The first and last word

I was milling about in my harddrive the other day after backing up all of my files for a wipe of my drive and I found the journal I’ve been keeping for Lunchbox Hero. The bulk of the entries are from writing the first draft in 2001 but it has info and thoughts from all of the subsequent drafts. I still have to add an entry about finishing the new ending for the last draft but it’s quite the time capsule of my writing life at the time. This, paired with a New York Times essay I found somewhere else about how Michael Chabon started writing his first novel in 1985 on a trunk in a crawl space, got me thinking about starting that first novel. What brings it on and what you remember about the day.

For me it was June 1, 2001 in my room at the Hotel St. George in New York City. I planned on finishing the book in a month and entering it in the St. Martin’s Press/PWA contest. I was reading slush manuscripts for Random House and the sheer crap level I’d been exposed to made me believe I was capable of writing something better with very little effort or time required. I started while typing away on my laptop on my bed. I’m convinced if I wouldn’t have had that laptop (which I bought with student grant funds earlier that year) I never would have started or finished that novel. The next day I scraped what I had written that night and started over again and from then on the book stuck. I wrote mostly at home but once in a while at work or a coffee shop.

I finished the book exactly four months later in the writing center at the University of Michigan-Flint where I was working as a tutor. I was on the computer closest to the door and even though I knew what was coming I couldn’t stick with it long enough to finish it so I resorted to all sorts of tricks to just fill pages to get to the magical 300 page mark where I thought it should end. In the last fifty pages the book switches tenses, narrators, POV and time several times. Some of the chapters are just a paragraph and the ending doesn’t make any sense. But it ends with an I Love Lucy reference and a wise crack. Fade out. I immediately printed the whole thing out at the school’s expense and ran around campus showing to everyone I ran into. It was probably the single most amazing feeling I’d experienced to that point in my life.

So howza bout the rest of youze? What’s your first and last word stories?

8 thoughts on “The first and last word

  1. I don’t remember a damn thing about starting WE. I mean, I know I was living in a bedsit (US translation (ish): one-room studio with bathrooms shared by the entire building), and I know I listened to Origin of Symmetry by Muse an awful lot while working on it (I’d just got it and I tend to play new CDs to death), but I don’t remember starting.I knew I had to get it done quickly – I was worried about losing my agent for reasons too lengthy to go into – and it took me a month and a half to get it done at around 65,000 words. The final 35,000 of those took me 9 days, writing non-stop when I wasn’t at work (and work was pretty quiet, so my hours were low).I finally emerged, blinking into the light, after wrapping it all up and deciding to go into town to buy something to celebrate.I forget what, but I ran into a mate and his girlfriend and they had a laugh at my zombie-like state.

  2. Two stories of starts.December 1992. I was flying west to visit my college roommate and the plane was stuck on the tarmac for five hours because of snow. I began writing the first draft of my first Tess Monaghan novel in a black-and-white Roaring Springs composition book. I still have it: “My name is Theresa Esther Monahan [sic]. In childhood, I was Tesser or Tester, sometimes Testy. Now I am just Tess. I wonder sometimes if my name will get shorter still and I will be one of those women who age by throwing off weight, retreating into their bones.”I wrote sixty pages that day, pages that have very little in common with the finished book. Then I put it down and didn’t begin to work again in earnest until Labor Day weekend ’93. I finished the first draft on my birthday, Jan. 31st. Even that version bears little resemblance to the finished work. But when I made it to the end of the first first draft, I knew I could make it through another, and another.I used to buy myself earrings when I finished a book. Last time around, I settled for vodka.

  3. I had been laid off from my ad agency job and fell into a deep funk of despair. My wife endured it for three days and then said, “Look, you always said if you had the time, you’d write a book. So here’s your chance.”That day I started what became Beneath A Panamanian Moon although, like Laura, the published version is very different than that first version.The first sentence?”I joined the Army to beat the draft.”Nine months later, around Christmas, I remember lying in bed with my wife and saying in absolute stunned wonder, “I wrote a book. I actually wrote a book.”

