Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet by Christopher M. Chupik

Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet

by Christopher M. Chupik


Sarah was joking that this should have been done Halloween week because one’s juvenilia is always scary to look back on. I recently decided to look into my old green file folder and see if I’ve grown as a writer. All spelling and grammar mistakes are reproduced faithfully.

My oldest surviving work of fiction is a school workbook repurposed into my illustrated saga Dinosaur: The Lost Land (Frist of 7!). According to the inside jacket, it was published by Bookworm Publishing 1987. Yes, that’s right. I was a pioneering indie author! Mind you, Bookworm went under not long after putting this book out, so maybe I shouldn’t brag so much.

The eight-page epic begins thusly:

“It was the ICE-AGE. The NARWANTY tribe was looking for a new home. They have found an ISLAND in the South Pacific. It was surrounded by fog.”

The Narwanty settle on this fog-bound island only to find it inhabited by dinosaurs:

” ‘LOOK, Theres a WERID thing comeing!’ It was a Tyrannosaurus Rex! It was 22 meters long and 40 feet tall!”

See how I cleverly got around the fact that cavemen and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart? Eat your heart out, Michael Crichton. The mash-up of eras is skillfully illustrated by the symbolism of rendering the T-Rex’s measurements in both Imperial and Metric. Also, the shifting of tenses conveys the temporal dislocation of the Narwanty. Honest.

After several dinosaur vs. caveman clashes, the tribe settles down and a sequel is threatened. I think I did a few more Dinosaur Island stories, but most of those are lost now. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Next stop on my tragical history tour is a short story I wrote in junior high based on the legend of the Beast of Le Gevaudan. I suspect I must have already read some of the Solomon Kane stories by Robert E Howard because the protagonist is a German monster hunter named Josef Siegfried armed with sword, musket and bullwhip. He never uses the bullwhip. Siegfried quickly discovers that the Beast is actually a werewolf:

“Karl said that all wolves and men were the children of Fenric and that werewolves were Fenrics closest relations. Fenric created werewolves to become the masters of the world in the final days before the world’s end.”

That’s quite some cosmology I had going there, though I mangle mythology terribly. Why would a wolf from Norse myth create the human race, wolves, and werewolves? No idea. Later, the hunters encounter the werewolf:

“You stupid, stupid human” he said in German. Then the man leapt into the air at Josef. During the flight the man’s features twisted and transformed into the features of a wolf.”

Clearly, dialogue was not my strong point. Neither was sentence structure. But at least I had developed some sense of energy and action. And it set the stage for the kind of stories I like to write now.

Last stop is my Biology 20 Major Assignment from 1995. For it, I decided to write a piece of Hard SF about an interstellar flight to Alpha Centauri and the life-bearing planet the astronauts find. I certainly did not lack for ambition.

In The Odyssey/Falstaff Report: A speculation on the future of space travel, I lay out a history of early concepts for interstellar travel, including graphics of Orion and Daedalus. I also have a graphic of the Odyssey and it’s Clippers (based on the old Delta Clipper rocket concept). For graphics rendered with a crappy mid-90s drawing program I think they look pretty decent. I wish I could share them here. I have a crew list (several classmates and teachers included as in-jokes). There’s even a helpful timeline:

“2012 – An alliance of the North American Trade Bloc, European Union, Japan, South Africa and three other nations begin work on Project Lightsail, a program of interstellar exploration.”

Optimistic, isn’t it? If you had told the 18 year-old me that the space program would be on life-support by the real 2012, I would have cried. I lay out the Odyssey mission in detail, going into the physics of the laser-propelled lightsail and the 25-year flight to Alpha Centauri. I even took the long-term effects of zero-G into account with a drug called Gravitol (I googled this and found the name and idea was also used in the TSR Buck Rogers XXVC game which was out back in the early ’90s. Did I crib it? Seems possible). Finally, I get to the planet Falstaff (Not sure why I named the planets after Shakespearean characters, seemed cool at the time I guess). Falstaff is roughly similar to Cambrian Era Earth, with most organisms confined to the seas:

“The alphanauts discovered through submersible probes vast herds of armored fish known as sea-tanks that swim through the murky waters of the deep sea, hunting for silt dwelling worms that are occasionally exposed. Another predator is the spitting-worm, a large invertibrate that kills its victims with a poisonous mucus that contains digestive enzymes that help the worm devour its prey.”

