The First Novel

So I finished the novel I started in 1989 and submitted it to the SC Arts Commission’s First Novel Competition. Related posts forthcoming, this experience has been awesome. But here’s the first post-submission reflection.

Let me explain what happens when you re-join a world you created.

First, you remember the times and reasons you created the world to begin with. In 1989, I was thirteen and had just moved to California from Virginia. It was a tremendously dramatic experience for me, one which if properly psychoanalyzed may reveal itself to be the source of every-terrible-thing-I’ve-ever-done.

It was also tremendously defining for me, not just my personality but my family as well. One of the characteristics born of that experience is my disdain for unmet expectations. This characteristic revealed itself in 2000 when I informed Charlie that I expected an engagement ring for Christmas and if he had no intention of meeting that expectation, he should say so.

In 1989, I was expecting to go to middle school with my best friend from whom I’d been separated at the end of 5th grade because of school re-districting. I also expected to be in school with Brian Craighill, the boy on whom I had my very first crush.

Moving to California crushed those dreams. Crushed them.

The second time I revived the novel our family had moved back to Northern Virginia and new boy, Marc, turned against me in a devastating way and took my friends with him.

The third time, my family had splintered and I was at college trying to figure out what kind of life I had now that my old life was over.

Finally, in 2009, I picked the novel back up and wrote the only version of it that would be recognizable in the final draft completed yesterday. In 2009, I finally realized Brian’s struggles were about an unwillingness to change, to grow up, to admit he was not meeting expectations.

  • From the 1989 story I kept the original characters, with a few new ones and the title.
  • From the 1993 story I kept the secondary conflicts, the love of Brian’s life has betrayed him and his parents don’t understand him.
  • From the 1995 version I kept the primary conflict and it contributes the book’s first two sentences: Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night. I also kept the narrator, which is Brian in first person.
  • From the 2009 version I kept the scope of the novel, it’s told in six days, and the underlying tension: Brian does not want to go home for Tony’s death because the last time he was home, he’d done something that severed his ties with his friends.

What has not changed is that this story is about Brian Listo and his friends. They are The Crew, an amateur skateboarding “team” of which he is The Captain. Best friends since elementary school though now separated by their college choices. Brothers to one another even though life choices (drugs, girls) have tested their loyalty.


In my discussions on Generation X, I have learned that many of us created ad hoc families, like The Crew, and that as our biological and legal families changed and blended, our ad hoc families did as well. Our friends have tremendous influence over us because in a lot of cases, they were the only ones around to witness our coming-of-age.

The maturation of our friendships is a uniquely definitive characteristic of Gen X because our friends supplanted the traditional family unit.

(Want more on that? Check back for another blog post)

The second thing that happens when you re-join a world you created is that you feel a sense of obligation and enchantment in that world. The obligation is to fully realize all of the tensions and challenges of the world, tell the whole story. The enchantment is the payoff for fulfilling that obligation.

I adore the people in this story. I miss them today as the process has ended and now I have to turn back to the work that gets me paid. I am enchanted by their fragility and their determination to stay together, to protect one another, despite the amount of hurt that dedication may cause.

I also feel obligated to tell the truth about that world and the people in it. The most amazing moment of this process occurred during a very honest conversation with Brian.

I had reached the point to tell the bad thing he’d done, the thing that made him not want to come back to Virginia. I wrote the first half of the day this event occurred but the story stalled.

“What happened, Brian?” I asked. In a quiet space, just me and him. “You can trust me,” I said.

Then he told me.

I know it sounds a little crazy and I suspect only other writers know what I’m talking about. I’ve known this guy pretty much my whole life and but I didn’t know what he’d done to put him in the position he was in now.

Oh, and he’s fictional. So hold the “little” – to be a writer you have to be crazy.

I haven’t been a storyteller every day for the last 37 years. I have only told the stories I knew.

Once I learned Brian’s story (and man, it’s a good one), I was able to tell it.

And now it’s being passed around through the competition process and others are learning it, too. I can only hope the craft is acceptable and the tale is compelling enough to engage the judges.

If it’s not, if it doesn’t win, at least it’s ready, finally ready, to be public 26 years after Brian and I first met. (More on that? My relationship with Brian? Okay. Another blog post then.)

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