I did post a while back From Inspiration to Perspiration on building a book from a scene idea. This is a follow up.
Once all the brainstorming has reached critical mass, I throw out the sketch first chapter, which reads like Raymond Chandler, not a YA fantasy novel. For that, I need to pull kids in with things they care about. The camera has to follow the main character from the start, not an old, ex-cop. I decided to use an event from my own adolescence to open. Furthermore, Daniel needs to hear the initial explanations from a friend near his own age, so I bring the thief, Astrofeld, in a few chapters early. Here we have the revised version.
At sixteen, Daniel relied on dreams to escape. In this dream, he relived a summer visit to his grandmother in Pennsylvania. Though it wasn’t family he remembered—she had died soon after. With joy, Daniel recalled the brick-paved hills of the fading railroad town. The weather was breezy, and the upturned silver of the leaf bottoms said a storm was on its way. His gray windbreaker rippled like a living thing. It was a perfect time for flying practice.
Starting at the top of the roller-coaster-shaped hill, he ran downward as fast as possible, arms behind him, stretching the windbreaker like wings. His sneakers slapped the bricks in a pit-pat rhythm. Soon, all he could hear was the wind whooshing past his ears and the sound of his heartbeat. If he could reduce the resistance, he might be able to leave the ground. Folding his arms back like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he accelerated more. Now his steps bounced, and his momentum was barely under control. He only needed to go a little faster.
Unfortunately, he ran out of hill. To brake before he hit the cross street, his sneakers had to slap the bricks so hard his feet stung. He was panting heavily and sweating from the failed effort. The sky darkened, and the wind whistled louder; however, Daniel didn’t give up. This time, he knew the stronger wind could lift him up. He turned around, stepped over the curb onto the sidewalk, and trudged up the endless series of cement steps.
By the time he reached the top, the sky was completely dark. He would have to walk down the back alley to Grandma’s before rain drenched him. He pulled up the hood on his windbreaker, and nearby thunder threatened to deafen him.
As the last echo rolled away, Daniel noticed something odd—his windbreaker was now an army-green serape held shut by some sort of Celtic-knotwork clasp. Next, he determined that the houses on the left of the stair were gone. Instead, he was on flat ground, at the edge of a cliff. There may have been some crude farm outbuildings ahead, but it was too dark to tell without streetlights. The only things that had remained the same were the stairs and the storm.
Dreams changed that way sometimes. I lost control. As long as there aren’t any cars, I’m safe. When he tried to take a step, however, someone grabbed him from behind, pulling him up short. “Whoa! You don’t want to go through that again.”
“Huh?” Daniel asked, turning to see who had joined him. The short boy in the black Jedi cloak sounded like a leprechaun. “What are you, ten?”
“Seventeen,” said the leprechaun, offended. The kid was pale and even his nose was thin, just the right size to get stuffed in a locker. “Hey, you’re not Charlie anymore.”
“My name’s Daniel.”
“You must be Charlie’s replacement,” the older but wiser boy noted. “Call me Astrofeld.” The other boy stuck out his right hand to shake, but his other hand went along for the ride.
Squinting at the shackles on the leprechaun’s wrists, Daniel asked, “Why are you handcuffed?”
“A misunderstanding,” the short teen insisted. “But we’re friends, right? I mean, I saved your life.”
“From what?” Daniel glanced at the other side of the step towards a shimmering puddle that reflected the purple-tinged lightning overhead. “And who’s Charlie?”
Astrofeld snorted. “Observe.” He dipped the chain connecting his shackles into the puddle. The metal link in the center turned transparent, swelled like an iridescent soap bubble, and popped. “That is what happened to Charlie. He knew his defensive spells. His cloak protected him from just about everything, except from below. He vanished. A few seconds later, after a huge thunderclap, you show up.”
A dozen questions clamoured in Daniel’s head, but he couldn’t decide which to ask first.
Astrofeld jerked as a drop of rain seared his cloak like acid. “Ack! Run for it.”
The short teen bolted for shelter, and Daniel followed, dodging the puddles. It was like a game of ‘don’t step of the crack’ in a minefield. Out of breath, the he pressed against a set of swinging double doors he’d seen in old western movies. The sign above the doors read ‘Goodforwhat Ales.’ Since the doors were barred, the saloon appeared to be closed for the night.
