I think every writer who has put a pen on paper has thought, “Someday I will write a bestselling novel.” My moment came in the fourth grade and I was convinced it would be epic. Since I was obsessed with them, my novel was going to be about sharks and the terrible things they do to innocent civilians.
I remember lugging my parents’ enormous 70s-era typewriter out of the hall closet. It must have weighed a third of my body weight, but no one said writing a novel was easy and I was determined. I had the intention of writing Jaws with one key difference – my version would feature a tiger shark, not a great white. This would be a novel for shark connoisseurs like my fourth grade self.
But I was upset about this key concession. According to Shark Attack, my primary reference book, tiger sharks reached a maximum length of 30 feet while the largest great white on record was 36 feet. Tiger sharks were clearly second banana to the awesome majesty of a great white.
Instead of making this creative compromise, I cleverly retitled my novel “Barracuda.” As you might imagine, instead of a shark, it would feature a giant barracuda. Barracuda appealed to me because they were fast, mean-looking, and Steven Spielberg hadn’t used them in a classic movie.
I put the typewriter on our dining room table, inserted the paper, and typed “Barracuda” at the top. So far so good. But I remember realizing how long this was going to take. I had to scan the entire keyboard to peck out each letter. Using a manual typewriter was satisfying though. Each time you hit a key it made a reassuring “GA-CHUNK!” It gave you the feeling you were writing something lasting, like Michelangelo chiseling on granite, even if you were a fourth-grader writing a Jaws rip-off.
I didn’t need to worry about my novel-writing taking too long. My complete story was three sentences long – “Man swims in the ocean. All of the sudden, he gets attacked.” Make that two sentences. I even remember typing “The End.” I learned something valuable from this experience – writing books is hard.
Before this interest in penning shark tales, my only exposure to writing stories was for Young Authors, a writing program for elementary school kids. I was in the second grade when I was in the program and I wrote about World War Two. I was a very weird kid.
The problem with all my books was I fixated on one scene. In this case, I based my entire story on a soldier who jumps on top of a tank, opens the hatch, throws in a grenade, closes the hatch, and blows up the Germans. I even illustrated it, much to Mrs. Leavitt’s horror.
In my early forays in writing, I didn’t have a good sense of pacing or how to build tension. I didn’t have the patience for description and character development was nonexistent. Those were not my strong suits, my forte was thinking up scenes where things got blown up and people got killed. Anyway, my story about the exploding tank was not well planned out as I didn’t know what to do for the rest of the book after the climactic first scene. I remember more than half of the pages allotted were blank.
But I also remember feeling slighted when I didn’t win any kind of award. I may not have been a good author but I had a good sense of outrage. I thought all the other kids were writing immature claptrap about ponies while I was writing serious fiction about soldiers and battlefields. In my mind’s eye, I was a second grade Hemingway being passed over for Danielle Steele.
Following his tradition of upstaging me at everything, my little brother later won a Young Authors award for his saga about “Carl the Red Crayon.” That story got Andy an A and my story won me a session with the school psychologist. Eventually I would learn the value of follow-through, revision, and considering tastes beside my own. But that came much later.