We’ve been workshopping for the past few days in the fiction writing camp I’ve been running. And since I wanted to set an example for how it would run, I submitted something as well and went first. I didn’t think it would be quite fair (or useful) for me to send something I’m working on now, so I went back in time and submitted something earlier. The first chapter of the first draft of my first novel, written all the way back in . . . 2003? Something like that. So writing from 15 years ago.
And because I like to share with you lovely people, I thought I’d slap it up here today for you to read. Tomorrow, my plan is to put up the final draft of the first chapter, just as a contrast to how things changed over the drafts. Even if no one else thinks that’s interesting . . . I do.
So anyway. Here you go. The first chapter of MAGNIFIA PERIL. (I’ve gotten a smidge better at titles in the intervening years. Not much, but every bit counts . . .
Everything had gone wrong ever since they tried to make me a princess. Don’t go judging me right off the bat, though. One thing I can’t stand is people judging people before they give them a fair chance. If I had become a princess in the normal fashion, I’m sure I would have been perfectly fine with the whole deal. All the girls who became princesses in fairy tales certainly didn’t seem to have that big of a problem with it. You didn’t catch Cinderella complaining about having to leave her fireplace, or Sleeping Beauty whining about being woken up. Snow White seemed quite glad to be saved from eternal death, as a matter of fact, though they never mention if she was happy to leave the dwarves behind or not, so I suppose that particular story is still up for debate. In any case, the bottom line is that regardless of all those other princesses, I got a raw deal. You see, I wasn’t born a princess–my father’s not a king. He’s a librarian–or at least he used to be until he tried to switch career lanes. Of course it had to come right before I entered High School. Fathers never take their daughter’s lives into consideration. That’s probably why Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty had such an easy time with it–they never had to deal with their dads all that much.
If he could have just stayed a librarian–we would have been fine. He’s always been worried about money, though. Can you imagine that? I mean, if he was so interested in having cash, what in the world did he go and become a librarian for? Maybe if he dealt in expensive rare books or something–do you have any idea what it’s like to have to bring your dad to “bring your dad to school day” and tell everyone that he’s a librarian? Johnny Esterfield’s dad was on a Cops episode–as a police officer, not a criminal, although I admit that with Johnny you can’t be too sure. Rebecca McFarland’s dad sued Burger King for millions. My dad can research the mating habits of the blue whale, but I hardly think that’s going to get him any serious money. Who knew that that stupid ad in the paper would turn out to be for real?
It hadn’t worked before–dad had tried all of the get rich quick schemes. There was that one where he could have made thousands of dollars a month–if he could lick enough envelopes, that is. He tried it though–he’s a librarian, not a mathematician, I guess. Then there was the other deal that had him recruit people to recruit other people to recruit–you get the picture. The whole thing practically screamed pyramid scheme, but did dad pay any attention? No way. There was nothing that he wouldn’t give a fair shot to. It all comes from the librarian in him–he believes anything he reads.
So when he read the ad that said “Wanted: One King to Rule Over Magnifia. Salary Negotiable. Some Experience Required,” he was scrambling for a pen and paper to write down the address quicker than you can blink. Naturally they didn’t have a phone number–those kind of ads never do, and when they have one, then it can’t be traced. It’s true. Rebecca McFarland told me so, and if her dad’s a lawyer, then she should know. You don’t win millions by being an idiot. So anyway, I tried to tell my dad that he’d better be watching out for some kind of scheme, and I tried to remind him about all those other times in the past that we’ve gotten packed, but he just kept feeding me the “fair shot” line until I gave up. In a few years, I’d have my own job and I’d be out of that house. He wouldn’t have to worry about me, and I could take a break from worrying about him for a while.
I have never been a believer in my dad’s ideas, so when I came home from school the next day, I was stunned to find a package lying on the kitchen counter. I’m the first person home every day. Dad is usually at the library until six or seven. He loses track of time pretty easily when he’s reading or researching, and since that covers pretty much all of his time at work, I usually don’t even worry about him until nine or ten. There was one time when he didn’t come home until past midnight, and I was pretty steamed with him. He’s the kind of guy who has to be kept in check–remind him to eat dinner, breakfast–that kind of thing. Not that I care about him that much or anything. I mean, if he didn’t keep those paychecks coming, I’d probably starve.
