I have a recurring nightmare in which all of my writing from middle and high school, currently stored under digital lock and key, is released by a sadistic hacker or malevolent AI onto the internet. Thus ensues the destruction of my life as I know it and my subsequent self-exile into Siberia.
My new book Final Draft is about a writer called Laila who, under the tutelage of a brutal new teacher, upends the comforts of her timid existence in search of creative material. This is not autobiographical, except that—like me—Laila is obsessive, self-critical, and embarrassed all of the time. In the spirit of confronting these tendencies, I have decided to fulfill my own nightmare and release some of my middle school writing to you here today, annotated (with notes in bold) for your reading amusement. Laila would never do this, because she, unlike me, has dignity.
I would also like to disclose that I am experiencing physical symptoms of panic as I type this. My palms are unpleasantly moist, enough so that I have here in public used the word “moist,” and my leg is doing that jogging thing under my desk. I can’t believe I voluntarily suggested this.
Behold! A chapter of a story from eighth grade. The main characters are twelve siblings, each a year apart, each named for one of the zodiac signs. These siblings live in the woods together, in a giant tent. How did they get there? Unclear. How did they get their names? Unclear. How did they procure a giant tent that sleeps twelve people? I have absolutely no idea. The whole thing has the clarity of your average horoscope.
This excerpt occurs after the siblings have a fight. Scorpio, predictably, has stormed off from their campsite in the aftermath, pursued by Pisces and Capricorn. Don’t worry about distinguishing them, it frankly does not matter at all. The narrator is Sagittarius, who describes himself early in the story as “plain… but at least I’m not deformed.” I love characterization. Anyway, the siblings are all trying to find the missing Scorpio while a storm crashes through the woods. Yes, the story begins on a literal dark and stormy night, I’d like to die now please.
Without further ado:
All of the chapters in this story are approximately a page long and have a single vaguely dramatic word for their titles. I was reading Maximum Ride that year. It should also be noted that the chapter before this was numbered ‘Chapter 3.’ I don’t know what happened to chapters 4 and 5, may they rest in peace.
A lightning bolt struck nearby. Virgo and I leapt. We were shivering, wandering aimlessly to try and find the others.
Taurus had taken control and organized a plan: six of us (Aries not included) would stand at different, set points while two of us would try and find the others. That way, we could find our ways home by following each other.
This is an utterly foolproof plan and it would be completely impossible to get lost in a sprawling, unmapped woodland by executing it.
Virgo and I had been selected to search for Pisces, Capricorn, and Scorpio. Suddenly, we heard a scream, as another bolt sliced downwards.
“Pisces!” I yelled, and ran towards the noise. We burst out into a small clearing, and Virgo tackled me to the ground just as a white-hot stream of electricity struck where I had stood. I shot a grateful glance to Virgo and ran towards Pisces’ voice, which continued in a high tone.
Virgo pushed aside a branch, and I spotted two of the missing ones kneeling in the middle of a large clearing, hunched over the third.
The small clearing from the previous paragraph seems to have been lost in the shuffle. To which my solution was to add another, larger clearing. Did you know forests are comprised of predominantly clearings, of varying sizes?
Virgo rushed towards them, her soaked brown hair flapping. I followed.
When you have twelve main characters introduced on page one, you spend a lot of time trying to distinguish said characters by reiterating their hair color.
“Scorpio…” I whispered, my own shocked voice knocked to the ground and blown away by the rain and wind.
I think it would have been fun if the story just degenerated here into many paragraphs about the many travails of “my own shocked voice,” e.g. my own shocked voice was knocked to the ground and blown away by the rain and wind, then was lifted high into the sky, then sent on a quest into the clouds, then pursued relentlessly until its eventual escape at the age of 64
Scorpio lay spread-eagled in the mud, her hair all over her face, her eyes closed.
“What happened?” choked Virgo, clearing the tangled locks away from Scorpio’s eyes.
“Lightning,” sobbed Pisces. “Scorpio! Wake up!”
Scorpio twitched, and I sighed. She was alive.
“I don’t suppose splashing cold water on her would help,” I muttered, glancing at the rain. Virgo glared at me. Now, apparently, was not the time for wry humor.
This is how normal human beings behave when one of their siblings is struck by lightning.
Scorpio’s eyes opened. Their normal grey was crazed and cloudy for a minute. It seemed she had chased death away, however, because the mist cleared, revealing a strange yellow ring around the outsides of her irises.
She sat up and spat out rainwater. Capricorn sighed in relief.
“Stupid lightning,” Scorpio croaked.
This is also how normal human beings behave when they themselves are struck by lightning. In fact, this goes for all disasters or accidents. Stupid car wreck! Stupid tsunami!
I stood up, and the others followed suit.
“What’s with your eyes?” asked Virgo suddenly, grabbing Scorpio’s shoulder. The yellow rings were glimmering, it seemed, with their own alien lights.
“Your eyes,” said Capricorn. “They’ve got a ring of yellow.”
“Dunno,” said Scorpio. “I can’t exactly see them, can I? We’d better get back; c’mon.”
Until early college, I wrote immense amounts of Harry Potter fanfiction. This is evident in the fact that quite a lot of my early dialogue sounds like somebody badly trying to imitate Ron Weasley’s speech patterns. Also, who just accepts a glowing alien ring in their eyes? Scorpio, apparently.
We forced our way back to where Taurus stood, and slowly rejoined the others until we stood at the tent once more. The leaves underfoot squelched unappealingly, mud oozing from underneath their veins, and my ankles hurt from unnecessary stress.
The storm rumbled, moving east slowly.
Just as we entered the tent, we heard the rain subsiding to an irregular drip, and then to blissful silence, which filled with me with utter gladness. It was nighttime, however, so the sky remained like a pitch-black horse’s mane, flecked with the reflections of stars. The clouds, exhausted, were blown away within minutes, and the half moon, like a broken plate, glimmered in the sky.
To be fair to my eighth grade self: to this day, I never met a description of night sky I didn’t love to belabor endlessly.
I thought I saw a snowflake hovering above me as I peeked out of our tent, and it dimly struck me that it was November, and winter was near.
That is the entire chapter. The next chapter relives Scorpio being struck by lightning from her perspective, which is described in the following manner: “Heat – hot, raw, heat – exploded from her every pore.” Yes, the heat is described as hot. The heat was hot. Hot heat. I’d like to thank the Pulitzer Committee for their consideration.
Despite all this, I never encountered anyone who told me to stop writing, for which I am endlessly grateful and also in awe. Keep writing, kids! Like most things, it gets better.