Monday, December 7, 2009

My First Book

Monday Blogging
Look at me! My goal is off to a good start.

I don’t quite remember what the impetus was to write my first book. My English class had been writing stories for a few weeks, and I really enjoyed it, so maybe it was that. But I do remember sitting down at our relatively new computer and saying to myself, “I’m going to write a book,” and starting to type. I was 14 years old.

The short story unit had been fun. We took a few weeks to talk about characters and plot, and I set about writing a murder mystery. I was very into Agatha Christie at the time (though I only read the Hercule Poirot mysteries, rather than the bland Miss Marple—or I thought she was bland at the time; maybe she’s not and I need to revisit?) and I was determined to do the same. I started with a catchy title—BIRTHDAY MURDER—and began writing.

I don’t remember the plot of Birthday Murder. I revised it a few times, and I don’t remember the first plot or the second or the third. I do remember the first ending, however, because I cribbed it directly from Ms. Christie. And this was not a generic ending, where one could think that I just arrived at that idea independently. No, it involved a murder happening in silence, several hours before it was discovered; false blood strewn about the room (an unnaturally bright shade of red, because a chemical had been added to keep it fresh); and a balloon with a stopper that got pulled from a cord stretched out the window, emitting an ear-splitting, animal-sounding scream to bring people running when the killer was among them, so they wouldn’t suspect. Very creative, Agatha! Me, using it again? Not so much.

At some point, I realized that it was a bad idea to plagiarize. Unfortunately, it was right before handing in the final draft. I needed an ending, one that I could just scribble down to turn in the next day. Hmm, how did I handle that? I don’t remember that either. I do remember that I changed the motive. Rather than a crazy, involved family secret being exposed (or some such nonsense) I changed it to the covers-all “For Kicks.” Yep. A semi-direct quote, as close as I can remember it: “She did it for fun. FOR FUN.”

Take a moment to let that wash over you. High drama.

And yet Mrs. Morris liked it enough to read my story aloud to the class. I’ve recounted this to people before, and every time I tell it I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the faux-wood surface, the heat of blood in my cheeks as I was embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. Mrs. Morris didn’t actually tell the class whose story she was reading, but they all knew (probably from my reaction) and they complimented me profusely after it was over. I was in love. I’m not sure with whom. Maybe with myself. More likely, with writing, given what I did next.

I think it was the next Friday night that I sat down to write a book. And that was my goal. No short story this time. I turned on the computer…and looked at a blank screen. (Black, back in those days. Although I was able to change both background and character colors, and I enjoyed messing with that a lot. Mint green on pink? Red on black, black on red? Orange on blue? Best part: my mom didn’t know how to fix it.)

My problem was plotting. Not actually ironing out what would happen when, but the very idea. It’s an age-old problem for writers of all sorts. It’s not quite writers’ block, but this general feeling of “I should be writing something!” but not knowing what that something would be. I’ve had that feeling since, but a few years ago I actually realized that I already have more ideas for books and screenplays than I could ever finish. The problem is not getting ideas; the problem is making ideas work. (Therefore, when someone says, “I have a proposal: I’ll give you ideas and you write them, and we’ll split the proceeds 50/50” you should RUN. First, the idea of “proceeds” is far-fetched in far too many cases; second, ideas are as easy to come by as urine [Really? Am I really going to use that?] and the ideas are not the work.)

So…at that point, where was an idea? This was easily solved. My sister gave it to me. She was 17 at the time and she said, rather offhandedly, “A guy’s wife gets kidnapped, and their baby dies, and he gets revenge and kills the people involved and then he’s prosecuted and he escapes to Nicaragua, fighting with the Contras.”

That is the plot I chose.

I’ll just let that sink in. More high drama. Higher.

Forget the fact that I didn’t know the first thing about Nicaragua, the Contras, kidnapping, marriage. Or that my idea of revenge involved putting toothpaste in inconvenient places. Forget that I didn’t do any research. I could do this!

It took a month or two, and I had written my book. Now, I was (am) a softie and I couldn’t have a sad ending. So the guy (Alan) couldn’t be banished to Nicaragua. In fact, he couldn’t be a bad guy. Therefore the person on whom he gets his revenge must be a total horror. I chose his mother-in-law—divorced from the father-in-law, because the father-in-law is rich and therefore a good guy—and yes, she was so awful that I had Alan’s wife, Jody, scream “You total bitch!” though I couldn’t make myself have an actual swear word in the dialogue, so I changed it to witch. Whoo.

It is also noteworthy that I didn’t think this would be a YA novel. I thought this would take the publishing world by storm when it went out and bio on the book jacket (which I had helpfully written out at the end of the manuscript) said, “Yes, folks, this lady’s fourteen.” Direct quote. Sigh.

Now, off to my readers! I gave it to my mom, and said, “I want your real feedback. What you really think.” She made a face that I have since made, that “I don’t want to hurt you but I don’t want to encourage you either” face, and said, “It’s…amateurish.” I nodded and thought about it. I gave it to a 14-year-old friend, who loved it. And I gave it to my 9th grade teacher, who also loved it and told me to publish it. (Whose opinions did I latch onto? Whose do you think?) She didn’t, however, tell me *how* to publish it. Problem.

A bigger problem: My little brother, who loved messing with the computer, then erased our hard drive. I was 14, so he must have been 11. He was very into computer games (specifically Digger, the only computer game I’ve ever gotten into, and “Bushido” which I don’t remember except that it involved samurai swords.) and decided one day to clean up the hard drive. The next day, I turned on the computer and when it didn’t take me to LeMenu, I called for my dad, who called for my mom, who called for Bill. Bill told us, so cavalierly, “I just erased an extra command.” (The words on screen said, I am not kidding, “Missing command.”)

My book was gone.

My mom’s eyes were saucers. I stared at the computer, that dark screen that was missing THE MOST IMPORTANT COMMAND (apparently no commands are “extra”), silent. My mom looked between me and Bill, worried about the possible carnage, and took me away and said, “If you don’t say anything to him, I’ll take you to Baskin Robbins.” (worth noting: she took him, too, in the same trip.) I turned around and went to my room and closed the door.

I was able to retrieve the printed manuscript from one of my friends. I spent many more hours retyping the same book into the computer, since Bill was now forbidden to mess with the programming. He kept on playing “Bushido,” though, and as revenge I hid the floppy disk (a five-incher!) which was more effective than toothpaste.

So I had gotten my book back, in a way, but by then the spirit was gone. Maybe Bill saved me from myself; the thing was dumb. I really cannot imagine what an agent’s response would have been, since a form rejection seems too nice. (Although I do have an agent friend. Maybe I’ll ask her.) No copy survives, only memories. It remains where it belongs: under the proverbial bed.


Mom and Camera said...

Funny story! Loved the plot line for that book and the stroll down computer memory-lane (5.5 inch floppies--yikes!!)

Naomi said...

Great story.

Glad to see you're back blogging again!