I had a terrifying realization today.
Let me tell you a quick story from my youth. When in the sixth grade, I was a pretty aimless kid. I never thought about my future, at least not any further than after that school day. My priorities at the time were simple: get through the day, go home, and do literally anything else. I didn’t know what I wanted to do nor did I particularly care.
One day, we were assigned to write a short story. Nothing especially impressive; remember, this was a school assignment for a bunch of eleven-year-olds. It didn’t matter what it was; all we had to do was write at least two pages. Being an idiot, I scoffed at the assignment. But my grades were poor and my parents were started to crack down on me for that, so I slapped something together within a day and turned it in.
I thought that was going to be the end of it. I’d put the assignment in and never write anything again. Honestly, I felt relieved. For some reason that escapes me now, I had always looked down on the art of writing. Which is incredibly strange, considering how much I loved reading.
Granted, I was eleven. And stupid. So I probably didn’t put together that writing and reading were two sides of the same coin.
A few days later, we got the assignment back with our grade. I had fully expected to get a failing grade; after all, I had hardly tried. Plus, my grades had never been especially high, especially at the time. So imagine my surprise when I saw a high, passing grade at the top of that paper with notes of praise beneath it. It wasn’t a perfect one-hundred. It probably wasn’t even the best in the class.
It may seem like nothing. But for me, it was everything.
The main thing that frustrated me in school was my own inability. I was never good at math, science, or history. I was always the last kid picked for sports (which carried on through high school) and my PE grades were abysmal. School was something that I had accepted I was bad at. So to get an assignment back with an actual passing grade? It blew my mind!
But more importantly, it sparked something in me. Like I said, I hadn’t even tried when I wrote the assignment. I just slapped it together and called it a day. So, upon seeing that score, I found myself haunted by a question: can I do better?
That one event was the spark that ignited my passion for writing. By the end of the next year, I had written my first novel. Then I wrote a few more as the years passed. Soon enough, my only goal in life was to become a published author and do this for a living! I started taking strives to help achieve that goal, from attending writing classes and boot camps (Teen Author Boot Camp was my favorite day of the year) to starting the very blog that you’re reading right now! That one simple grade completely changed my life.
Now, with that in mind, let me tell you what I realized.
That happened nearly ten years ago. I’ve been writing, in some form or another, for nearly a decade. Holy fuck guys, I’m old! I’ve got a beard and an apartment! What the fuck happened?!
From there, I fell into a deep space of thought. I reflected on the last ten years. Not my life in general; that would take too long and it would be very depressing. But on my growth as a writer.
Because holy shit, my old stuff is bad! Hilariously so! And you know what’s even funnier? I thought it was good at the time!
Let me tell you a tale of my first attempt at writing a book. Let me tell you about ‘The Sword of Zengora’.
The plot, if you could call it that, went something like this. Long ago, the prince of an ancient kingdom fell to darkness, becoming an evil tyrant of darkness. A hero, a noble paladin of light named Zengora, rose up to face him, sealing him away with a holy sword. Fast forward to modern times and the dark king has returned. Now it’s up to the ancient hero’s reincarnation to once again rise up and stop him. In order to do so, he needs to find three magical gems that control the power of the elements before his enemy.
Can you guess that reincarnation’s name? It was Zen. The creativity fountain was clearly pouring gallons when I came up with that!
Now, in eleven-year-old me’s defense: it’s hard to be original when you first start. Everyone’s first attempt at anything will, in one way or another, be a copy of someone else’s. It’s only after repeated efforts and growth that you can start to come up with more truly original ideas. So I’ll give younger me a pass on that.
I cannot, however, give him a pass on logic.
I’d say that the rules in this story didn’t make sense. However, that would imply that there were rules. Reading this, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t much care for those. I just threw whatever I thought would be cool onto a page and didn’t bother thinking about tying them together. As a result, the story feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of different fantasy tropes.
Let me bullet point all this shit. And I assure you: I never explained how any of it came to be. And just remember: this is all in a modern-fantasy setting.
- A limo that can travel the speed of light (I genuinely have no idea what I was thinking on that one)
- A tower that’s basically a shopping mall where all the magic stuff is hidden from the world (I’m not kidding; there were restaurants and everything; there was a scene where the main character gets a burger for some fucking reason)
- A floating palace filled with undead monsters ripped straight out of World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (not hyperbole, that was actually where I took it from)
- A gibberish language that shows up for only one scene than never shows up again
- A character with a big drill that traps people in pits
- A teleportation power that the main character uses once at the beginning then never again
- A dragon imprisoned under the tower that disappears for no reason
- The aforementioned gems of power (basically the crystals from Final Fantasy 1 but they shoot elemental lasers)
- Classes straight out of an RPG (knights, archers, mages, so on and so forth)
Focus? What’s that? I can put it in there, therefor I should! That’s how storytelling works, right?
Oh, but surely the characters are compelling! Like Zen, who… uh… has a crush on this one girl. And that one girl! Who… uh… is friendly? Yeah, the cast is about as flat as a sheet of toilet paper. None of them had any personality, motivations, or even backstories! They just kind of existed. Then at the finale, they all stopped existing and made way for the main character and the evil minion that betrayed the main bad guy and the main bad guy to have an underwhelming fight.
Now, to be fair, there is one character that kind of has a character. The main villain, Darthon (again, I was eleven), had an advisor sort of character in an undead minion; I think his name was Jacob if I recall. He, unlike the more mindless minions, remembered his human life and hated Darthon (my skin crawls every time I put that name down) for what he’d done. So he swore revenge upon him, working his way up to his side to more easily betray him.
Looking at that, that could have been a good character! If it were executed better. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to execute any kind of character, let alone a genuinely compelling one!
And then there was the pacing. Not only did events happen without any reason, without cause or effect. But they happened so damn fast! No wonder I had any time to flesh out anything! I was just moving from setpiece to setpiece as quickly as possible!
That was my ultimate downfall. When I first started, I thought a story was about the setpieces. I had completely failed to realize that it was a character that drove the story, not the other way around. In my mind, a story was all about flash and explosions, not substance.
Oh god, I was a young Michael Bay, wasn’t I?
Naturally, none of this book worked. But for some reason, I just couldn’t let it go! I had plans for four sequels, none of which I ever finished! I tried reworking it over and over for years! It took me far longer than I’d admit before I finally let it go and moved on to something else! Hell, I kept the original around (which was written in large font, double spaced, on notebook paper, in case you were curious) for years! It might still be around somewhere!
That, or I tossed it out during spring cleaning the other day. I’m pretty sure I didn’t, though. It might still be at my parent’s place. Part of me hopes it isn’t. The other half kind of hopes it is.
Looking back on this first attempt was an interesting experience. Painful, yes. I had to take a break to scream into a pillow every five minutes. But it was also a nice little boost in confidence! Comparing what I write now to all that makes it perfectly clear how far I’ve grown as a writer!
Granted, I still think I can get better. But I’m pretty sure that’s the artist’s curse. No matter how good you get, you’ll always think you can get better.
Still, curse or no, I intend to do all I can to get better. And I hope you guys will join me along the way! I also hope that you guys enjoyed this little trip down memory lane with me! Hopefully, you guys got a kick out of that.
Or you just see me like a raging narcissist. I won’t blame you if you do.