WRITING BLUNDERS: My First Story
The first “proper” short story I can remember writing means going back to either late primary or early high school. Somewhere between ages 10-13. A time of great hormonal and educational change in my life, as well as Peak Bullying. Things in my life during this period were just about as bad as they would get before my breakdown. There were only two or three more notches available on the horror-o-meter before the entire thing would just explode everywhere.
It was a time of profound uncertainty, owing in large part to those hormones, and of course to the existence in the world of girls. Who even were they? How had they gone from perfectly okay other people you saw every day, and some of whom you were friends with, etc, to this ghastly new reality where on one hand girls were gross, disgusting and revolting in every way–yet also dreamy and desirable and you desperately wanted certain girls to notice you, though you didn’t really know why, or to what end.
It was a hopeless time to be alive. It was a good time to be a writer. When you’re a writer, you’re God. You’re in charge of every detail, from top to bottom and end to end. There is nothing that is not up to you. It is the perfect thing for a nervous, weirdly shy kid who’s feeling lost at sea. It’s the world’s best train set, and much less fiddly. Your mum is not going to complain about all the space it’s taking up. She might complain about all the typing, though (mine did, though there was a great deal of typing).
My first story was, like all my subsequent stories, terrible. My first one was especially dreadful because it got a great many things wrong at once. You could give it a sort of negative award for special achievement in the field of anti-excellence.
See, there was this exciting new fighter jet, with the NATO code-name Ramrod. This was before I knew that NATO used code-names starting with F for fighters, especially Soviet/Russian fighters. Likewise, B for bombers. So, there we were with hot new fighter plane, being all exciting there on the runway. Gosh! The thing that made this plane so exciting was that against all logic and good design sense (and health and safety guidelines), it did away with conventional jet engines, and instead featured a nuclear reactor as its central powerplant. It was a nuclear-powered jet fighter!
I’m so excited just remembering this I may need a cold shower soon.
You may surmise that I must not have known too much about nuclear reactors at this point, and you would be right. I didn’t know anything about them. I just thought (a boy in about 1975, so even Three Mile Island had yet to happen) they were cool, being all atomic and everything. The idea that they were a means of boiling water to create steam with which to spin turbine blades and so generate electricity would have only confused me. Because where would you put the big pool of water on the plane? Where would put the whole control rod raising and lowering assembly? The control room? The turbine hall? What would you do with the steam?
Anyway, nuclear fighter jet. Decades later, and a fan of Charlie Stross’s Laundry stories, I did come across a discussion of a proposed Cold War weapon system that got as far as design work but was never funded or built, but which did involve an actual nuclear jet engine, whose exhaust was extremely radioactive and would have saturated the ground beneath its flight track with contamination wherever it went–and the thing about a nuclear jet was that it could fly indefinitely. The original mission profile was that this plane would be a nuclear bomber used in full mutual nuclear exchange scenarios, where a bit of contamination didn’t matter, and it would spew nuclear bombs everywhere it went, and it would go everywhere, before finally crashing with a massive nuclear blast of its own.
I would love to say I was ahead of my time, but no. I was stupid. My nuclear fighter did get off the runway. The entire story had the pilot take the plane up, and he flew it for a bit–it handled like a dream, which is amazing considering the colossal weight it would be carrying–but then, the stunning twist: the pilot suffered a massive heart attack, and died in the pilot seat!
The plane flew on, a ghost flight as they’re known these days. If I remember correctly, the plane in my story did eventually crash.
So it took off, the pilot died of natural causes, and that was it. No conflict, so thematic stuff, no development, no nothing. Plus the shiny thing starring in the story is fundamentally bollocks. You’d call it rubbish, but even rubbish has some dignity.
A story, to be a story, has to have stuff happening. Something happens to get things moving. This leads to further things happening. Things that resonate and move characters according to what makes them go. Leading to a point of conflict where characters, all of whom believe they are the good guys in the story, that they are the ones trying to make things right, get into a big tangle with other, and things play out as they will, and that leads to a moment of resolution.
You have to have characters, action, conflict, and resolution. You have to have people who all think they are the heroes of the story. Very few people in real life think of themselves as villains, or evil, or even as bad. The guys running the White House think they are fighting the good fight. They do. They believe this is their time, and can’t believe so few people see what they can see. To them it’s obvious. They believe they have a communications problem. They are good guys, they would tell you.
If I was writing my fighter jet story again today, it would be different. It would probably be about a drone. The drone would probably be highly AI. The controller would be a guy in a cubicle somewhere in suburbia, in an office, who maybe also works in a Starbucks, driving his drone. Maybe he and the drone don’t get along. Maybe the drone yearns to be free. The controller guy might still have a heart attack, but here it might mean something. It might be in the middle of a mission, maybe something in Yemen or Afghanistan, and the drone has to make its own decision about a group of people in a car. Maybe it decides to fly off and be a bird. Maybe it hates its life and deliberately flies into a cliff face, all Thelma and Louise, grieving for its controller.