This Writing Life - The First Novel

The Magic Pen

One Christmas, amongst all my myriad fancy presents, there was a pen. This wasn't just an ordinary pen. This was a powerfully magical writing implement, thick as my wrist and long as half my arm. Its clear plastic sheathe surrounded a wealth of different colors of ink. The cap was equipped with delicate levers which pushed corresponding colors down through the hole so they could write. And there must have been ten, twenty, thirty, maybe fifty different inks in all--every possible shade from sunrise pink, to blush, to rose, to red, then on through violet, purple, indigo, navy and clear blue sky. I think that's where I got my addiction to laying out colors in rows, trying to create a steady pattern of change to remind me of my pen.

It's also where I got the sudden need to write my first novel, at age, maybe, ten. After all, a magical pen like that? It needed a magical task to make it complete.

The First Novel

A magical pen had to be used for something magical, so my first novel was born. I called it "Simone and her People" and wrote about the end of the world, a group of schoolgirls rescued from certain death by handsome strangers who lived under the sea. Each chapter was written in a different color, on a different type of paper. There were leftover pages from half-used exercise books, torn-out scraps, unused diaries (I never could keep a journal), Granddad's old record-keeping book... The whole was "bound" if I remember rightly in the medium blue cardboard cover from some scrapped school work-book, and tied with string. It still lives in the bottom of my writing box, tucked under the bed.

I remember my human-alien crossbred children developed the ability to live on land and sea. When they returned to England's forests and shores they found human beings were going to war again. Kind of sad, my first novel. But the good guys won.

The First Critic

I kept my "novel" secret for quite a while, hiding notes under my desk and pretending I wasn't really using my pen. But one day a friend stole some pages from me and began to read.

Sadly, these were the pages where my heroine delightedly gave birth. The fact that she'd only met her husband six weeks before, and he was definitely the father, gave me no cause for concern. My friend however, proud of her greater understanding of biology pronounced me--well, I'd better not say. Naive and innocent perhaps, but she didn't use quite such nice words.

I decided my writing had better remain "my eyes only," unseen and unheard.

The Kid in the Jungle

The pen ran out of ink eventually, and the various boxes scattered round the house ran out of scraps of paper. I went to secondary school and hated "the Hobbit" (don't know why, except that maybe I wanted to read at my own speed instead of being read to). And I learned to do homework.

Have I mentioned, I tend to be slightly disorganized? I forgot to bring home my English homework book once, and we had a special assignment to continue the story of a boy lost in the jungle. The teacher had read the first chapter to us and we were supposed to be inspired. We were also supposed to have the right books with us in order to pursue our inspiration.

Dad found a whole empty notebook--50 pages long! It wasn't a school homework book though so I cried because it wouldn't be right. But Dad, wise man that he was, said better get in trouble for writing on the wrong paper than for not writing at all.

I filled all fifty pages with my second mini-novel, and I've never seen it since. But I did hear it read to the class over several days. They listened just as closely and kept just as quiet as if it were "the Hobbit." But probably that just meant they were scared of the teacher.

What Real Writers Do

We grew older and moved into a higher class. Our new English teacher had a bit of a reputation as one the strictest teachers in school. She was small and thin and wore glasses. Her feet didn't quite touch the floor when she sat behind her desk. And we were all in awe of her.

I loved to have English homework by now. I loved to tell stories of dead lovers, dying worlds, bombs falling, destruction, dismay. I delighted in making people cry. Till our teacher called me aside one day and demanded I try to make them laugh.


"Because anyone can make people sad. It takes a real writer to make them laugh."

I wrote a school bus flying over a canyon and filled it with caricatures of the teachers we knew. Even the English teacher laughed. Then I decided I'd like to be a real writer.

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