Lessons From My Early Writing


This week I reread some of my earliest writing attempts from 40 years ago. I hadn’t thought about them until the last few months. Although they were failures for the most part, they taught me some lessons.

In Stephen King’s book “On Writing”, he says he began to write when he was very young. It took him many years to become successful. I came away with the feeling that since I had not started that early, that it would be harder for me to get into writing.

Recently I found some stories and notes for stories that I had worked on when I was in junior and senior high school. While I did not start as early as Stephen King, I have certainly tried to write for many years.

While most of my writing at school was various types of essays, a couple teachers did give me opportunities to write short fiction. More importantly, I wrote stories outside of my school assignments. I also began to make short movies when I was in high school.

One story that I did finish was “The Sleeper in the Dark”, an attempt to emulate Lovecraft. I posted that on my website at: https://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/stories/the-sleeper-in-the-dark/

In high school I wanted to write a novel. I remembered that I tried twice, but when I looked at my old papers I found notes for several other attempts. None of these produced more than outlines or a few pages of text.

The first attempt I remember was to do something like “Lord of the Rings”. Needless to say, that was a poor choice for a first book. I began with a time line of events, from which I would later extract information for the story. I worked on the time line when I had free time at school.

The problem I ran into was that there was nothing that happened in the time line that lent itself to being  the core of a plot. I started without any idea where the story would go and just drifted. In essence the character just existed, didn’t change or develop and nothing important happened to him. I abandoned that project.

The other attempt I remember was a Doc Savage book. Since I had read a number of Doc Savage books, I felt I knew the characters and how the stories went.  I gave the story a title: “The Smiling Corpse”.

I found four typed pages, comprising Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 2. When I converted it to a text file, they ran about 2,200 words. I don’t remember if I had any kind of out line or notes. I didn’t find any kind of notes for the story. I found an outline I did for “The Lost Oasis”, although I’m not sure that I did that before or after I wrote “The Smiling Corpse”.

When I reread it, I couldn’t see where I was going with the story. I say that Doc was off in Hong Kong, but the story was set in New York. One thing that struck me was that the victim/smiling corpse was a poet, who was a friend of Doc’s. I wouldn’t think many people would associate Doc Savage with poetry.

I dropped this project because I didn’t think that the dialogue I wrote was very good. I felt I needed to have a much better understanding of the characters if I was to see any improvement.

I liked the title “The Smiling Corpse” and reused it for a short movie I made a few years later. It was silent, so didn’t have any dialogue.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on the title “The Smiling Corpse” and turned up several different books and a short movie with that title. One book was a detective story published in 1935 by Philip Wylie. Wylie co-wrote “When Worlds Collide”. The main characters in the book are well know writers, so I think it was something of a satire.

I gave up on writing a novel for a few years. Then in the early 1980s I tried a story I called “Conan the Accountant”. In some ways it was a repeat of my experience with “The Smiling Corpse”. I didn’t develop an outline, or plan, for the story and it drifted away from the original idea. I found 11 typed pages, with close to 5,700 words in total. I can’t remember why I dropped that one, but when I reread it, I cringed at some of what I wrote.

In the 1990s I dropped the idea of writing to focus on film making. For some reason I film easier to do. Partly that was because the films I did were shorter, but I think that I am just more comfortable with film as a way to express myself.

In the last few years I have started to make more use of outlines and story plans in my writing. I feel that has helped me move beyond some of the problems that stopped me years ago. I really feel it is important to have a very strong idea how the story ends before you start to write. Too many of my ideas have failed because I had no idea how to end them.

I haven’t come up with an approach I can use to create better dialogue and characters, but I think that my skills have improved. It is easy to get over confident, and I know that when I do, my writing suffers.

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