This is the first in a series of blog posts I’m calling “Author’s Journal”. Click here for complete list of the articles in this series.
I’m seriously thinking about writing a novel. Or novella. Or novelette. I’m not really sure about the difference but I think it has to do with word count. And since I don’t know how long the story is going to be I won’t know till it’s done.
It’s going to be a sci-fi story. It’s an idea I’ve had rattling around in my brain for many years. If it should happen to get published it would be my first published work of fiction. I’ve always said that I know how to tell a good story but I’m not so sure I’m any good at making one up. That’s what has kept me from writing fiction up until now.
I’ve only been at this project for about a week and it’s been an interesting journey so far. I’m a little bit concerned the story of writing the book is going to be more interesting than the book itself. But anyway I decided I wanted to write about the process of writing as I do it. Normally I would share such items on this blog but I don’t want to spoil my story before I actually get it published. If it turns out it doesn’t get published then I will put it online for free anyway along with the Journal of how I wrote it.
Author Andy Weir wrote his famous sci-fi novel “The Martian” which was later made into a hit movie with Matt Damon. He put chapters online for fans to read as he was writing it. Soon his fans requested he publish it in e-book format so they could read it off-line. He put it on the Kindle store and wanted to give it away for free but they wouldn’t let him. The minimum price he could put on it was $1. Eventually a publisher bought the rights to make a print version and he sold the film rights making a fortune. I don’t know that I want to risk that. So for now I’m not ready to share the story nor the story of how I wrote the story. But maybe someday.
I can however tell the story of how I wrote my previous published works. So that’s what I’m going to do in this new series is go back and talk about the other things I’ve had published (all of them nonfiction) because that stuff is already out there and it won’t spoil the story. Here is the first installment of my “Author’s Journal”. Or I suppose we take a page from moviemaking and call this “The Making of… whatever”.
Okay change of plan already. I said I’d never had any fiction published and that’s true but I want to talk about one piece of fiction that I wrote for a high school creative writing class. It’s the first thing I wrote that anybody ever had anything nice to say about and I was pretty proud of it so if we’re going to start at the beginning of my “career” as an author we need to start with the short story I wrote in high school.
I’m guessing it was probably my junior year at Northwest High School. My regular English teacher had a week or two off for some reason. It might’ve been my one teacher who took time off to get married but I’m not sure that was this particular time. I know I did have a teacher who took a brief leave and we had a substitute. I wish I could remember the name of the substitute but she was absolutely awesome. I remember discussing her with my friend and classmate Dennis Adams. We agreed that the reason it was a good thing she was a substitute teacher was it would’ve been a shame to share her gifts with just one class. She really had a way of bringing out the best in her students.
Anyway we had to write a short story. There is an adage that says “write what you know” and so I decided to write a bit of science fiction. That was 95% of what I read in those days (and still is).
I stole the basic premise of the story. My dad had told me he had read a story or seen a movie somewhere sometime where a guy got away with murder by stabbing someone with a sharpened icicle. The murder weapon had melted and evaporated leaving no trace of the weapon or fingerprints. I decided to steal that idea as the basis of my own little murder story.
I need to explain first that everything I know about writing short stories I learned from Edgar Allen Poe. Most notably from his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado”. The complete story can be found at that link. The opening line of the story is “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”
That’s the whole story in one sentence. Everything that follows is simply the details. It doesn’t explain who Fortunato was in any detail. It doesn’t say how he injured the author. It’s just the story of how he plotted revenge. He lured him into a basement wine cellar for a taste of amontillado wine. Then he shoved him into an alcove, chained him to the wall, and sealed up the alcove with bricks burying him alive.
This shocking and brutal ending is what most people remember about the story, but for me it’s that opening line that is so important. In one brief sentence he really told you the entire story. To me that is the absolute essence and perfection of the short story form. That’s what I wanted to go for.
So back to my semi-plagiarized sci-fi murder mystery. We were going to commit the perfect murder by stabbing a guy with an icicle. But why would we want to commit this murder? It is not exactly a crime of passion. You have to get somebody to a place where you have an icicle handy. You have to prepare it to a sharp point and keep it cold until you can do the deed. This clearly had to be premeditated and carefully planned. After all you don’t commit the perfect murder by accident.
