My humble beginnings in fiction approach their 40th humble anniversary

When I was in elementary school, the Daughters of the American Revolution held an annual writing competition for 5th and 6th graders.  The story I wrote for this in 5th grade is the earliest fiction I remember writing. The entries were hand-written. My poor penmanship probably prevented the ladies of the D.A.R. from comprehending my story.  This, and the lack of effort I put into the tale, led to failure in my first writing competition.

In 6th grade, I tried harder, and my penmanship must have become more legible. I won the award for my school. I had to read my story in front of the assembled Daughters, which terrified me, but I got a little medal to pin on my chest that said, “Excellence in History.”

They were a tough crowd.

They were a tough crowd.

The theme of the contest that year was travel in colonial America. I hit that theme hard. In the space of five or six handwritten pages, my protagonist used about 10 different methods to move from point A to point B. Point B was Bunker Hill, where there happened to be a battle raging. Having gotten my main character to his destination, I wasn’t sure what to do with him. Since there wasn’t any D.A.R. contest for 7th grade, I wouldn’t need a sequel so I killed him. He died heroically, like a patriot. It didn’t hurt to hit the Daughters in their collective soft spot.

The summer after 6th grade, I decided to write a mystery novel. I had it all figured out: whodunit, why and how. It turned out that was the easy part. The hard part was all the story that needed to come before the big reveal at the end. After about a dozen handwritten pages full of scintillating dialog, punctuated by dramatic sips of coffee, I decided to take a break and go ride my bike. Riding my bike was easier, but very time-consuming. It took up the rest of the summer, so I didn’t get to do more work on my novel.

Through high school I wrote short stories for no particular reason. I’d hammer them out on my mother’s Smith Corona. My typing was no better than my penmanship, even after the keyboarding class. My mother was the only one who read my stories. She had to see where all the white-out was going, after all.

My chief rival for bottom of the keyboarding class.

My chief rival for bottom of the keyboarding class.

In college I took a couple of fiction courses, but most of the fiction I wrote was in papers for my other classes. I’d become practiced at inventing facts that seemed plausible to instructors who didn’t have time to check. College was supposed to be about learning to think critically, which was exactly how I was judging which bullshit I could get away with.

Since my school days, I’ve done less bike riding, which has allowed me to finish some novels. Certain things have come full circle. I’m still looking to hit the emotional soft spots, but for an audience wider than the D.A.R. I still usually figure out the endings before the beginnings. I’m also still busy judging which fabrications will fly. Fiction is all one glorious lie, and like any good lie, it should always be plausible.

Even my penmanship and typing  are still lousy. The only thing I’ve lost is the medal that says, “Excellence in History.”

He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.