Below is a story that I wrote in my late teens. I remember the day I finished it. I was so full of joy and pride in my genius. It was the best story I had ever written. (True fact. I was rubbish back then.) Maybe even the best story anyone had ever written!
Or, so, I thought on the day I finished it. I don’t remember whether I sent it anywhere to be published. I do remember that at some point, not that long after finishing it, I decided it was, in fact, the worst story ever written and consigned it to the “this is crap” file.
It is pretty awful. But more in a bad-boring than bad-entertaining way. Nevertheless, I thought it might be educational for aspiring writers to see what this particular published author’s juvenilia looks like. I’m sure there are other authors out there who wrote unbelievably great stories when they were teens. I, alas, am not one of them. Wasn’t till I was in my 30s that I wrote anything halfway decent. Some of us are slow learners. Very slow.
The good news is that it’s relatively short—just shy of 2,000 words—the bad news is that it seems a LOT longer than it is. Sorry.
I have added footnotes throughout to explain to you just what is so terrible about the writing. Not that it is even slightly difficult to figure out for yourself. I have resisted making any corrections because, really, the only remedy for this story is to take it out the back and shoot it. I’ve also placed it behind the cut so that you don’t have to sully your eyes with it unless you really, really want to.
Girl Meets Boy
Felicé watched him.1 He was standing outside the café looking listless, a coke in one hand.2 He looked around him, at his watch, at the cars and buses and at his watch again.3 He started to pace back and forth, sometimes combing at his short hair with his hand. Yet he didn’t have an air of waiting for any one in particular.4 It was more like a ritual. He seemed too consciously alone; Felicé was sure he was waiting generally, for something to happen, for someone like her to talk to him. She closed the book she’d been reading and stared at him. He was very handsome. Perhaps he was waiting for someone.5
She saw a blonde woman moving towards him. Felicé sighed, put her book in her bag, and got up to pay for her coffee.6 At the same time the blonde woman passed him and walked into the café.7 Felicé took her change and walked up to the young man.8
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.9
“Am I waiting for someone?” He looked a little embarrassed and smiled foolishly. “Ah no. No, I’m not. I don’t know anyone. I was just killing time, y’know. Just watching. I hope I don’t look too desperate.”10
“You don’t look desperate, just a little lonely. Do you want to walk with me?” She asked beginning to walk herself.11
“Yeah, well thanks.” He smiled more easily and kept pace with her. She asked him where he was from.12
“Originally Spain. Barcelona.”13
“You’re joking. But you don’t have any accent. I mean not a Spanish one, you sound more like a Yankee.”
She turned her head slightly to look up at him more closely. He was quite dark and Latin looking, with a strong profile:14 a perfect nose,15 firm lips16 and a strong neck lightly corded with muscle.17 He looked so well in his blue jeans and said yeah so fluidly that she’d been sure he was from the States.18
“Well, I studied there for a few years, it’s where my mother’s from, so I grew up speaking English as well as Spanish. I guess that’s the accent.” He paused to smile and show off his white teeth.19 “I’ve only been in Sydney a day and haven’t met anyone.”20
They kept walking until his attention was caught by the large window display of a gunshop, and stopped to peer at it appreciatively. They stood next to each other21 in front of them was a row of sharpened glistening knives, surrounded by a multitude of different guns. They were bright and shiny, Felicé could see their faces reflected and distorted in the blades. Felicé shuddered.22
“You don’t like guns?” He queried and when she didn’t answer he continued. “I used to go hunting with my father a lot and you soon learn to appreciate a good gun.” He was watching her reflection in the glass as if to gauge her response, but she just looked back at him. “They’re quite amazing pieces of machinery. So intricate, yet simple. You hunt at all?”23
She smiled. “No. I don’t hunt,” she said slowly. They started walking again past an Asian clothing shop, and a Chinese vegetarian restaurant, and then past a sad dirty-looking sex shop.24
There were lots of people around.25 Mostly couples and groups of marauding teenagers trying to be louder and more impressive than other groups. The night was remarkably cool for November26 and everyone seemed to be making louder movements in an effort to keep warm.27 Felicé felt good walking next to such a tall,28 good-looking man and he was glad when he looked down at her and caught sight of her pretty face.29 She caught with satisfaction the looks directed at them which were a mixture of jealousy and appreciation.30 One of the looks stayed longer and she was recognised.31
“Hello Felicé. How’s everything going?” Helen seemed pleased to see her. “What have you been doing with yourself?”32 Helen’s eyes flicked discreetly at the tall, broad-shouldered33 man with Felicé. She thought he was gorgeous. Strong, dark, well-muscled, beautiful eyes and nose and throat and shoulders.34 Lucky Felicé.35
Felicé exchanged further greetings with Helen and asked her where she was going.36 She was surprised to see her alone, though it was still early. To her relief Pablo introduced himself and saved her the embarrassment of having to ask his name.37 They were blocking the footpath so Helen muttered something about having to meet someone at Central and left them, exchanging a last smiling look with Felicé.38
Pablo and Felicé continued their amble past a church with a notice proclaiming that `the man who loves God also loves him whom God loves.’ Next to this was a large National Action poster covered with racist slogans.39 Further up past a bank, a chemist, and a closing down clothes shop they were hit by the blare of a record shop. Felicé was surprised to see that it was still open, she looked at her watch, it was ten thirty.40
“So, you don’t know anyone here. Must be lonely for you.”