It takes three elements to commit first-degree murder: motive, opportunity, and means. We had the means with the icicle. We could craft an opportunity. But what was the motive. Poe didn’t give one in his story. It was just an insult of some kind but we never learned exactly what.
Somewhere along the way I came up with the idea that committing the perfect murder was something that had been pursued ever since Cain slew Abel. Although I believe people are fundamentally good, there is always something inside us that tempts us to do violence against our perceived opponents. We’ve always been searching for the perfect murder. It’s one of those eternal quests like building a better mousetrap.
Wait a minute!
What did I just say?
My muse had spoken. I had my opening line. I had my hook that would tell the entire story in one sentence and draw you in to make you want to read more. I had my Cask of Amontillado opening line which read as follows…
“Man has always had two great ambitions. To build a better mousetrap and to commit the perfect murder. I have accomplished the latter on the man who accomplished the former.”
That was my entire story in one sentence (well actually three) but certainly one short paragraph. Somebody built the better mousetrap. The only reason you would want to kill such person is that somehow he cheated you out of that honor. So our perpetrator and victim were business partners. The “I have accomplished…” means the story will be told first person in the same way that Amontillado was told. Like amontillado it was a revenge story.
So I wrote the story. I already had my method to commit the so-called perfect murder with the melted murder weapon. Now I had to build the better mousetrap. That’s where the sci-fi elements came in. Our inventors used recombinant DNA (a big catchphrase in the 1970s for genetic manipulation) to create a virus that would be deadly to mice but harmless to any other species. Our victim and narrator were business partners. The business went downhill and went bankrupt. Then one partner started a new business and suddenly had a breakthrough that made him a millionaire for building a better mousetrap. Our narrator was certain that he had developed the idea previously but ran the business into the ground so he could start over and keep the profits to himself.
Apart from the big opening line, I had also learned the beauty and ingenuity of a plot twist. Something shocking at the very end of the story that gives the reader something unexpected. You grab them at the beginning. You lead them on a journey. You have to finish on a high note as well.
So I had our narrator standing on the steps of the church after his partner’s funeral gloating as the hearse pulls away. It’s still a cold winter day and a gust of wind comes along. He reaches to pull up the collar of his coat around the back of his neck and as he does so, and icicle breaks loose from the eaves of the church and slides down his back. The story then concludes with a newspaper item saying about our narrator had died of a heart attack on the steps of the church just after the funeral of his friend and former business partner.
The substitute teacher whose name I still can’t remember absolutely adored the piece. She read several excerpts from some of the best stories in the class but she started with mine. She heaped praise on the piece especially focusing on that opening paragraph. She said to the class “I’m going to read you this opening paragraph and I want you to guess which of your classmates wrote it”. She read the paragraph and at least three people identified it as mine. I don’t know what about their opinion of me lead them to identify me but I couldn’t have been happier.
Then she pointed out that I had misspelled “always” as “allways” and looked at me and said “You know better than that”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I really didn’t 🙂 I’ve probably told the story before that several of my elementary school teachers exempted me from so-called “busywork” such as spelling drills and math drills because they thought I was so smart I didn’t need them. To this day I can’t spell worth a damn and I can add a column of numbers three times and get three different answers. God bless spellcheckers and spreadsheets.
My favorite substitute teacher concluded her review of my work by giving me a piece of advice which was “know when to quit.” She thought that the news clipping at the end was unnecessary. I guess I wasn’t confident that the reader would know that the guy who killed someone with an icicle was killed by an icicle. I’ve not really had much of an opportunity to apply that lesson but I’ve never forgotten it. Although the advice was “know when to quit” it really was in essence “trust your audience.” I try to do that.
At the end of the semester, they give you a folder with all of your homework in it so you can review your grades. But they want you to turn it back in so that you can’t sell your term paper to someone next year. I kept my copy of the story when I turned my folder back in. I don’t remember the name of the story. I’ve got that copy around here somewhere and if I find it I will post it online.
Even though the piece I’m working on now is going be longer than a short story, I still needed an attention grabbing opening line. It’s got one. I won’t spoil it for now. Not quite as good as the better mousetrap versus the perfect murder but still enough I hope it makes you want to read more.
In the next installment of this series I will talk about the various nonfiction things that I’ve written and have had published. Stay tuned.