I've always been a writer—although I haven't always thought of myself that way. Indeed, for many years after leaving school, the only written output that I considered relevant consisted of one short story, a couple of unfinished attempts at short stories, and perhaps a dozen poems. And most of those were haiku, which aren't exactly wordy.
That long dry spell seems to be at odds with my claim; when I look back on that time, however, I realise that I was spending night after night on a couple of online forums, pouring thousands of words into the sorts of arguments that nobody ever seems to win: Evolution vs Creation was probably my most popular topic of discussion. It became apparent quite early that many of the people on both sides had no idea what they were actually talking about—and while I couldn't do much to educate everyone else, I decided that I could at least improve my own understanding of both sides of the coin. I bought biology texts, I bought religious holy books, I read as much as I could squeeze into my day—and still I would spend hours each night, writing. Perhaps I never changed any opinions, but that period certainly helped cement my own ideas.
My love affair with the topic soured when I finally realised that nothing was going to change, and that I was writing in circles. My love affair with the site on which I was having these discussions soured after a bizarre encounter with somebody who I thought was a friend—I've never been good with confrontation, and the whole thing left me feeling a little shell-shocked and nervous, so I withdrew from the site, little by little. Off-hand, I couldn't say exactly when this happened (although it does seem that the last bit of poetry/prose I uploaded there dates to mid-2002) but it left me with a big hole in my writing life.
Sometime in 2002 I heard rumours about this crazy internet "competition" that would be kicking off in November, called NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month. The idea, crazy and impossible as it is: write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I didn't realise it at the time, but 2002 was the first year they went public with the idea, after having run it as a friend-only event a couple of years before that.
Maybe, I thought, I should give that a try... And then I promptly forgot all about it, until late October rolled around and I remembered my earlier thought. Was it feasible? Could I do it?
Was I a writer?
Well, I was certainly a reader. I'd always had a feel for the English language. I'd always had characters and stories floating around in my head—and once or twice, even as far back as year 7 or 8 in school, I'd attempted to commit them to paper. Without much success, true—but this NaNoWriMo idea might be just what I needed to kickstart my career as a writer!
So I signed up, and in November 2002 I set out to write my first novel.
With a tentative working title of DreamScape (titles have never been my strong suit. Well, titles and names!) I started writing. Wanting to keep things simple, I wrote in a plain text editor, using simple /slashes/ to denote italics, a couple of other simple codes—and, because I'm a geek, I wrote myself a Perl script to transform the text files into HTML and upload them to my website every night. My script also generated an accurate wordcount, discarding chapter titles and other non-word "words" that such lesser programs as, say, Microsoft Word, tend to count.
In NaNoWriMo, wordcount is king!
Chapter 1 of DreamScape started with a nightmare sequence, then became a first person narrative about a guy who lives in Redcliffe, alone but for his cat, who was getting ready for work at the awful time of 4am. "Write what you know", they say, and so I did; apart from the nightmare itself, this was "a day in the life of Pete, doing wacky 5am starts!" Chapter 2 was essentially my version of Stephen King's The Mist, although it incorporated a figure that I actually did have a nightmare about, a figure which, many years later, I would identify as being a relative of Neil Gaiman's Corinthian from his Sandman series. At the time I had not read Sandman... Chapter 3 ... well, that was where it all fell apart.
Total words? Just over 7,000.
So, maybe I had my answer; maybe I wasn't a writer? And yet, I still thought that I could be a writer. One day. When I grew up. After all, 2002 was the year Dad had died. Or maybe it was the nightly uploads that bogged me down? (That actually seems a reasonable conclusion. Once I made my nightly output public—even if nobody was actually reading it, the thought that they might have was enough to lock those words in stone, making it very difficult to change anything!)
So, the next year, I tried again.
This time, my thoughts turned to a character who had been stuck in my head for many years: Cassandra, a soldier of the future, a marine, wounded in combat. I would explore her story.
Except, it turned out, I really didn't have much of a story for her, and the attempt fizzled out in just under 3800 words.
This failure left me pretty demoralised. However, as the following NaNoWriMo approached, new ideas started to flit through my head—and I'd even done a little independent writing that year. Why not give it one last try?
I think the fact that this has no title is a pretty good indicator of how the attempt went. I failed miserably, writing a mere 1151 words before packing it in. I had an idea involving an assassin, and an alien princess, which seemed to be mostly inspired by the words from the chorus of the Jerry Harrison song: Pretty girl, young man, old man, man with a gun. I didn't (don't) even know the rest of the song, but I got something from it that I thought had potential. It just didn't want to happen, though.
Clearly I was a total failure as a writer.
This was actually one of the lowest points of my miserable existence, I was drowning in depression, for reasons other than my writing, but this final failure was pretty much the icing on the cake. I might as well just sit in my hole and eat myself to death. My thoughts brushed up against the idea of suicide fairly regularly in those dark days, although never seriously. I could never quite convince myself of the lie that nobody would miss me because there was always that tiny voice in my head that replied: Mum would!
One thing was clear, though: I had been deluding myself. I couldn't write my way out of a wet paper bag, and I would never, ever, ever attempt NaNoWriMo again!