“Yeah, not a soul – ‘cept you. But it’s not too bad. I mean it can be nice in a strange place, no ties, no-one knowing where I am. Quite liberating really.”41
She was pleased by his answer and smiled to herself.42
Pablo returned her smile and asked if she wanted to get something to eat. Felicé said she wasn’t hungry even though she was and they decided to get a drink instead.43
The first bar they tried was one of several in a large international hotel.44 It was crowded and noisy.45 The smoke level began at the knees. It was full of couples leaning too close together and screaming into one another’s ears in an effort to be heard.46
Felicé and Pablo leaned up against the wall and tried to talk to each other but it was impossible. After a while47 they tired of making the effort48 so they finished their drinks and went upstairs to an equally crowded but less noisy bar. It was lime green, with a ship’s wheel and bell hanging from the ceiling, and pictures of yachts and bits of netting on the walls.49 Eventually some people left and they were able to grab a table. They sat opposite each other and for the first time in an hour they were able to talk.
“Did you know that your name is Spanish?” asked Pablo.50
“Is it? Mum always said it was French. I think she got it out of a magazine or some pulpy novel – so it could be Chinese for all I know. But I’m glad if it’s Spanish – it makes a link between us or something.” 51
She finished her drink. They’d both got through a fair amount of alcohol52 and were finding it easier to talk.53 Pablo was pleased at Felicé’s mellowing and ordered more drinks.54 They came quickly55 and he tipped the waitress.56
“Mmmmmmm. Thanks Pablo. I like these – they’re Spanish or South American anyway, aren’t they? Strong.” She sighed happily. “Don’t you love cities?57 So full and happening.”58 She gestured with her arm to encompass the whole bar. “All these people. You could get lost and no-one would know and yet you’d still be able to find people to talk to. Isn’t that strange?”
Pablo didn’t quite follow her but grinned anyway and encouraged her to go on by agreeing.59
“I think it’s strange. Pablo. Pablo. I really like your name especially how you say it. So much nicer than Paul. Should we have another drink? Call the waitress. Do you ever want babies?”60
“Babies?” As Pablo said it the waitress came to their table and looked at him quizzically. He ordered two more drinks although he hadn’t finished the one he already had, and his head had begun to spin a little. Just a little, but he didn’t want to get drunk so when the waitress returned with their drinks he asked for a glass of water.61 Felicé didn’t notice she was busy outlining her babies.62
“I want babies, three of them. And do you know what I’d call them? Go on – guess!” She continued not giving him time to. “I’d call them Sin, Corpulence and Greed!” She smiled triumphantly.63
Pablo laughed. “Sin, Corpulence and Greed. That’s beautiful. I think they’ll be very happy children – their future already mapped out for them.”
“Yes. Yes. Sin will be the happiest, then Greed. Corpulence will have the hardest time of it being fat and wheezing, but will eventually adjust.”64
“Are they boys or girls?” He asked.
“Girls. Girls, of course. Like the fates, and the furies!” Felicé was entirely animated now and strongly aware of his presence. She wanted to run her forefinger along his cheek, and her mouth against his skin. She could see he’d like it too.65
“And would they look like you – except Corpulence of course. As beautiful as you?” He smiled and looked straight into her eyes which had no trace of red despite the amount she’d drunk. Her skin was pale and unflushed.
“Of course. Sin would have your Roman nose66 and my eyes. And Greed your curly black hair. Corpulence’s face is so stretched and padded it’s hard to say who she resembles.”
“Ah. So these are our children?” Pablo figured further alcohol wouldn’t be necessary and started to work out how long it would take to get to his hotel. It was only a few blocks away.67
“If you like, Pablo.” She paused and reached across the table for his hand. She turned it palm up and stared at it. Her smile revealed her teeth, they glistened in the light and her eyes gleamed. Pablo liked the touch of her hand on his.
