Books: calamity jack
  How it began...plus some of the middle part and the end...

Before Dean and I were done writing rapunzel's revenge, we knew we wanted to do a sequel. We loved the world we'd created for the story, and we especially we loved Rapunzel and Jack. The more we wrote, the more we wanted to know Jack's back story. With rapunzel's revenge, we'd created a formula:
  1. Take a fairy tale (i.e. Rapunzel)
  2. Change the setting (i.e. from woodsy, quasi-European landscape to desert-y, quasi-American Wild West)
  3. In the first 1/4th of the book, retell the fairy tale, allowing the story to alter with the setting
  4. Then, set the story loose, infusing it with both fairy tale elements as well as big Hollywood-style movie elements
With calamity jack, it seemed simple enough to do the same:
  1. Take "Jack and the Beanstalk"
  2. Change the setting from rural farm to big city
  3. In the first quarter of the book, retell his tale
  4. Then bring in Rapunzel and set it all loose
But we hit some pretty big road bumps on the way.

First off, rapunzel's revenge lent itself so easily to the graphic novel format. With the Old West setting, we watched lots of Hollywood Westerns and read up on the genre, and crammed as many of those archetypes and story lines in as we could. It made it a round, big fat, epic story that we loved combined with the visual storytelling and the fairy tale elements.

With calamity jack, we really liked changing it to an urban story. Jack was a city slicker, sly and street smart. And instead of a Western, the genre that just fit with the story was the caper.

The caper is made famous by movies like The Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven (and sequels). A caper is usually centered around one smart and slightly law-bending guy who puts together a team of specialists, and together they pull off an amazing heist. Usually the victim of the robbery is a very wealthy and dangerous dude, someone the audience will root against. It seemed perfect for a story about a boy who steals from a giant!

But it turns out a caper is hard to write. So much harder than a Western. There's a reason capers are almost entirely limited to television and movies, where you can use audio and visuals to communicate a complicated story. Nate expressed concern about it early on. He told us how he was watching Ocean's Eleven with the sound muted. "It was just a bunch of talking heads!" After the high-action of rapunzel's revenge, this was a problem.

But Dean and I felt like the caper story line was right. We had Jack put together a team--in early versions of the script, besides Jack, Rapunzel, Freddie, and Prudence (then called Jewel), we also had Brute from the first book, as well as a revolutionary dugger named Che. The characters got pretty messy. Too many!

So we cut Che and Brute. We trimmed the story again and again. We tweaked and altered and polished, until months later, we had a story we felt pretty good about. We sent it to Nate and our editor Victoria for some final feedback. We got an email from Nate. Pretty much it said, "Shame on you." One bit of advice I remember was something like, "You're writing this like we're making a low-budget movie. But we're big budget! We're unlimited budget! Give me more!"

Dean and I sighed...and maybe cried a little...and realized he was right. But how could we fix it? First we had to change how we were dealing with the caper. We'd been too intellectual about it at first: studying the genre, mapping out the traditional caper plot, and structuring our story around it. We needed the essence of the caper without adhering religiously to its struture. And that meant throwing away most of what we'd done. That's right, just deleting it. We were like guilty business execs madly shredding documents before the feds came. We burned it, we trashed it. And we started over.

It was worth it. It's always worth it to make the hard cuts in order to make the story better. Several more months and drafts later, we finally came to the story we wanted to tell. And this story is about Jack. The awesomeness of Rapunzel is not to be dismissed, and personally I love Freddie to bits and cannot get enough pixie action. But this is Jack's story. And I'm so happy to tell it. At last.


image copyright Nathan Hale 2009

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