As a Professor wisely told us, the first step to a good writing group or workshop is to give a one time apology for all the things that embarrass you of your writing, and then move on. We are learning, so it’s is obvious we’ll make mistakes; and even if we are masters of our crafts, we are bound to make mistakes too.
So here is my apology:
I’m sorry for typos, for horrible grammar, for painful ideas. I hope I don’t scar you with my mistakes, and I can only promise that I’m trying my best to improve so that I will bring delight and enjoyment to your reading.
There. I’ve apologized. Now, let’s get to business.
Where did this First Draft come from?
This first first draft grew from an exercise that made you list your first and last times that you’ve had in your lifetime, which could be true or false, and then if it is a true event to add something to the event that is untrue and if it is a false event, to add something true. This exercise was given to me by Professor Nancy Welch, from the University of Vermont.
Having said this, here is the first draft of the short story.
The crime in the essay
© Vanesa L. Perillo 2016
You hide behind the newspaper with the screaming headline that the police have no clues about the person responsible for the district attorney’s murder two days ago inside his house, nor are they willing to release the details of the tragedy. The press is angry about that, but you don’t really care about it. You pity the man’s family, but give them no second thoughts. The newspaper is a front. Your mind is in the story inside the book that is hidden behind it. There are dragons and magic in the story, and foretelling of war. You wish magic was true and adventures could be lived in everyday life. It would be much better than learning something you already know.
The English As Second Language teacher doesn’t mind that you read the newspaper because it is in English and thinks it is cute that you want to know more about what is happening in the world. The fact that you are a chatter box and the newspaper keeps you quiet is a plus.
You don’t really like talking, but you force yourself to. You are in the awkward years and you want to avoid being more awkward that the rest. A year ago, people would look at your too dark clothes, at your silence in the midst of crowds, at the wrinkled scar on your forehead, crudely hidden by uneven bangs of dark brown hair, at your ineptitude in uttering a coherent sentence when the cute guy of the class comes into the room, and all they would see is a weird, uncomfortable girl that would rather spend her time immersed in the latest fantasy books. Not someone the cool kids would care to get to know. Not that it really matters to you, though it does. Being social is overrated, yet how you wish you were understood. So you are experimenting this year and you are talking more. Except in English class. There, your thoughts are your own, completely unknown to those that surround you. There, you hide behind the newspaper and dream about worlds far away, of possibilities closed to you because of reality.
My perfect crime, says the teacher as she writes the words with difficulty on the waxed blackboard that rainy morning of June. It has been raining for days now and it is cold outside, yet inside the classroom the heat distorts the writing, making the faded chalk words harder to read from the back of the room. Her voice is thick with a cold she has been dragging for the last couple of days.
Just a trick you played on your brothers and you got away with or something like this, the teacher adds. Just a couple of pages, no more. Have it ready for the end of the period.
My perfect crime, you read to yourself, raising an eyebrow, yet knowing the outward effect is a look of surprise that doesn’t fit your true reaction. It is an essay that diverts from the usual in the class, leaving the basic vocabulary of second year English learners behind.
A crime? You find no use in committing crimes or tricks. What if you were found guilty? There would be the business of dealing with convincing others of your innocence. There is no real crime to write about.
As long as you actually write the pages and keep the writing as close as you can to the instructions of the assignment, infinity is the only limit. Imagination is your savior for this task. It is your true best friend, the one that makes up thousands of worlds and magic you wish would rise from the depths of fantasy into the real world.
The room quiets down, though here and there there are bursts of rebellion as your classmates, uninterested in their grades, talk about their next night at the disco, or how their favorite soccer team is doing. You forget about them as you focus on the page.
You like the feel of it, the soft, silky texture of the brand new page in a brand new notebook. You like the smell of paper and the razor sharpness of it as you carefully run your fingers along the edge.
The words flow into the page without needed thought. You have been reading in English for years now. The class is only a legal obligation that schools force on you even if you learned from other sources long ago. You see the ink start to fill the page in shades of blue, your mind almost detached from the movements of your arms.
Before you know it, you are done. The last word is written. You become aware of the cacophony of voices of your classmates and over them, your teacher’s, trying and failing to quiet the unruly classroom that is under her charge.
You can almost listen to the sigh that leaves her lips when the bell rings. Ten-minute break, then the class resumes. You walk to her and give her your perfect crime. She puts it in the folder without a care, then dashes for freedom from the four white walls that trap you every weekday for seven hours. The folder is still clutched to her fingers.
You go back to your desk, to your book, to the world away from school. The way there is, as always, unbearable. Despite your efforts to be more talkative this year, you know they are not buying it. You can feel the looks of distrust, of apathy, of accusation from the others as they watch you take step after step. You can feel your skin bristling from the negative emotion burning up the room and aimed at you. You know the others haven’t done as they have been told and their grades will be punished because of you. Your being more talkative hasn’t earned you any new friends.