“What do you see there?” he asked.
“Ah! It’s terribly sad. I see a short life. Well, maybe not so sad. I think it’s a short happy life.” She replied gravely.
“Oh but that is sad.” He grinned, he could tell she wasn’t serious.
“Don’t worry, I’ve changed my mind – you’ll be rich and live long!”
He didn’t withdraw his hand, instead he began to stroke hers with his thumb. He lowered his voice, “Shall we go?”
“Yes we’ll go.”
They left the bar each intensely aware of the other. They crossed into a small lane to get to Pablo’s hotel more quickly. Felicé stumbled and Pablo caught her, both arms around her. They could hear each other breathing. Pablo could hear his heart beat quicken, he was eager for her.68
Felicé ran her tongue along his lips, and caught his bottom lip gently between hers. Pablo responded by kissing her more deeply. They could feel their bodies pressed up against each other.69 He ran his fingers along her neck and shoulders, and down along her back. She returned his kiss and pressed herself closer to him.
She kissed his eyes, his cheeks, his lips, his chin and was lowering her mouth70 when Pablo murmured that they should go, that he wanted her, but not here in a grimy alleyway in his hotel room which was warm and clean.
It was too late: Felicé bit firmly into the artery in his throat, the blood spurted into her mouth and she sucked at it greedily. She held him so firmly that his struggling was ineffectual. When his blood stopped flowing and all the life had seeped out of him, Felicé let him fall. She straightened her skirt, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and walked away.
So, wow, that was even worse than I remembered. Almost two thousand words to set up that not particularly original reversal. It’s the girl who’s the predator, not the bloke! Stop the presses!
I would like to point out that I wrote this before Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, I am old. And, yes, this is my first attempt at a vampire story. I think you’ll find that my more recent effort, Team Human,71 with co-writer Sarah Rees Brennan, is much, much, much, better. Truly.
This failed story does demonstrate how tricky it is to slowly build up tension. I had the slow part down pat. Sadly, I did not manage to inject any tension at all. If you want to read someone who’s a genius at the slow build read almost any Patricia Highsmith book. In the meantime, this story of mine is a textbook example of what not to do.
Let’s compare it with the opening of Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water:
Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.
He was aware that Melinda twirled into his line of vision and out again, but barely aware, he thought, and it was only his familiarity with every physical detail of her that had made him realise that it was she at all. Calmly he raised his glass of Scotch and water and sipped it.
Two paragraphs in and we know that there’s a guy called Vic who’s drinking a Scotch and water and not really watching his wife dance. So they’re probably at a party or a night club. We also know that Vic’s marriage seems to be in a wee spot of bother, that, in fact, he probably hates his wife and, this being a Patricia Highsmith novel, may well decide to kill her.72 Just from those two paragraphs we know something is wrong. So we begin to feel a little tense and want to keep reading to find out what is wrong and what awful thing has already happened or is going to happen.
What do we know after two paragraphs of my story? That a girl is sitting in a cafe watching a boy who may or many not be waiting for someone. The shapelessness and non-specificity of the writing doesn’t tell us much at all and certainly doesn’t invite us to keep reading.
Highsmith’s opening paragraphs are unsettling; mine are boring.
Here’s Highsmith’s description of her protagonist:
Victor Van Allen was thirty-six years old, of a little less than medium height, inclined to a general firm rotundity rather than fat, and he had thick, crisp brown eyebrows that stood over innocent blue eyes. His brown hair was straight, closely cut, and like his eyebrows, thick and tenacious. His mouth was middle-sized, firm, and usually drawn down at the right corner with a lop-sided determination or with humour, depending on how one cared to take it. It was his mouth that made his face ambiguous—for one could read a bitterness in it, too—because his blue eyes, wide, intelligent, and unsuprisable, gave no clue as to what he was thinking or feeling.
Dunno about you but I now have a very vivid image of Vic.
Here’s my description of Pablo:
He was quite dark and Latin looking, with a strong profile: a perfect nose, firm lips and a strong neck lightly corded with muscle.
Can you see the difference? Yes, the Highsmith example is longer but even if I just compared it to Highsmith’s first sentence you’d still know a great deal more about Vic than you do about Pablo:
Victor Van Allen was thirty-six years old, of a little less than medium height, inclined to a general firm rotundity rather than fat, and he had thick, crisp brown eyebrows that stood over innocent blue eyes.
The sentence is packed with specific, not generic description. There are no empty modifications like “quite,” “strong,” “perfect.” And no risible imagery like that neck “lightly corded with muscle.”