I must admit, some run-on sentences and odd terminology (“herds” of fish?) aside, it holds up not too badly. However, the biology aspects, which were the whole reason for the story, don’t take up a huge amount of the report. That didn’t stop me from getting a 30/30 for my assignment. My teacher wrote on the last page: “You have gone far above and beyond what was required.” And that remains my favorite comment from a teacher ever.

I may laugh at some of it now, but I can see my progression as an author. It’s said that you have to write a million words of crap before you can get to the good stuff. I’d like to think I’m finally at that point.

So, what have you got hidden away in your secret files? Confess!

42 thoughts on “Skeletons From The Writer’s Closet by Christopher M. Chupik

  1. I wisely restricted most of my early storytelling attempts to role playing games. No one recorded my early struggles with plots and characterization. Even better, when my stories fell flat (which was often, in the early days), I just threw a band of Orcs at the players and distracted them from my mistakes. Problem solved!

      1. And when they become too powerful for Orcs, you can just step up to dragons! If only I could get away with that in my space opera novels…

        1. Of course you can! An alien species that adapted to space — vast in size to help moderate temperatures — thick scaly skin to act as protection — breathing fire, well I can’t do all the work. . 0:)

    1. Mine are lost, forever, on ancient 5.25 inch floppies. That have sat untended in boxes over several moves, exposed to heat (and hopefully magnets), before finally being lost. What I do have access to from this century is bad enough.

  2. Ah, my files and such. I have lost far too many documents that I cry over, and others I cringe over. Memories of public school creative writing always seemed to involve me coming into some money. Much later RPG’s were my creative outlet with friends pushing for back story for characters or me trying to build interesting worlds. Much was cribbed, much was crap. Still working on creating something good.

  3. I must admit to feeling rather undressed when among writers that talk about their fiction from the “trunk.” Whatever I had from my early days would have been from high school English, and those are long gone. (Although I can guarantee that, in the event they do turn up, they are perfectly grammatical and devoid of spelling errors. My HS teacher took her Masters from Vassar in the 1940s.)

    However, if you will allow me to submit software development project plans…

    1. “However, if you will allow me to submit software development project plans…”

      Some of the finest fantasy I’ve ever seen came from that genre…. 😎

  4. > Gravitol

    Haldeman, “All My Sins Remembered,” 1971 (magazine version) and 1977 (book version)

    I keep thinking I saw it in a Bradbury story from the ’50s or ’60s, though.

    1. Interesting. Like I said, I’m not sure where I picked the term up, but I did read a lot of Bradbury in junior high, so maybe there?

  5. I prefer not to harsh my previous work. As adults we need to forgive ourselves for being kids once (its been a long time), and not dwell on the flaws. (This is not from some noble ideal, this is me trying not to f- myself up. Life is hard enough without I should make it harder.)

    Kids don’t do stuff very well, usually. That’s why parents keep those first pots and first paintings. Soon enough the kid will be a big lump of a man or woman, off doing Important Shit, and all the parent has is that goofy painting.

    So, when looking back, I try to cut Past Me some slack. At least Past Me wrote something to look back on, which is more than most people do. Besides, Past Me had the glow of youth, which old busted me needs to be reminded of from time to time. The only glow I’ve got today is an arthritic thumb joint. ~:D

    1. At least Past Me wrote something to look back on, which is more than most people do.

      Yes! Besides, practicing – which is what those early works are – is an honorable and worthy pursuit. Good on you for starting young!

  6. So if start writing 5K words a day (not bloody likely) it’d be at least 6 months before anything worth a damn? Not sure if the right reaction is “Oog” or “Wow, I really need to get started.” Wait… I suspect “Oog.” I have this crazy idea I ought to have something to write about or to say, rather than just splatter letters upon a (virtual?) page.

    1. One of the problems with high-school trunk stories is that they were written by high schoolers. I wrote a great deal of SF when I was in high school (three whole novels and a thick pile of short stories) and looking through those that have survived, the flaws in them lie not in the writing but in the emotional immaturity of the writer. I didn’t know how people worked when I was 15 and 16, so my characters were paper-thin and didn’t learn much. I did tell complete stories with some pretty reasonable action scenes, but they were inspired by the pulp reprints I was reading at the time, which didn’t have much in the line of fully realized characters either.

