Of all the books I’ve studied about the craft of writing and the fiction writer’s experience, none is so dear to my heart as Snoopy and “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” by Charles M. Schulz. Originally appearing as serialized comic strips, the saga of Snoopy’s quest to write and publish a story was printed in 1971 as a cute and colorful hardcover edition which, in the middle of the actual book, presents Snoopy’s magnum opus as if it had been typeset by a major publisher—complete with a glossy, full-color cover.
Snoopy’s first “novel” is a hilariously terrible piece of disjointed, random narration with abysmal characterization, and it weighs in at only a few hundred words. But that’s part of the fun, along with the pseudo-intellectual text dreamed up for its back cover, and the child-like cover painting ostensibly credited to Lucy van Pelt. (The actual title page of this book credits Mark Knowland.)
If you had only read this strip in newspapers or in collections of Peanuts, then you’d never seen the wacky cover for Snoopy’s “novel”, but it perfectly captures the jumble of mayhem Snoopy had in mind for his debut. Snoopy’s nonsensical approach of taking every possible awesome idea and throwing them in a blender resembles how I started my own fiction series. Snoopy embodies the un-self-conscious glee of a boy pulling every toy out of his toybox and making them all fight.
As an homage to Snoopy’s tale—which I absolutely loved as a kid—my story Voyage of the Calico Tigress begins with his “dark and stormy night” cliché, and I did my best to make that story earn the opening line. Even though I wrote Voyage about six years ago now, it remains one of my favorite episodes in the series, and Patches totally kicks ass in it. And, like Snoopy, I can’t resist throwing some pirates into the action.
As a boy, I’d also enjoyed the “dark and stormy” opening to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Spider Robinson’s tale of a telepathic time traveler who lands in a Nova Scotian hippie commune, Time Pessure. Wikipedia tells us that the line first appeared in 1830 and has been alternately praised and reviled ever since. It’s an opening sentence that, for my money, beats “Once upon a time” as firmly establishing that we are venturing into a land of tall tales and fantastic events where the narrator makes a promise to deliver an action-packed adventure we all know is fiction but want to be swept up in anyway.
Snoopy’s writing journey finds him encountering critiques from his friends, the torture of waiting to hear back from a publisher, and the despair that often accompanies an unknown author’s “going on the road” to do a book-signing tour. But by making a joke of the fiction author’s life, Schulz captures something elusive: the fun of it all. The fun of making up stories off the top of your head. The fun of seeing them come to life in print. The fun of the entire creative process.
If there are any lessons to be learned from Schulz’s parody of the fiction author’s life, they are that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fun to be had from mashing up pirates, octopuses, a vast array of characters, and the joy of creating something from nothing.
Collector’s Guide: You can usually find a used copy of Snoopy and “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” on Amazon in its original hardcover edition or its 2004 expanded paperback version for less than ten bucks.