I shall not fight further with Dread Voice Recognition Software to continue my cursory textual analysis. I think we’ve all suffered enough and we can all see how teenage me was not a patch on Patricia Highsmith. Okay, that’s not a fair comparison. Grown-up, published me is not a patch on Highsmith either.
I do hope the agony of embarrassment I put myself through was useful to someone somewhere. If not please don’t tell me.
- I have no idea where I got that name from. Not that I’ve ever given more than ten seconds thought to a character’s name. [↩]
- Coke the drink of choice of the listless. Also you can tell he’s a baddie because I have always hated soft drinks and I would never have a good character drink that stuff. Or maybe I was stretching as a writer and imagining a good person drinking something gross. [↩]
- Such detailed observations. You can totally tell what kinds of buses and cars! Thus revealing where this story is set. Why you can even imagine the minute hand’s precise width. Or, wait, no, you can’t. Generic details are generic. So much for telling details. Sigh. [↩]
- Though I imagine the reader is waiting for this story to actually, you know, start. [↩]
- Hmmm. Logic fail much? First he’s not waiting for anyone in particular. Now he’s perhaps waiting for someone. And it’s the same paragraph. I did not learn to read over paragraphs (or even sentences) and make sure they made some semblance of sense until much later. I was innocent of the great truism: “there is no writing; only rewriting.” [↩]
- I’ve also always hated coffee. So Felicé must also be a baddie. Or, you know, the stretching thing. [↩]
- Once again with the complete absence of telling details. [↩]
- Something actually happened! Woot! [↩]
- Way to keep going with the whole waiting theme, young Justine. [↩]
- I love how naturalistic this dialogue is. It almost sounds like real people. Real people who learned to speak watching bad television from the 1960s, that is. [↩]
- Walk herself? Seriously? Does she have a leash in hand to pull herself along the street? Also she’s way confident, isn’t she? Walking up to a good looking, strange man and starting a conversation. I have never been able to do that. Go, Felicé! [↩]
- Wow. This could not get more interesting, could it? [↩]
- I was obsessed with Spain. And, yet, you would have no idea of that from this story because that’s about as detailed as I get about Spain. Spain, you know, that place with cities in it. Some of them have names. Such as Barcelona. [↩]
- What is a strong profile? One that looks like it could lift a car? [↩]
- Which is what exactly? Aquiline? Button? What’s a freaking perfect nose, teenage Justine? [↩]
- How does she know if they’re firm without having, you know, touched them? [↩]
- Oh Elvis. “Lightly corded with muscle”? I can’t even. [↩]
- Hmm, apparently Felicé or, um, teenage me, had a thing about US men. Well, that’s embarrassing. Sorry, Mr US Husband, it wasn’t you I fell for just your nationality. Bummer that you hate blue jeans. Also who says “blue jeans”? I mean has anyone said that since the 1950s? [↩]
- As you do. [↩]
- Thank you for that wee little info dump. [↩]
- Punctuation is for the weak. This footnote applies to the entire story. I gotta admit punctuation remains a weak area for me and a cause of constant confusion between me and my Australian and US editors. [↩]
- I am shuddering also. What have we learned about these knives and guns? They were bright and shiny. Such evocative writing. *shudder* [↩]
- Reading this is starting to cause me permanent damage. Seriously, there is not a single sentence of goodness in the entire thing. And it’s not even funny bad. It’s BORING. I am SO ashamed. And resorting to CAPS. Teenage me would approve. [↩]
- Do I even have to point out how generic those descriptions are? You’d never know I was describing an actual street in the real world. [↩]
- Shoot me. Seriously, how on Earth did I think I could write? “There were lots of people around”? I just managed to be even less evocative than I had been up to this point. Quite a feat, really. Aaarrrgh. [↩]
- First hint as to location. We now know we’re in the Southern hemisphere. Though “remarkably cool”? Clearly Felicé is 90 years old. And a sudden weather report dropped into a story rarely adds anything. Though if I was looking to ratchet up the tedium, well played, teenage me, well played. [↩]
- I don’t even know what that means. [↩]
- He’s tall now? That’s new. And wholly unexpected. How rare for the handsome guy in the story to be tall. Cliches are us. [↩]
- Okay, we’ve been in tight third up to now. Now we’re in omniscient? Or did I decide to switch to tall, perfect-nose dude’s pov in the middle of the paragraph? [↩]
- Oh, of course they are. Why would teenage me write about anyone who wasn’t going to elicit desire from everyone in the entire universe? [↩]
- Notice that we’re also back in Felicé’s head. So, um, apparently the one-clause stay in corded-neck bloke’s head was accidental. I’m shocked. [↩]
- The conversation remains riveting. I mean, Dorothy Parker has nothing on these kids. [↩]
