My Origin Story Part 5: First Novel

Previously on My Origin Story: I had written dozens of fits and starts and part of an installment of a mystery series.

There were a few other longer pieces. One was a mystery set in a 6th grade classroom that bore a mysterious resemblance to my own 6th grade class. The other was called Copenhagen Farm, inspired by my 6th grade teacher, who brought stuffed deer heads to school to show off his hunting kills. (Women kidnapped hunters, cut out their tongues and set them loose in pens to hunt them down and, of course, mount their stuffed heads on the wall.) I didn’t finish these either, but I did write about 40 pages before I got bored and moved onto a new shiny thing. Time for the next phase.

I caught part of Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion on TV and the trek across the desert grabbed my imagination. My story was about two teen boys, one black and one white, who escape from a prison in Georgia during the Depression. Simon and Lee have a very Starsky and Hutch-like relationship, learning to work together and holding each other a lot when one of them is having a rough night–they have many of these. They flee across the dustbowl South, along the way collecting a few traveling companions and encountering racism, injustice, random acts of gratuitous violence and planned acts of gratuitous violence.

It was violent, is what I’m saying.

We join our tale already in progress, since I lost the first page somehow:

I wrote steadily over the summer between 6th and 7th grade and then some the following summer–my handwriting changes from the beginning to the end. I kept going for about a hundred pages before the story petered out, another victim of my tendency to get bored and not plan ahead. I’m guilty of many of the sins of first-time novelists:

  • Confused POV. It really wants to be omniscient but it fails and is instead mostly 3rd-person limited close with some head-hopping. I didn’t know any of these words at the time. I think I just wanted to go where I wanted to go and to heck with any, you know, proper form.
  • Not having a clear story arc. Simon asks Lee where he’s escaping to.

Lee: “How ’bout Kansas?”
Simon: “Why Kansas?”
Lee: “Why not?”

The ‘why not?’ school of plotting hasn’t trumped the ‘why’ for a reason. The boys leave Georgia and mosey toward Kansas, getting distracted along the way by all sorts of mayhem and a few Hoovervilles. In the meantime, though they’re supposed to be fleeing the law, there’s no sign of any danger from police; no near-escapes, no one hot on their trail. I just forgot to plot that part. I had a vague plan that they would get captured and taken back to Georgia and be hanged, because nothing good can ever happen to the characters in my early novels, but I never got that far.

Other rookie misconceptions:
–That gratuitous violence=good drama
–Melodrama=good drama
–Humorlessness=a serious writer

What I learned:
Don’t skip plot and transitional scenes and write ahead to the fun stuff. I won’t go back to fill in the hard stuff. (Sadly, I would forget this lesson by the next novel.)
Don’t rely on my mother’s bodice-ripper romance novels as a blueprint for a healthy relationship. Lee suspects his lover, Jakey, of cheating on him. He rapes her and nearly beats her to death as punishment. But when she finds out why, she feels bad for him and forgives him. (Jakey desperately needed a copy of ‘Red Flags of Abusive Boyfriends.’)
Research–just do it. I made some notes on the Depression and watched a few John Garfield movies. As a result, it takes our boys months to travel from Georgia to Kansas, even though they’re catching rides and hopping trains. And the South is one vast Sahara-like desert. There’s sand everywhere; it’s practically another character in the novel. (This lesson I would learn, to the point where I had to stop myself from researching my 8th novel, St. Vitus Academy, and get to the writing already. There are just such fun ways to do research these days, like the History Channel and 360-degree cameras on Google.)

And I found my own writing groove that would remain constant throughout my life. I sat in a recliner late at night after everyone had gone to sleep, just me and the night trains and the paperboy and the grasshoppers, until after the kitchen window dawned blue. No overhead lighting–it made me crazy. I wrote longhand, preferring Bic pens, scribbling out words because my handwriting made me crazy. My best writing is done at night, which is why I always had so much trouble writing new stuff when I had to get up for school or a job.

Most of all, I learned I really liked writing novels, getting lost in the world I created (however imperfect), being in control. But it would be a short story, one of the few I finished, that would shape the next phase of my origin story.

Next up on My Origin Story: McCracken’s Barn


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6 Responses to My Origin Story Part 5: First Novel

  1. Marvelous post. I can’t believe you wrote a hundred pages of a story in middle school. That’s a ton of work that would have taken serious dedication. My six grade story pales in comparison . . . although I did illustrate it and manage to finish it. But its scope was far from epic and was little more than a good time. No gratuitous violence, melodrama, or tragedy.

    It seems that we also shared some of the same weaknesses:
    1. Although I was a plot fanatic–my stories have always been dominated by plot–I did tend to rush past transitional scenes, skipping the hard stuff and getting to the good stuff, action.
    2. I never bothered with research. It was fantasy to me so I could just make up whatever I wanted. Never mind science or history. Never mind the fact that world’s tend be built a certain way, that horses can only travel so far before collapsing, that metropolis cities in a medieval society would need enough food and water and good sewage removal or treatment to survive, and that armies of a million soldiers can’t simply survive off the land.

    However, I can’t stand hand-writing anything. Not to mention my penmanship sucks. Thank god I was born during the computer age. I also tend do my best work early in the day, but that’s probably because I’m so tired at night (working in the elements six days a week).

    Can’t wait to be able to read one of your big fantasy novels so I can see your world-building at a large scale and your story-telling in a larger scope.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Hey Dude! Yeah, I noticed that we identified similar issues with our first big projects, except you were a plotter and I just wasn’t in those days. And you’ve more than made up for the lack of background and technical issues–your world-building is up there with like, George R.R. Martin.

      You were waaaay ahead of me as far as finishing something! I just liked to start stories, have my fun with them and then callously move on to the next pretty young thing.

      I still handwrite–some people just do. It’s something about how my handwriting is connected to my subconscious. The good thing about it, laborious though it might be, is that you can do it absolutely anywhere–no wifi needed.

      St. Vitus is pretty much my only viable fantasy/paranormal story and I hope you get to see it finished someday soon, too. πŸ˜‰


  2. Joanne Rowling wrote much of “Harry Potter” in longhand. πŸ™‚

    I could write by hand if I had to, but editing is much, much easier on the PC.
    I used white-out by the quart in high school typing class πŸ˜‰ (no wonder, my words per minute on a Selectric were 50% faster than what I do now on a computer keyboard)

    Ironically, I bought a laptop specifically to write on, yet I seem to have “naturally” returned to writing exclusively at my (literal) desktop with my desktop (PC). Guess I still fall into the classic “sit-at-a-desk-with-a-typewriter” writing mode.

    I thought you were finished with “St. Vitus.” πŸ˜†
    Not to worry, I’ll look forward to reading it! :mrgreen:


    • My “dream” writing setup: Type raw pages on an IBM Selectric, scan them with OCR (optical character recognition) software, then edit the mistakes on a PC.

      If I’d known I was going to take up writing, I never would have sold my Selectric years ago… 😳 πŸ˜₯


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Ah, I miss my old Selectric. It had an italics ball, which was like, uptown back in those days.
      “Finished with” is a nebulous term in the world of me. I’m planning another pass before the conference, but am still not there.


  3. Pingback: My Origin Story Part 6: McCracken’s Barn | Chris Devlin's Blog

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