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
–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