  4. I remember the first real story I ever wrote. It was just last month, and I started it at least 5 different times and scrapped every single attempt, until I settled on what I am writing now. People told me when I started out just to write, and not worry if it sucked, but to finish it. i pretty much didn’t do that at all. and I really can’t tell you how good it feels to finish it, because it’s still not done. But I feel certain that it will be brilliant. Or at least better than the opening chapter…(you know the rest)

  5. Bryon, good topic!I first got the idea for my novel in 1988, while sitting by the pool in my apartment complex in Sacramento, fretting about missing a friend’s wedding because the previous night another friend left me in Tahoe. The city, not the lake.I didn’t actually start writing it until 1993, when I met another writer, Dan. He and I are still friends today.I started writing seriously in 1995, when I got married and had a baby on the way. I traded line dancing, bar hopping and bimbo hunting for writing. Not a bad deal. I signed up for the Writer’s Digest Novel Workshop.Ten years later, I am still working on the same novel, though it’s had many reincarnations of that original idea.I still haven’t finished it…

  6. Damn, this might give away how old I really am.I started writing my first novel after sitting my finals at University. It was supposed to be a piss-take of the second coming of Christ, a humourous riposte to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Good Omens’. I got about a chapter done, then exam results came out and everything descended into a haze of drink and parties. Next thing I knew I was up to my ears in the postgraduate course from hell (which I never completed) and the whole thing got shelved. I came back to it many years later and you can find it on my website under the name ‘Jacob’ if you follow enough links.The first book I really started and finished was a travelogue. It started life as a green-covered spiral bound notebook I took with me when my brother and I went biking around the north of Scotland with two friends. The trip lasted seventeen days and the book was a chapter for each day, taken from the notes in my notebook. It took about three weeks to write the first draft and nothing has ever come close to the feeling of achievement I felt at having finished it.Of course, since then life’s been one endless round of rejection letters and disappointment, but I’ve written six novels and one travel book. However crap they may be, no-one can take that away from me.

  7. The first time I tried to write a novel, I’d bought a brand spanking new typewriter (This was 1987, and us po’ folks could afford them fancy compewters) and began wailing away at the Great Cleveland Based PI Story. I’d get fifty pages into a draft of something called AUGUST SNOW about a suburban city council president killing his girlfriend. (At the time, a former county commissioner was under grand jury investigation for same.) Each draft would die after 50 pages no matter what I tried. I said f*** it and quit when Les Roberts’ PEPPER PIKE came out. (Similar plot, btw.)Fast forward to 1999. I’d been trying to figure out what I wanted to write professionally. One Saturday afternoon, I was watching SNL with Eddie Murphy. He came on doing his “Kill my landlord” bit. Outside, our neighbor, who contracted for deck work, was working on an upper story balcony across the courtyard from our apartment. *Click* That night and over the next few days, I banged away on a 14-page outline about a landlord who fell off his ladder after having a heart attack. I attempted a couple of starts, didn’t like what I read, and decided to play with the protag some in short stories, beginning in 2000. In 2002, I started the novel, which I tentatively called NORTHCOAST SHAKEDOWN (I never did find a permanent title, so that’s it.) The final product looked nothing like the original outline.When I finished it, I called my mother, “danced” with my wife, and barged into work the next day shouting, “Hey everybody! I finished killng my landlord last night!”May ressurrect AUGUST SNOW yet.

  8. I don’t remember starting my first novel, but I do remember working on it during my first full-time graphic design gig. It was a really boring job, mostly because I don’t do busywork well. Give me an impossible task and I’ll do it; give me a bunch of little junk that’s obviously just there to keep me busy and I’ll find something more interesting to do. Like see if I can write a novel.I also don’t remember finishing my last novel, but I know it was in Paris and there was a lot of coffee and wine involved.Between starts and finishes, once it starts getting up past the 200-page range, I like dropping the manuscript on a wooden floor and hearing it thud.

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