      Since you’re no longer a teenager and have a pretty keen grasp of human nature, I suspect you could turn out a reasonable yarn without anywhere near as much practice as I needed when I was 15. Find an author you like and imitate the hell out of him/her. That’s basically what I did to get started. Time and eventual maturity provided the rest.

    2. This is exactly why my work in (eternal) progress is the back-story of the universe I actually want to write in. It’s also why it’s not moving; I’m not that interested in it. But I have to write something, so why not that? I’m finding it difficult not to copy X-Men, which is another indication I don’t have a good handle on this story. Perhaps novella-sized back-stories would be a better choice.

      1. Take your characters in your universe, and hand them a problem. A big, hard, can’t-ignore-it problem, preferably one they can shoot. You don’t even have to know the answer to it. Let them loose, and they’ll solve it for you.

        Or die, which is also a kind of story. Probably get a Hugo. 😡

      2. Filing off the serial numbers, like all other writerly skills, takes practice. We’ve probably all written some heavily derivative work.

    3. It’s not that bad. Some of the skills you use transfer from other types of practice. You post on the internet a fair amount, you’ve learned some of the helpful things from that. There’s also a lot that can be learned through osmosis merely by extensively reading. If you produce, and get one other thing right you can pull enough of an audience to get better at the rest.

      It’s more accessible than it sounds.

      Says the guy who reads a lot of fanfic.

      RoI is another story. Best return on investment, at least in my case, is probably writing code, job applications, or something of that sort.

  7. There’s another value in keeping your trunk stories and flipping through them from time to time: It reminds you how far you’ve come. On occasion it may also remind you that you were not as bad a writer in 1968 as you thought you were.

    And something else: Ideas. I got the idea for the core concept in my latest novel Ten Gentle Opportunities fifty years ago, when I was 15. I tried to spin a story around it when I was 15 and failed. I tried again when I was 32 and failed a second time. I took a third run in 2006, when I was 54, and this time I finished it, though it took me six years. The problem wasn’t the ideas but what to do with them. I eventually figured that out.

    In summary, keep everything you write. Everything. Your current self is not the best judge of what will become useful in the future. Let your future self make those decisions.

  8. ” ‘LOOK, Theres a WERID thing comeing!’ It was a Tyrannosaurus Rex! It was 22 meters long and 40 feet tall!”
    For what it’s worth, the entire time I worked on the development of the Aries 5 heavy lift rocket the graphic depiction we used for talking points, discussion papers, and powerpoint presentations gave the length in feet and the diameter in meters.
    Used to drive us engineers bonkers, but they cancelled the program before they ever fixed it. But hey, it’s not like mixed measurement systems ever caused us any problems is it?

  9. Fortunately, my early attempts at writing were on paper and got lost in moves. 😉

    One of the lost stories was about “powerful psychics” set on an Earth where everybody lived in domed cities (I wrote it when pollution was said to kill us all). I think it was extremely forgettable as I don’t remember much about it.

    Another lost story was set in a Human-Only galaxy (humans evolved on several planets & could interbreed) that was also my reaction to Star Trek & Star Fleet. IE My exploration starships were “better/more realistic” than the Enterprise. While I’ve rejected the “Human-Only galaxy” idea, I still think I could make a case for my ideas for exploration starships were better than Star Trek’s. 😀

    The oldest Story Universe that I have saved on electrons is my Etueli-Human Universe. The Etueli started out looking like the little aliens in Close Encounters of the Turd Kind (yes I disliked that movie. How did you know?). I decided that the Close Encounter alien-appearance made the Etueli look less than a danger. Currently the Etueli society has (or had) similarities to Stirling’s Draka but two factions are much nicer people than the third. One of the factions will be allies of the “Earth Alliance” (I used that term before B5). The second faction will be friendly neutrals. While the third will have to be taught proper manners. 😉

    While I have nothing in writing on this civilization, another major civilization (with several alien species) exists in the Etueli-Human Universe. I’ve just call it the Empire. It’s a force for good in the Galaxy and if they were in our neighborhood before the Etueli found Earth, we wouldn’t know about them or the Etueli until we developed FTL drives.

