I’ve had a lot of ideas for stories over the years, going back to my childhood when I first started thinking about becoming a writer. Most of those ideas never progressed to a completed story, and usually there was a good reason why they didn’t. But there were also good reasons why I started the projects in the first place—good ideas, interesting characters, and clues as to how I was developing as a writer.
And so, I’d like to share some of these almost-stories with you, beginning here, with my first attempt at real fiction.
Little Shop of Horrors with Rats
I rewrote Little Shop of Horrors as if it occurred in a community of genetically engineered, intelligent rats. Why I did so is rather a long story, and I’m not going to get into that now, except to say that I had Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, an excellent children’s novel, in mind. That my characters were rats, not humans, was entirely incidental to the story, except that it gave me a convenient excuse to set the story in a culture I made up, instead of actual 1960’s America, which I knew virtually nothing about.
I was ten.
For those who haven’t seen it, Little Shop of Horrors is about the staff of a florist shop, inexplicably trying to do business in a very bad, very poor neighborhood, coping with the sudden appearance of a rapidly growing carnivorous plant that can speak, sing, and generally take advantage of the fallible humans around it. The movie is a musical, based on a musical play, which was in turn based on a non-musical, grade B horror movie.
The musical play is a work of genius, at once an important modern morality play and a silly wink at its own silly premise. The musical movie is a much simpler beast, essentially a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, but still fun to watch. For reasons unknown and probably unknowable, I was obsessed with that movie for a good couple of years and decided to write what I now know is properly called fan fiction.
My story had essentially the same plot as the movie, all the same main characters, and even the same musical structure—while I wrote new songs, each one corresponded to a song in the movie. I added a few extra scenes, removed some minor scenes, and removed the “Greek chorus” girl group entirely (it seemed superfluous to me at the time. Now I know better). I made very few deliberate changes, but quite a lot of accidental ones. In my version, there is no drug addiction, no domestic violence (the Dentist is merely a vaguely no-good boyfriend), no deep ethical questions, no sexual posturing, no ethnic stereotypes, and no complex emotional wounds. All of the above is in the movie, but it had gone right over my head.
I was ten.
The most interesting deliberate change that I made was to the character of Audrey, the female lead (the plant is named Audrey Two, and has a male persona). In all the official versions, she is a bimbo. She is also much more than a bimbo, and there are reasons why she acts the way she does, but her complexity also went right over my head. All I saw back then was “bimbo,” and I didn’t want to write about someone like that. My Audrey was a wholly original character—playfully feminine, with a touchingly unquenchable faith in her fantasies of a better future, but intelligent, practical, and self-possessed as well.
The one verse I remember from all the songs I wrote (the lyrics are written down somewhere, though the tunes are not) is hers, from my counterpart to the movie’s “Skid Row.”
I love tomato sandwiches, tomato stews
My favorite show’s the tomato news
But the tomato crop just brings blues
‘cause I’m living in a rat hole.
Living in a rat hole.
In other words, she can’t afford to buy the fresh tomatoes she loves because she’s living in animalistic squalor. And yes, she’s actually a rat, but she knows all the awful things people say about rats aren’t true—except in her case she’s worried that maybe they are. It’s a pretty complex line.
The most important change I made was actually accidental.
In the movie, Seymour, the male protagonist, ultimately kills the plant by electrocuting it with a handy broken wire. That is, he takes advantage of rather fantastic luck, but his is still a deliberate and determined act. He embodies the archetype of the dragon-killer, the hero. In my story, there is no electric wire—my setting precluded it for various reasons. So, I had Seymour kill the plant by accidentally setting a fire while trying to get away.
My Seymour is not therefor a hero. He’s just lucky. He came into possession of the plant in the first place through luck, and got rid of it the same way. He never actually commits a deliberate act that changes his fate, even though he tries to, and wants to.
At the time I wrote the story, I was largely interested in the plant. I can’t explain why. I had little respect for, or interest in the human characters, except as foils for the being I saw as the star of the show. But the story I conceived works as a story about humans (or hyperintelligent rats), and as such, it has a very different message than the movie it was based on.
As I said, the movie is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. A poor and not very intelligent boy comes into possession of a magical plant and thereby accesses all sorts of wonderful blessings, but also a terrible danger. He then kills the plant, severs his access to the magic, and lives happily ever after with what he has left. It’s a story of luck, but also of triumph.
But my Seymour never triumphs. He and Audrey live in a world moved by forces that are simply bigger than they are. They begin powerless and, as blessings and curses alike roll over them and change their lives radically, they remain powerless. And they find love and meaning anyway. In each other, they find a little oasis of caring in a world that fundamentally doesn’t care.
That’s pretty deep, for a ten-year-old.
I wrote about three quarters of my story, then put off writing the scene where Seymour and Audrey declare their love for each other. I was uncomfortable with that scene, and put it off, then put it off again, until finally I lost the momentum of the story and got interested in something else instead. Had I completed it, I think it would have been around 12,000 words, or about twenty typed pages. As I recall, it definitely had its childish elements, and of course it was heavily dependent on other people’s creative work, but it had its original components, too, and some of them had real promise.
I wish I’d finished it.