The ten minutes fly past with dragons going into war and heroes doubting of their bravery. Your mind refuses to leave them, but it is unavoidable.
The class resumes. You notice the teacher is giving you an odd look. She seems to want to say something to you, but immediately seems to change her mind and turns to talk about the next assignment to all of you.
When she is done, she goes to her desk. You try to focus on the new task, but you can’t help yourself and look at her. You find her looking back at you, her blue eyes wide, her brown eyebrows together in a frown, as they clash with the fake blonde coloring of her long, curly hair.
She motions you to come closer. Off you go, feet moving almost against your will, already dreading having to communicate.
You look at each other in silence. You are unwilling to be the first one to utter a word. She is the one that called you after all.
I’m sorry, dear. I’m going to have to give you detention, she finally says into your mutual silence. You’ll have to stay after class.
You blink, surprised. You have never been given detention. You have done nothing wrong. Your grades are the highest of the class and you are in the running to become valedictorian.
The pages in her hands draw your attention. You recognize your messy, still too childish handwriting. Your essay. It dawns on you. Maybe you deviated too far from the instructions.
You shrug. Your parents won’t mind if you arrive late from school. They are used to you going off without a word. They know you work hard and always behave well, so they don’t complain about your refusal to say where you are off to. There is nothing to worry about. You won’t tell them about being grounded, of course.
She seems to want to say something else, but closes her mouth into a thin line that makes her upper lip disappear for a second. There is nothing else to say it seems.
Puzzled, you spend the rest of the class reading the book, but you don’t register what the dragon says or feel the weeping sadness of the princess that is lost to the great beast. You don’t wish again that the stories or magic were real. Your busy mind circles back to your story.
You have gone too far perhaps. The subject was too dark. You were inspired by the story on the newspaper. Choosing the role of a paid murderer as the central subject of your essay might have been pushing the limits. You think back on it; try to recall the details you wrote.
With her blonde hair hidden poorly under a soaked hat, the murderer goes into the old dark manor through the garden door. The district attorney is too trusting of his beloved status to believe in security guards or cameras around his house, making her entrance a simple job.
She feels the cold in her bones and bristles at the feel of her hair wet against her skin. The hard wind had made a mess of the bun she had put her hair in and she shivers as a few drops of cold water drip from her once curly hair and slide down underneath the collar of her black clothes.
The house is dark; Everyone, even the old russet husky, sleep the dreams of the safe. The woman smiles at the dog and makes sure there is no sound as she walks and maneuvers safely the old creaking staircase the animal had been guarding.
She reaches the bedroom, with its Louis XVI furniture and overcrowded walls. Her feet avoid shoes and clothes and in no time she reaches the bed. There he is sleeping, facing upwards, an arm extended so his wife is able to cushion her head on his shoulder.
It is all in the slice of the knife. It is soundless and fast. Without even disturbing the sleeping woman, the murderer watches as the blood gushes from the cut she had made. As the gurgling of the red begins, the woman leaves with the conscience of a job well done. The wife will wake up soon and the screams will begin. The murderer will be far away to hear them. She will be even farther away before disposing the weapon. She knows what needs to be done to stay safe.
The murderer of the district attorney, you wrote in the essay, is a woman, a hired killer with no regrets. She lives a normal life, with a normal job, teaching kids during the day. The nights are different, though. Just a few murders a month earn her the tax free summer house in the Bahamas where she goes every summer.
Part of your mind registers the bell, and your fellow classmates leaving, cheering the end of the day, closing the doors behind them. You notice the sudden lack of noise in the room as the relief of silence booms in your ears, yet you stay still, your mind busy with reeling details.
You look at the blond curls of your teacher as she approaches you. You look at her hands and she has your work in one hand and a sharp, silver hunting knife in the other. The clicking of her shoes is the only sound that fills the room, besides your heavy breathing.
She stops right in front of you and puts the story right in your face. You try to swallow air through a throat that dried too fast. You lift your eyes to her face and in it you find her eyes narrowed in suspicion and curiosity. The knife reflects the light from the ceiling and hurts your eyes.
Tell me, she says, how did you know?
Magic?, you say with a frozen, panicked smile and you wish you hadn’t wished.
I hope you liked this First Draft as much as I enjoyed writing it.
So now that you’ve read this First Draft, what are your first impressions? What would you do to improve it?
Now give it a second read and think in terms of setting, characters, point of view, showing, not telling… What seems missing? What isn’t necessary?
Next week, I’ll be talking about revising this short story. I’ll tell you my answers to the questions I just gave you and take you through the process of how I’m revising it.
See you next week!