From the Dusty Mental Archives – My First Novel (aka A Slacker’s Quest for Grades)

I know I’m being a bit self indulgent when I look back on my own attempts at being a writer, but I’m not trying to make myself look good. Quite the opposite. I wasn’t an A student… I wasn’t even a B student. I didn’t really care about grades. Oh, I always tried my best in exams and paid attention in class, but when it came to studying, there was usually something better to do (or watch).

There are times I wish I could go back in time and smack that version of myself upside the head. If I’m to be looked at for anything, it should be as a warning.

But even a slacker knows good grades are important for getting into university. We want them, we just don’t try hard to get them. So when I heard about a special clause in the creative writing class in Grade 13 (also known as Ontario Academic Credit—OAC), I thought I had hit the mother load.

The teacher at the time had a rule: get something published and you get 100% in the class. For a slacker who had just been told earlier that year that he could be a real writer by his teacher, it seemed like the perfect (aka easy) way to boost my average grades (instead of, you know, studying). Now, when they said published, they probably meant in a newspaper or a magazine, but I was far more ambitious.

I was going to write a novel. Real deal. No more goofing around. I was going to get it done.

So, after a summer filled with gaming, hiking, and loafing around the house, I went back to school, and started on my grand plan. I had two spare classes that year which came before or after lunch, depending on the day. So I spent these extended lunch breaks holed up in the library, working on my magnum opus on their new IBM computers. I kept the story on a 3.5″ floppy disk. Sometimes I wrote first drafts by hand at home to type out later at school.

Cyberpunk was my genre de jour back then. Dark, gritty, stuff set in the near future where cybernetics were on the rise and law and order on the decline. I called the book NYC/S: New York City/State. I figured in thirty years New York City would be so big it would end up being its own state, and went from there. Okay, throw in a couple of cops, a conspiracy, a cybernetic killer, artificial intelligence, and see what happens.

Every day I went back to the library and usually sat down at the same computer. I don’t know how consistent I was in my production, but before the school year ended I had a 120,000 word manuscript printed out on the school’s giant laserjet (which could print four whole pages a minute!). Double spaced in Courier 12pt font, it came out to just over 450 pages. Given that my record before this was in the low double digits, this was nothing short of a Herculean achievement. I was even cocky enough to give myself a pen name, Noah Davidson, because Chinn just didn’t seem literary enough.

I figured I could get it edited and submitted to publishers over the summer. I considered myself a realist, mind you. I knew I wasn’t a big shot writer, and that my first book couldn’t possibly be that good. I considered it “average.” But having seen some truly bad novels out there, I figured something mediocre like mine could find a home in no time.

Yeah. Realist. Riiiiiiight.  Let’s just say my attempts to get it published over the summer were… less than successful. No matter, I still had the rest of the school year to work with.

Unfortunately, the rules had changed. A new teacher had taken over the creative writing course and didn’t truck with the “get published—get 100%” rule.

Mrs Palmer was one of my favorite teachers, largely because she taught my favorite class. She could be a bit focused on feminism at times, but overall really did try to make us better creative writers. Her policy was to have a final year end creative project determine 40% of our final grade, and she said my novel could count as that even though I had written it the year before.

I figured I was still set. She had to be impressed by the effort put into this book.  450 pages, man! It wasn’t just a book—it was an epic!

Well, I’ve told this part of the story a thousand times before so I’ll just cut to the chase: I got 78% for the novel… 2% of which was a bonus for effort.

In the years to come, I would refer to this 2% bonus as a slap in the face. Nobody in the class spent more time on their project than I did. And eventually Mrs Palmer admitted she hadn’t even read the entire book. I felt insulted.

In time, I came to realize I wasn’t the one who should have felt insulted. I considered myself a realist at the time by calling my book average. Truth is, I was a beaming optimist to praise it so high. I’ve managed to hold onto one copy of the manuscript, and once in a while I pull it out just to torment myself. It’s got nothing. I’m not just talking about poor grammar or stilted use of language—those are forgivable for a first novel written by someone my age.

No, all stories are supposed to be about something, and this one wasn’t. NYC/S was a string of SF and action movie cliches strung together, with superficial characters, superficial plot, and nonsensical “science.” My take on A.I. was particularly laughable. It’s as empty as a failed TV action pilot from the 80s. TekWar as re-written and remembered by an eight-year-old would be a better frickin novel, and that’s saying something.

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