When I think about my plunge into the emotional smoothy-blender we call “writing fiction,” I usually credit an experience from late 2002 that inspired me to write a novel, tentatively entitled When the Sun Stood Still. (And aside from the fact that you can’t actually pronounce that title, I still like it.) I quickly discovered that I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel. So I began studying fiction, writing short stories and such. And I have a long list of short stories from 2003 and 2004, some ridiculously unpublishable, others only half-finished, and a few that might have shown promise if only I had possessed half a clue what the hell I was doing.
So that was a healthy 8 or 9 years ago, long enough that now I clearly ought to know what I’m doing. (And whether or not you consider that my writing is still incompetent, at least I can comfort myself that I know what I’m doing and write that way on purpose.)
But over the weekend, I remembered a story attempt that predated When the Sun Stood Still by several years.
My brother and I wanted to design a story game. We had a concept, based around a haunted school building, with a backstory that you as the first-person player would have to figure out à la Myst and Riven. I wrote a couple scenes to try out the concept.
Not counting the random crap that I scribbled as a kid, this is my first fiction, which dates from circa 1999, about 12 years ago.
So if you have to be doing something for 10 years to become an expert, and if I’ve been trying to write fiction for 12 years… That means I’m officially an expert now! (… at trying to write fiction.)
Looking back at these old scratchings from my original PalmPilot—yes, that’s where I dug them out of, my original PalmPilot data backups—what strikes me are the unconvincing plot and the shallow characters. (And the crappy attempts at clever prose.)
And so the story begins…
“You understand your job as a sanitary engineer?” Superintendant Henry Wikker blandly intoned. [Ooh! Great first line. Can I steal it?]
“Other than sweeping the floors and cleaning the toilets?” I retorted. “With all due respect, sir.” My voice took on an aire [sic] of self-righteousness. “Please don’t patronize me. I’m a janitor, not a dodo.” [Well, you know, you can be both if you’d like.]
My interlocutor [Ha!] clearly didn’t know what to make of me. I’m sure he wasn’t used to being spoken back to. But he probably also wasn’t sure whether I was trying to be respectful, in a backward sort of way, or just mouthing off. [Like he’s really gonna take time out of his busy internal monologue to debate the point.]
[By the way, try more “telling,” less “showing”; it’ll put your readers to sleep faster.]
My careless attitude had gotten me in trouble before. But I needed this job, dammit! Not for the money, mind you. No, I had plenty saved up. Enough to send me to Aruba for a year. [So, move to Aruba! You’ll have more fun. (I know I certainly will.)] I naturally kept that fact from Henry Wikker. But I digress.
I needed this job because I had to get inside the Broad Street school. Alone. After dark.
“Is it true what they say?” I inquisited cooly. [“Inquisited,” Gracie?] “That the school is haunted?”
I really didn’t need to ask, of course. I knew that the school had been built over an old graveyard. The dead don’t take kindly to such intrusions. [Cue X-Files theme.] And the school was known for its mysteries, the most notable one being the sudden, unexplained disappearance of little Tommy Trainer two years ago. [Gasp!] But I wanted to hear it from an insider.
The superintendant let out a little laugh. “Don’t you worry about ghosts,” he chortled. “Just do your job.”
“Which would be?” [… but I thought we already knew what the job entailed.]
“Meet me at the school at six o’clock. I’ll let you in. At midnight, a police detail will come by and relieve you. I believe that’s Officer Kramer. During those six hours, sweep and mop the floors, and clean the bathrooms.” [Ah, I get it. An excuse to info-dump.]
“And if I have extra time…” I waited for a reply.
“Just make the best of it, I guess.” He regarded me. [Why? Were you making a funny face?] “Look. Forget about the ghosts.” Wikker’s voice was stern.
I glanced up at him, but before I could turn away he grabbed my shoulders forcefully. “I mean it!” he scolded. [Ha! I say contact your lawyer and have him committed. He’s obviously manic-depressive.]