    Associated with the Empire (friendly but not part of the Empire) are my answer to Star Trek’s Organians. The Empire calls them the Enigmatic Ones as they are very enigmatic and haven’t said what they prefer to be called. All that the Empire really knows is that they are very powerful, they are friendly, have rules that limit their involvement in other species’ matters, strongly hate genocide and dislike being considered “beings worthy of worship”. The Empire knows of a case where a group gathered inside a building to worship the Enigmatic Ones but the service was interrupted by a thunderstorm inside the building. 😀

    The only one of the Enigmatic Ones that I’ve focused on is one that calls himself “Young Trickster”. Like most of his “species”, his true form isn’t known but he always takes the appearance of a pre-adolescent male. While he may be decades (or centuries) old, he just hasn’t completely grown-up. There’s some reason to believe that he has chosen not to become an adult but as long as he doesn’t cause problems for other species his parents (and other adult Enigmatic Ones) allow this. Mind you, he is a responsible pre-adolescent and his involvement in Etueli-Human matters may be a sign that he’s finally “growing up”.

    I could talk on about these ideas and some of my current ideas but I think this post is getting too big. 😀

  10. I burned my teenaged writings. No, seriously, fire in a metal fire-pit and in went the notebooks. All I have is my poetry (mostly “odes to dead trees” protoGoth stuff). I do have some of my early aviation writing, because the “oh woe is me” isn’t nearly as thick. The characters who became Rada Ni Drako, Zabet, and Master Thomas (aka Himself) came from that era, but in very different forms. They survived in my imagination, waiting to take the forms they have now.

    After writing three novels-worth of fiction, I went back to revise my dissertation. Erk, Hooooooolycatz, how did the committee even pass that? *shudder* I count the dissertation as 85K worth toward the million words of crud.

    1. I’ve lost a poem I wrote around nineteen,that came to me all at once. It’s told from the POV of a victorious warrior, immediately after a desperate battle. Except, at that moment, he felt the weight of the years, and, looking over his life, wondered if he had ever won at all. Possibly the darkest thing I’ve ever written. Alas, I lost the poem long ago, and attempts at reconstructing it have all failed.

    2. After writing three novels-worth of fiction, I went back to revise my dissertation. Erk, Hooooooolycatz, how did the committee even pass that? *shudder* I count the dissertation as 85K worth toward the million words of crud.

      After proofreading this years Load Forecast Narrative, I found even more typos. There shouldn’t have been any in that section: It’s in a static section that gives pertinent background, and I’ve proofread it every year for over twenty or so. This has me wondering if maybe typos breed, because I’m almost positive one in particular was not in the first several.

  11. Nearly everything I wrote in high school and middle school was lost when my family computer’s hard drive crashed. Precious little of value was lost. (Rip-offs of Hammer’s Slammers and an obscure Christian post-apocalyptic eschatological fantasy series, plus some really lousy poetry.)

    However, I still carry around the story ideas in my head–and, in at least one case, by the time I actually get around to writing the thing the series it was based on should be quite forgotten.

  12. I’m considered to have a writing impairment. So my earliest unfinished projects of that nature were never transcribed. I did a lot of worldbuilding, but plot and characters were much thinner on the ground. At one point I had planned a romance whose initiating event was a /stabbing/. Nowadays I have some pretty severe reservations about the viability of that project.

    I like big sprawling complicated scenarios, but currently only have the chops to pull off very short stories.

    My latest project seed starts ‘Consider a ship that travels by FTL through n dimensions. Imagine a catastrophic accident that kills the senior crew, and ruins many instruments. How can one person who just barely has the necessary math lead the survivors home, or at least to safety?’

  13. Star Wars fanfic.

    Star Wars fanfic repurposed with serial numbers scratched off and trying to pass as original fic.

    A piece of pretentious philosophizing masquerading as a novel for which I should be smacked upside the head (mea culpa).

    An instance of: Hey this is a great concept but I have absolutely no ideas for a plot and characters, but ISN’T THIS A GREAT CONCEPT ( not gonna say what the concept was, cause it’s still a damn good concept if I can just get my act together and find a story that fits it.)

    A woe-is-me novella inspired by Turin Turumbar. Pure distilled angst.

