any event, I hope for those reading this who aren’t successfully or frequently published, that some of my observations are useful.

First, hold onto the thought that you’re writing for yourself, not an anonymous audience. That piece comes later after you’ve finished the manuscript and it’s ready for semi-prime time. Second, I really believe it helps to block out concern that you might be writing the wrong way. I often think of writing as mental culinary arts. When you cook, you’re preparing a meal that had been cooked multiple times by multiple people, but will probably have a unique taste because of HOW you prepare it. Writing isn’t much different. When you read 150 young adult books a year, you notice certain plot elements will crop up in several books by different authors. What makes book A far more appealing than book B is the way the author ‘cooked’ the plot elements. If you’re like me, you can drive yourself nuts worrying about how a certain section or idea you’re adding sounds or seems like one in the book you read two weeks ago. That’s not unusual and I believe it happens to most, if not all writers. Shrug it off and keep writing.

Third is related to number two. Everyone approaches writing a book a bit differently, but in listening to authors or participating in writing workshops, patterns of development appear and unless you’re very comfortable with your development style, it’s easy to be swayed by what works for someone else if they’re selling it properly. What’s really at stake is how to be comfortable with what you settle on. Some people write a biography for every character, others sketch out the physical geography of the place where the book is set. These and many others work for different writers. What’s really critical is for you to meditate/think about/ponder your style and make sure you’re comfortable with it it makes the process smooth, productive and relatively anxiety free

For me, I need to be alone to write well and I need to have a bag of possibilities hanging on a hook in my brain. When everything is cooking, that bag goes into the shower with me in the morning because that’s where my best ‘new roads’ come into my head and from there into the bag. Lately, I’ve been so wrapped up in grabbing the new stuff that I forget that I’m taking a shower and shut the water off, only to realize that I neglected to rinse the soap out of my armpits, so back in I go.

Don’t be afraid to let your character utilize current technology. Skye Lundquist, my seventeen year old protagonist, is faced with the very real possibility that she’ll be moving from Long Beach, Ca. To Machias, Maine with her frequently freaked-out mother. If Mom wants to fully inherit the two million dollar estate that has been left to her, she needs to live in this lovely Victorian home for a full year in the town she left not long after Skye was born. Since Skye has only vague bits and pieces of memory from the time before she started school, her take on the possible move lies somewhere between terrifying and ideal. It’s terrifying because all she knows is Long Beach, but it’s ideal because of what happened to her at an end of school party the night before she finished her junior year that left her angry, humiliated and friendless. She lives for basketball, and thanks to the internet, she can research just how important basketball is in a remote part of Maine. (The answer, of course, is that it’s pretty damn important to real Mainers, so she’d likely start on the varsity team).

In less than two days of online searching, Skye has a copy of her great aunt’s obituary, has scoped out kids her own age on Facebook who are from the Machias area and has bought a six month membership in because they’ve digitized fifteen years worth of Machias High yearbooks. In the process of looking through them, she found individual shots of each member of the boys’ varsity basketball team and has developed a major crush on one of them. She takes this to a step unheard of just a few years ago, she sends him a friend request on Facebook. These things all are stuff that teens can and do these days. They show readers how different connecting to others and finding information can be these days, even for those who are internet newbies.

I’ll talk more about this book which I’ve given the working title of Singing the L.A. Blues On the Barrens in future columns.

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3 Responses to The Prankster’s Favorite Day and Thoughts on Writing Comfortably

  1. Hi, John. So glad the book is going well. Sounds fascinating. Interesting juxtaposition of topics, since these days there’s always a risk of an April Fool going viral. Funny how the “it was only a joke” part is never as widely circulated!


  2. Lea Wait says:

    Happy April 1! Since I met my husband (really) on an April 1 — I know some things that happen today may seem upside down, but are meant to be! See you at Maine Crime Wave next week?

  3. Nancy Miller says:

    Your posts are ALWAYS so interesting. Thank you.
    Glad the depression has lifted. All the best to you.

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