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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:
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:
Dunno about you but I now have a very vivid image of Vic.
Here’s my description of Pablo:
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:
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.
Posted by Justine at 8:08, 26 April 2012 under Team Human, Words & Language, Writing life, Writing process | 13 Comments »
Re: point 18: my Tennessee friend says “blue jeans”. She says that where she’s from, all jeans are blue jeans, regardless of actual colour. So you can have black blue jeans.
(I’m almost tempted to pull out some of my high school writing now. I was fond of the same last-minute ‘shock’.)
April 26th, 2012 at 9:26 AM
2. Justine Says:
Danika: Perhaps I should have said who in Sydney since the 1950s would call them “blue jeans”.
I think you need a solid 20 year gap on your juvenilia to be able to face it without weeping.
April 26th, 2012 at 11:06 AM
“A story what I wrote in my late teens”
Are you using that ‘what’ there as a joke?
April 26th, 2012 at 5:22 PM
Thanks for sharing – this made me giggle.
April 26th, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Books Before Boys Says:
Lol. This would have been a good story for the “I Was a Teenage Author” event!
April 27th, 2012 at 2:45 AM
Mike G Says:
I felt the same way when I re-read a paper I wrote in high school. I don’t think any of the paragraphs had more than 3-4 sentences, and none of them ever developed an idea. I can’t believe I got high marks on it.
April 27th, 2012 at 6:13 AM
Oh this is brilliant, Justine! Thank you for this excellent set of footnotes, I have been reading them out loud to my husband who keeps asking what? what? when I start giggling again. I particularly like number 58
April 27th, 2012 at 7:03 AM
8. Justine Says:
Jangari: I am rarely serious.
Marrije: Yeah, footnote 58 pretty much sums up the whole story.
Elizabeth & Books Before Boy: So pleased you enjoyed it.
Mike G: It’s all relative, remember.
April 27th, 2012 at 7:56 AM
“Felicé said she wasn’t hungry even though she was and they decided to get a drink instead” – I don’t think this sentence quite deserves the opprobrium you heap on it in footnote 43. Assuming you remember it by the end, or anyway re-read the story, it is doing some kind of subtle double duty: “I am not hungry (I don’t want a hamburger), even though I AM HUNGRY (I want your blood!!)”.
April 27th, 2012 at 8:52 PM
10. Justine Says:
Narmitaj: But that would have been a spoiler!
Besides, the whole not-hungry-for-food-but-hungry-for-blood thing is a giant cliche of vampire stories. Thus it is still a crappy sentence.
April 28th, 2012 at 10:49 AM
Still awesome for a teenage story, though. Heck, you should read some of mine. At least you actually have some semblance of description in yours. Mine is ALL dialogue.
Thank you for this! Give me hope that I may very well get way better in the future.
April 28th, 2012 at 12:23 PM
12. Justine Says:
Ashlyn: You are too kind.
Yes, you will get loads better. Boring as it sounds you become a better writer by writing heaps. Someone, I can’t remember who, said you need to write a million words of crap before you write anything good. Sounds about right to me. And you’re already on the right track.
April 29th, 2012 at 10:06 AM
I should have known all along that Felice was the baddie and that Pablo was not much better because she was drinking coffee and he was drinking coke! How clever of you to designate them both as the baddies.
May 15th, 2012 at 8:24 AM
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