  14. Pern and Cadfael fanfic that no one ever has or ever will see.

    The human girl raised by Space Aliens and now being returned to the wild, so to speak. The idea has merit, and I really ought to do a YA based on it.

    A Space Opera, with the handsome star pilot, his cat and his sidekick the very large sentient butterfly. Except I was trying to do it as a comic strip. I found it a few years ago–my main thought was that I really ought to have kept drawing.

    Lots of oddball dytopias, Post nuclear war and so forth that haven’t survived. Some playing around with parallel world ideas.

    And, well, the grammar and spelling and homonym abuse are, umm, marginally worse that my writing now. Not much improvement to be seen there.

    1. I have a Pern filk song (based on Dragonsdawn)that actually isn’t too bad, from seventh grade. If I clean up the tune and have somebody else make up completely new words to it, it will be perfect. Not the first music I ever wrote, but the first decent complete song.

  15. The oldest thing that I think I could lay my hands on is some poetry from grade school. Yes, grade school. We had a professional poet (that exists) come around once a week and teach us about meter, rhyme, when not to bother with rhyme, and descriptive language. He even had us do a poetry reading—the only part that bothered me about that was that he picked the poem of ours that we read, and he made me read “Ode to a Pomegranate” (from the “ode to a fruit” assignment.) “O pomegranate, round-maroon/split with blood-red seeds/hundreds, thousands, more!” I was not fond of that poem. Wish I’d known the word “myriad” at the time, it would have come in handy.

    I know for certain that I could lay my hands on my high school poetry. While some of them are the typical angst, there’s enough stuff worth mining or at least laughing at that I keep it around. And I have my early WP stuff on this current computer, though I’d need to convert it to something readable and re-type it to remove the trash.

  16. Pretty much everything from grade school was lost for various reasons. I have vague memories of a future of undersea domes and a society that was pretty heavily regimented, with formal curfews and bedtimes for everyone, etc. But it was more of a setting than a story, without any characters or anything happening to them. I think my stuff from jr high and high school is still in a box somewhere, but it was all written in pencil and there’s no telling how badly rubbed it has become over the years, or how well the (cheap filler, and very non-archival) paper has held up. For all I know, it may well all be unreadable by this point.

    I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff I wrote since I started undergrad work is still around and in readable condition. I did lose about half of a fanfic I wrote (by invitation) but wasn’t accepted, and there’s some stuff that I can only read if I run an old computer that can read the format (I’m trying to get all of that stuff converted to something OO.o 4 can read, but there’s so much it’s taking a long time).

  17. Ah, the works I wrote in the immediate wake of reading Lord Dunsany.

    “the First Terrible Fate That Befalleth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy”.

  18. When I was in grade school I wrote a silly little poem to humorously express my love of trains. It was called “Trains Are Great.” Very Young Me wanted to write science fiction stories, but I felt I didn’t have the skills to do it properly so I decided to study the art of storytelling (mostly by reading and seeing how other authors did it, but also by paying close attention in my English classes) and try again when I was older.

    My first science fiction stories I wrote in high school and college. Those were the adventures of people in something called the Planetary Patrol (later upgraded to the Galactic Exploration & Survey) and dealt mostly with battling space pirates and sinister aliens. Then I switched to writing science fiction mysteries featuring Special Agent Carson Wells whose cases mostly dealt with… space pirates and sinister aliens with space mobsters thrown in for good measure. I would say that the Carson Wells stories are when I really started getting serious about writing and learning how to be a better writer, I even started collecting various writing reference books (the only one I still have, and my absolute favorite by far, is my trusty Character Naming Sourcebook). I learned a great deal about writing while working on those Carson Wells stories. I have most of them safely tucked away in a folder on my backup drive.

  19. Ummm… Some research papers that never gelled, and will blessedly remain unpublished.

    Other research papers that did gell; some were even published.

    A 200+ page dissertation, written in a 3.5 month death-march.

    Two co-authored technical books; waaaay beyond doorstop size and absolutely guaranteed not only as cures for insomnia, but also as useful dead-weight for getting into shape for a back-packing trip. They’re also the definitive books in their area, continue to sell, and have made me… um… almost an entire paycheck over the past 5 years. They’re written entirely in standardseze, which is a language similar to English but optimized for precision of expression at the expense of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING ELSE. My brain _still_ hurts.

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