Astrofeld said, “Be right back.” Then the tiny boy wiggled under the doors that extended lower than a bathroom stall.
Moments later, the doors unlatched and swung open. Daniel stared at the interior as Astrofeld lit an oil lamp. The ten round tables in the tavern were all made from thick, rough-hewn oak and the décor was an odd mixture of late medieval and early Amish. The walls were decorated with shields, dartboards, and what might have been bowling trophies.
“We should be safe in here for a while,” said Astrofeld, grabbing a mug from behind the bar. “In weather like this, nobody in Shambly Town is going to set foot outside their hovels to investigate.” Without the hood, his pointed ears were visible—more like a cat’s than an elf’s.
As his bizarre, new friend poured something from the tap, Daniel had a seat at the closest table and decided on his first question. “Am I dead?”
Astrofeld pointed his thumb to a bucket in the corner. “Do you think they mop the floors in purgatory?”
Daniel shrugged. “People pay in different ways. Folks do what they know, and some people may feel the need to scrub a few stains.”
“No. You’re in what you might call a different state of being.”
“Not Kansas,” said Daniel, and both young men laughed.
After he tipped the excess foam off his brew, Astrofeld said, “You’re in Astra, a place where our kind gathers.”
Daniel only echoed the last words. “Our kind?”
The short boy took a deep drag on the mug and coughed. “Hold the clasp on your cloak and tell me what you see.”
Daniel did as he asked. The clasp wove together at least four brass snake. As he stared, the serpent bodies loosen and started to slide against each other like a puzzle. In his head, he almost completed the solution to open the clasp, when Astrofeld interrupted. “Good, it accepts you as its new owner, and the cloak will protect you. Until you learn the rules, your unconscious will also protect you in indirect ways. When this happens, it will usually look like freak luck. Regardless, you need to hire a magic teacher as soon as possible.”
With the cloak opened, Daniel could see his plaid flannel pajama pants and night shirt underneath. He could also see the fabric of the cloak ripple and reweave like the snakes to fit the dimensions of his body. “This is some dream.”
“Even dogs dream. Astra isn’t simple rapid-eye movement—it’s an energy level, a shared experience that only one person in ten million can achieve.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “So you’re real?”
“Define real. If you mean from the same waking world, then yes.”
“Why is this stuff so old fashioned?”
“It takes the dreamlands a little while to catch up because everyone has to agree to it or something. I’m not good with theory.” Astrofeld swallowed more brew and stomped his foot till the burning subsided. “Smooth.”
“That stuff is going to stunt your growth.”
The kid made a rude gesture back as he wandered into the main room of the tavern. “I have a defective pituitary gland. My parents stunted my growth...for religious reasons.” His voice was beginning to slur.
“Because the growth hormones are made from dead people?”
“Nah, they fixed that years ago. They want my faith to make me taller. Hell, I shouldn’t tell you that. Please don’t tell anyone, and I won’t squawk about where you arrived.”
“Sure. Why would that matter?”
Astrofeld set down the half-empty mug at Daniel’s table. “Because if someone could track me down in the waking realm, I’d be dead. I’ve robbed a lot of powerful people. To be safe, you should never tell anyone else personal details. That’s why I use my favorite D&D character’s name. In the other world, never let your picture appear in the newspaper or on the news, or someone might recognize you.”
“I meant the stairs. Why would anyone care?”
“That’s your rebirth spot.” The thief peeked through a crack in the swinging doors. “The next dream you have, reappearing at your last exit point is easiest. But if anyone ever locks you in a jail cell, for instance, then you can head back to your step. When you return there, you’ll give up whatever you were carrying, plus some accumulated energy, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Like a Nintendo game.”
“If someone knows your rebirth spot, they can own you. Astra’s not a game, so don’t tell anyone about it...or me.”
“Yeah. If I did that, my social worker would make me attend therapy sessions twice a week.”
“So you’ve been to Juvenile Hall, too? Cool—” Suddenly, the thief’s eyes darted to a door beside the bar. A click sounded, and the oak door creaked open. Daniel saw a burly man in a smock creep through holding a crossbow.
When Daniel turned his head to ask his friend what to do, the thief was long gone.
All he could do was smile at the tip of the crossbow that pointed at his nose. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Charlie’s replacement.”