I have a theory. Every writer has one work (or more than one!) of which they are so ashamed that if it were to come to light, that writer would leap in front of a bus or allow themselves to be eaten alive by starved chinchillas than let others read it. Writers often joke about these works with other writers — or, in a self-deprecating sort of way, with non-writers, as it sounds less pretentious to chatter about the horrible things you've plunked out as opposed to the things you're proud of. No awkward "so when will it be published?" questions there.
I say, we need to stop being embarrassed of these horrible mistakes and start celebrating them. Not, mind you, that you should make them available to the public — I'm talking self-love, not self-murder here. We should not submit them, we should not put them online, we should by no means attempt to convince anyone to part with money for them. Not until we're rich and famous and can put out a collection of early works for our loving readers to howl at and feel that if we were this bad, then maybe there's hope for them, too.
But while we wince and grimace and shriek if someone pulls up an old text file or a ratty drawer manuscript, I think that we should be able to laugh about it, and, yes, remember the heady joy we felt back in the days when we thought we were brilliant.
Because if we didn't have those horrible, achingly amateurish, cliche-heavy works behind us, where would we be? Writing them right now. In fact, if you don't have at least one story that makes you shudder to think about it, you should probably be a little bit worried. (Unless you're fourteen and this is your first book. In that case, darling, it's brilliant, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Just keep going.) We need to remember that as writers we grow, and as part of that, we move on from where we were. These aren't stirrup pants from the 80s that should be burned and never seen again (oh, stirrup pants, I still love them for how easy it was to get in and out of my Canadian heavy-duty winter snow suits without my trouser legs bunching up around my knees). These stories are a part of our selves.
So, I'll start.
I could talk about my first real fantasy epic, a veritable smorgasbord of every single trope I could possibly cram in and then some, yet in which nothing happened — after 86,000 words, the entire party wasn't even together yet, but they'd covered mountains and forests in Fantasy Geography Bingo.
I could talk about the years I spent writing fanfiction for Dragonball Z, except I'm still fond of that era (largely in part because I've never allowed myself to reread any of it).
Instead, I'm going to talk about the first time I ever really wrote something of substance. That substance may have been the equivalent of that jar of jam that's been at the back of the refrigerator for as long as you've lived in that apartment, but it was there, gosh darn it!
When I was twelve, I discovered Star Wars. Lucas released The Special Edition in 1997, and to celebrate, brought the original trilogy back to the big screens. I casually mentioned to a friend that I'd never seen them before; she and her incredibly nerdy father immediately kidnapped me for a day. I don't remember the actual experience, but I remember the aftermath. I was enthralled. I borrowed the original VHS tapes and watched them until my mother threatened to ban them from the house if I didn't read a chapter of the Bible for every viewing. (I did. You're welcome, God.) When the Special Edition came out on VHS, we bought them, and I was beyond hooked.
The next year, eighth grade, I was at my tiny town library, in my favourite section: science fiction. There I realized that what had once been a random series of books with covers of the same people on them over and over now actually meant something. Star Wars novels! You mean to say there was more? My world exploded. Over the next year I read every Expanded Universe Star Wars novel that existed. Yes, even the one before Empire Strikes Back was released and Roger MacBride Allen thought "that smuggler" was annoying but Luke and Leia really had a little sumpin' sumpin' going on.
In ninth grade, my friend and I — she relished my obsession, which in turn fostered her own now that she had someone to share it with — decided to start writing ourselves. We invented characters for ourselves, and immense, multi-hundred-page backstories that we meticulously crafted. We wrote letters to each other in the personas of our characters. We turned the events of our real lives — boring, frustratingly ordinary, excessively provincial — into the seeds for something great. An ear infection that began the day of my family's yearly vacation and ended on the day we packed up for home became a kidnapping and a brush with death thanks to a case of the Corellian tanamen virus.
My character (whose age varied from 5 to 30, depending on what era I was writing at the time) was a smuggler, a brilliant pilot (natch), Force-sensitive (of course), friends with Han Solo (who wouldn't be?), and an all-around prodigy. Her ship was the same model as Han's (a YT-1300 light freighter, modified with the same quad laser cannons and starboard-mounted cockpit), her family history (stolen from her parents, abandoned on the streets, later picked up by a Fagin-and-Garris-Shrike meet Mme. Thenardier knockoff) just as sketchy and tragic. She and her best friend (and later, natch again, their Wookiee buddy) travelled the galaxy, taking part in everything from the smuggling rings at Nar Shaddaa to the Rebellion against the Empire. Oh, yes. She was also frozen in carbonite, chased down by but eventually befriended Boba Fett, and had a nemesis in poor, benighted Admiral Piett. She spoke every language, including Wookiee and Huttese, both of which are notoriously difficult for human throats to produce.
My friend's character, I'd like to add, was Boba Fett's sister. Pre-prequel Fett, when his real name was Jaster Mereel and he wasn't some lame clone. Her character's ship was always just a hair faster than mine, her brushes with the dark side a little edgier.
It was awful. I had, literally, more than a thousand pages written for her; closer to two if you count the 19 ABY-era (that's After Battle of Yavin for you non-nerds out there) trilogy that I'd penned for the main cast of Star Wars in which she played a guest role in books two and three. She went everywhere from Hoth to Yavin to Corellia (though, oddly, I don't think she was ever on Tatooine). No one could out-fly, out-gun, out-smuggle, out-saber or out-snark her. My parents, bless them, read what I wrote and encouraged me, pointing out a good turn of phrase here or a place where I could reword more effectively there.
And then, one day, fate intervened. The laptop Santa Claus had bestowed upon me so I would stop using the family computer to type up my manuscript for hours (because, as loving parents of a creative child, saying no to "Can I type up my novel for an hour?" wasn't in the cards) finally bit the dust. The screen died. Using a floppy drive and every keyboard shortcut I knew how, I managed to save the story files on to the disk before the computer completely munched it — only to find out that the file had corrupted. Instead of a thousand-plus pages of brilliance, I had 18 and a half, after which page 19 repeated itself for the duration of the manuscript.
I cried. I was inconsolable, especially as I'd thrown out my handwritten pages once I'd typed them in, as they filled five three-inch binders and I'd run out of room in my desk. But, then, I discovered Dragonball Z fanfiction, so, bravely, I moved on.
Every now and then I'm reminded of that story; I find the address book I converted into a character compendium ("address" became "home planet", "phone number" became "year of birth", "e-mail" was "cause & age at time of death", if applicable), or someone says 'oh hey, remember when…'. I would not, for the life of me, have those words returned for the world to see. But I can't bring myself to be fully ashamed, either, because for three full years I reveled in that universe. I turned even the most mundane experiences into fantastical space operas. Whether or not it was good, I wrote — oh, how I wrote! Hundreds of thousands of words, averaging around five thousand words per day. And I did edit — I chopped scenes, chapters, even whole arcs, deleting or ripping pages with glee as I realized what would make the story better.
I wouldn't be here today without Leia (yes, Leia; she was a street child who didn't know her name, and so chose the name of a princess she saw on the tri-d) Kenan and her sidekick and best friend, Janek Sela (see what I did with those vowels?). Whenever I get stuck, I have to remind myself of those times when writing was nothing but a joy, almost an extension of my hand; the words found themselves to paper as worlds unfolded in my mind with more ease than my daily social interactions.
Thank you, awful Star Wars fanfiction. I'd die before showing anyone even a sentence of it, but I'm here today because of you.
Your turn! What stories are you ashamed of that you should be thanking?