For the first time, I noticed his penetrating stare. His eyes held my gaze, against my will, and filled me with terror. [Oh, please, stop! I think I’m gonna pee my pants!] I almost half-believed that through them he could probe my thoughts. That somehow he knew what had been transpiring within the depths of my mind. [Does he have a magic power that can make something out of nothing?]
Losing all sense of myself, with awed respect I answered him. “Alright. No ghosts. Just work.” I swallowed to clear the dryness from my throat.
I arrived at six o’clock sharp, having greatly recovered from my earlier encounter with Superintendant Wikker. [Whew! Had me worried there for a second. (But only a second.]
I was ready to pursue my goal. [Cue Perry Mason theme.] I have long been fascinated with supernatural apparitions. I even fancy myself somewhat of an amateur ghost-chaser. [Well, “amateur,” I believe that part at least.] When I learned of the school job opening, naturally, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. [Like he really needs a stupid job in order to sneak into the building at night, because there’s absolutely no other way he could get in, no other person who could let him in, no other excuse he could use, and nothing else he could be doing with his life in the meantime.] As the day approached, my excitement increased, until it was an obsession. [Maybe even less “show” and even more “tell” would make this story even better!] I just had to meet the ghosts of Broad Street.
The superintendent let me in without notable comment, and locked the doors as he left. If I went outside, I wouldn’t be able to get back in until the midnight police detail arrived.
Take 2 — I found a copy of this dated Aug. 21, 1999, which is probably around when I revised it:
The moment was so close I could smell it. I could taste it. [And you’ll never guess what: it tasted like fish!] As time droned on, my excitement had increased, until it became an obsession. Now the object of my obsession was about to be realized.
I remember the day they interviewed me for the job. [But at least I’m improving over the original version. Ugh.]
“So you understand the duties of a sanitary engineer?” Superintendant Henry Wikker blandly intoned. [… and so forth and so on…]
“Poor fellow: I’ve done that gig before.” Sammy didn’t seem appropriately happy for me.
I took another sip of coffee. “Yeah. Broad Street is a one-man job. I guess I’ll have to bring my own coffee.”
We had a little laugh, as Sammy subtly shook his head.
“Is it true what they say?” I inquisited cooly. [Guffaw! That line still cracks me up.] “That the school is haunted?”
“Well,” Sammy began, “they built it on an old graveyard. And, you know, the dead don’t like their neighbors movin’ in on them.”
I listened intently. Sammy moved in a little closer, and dropped his voice. He continued.
“And then there’s all the mysterious happenin’s. Things movin’ around when you’re not lookin’. The unexplained whistlin’ noises. No, and don’t go blamin’ it on those old steam radiators. I mean, they’re bad enough, but…”
His voice became grave. [Ba-dum bum! (Unintentional pun, I’m sure.)]
“And what about little Tommy Trainer. He disappeared two years ago in that school, and no one’s seen him since. They say he made friends with the ghosts, and so they spirited him away to be with them.”
I was mesmerized. [Cue Twilight Zone theme song.] Sammy paused a moment [to let the creepy music sink in]. He looked over his shoulder and waved half-heartedly in that direction.
I turned to see.
I nearly bumped my head on the ceiling, I jumped so high. When I came down, Sammy was rolling on the floor laughing. I had to restrain myself from whacking him one.
I had spilled my coffee.
“Look. Don’t worry about ghosts,” Sammy chortled. “Just do your job.”
He regarded me.
“Look. Forget about the ghosts.”
His voice was stern. I glanced up at him, but before I could turn away he grabbed my shoulders forcefully.
“I mean it!” he scolded.
He had a penetrating stare. His eyes held my gaze, against my will, and filled me with terror. I almost half believed that through them he could probe my thoughts. That somehow he knew what had been transpiring within the depths of my mind.
Losing all sense of myself, with awed respect I answered him.
“Alright. No ghosts.”
I swallowed to clear the dryness from my throat.
As you can see, it’s getting a little better. But I never finished this project. At the time, I never would have been able to pull it off, anyhow. Maybe someday I’ll pick it back up. I actually had a half-decent plot worked out for the story, and I could probably make it work with my current skill set. But I have so many more interesting things to work on.