I didn’t see Star Wars when it came out in 1977. I saw it the following summer at a drive-in theater. I got the novel for Christmas that year and, though I had always been a voracious reader, up until that point, I had only had the patience for short stories and comics. So Star Wars was my first novel.
This was fourth grade and, the previous year, my teacher had sent home a letter to my mom telling her that I had a real talent for writing. She (the teacher) even bought some little comic book ink stamp things with blank word bubbles to encourage me to write. I think I was mostly unaware of all that praise and subtle encouragement, but I was beginning to develop a serious interest in writing.
On a side note: That teacher now lives right down the street from me. Or, rather, I now live right down the street from her since she’s been here since Jesus was an infant.
Anyway, by my fifth grade year when my Star Wars mania was at its peak, my interest in writing was heightened by the announcement of the Young Authors’ Fair. I decided to write a wholly original space epic.
Fast forward for a moment to the present day. We are having tons of work done on our basement and things on the garage side are a mess. Because of this mess, one of the rubber tubs full of writing-related stuff has been opened and nearly dumped out. There in that box, is the space epic from fifth grade. It is typewritten (my mom did that) and bound (in the style of the Young Authors’ Fair) in contact paper (brown wood-grain contact paper) over cardboard. Throughout the story, there are parts that have been covered with White-Out and corrected by pen. The story is forty-one pages long (not including title page and illustrations) and features 16 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue. At the end, before the “About the Author” page, there eight pages of illustrations, rendered in what appears to be colored pencil. The title of this grand epic is SPACE ADVENTURES.
The story is set in the 55th century (the “universe date is four-forty-four and one point two” for those of you keeping track) and begins “…on a small planet known Lak,” where “a man of twenty-two years, who was six feet and two inches tall, and had a muscular build and black hair that was parted, walked into a rocket port” to purchase a ticket to Zale.
By the top of the second page, this man , Mark Smith, has foiled an attempted robbery and received a reward of one “Zanoi”, which, we are told, is a lot of money. So Mark sets off for Zale on a “cargo and passenger cruiser” called the Flant, piloted by Captain James Rogers and his green, reptilian, cyclops co-pilot Tway. Along the way, the ship is attacked and captured by Space Pirates. Captain Rogers hides his crew and the 25 passengers, only to ambush the boarding party. In another wholly original twist, they dress in the uniforms of the pirates so they can move about undetected on the pirates’ ship. Many firefights and much carnage ensue.
Eventually, the heroes encounter the main villain, Captain Comet. He is captain of the pirate ship, Pirship. (Am I good with names or what?) Captain Comet “…was a husky man wearing solid black clothes. His left hand had been replaced with a special metal hand. His right eye had been replaced with a large gray one. His nose and mouth were only metal breath screens. He wore a large black glove his right hand and he wore a large utility belt. He had rockets on his back, also.”
I didn’t read the whole thing again. (I mean, it’s forty-one pages for Christ’s sake! And that’s not even counting the illustrations!) But, skimming through it, it seems that: Captain Rogers is killed and some other character pretty much seamlessly takes his place. There are more firefights, more bad prose, and a McGuyver-like bit where Mark turns a light into an electro magnet to disable the “electro alarm” in a crawlway. There’s another main villain—this one named Super Skull, but he doesn’t really do much. In the end, Mark goes through a black hole and ends up in the galaxy of Micron where he becomes a member of the Space Force and marries “a beautiful red-haired girl” named Cindy Matthews. Mark, of course, went on to have many more adventures.
Re-reading this (or skimming through it), I can’t help but laugh.
My attention to detail was absurdly developed, particularly when it came to describing the spaceships and the clothing of the villains. Remember the nearly homoerotic description of protagonist Mark Smith mentioned above?
Then there’s my prose. Things like: “quick as a laser flash could shoot” and “I saw a room with a good, good lock on the door,” are just brilliantly bad. But my favorite bit of all is this bit from Captain Rogers, following the death of his co-pilot and best friend, Tway:
“I hate the idea that my best friend, Tway, is dead,” sobbed James. “Oh, well. I’ll get over it. I hope!” he added sadly.
That raw emotion in that scene makes me tear up a bit even now.
Just before the Young Authors’ Fair, everyone in my class had to read their stories aloud. No one else had a story longer than four or five pages. What’s more, no one wanted to listen to a story longer than two or three pages. People were bored with Space Adventures almost immediately—though I can’t imagine why—so I started skipping through it and editing on the fly. Even with the instant edits, no one was particularly impressed with my story and it didn’t open the doors to an exciting writing career in place of junior high; however, reading it aloud before the class left me with one solid memory.
As I mentioned earlier, my mom typed the thing from my handwritten manuscript and, along the way, she made some (okay, many) mistakes. Most of them were corrected but, as will happen, she missed a few. Most of these mistakes were really minor and didn’t throw me off too much in my verbal presentation. Then I got to the line where the hero disarms one of the bad guys. In my typed version, the line read:
“With a swift motion, Mark grabbed the bun belonging to the guard who was about to handcuff him.”
Fortunately, I didn’t actually read the line as typed. I caught the mistake, but I started laughing and never fully recovered. It was fifth grade and buns were fucking funny. But they were also dirty so I couldn’t tell anyone what was wrong. I didn’t want to have to explain to the principal why I was talking about buns in class. But I couldn’t stop laughing. If anyone had been paying attention (This bit of interstellar grab-ass happened on page 33 and I think even the teacher had nodded off by that point.), they must have thought I was a fucking lunatic.
But my point (and, as Ellen Degeneres says, “I do have one”) is that I think this experience put me off writing longform stuff for quite a while. The next couple of years, I submitted only short story collections to the Young Authors’ Fair and, for a while, that’s all I would write. Eventually, after reading some damn good novels in high school, I came round to writing longer pieces again. By the time my interest in epics was rekindled, I had developed an intense love for short stories and the art of streamlined storytelling. That, I believe, is why my novels tend to be on the short side and my short stories are barely stories at all. I’m a short story writer trapped in the body of a novelist.
I sometimes think that, perhaps, if that fifth grade class had gazed me in rapt awe as I rambled on and on about space pirates and laser battles, I would be writing deeply complex novels of distant worlds and alien cultures instead of twisted novellas about a one-handed ex-con living in a trailer park. But there’s more to it than that. I love the construction of fictional universes and I can go into great detail about the minutiae of Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Marvel Universe. Furthermore, my own writing (most of which takes place in the same small, southern town) is full of intricate details that flow from story to story. In my head (and, to some extent, on paper) Winnepesaukah County is just as richly constructed as the Star Wars universe.
I think the reason I’m so attracted to the redneck denizens of my own little world is that the characters there could very easily be real. The people I write about are people you might actually meet at work, at the store or in the park. And, for me, that makes them all the more strange and frightening. I just need to learn to write fewer scenes involving bun grabbing.