- And now with broad-shouldered. [↩]
- But clearly his ears are hideous. Otherwise they’d be listed, right? [↩]
- Oh. Wait. Those are Helen’s thoughts. So this is, in fact, omniscient. Good to know. [↩]
- “Further greetings”? I wonder if you can purchase them along with Diana Wynne Jones “thick, savoury stew” from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. [↩]
- Corded-throat guy has a name! [↩]
- Bad stage directions are bad. [↩]
- The truly terrible thing is that I was describing walking along George St in Sydney from where it starts on Broadway up to the Hilton Hotel. Everything I mention was on George Street back then, including this National Action poster. But not in a million years could you have guessed that. [↩]
- I am surprised that NOTHING HAS HAPPENED YET. No, not really. [↩]
- I don’t really need to explain why this dialogue is so dull, do I? [↩]
- As you do. [↩]
- So, you know, when your writing teacher/book on creative writing/writer friend says that every sentence in a story should be necessary to the story? And should preferably be performing (at a minimum) double duty? Not just moving the story along but giving you telling details about the characters involved. So that you know who they are and why you should care about them. What I have written here? That is what they very much want you to avoid. These sentences aren’t doing ANYTHING. [↩]
- Okay, yes, that is a very generic sentence but wait till you get to the next one. Ironically the bar in question is one of Sydney’s most distinctive, The Marble Bar. Click that link and marvel! Surely I could’ve used the word “gaudy” to describe it. In my defence, I think I believed back then that if I named any of these locations I would be sued. Though how “George Street” could have sued me I do not know. Also how I imagined this story was ever getting published is another mystery. [↩]
- “It was crowded and noisy” has got to be up there with “There were lots of people around.” Never, ever write either of these sentences if you intend to convey anything aside from Ye Moderne City of Generica. Would you have any idea where this story was set? It could be anywhere because it reads like nowhere. These two ciphers might as well be walking around an empty sound stage. [↩]
- Well, thank you, teenage me, for clarifying why they were screaming in each other’s ears. [↩]
- This story is littered with unnecessary information. “After a while” is pretty much never necessary information. [↩]
- As any reader would have long since tired of making the effort of reading this boring pile of poo. [↩]
- So this is not a good description but at least if you’d been to that bar you’d recognise it. Sadly, I can no longer remember its name. I believe it was killed during the Hilton Hotel’s most recent renovation. Just as well. Wow, was it ugly. [↩]
- Actually, I kind of think it’s an Italian boys’ name. But, whatever, characters can make mistakes. So do authors. [↩]
- These two must really fancy each other. They surely aren’t sticking around for the scintillating conversation. [↩]
- What’s a fair amount of alcohol? [↩]
- I know this entire story is one long example of telling and not showing but this is one of the more egregious examples. [↩]
- Back in Pablo’s head. For no particular reason. [↩]
- Erm, I don’t think I meant that particular clause to mean what it appears to mean. Oops. [↩]
- Believe it or not, that is a telling detail. Australians don’t usually tip someone for bringing their drinks. I was a beginning writer on a one-telling-moment-per-story budget. [↩]
- Who says that? Who in the history of the universe has ever said anything that random and yet that generic? [↩]
- Vomit. [↩]
- Still in Pablo’s head. [↩]
- The first piece of dialogue that is even a tiny bit fresh. And still not very. [↩]
- Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Yes, too much with the telling. [↩]
- As you do. [↩]
- At last! Something a reader would not have expected. Way too little and way too late but better than nothing. [↩]
- Yay for teenage fat phobia. Ugh. [↩]
- Because there’s no other possible reason either one of them stuck around. [↩]
- So, now we know, teenage me thought Roman noses were perfect noses. [↩]
- Pablo’s head has become an unpleasant place. Sleazebag. [↩]
- “He was eager for her” Oh, bless. And I can’t even claim that I was reading a lot of trashy romances back then because I didn’t start reading romances until much later and I only ever read the good stuff. [↩]
- One would hope so. It would be weird if they could feel, say, Trent Reznor’s or Grace Jones’ bodies pressed up against them, given that it’s just Felicé and Pablo in that there laneway. [↩]
- “Lowering her mouth” to where? Is it bad that I think it’s hilarious that this is the 69th footnote? [And now I think it’s even funnier that it wound up not being the 69th footnote. What? Some of us are easily amused.] [↩]
- In all good book selling places in Australia, New Zealand & North America in July! You know you want it! [↩]
- Not a spoiler! I’m just sayin’ that if you’re a Highsmith reader that’s what you’d assume from these first two paragraphs. [↩]