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A Child’s First Novel: Lessons Learned From Twelve Year Old Writers

My first attempt at a novel was a thinly veiled Star Trek fan-fiction that I wrote at age thirteen. This was pre-internet, and I had no idea fanfiction was even a thing, much less that people my age wrote it. Had I known, I probably would have been all over it, but I didn’t, and so I wrote my novel. It reached nearly four-hundred handwritten pages, kept in a massive three ring binder. The plot was relatively aimless, and I don’t remember a whole lot of it, except that the main character was a half-human half-alien girl who was a cadet at something roughly akin to Starfleet Academy. Because of course she was. There was a romance. A war. A possible pregnancy. Betrayal. All of the tropes thirteen year old me, drunk off of Peter David and Robert Heinlein (Time Enough For Love rocked my young world, dear reader), couldn’t get enough of.
My best friend Karen and I wrote our novels together, sprawled across her bedroom floor, for all of seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. Karen and I were the odd kids in middle school. I’d arrived at C.E. Williams Middle School in seventh grade, fresh out of my Montessori bubble and terrified beyond belief to be in this new and frightening public school world. I had never so much as kissed a boy, nor did I even know what detention was, but in this world, kids gave each other blowies in the back of the school bus,  my seventh grade classmates talked openly about their abortions, and there was once a knife fight in the hallway between classes. C.E. Williams was what my parents called a “rough school.” In Montessori school I’d spent my days researching and writing a play about ancient Egypt and learning Swedish. I’d performed in an opera at Spoleto Festival when I was nine called The Burning Rice Fields in which I portrayed a young Japanese girl and my mother had portrayed a tsunami. My Irish teachers taught us to sing IRA fight songs, and my brother and I would spend weekends at the beach with the other teachers’ children, listening to adult conversation, piping up about politics, and watching the adults get hammered. Public school, needless to say, with its strict no-talking rules, with its hawk-eyed teachers and low expectations, with its meaningless homework (that I made a habit of doing on the bus on the way to school) and standardized tests, was a culture shock, to say the least.
When Karen and I found each other, we stuck together with the kind of desperate tenacity that only terrified twelve year old girls could muster. Karen was a Jewish girl who had gone to Hebrew School in her earlier years and was on the J.C.C. swim team. I was on the J.C.C. gymnastics team (even though our family was not Jewish). It seemed serendipitous at the time. Not only that, but Karen had a hippie aesthetic that appealed to the side of me that was raised by heathen Montessorians. She wore leather sandals, save the planet t-shirts, and she loved tree frogs. And Karen was smart. She was one of the smartest people I’d ever met, and I quickly learned that in this entire godforsaken middle school, she was the one person with whom I could carry on a meaningful conversation. We both loved science fiction, and I introduced her to my favorite — Stranger in a Strange Land. She had me read Sphere. We talked about physics, about singularities, multiple dimensions, and the possibility of ancient aliens. Karen, like me, loved to write. We were star English students — and although Karen outshone me in math and science, we were equally gifted writers, albeit with different styles. First, we wrote poetry together, but then one of us had the idea to write a book. And so, our great project was born, the endeavor that would last into high school, that became a map of our friendship, and for both of us, our first ever fully finished novels.
Karen and I wrote together. We would have sleepovers on the weekends — usually I’d show up at her house on a Saturday evening, as Shabbat was drawing to a close, and Karen and I would sit in her room trading our stories.  Sometimes her mother would bring us snacks, baking having started up once again after a Saturday of rest. We’d munch on chocolate chip cookies and write. I’d write a chapter, and she’d write a chapter, and then we’d switch off, each reading the other’s work, glancing up surreptitiously to catch a glimpse of a reaction. Had she smiled at that part? Laughed? Did she like it? Karen’s own novel was shorter than mind, less Star Trek and more A Swiftly Tilting Planet. There was a sentient dolphin and a mysterious child with frizzy white-blonde hair and forest green eyes. There was an alien abduction, telepathy, and space magic. Both of our books were derivative, perhaps mine slightly more obviously so. It didn’t matter. Those days spent writing and reading not only solidified us as friends, it solidified my purpose as a writer. For three years, we worked on our novels. We had no clear idea of what we might do with those novels, we simply wrote.
When I moved away from Charleston five years later, at age seventeen, Karen and I had drifted apart somewhat due to high school foolishness that was entirely my fault (don’t worry reader, we later reconnected, and she’s still my best friend, despite said foolishness). However, when I said my goodbyes to Karen before getting in my family car and making the long drive to Texas, where I would spend my final years of high school, she handed me a blue cloth binder. Even now, I remember the look and feel of that binder in my hands — the rough fabric cover, slightly frayed around the edges, the title carefully penned on the center. Karen had handed me our shared adolescence, our days spent sprawled on the floor, pen to paper; she had handed me our dreams. It was the most precious gift I’d ever received, reminding me not only of the power of our friendship, but of those two little girls who became, improbably, novelists.
Now, as I near the completion of my second full novel (my first as an adult), I think back often on that first novel. When writing  seems tough, I often remind myself that if twelve year old me could write a novel, a novel at least good enough to hold the attention of my twelve year old best friend, surely thirty-nine year old me can do the same. Moreover, I think back to those days when writing was a pure pleasure — I had no thoughts of publication, of query letters, of agents or contracts. I wrote because I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed giving life to the characters in my head, to the places I dreamed up, to the situations created by my impossible imagination. When writing seems hard, I try to recapture the spirit of those two little girls, who wrote for no one but themselves and each other, whose novels were the source of three years’ worth of joy, laughter, and friendship. If writing now can still give me joy, especially in this world where joyfulness often seems in short supply, then regardless of the eventual outcome, writing has served its purpose. Perhaps one day I will be published — I have faith in myself and my abilities, and I’ll work hard to achieve that dream — but even if that never happens, for the sake of twelve year old me, I’ll keep finding my joy in the written word.

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