So Dad was pretty much out of my afternoon picture, and Jacob never got home until four thirty or five, assuming he wasn’t off playing DnD with his loser friends. He really had the life. He got to start school later than me, he never had any homework–at least none that he’d admit to–and he always had his nose in one of those fantasy books. Not that he was a goth or anything. He wasn’t antisocial, what with all his friends and all. I just wished he’d pick up a sport. All that dice rolling probably helped his forearms, but his skin could have used a bit of sun. It was bad enough having a librarian for a dad–having a geek for a brother was really too much. Of course, he was always telling me that I talked like a drunken dwarf–whatever that means–but what does a twelve year old know about, anyway?
With my family situation in mind, you can probably tell why I was so surprised to see a package on the table when I got home. No one would have been there to pick it up earlier. I thought at first that Jacob had skipped school or was sick, but my calls upstairs went unanswered as I put down my bags. So I took a little closer look at the package. It had no postage, was hand written, and smelled kind of funny. Sort of like one of those packages they tell you to watch out for because it probably has a bomb in it or something.
Carefully I picked it up and took it outside–away from anything flammable. Knowing my dad, he would just see the thing and tear it open. Cleaning up the mess afterwards wouldn’t be pretty. Not that I’m a neat freak or anything–I just like to keep things tidy. I went back inside and grabbed a pair of scissors. Have you ever tried opening a mail bomb before? It’s not something that comes up every day, but if you ever get the chance, you should do it. The feeling you get, not knowing if the next minute your hand is going to disappear or you’re going to black out or what. Looking back on it, I guess I should have waited for Jacob to open it. He’d probably know more about bombs, what with all the internet surfing he does. Plus, he’s expendable. I mean, if anything happened to me, no one would have a clue about what to do. At least I could call 9-1-1 for my Dad or Jacob. And I would know how to clean up afterwards. I guess it was really selfish of me to open that thing, not that it ended up mattering.
I cut along the end opposite the normal opening, away from any potential wires. The paper was pretty thick, and it took some effort to get the thing fully opened. When I did, I was a little disappointed to see that there were no wires or explosives or anything. Mail bombs are rather flattering, when you think of it, assuming that they’re not sent to you by some psycho in a hut. I mean, someone has to really dislike you to want to blow you up. It takes a lot to inspire that kind of emotion. Of course, this one was sent to us by a mail order response, and so it most likely fell under the “psycho in a hut” department, but it still would have been fun to tell my friends at school about.
In any case, instead of plastic explosives, the package had a travel brochure. That’s the best I can do to explain it. It looked like a travel brochure from some two-bit country–the kind of travel brochure Arkansas would send out, or maybe Kansas. “Come see the home of Dorothy”–that kind of line. Except this one was all about this place called Magnifia, and it was all hand drawn. At least that’s what it looked like, but it was probably just some snazzy laser printer or something like that. Magnifia–I thought it must have been one of those tiny European countries–they’re always changing their names. Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Inertia–it even fit in with the typical pattern. It was all written by hand in a script kind of like that old German style–the one where the s’s look like f’s, and the letters have all this extra curly stuff. The pictures even looked like they were hand painted. Watercolors showing rolling countryside and this massive castle with banner fluttering lightly in the breeze. I swear the thing almost made me want to write a poem, not that I’ve done anything that stupid since I went to middle school. Poetry was just a phase I went through in grade school–kind of like Barbies. The whole thing was probably done by a fancy laser printer, but it still made quite a first impression, and those carry a lot of weight with me.
The content of the brochure sounded pretty impressive. It sounded way too good to be true, and so I figured it probably was. Too good to be true, that is. I have a copy here, so I’ll just put it in so that you can judge for yourself.
Greetings and salutations from the Subcommittee of Rites and Successions of the Committee of Rules and Regulations. With utmost gratitude we thank you for your interest in taking up the role of Monarch of Magnifia. We realize that this would involve much change on your part, and we hope that through this message, we may convey to you the many advantages and opportunities this land has to offer you.
First of all, may we reassure you that the death of our past Monarch was in no way suspicious. He did not die of poisoning or hexing, and there is nothing to any rumors you might have heard of an invading dragon. Such lies are preposterous, and are the fruits of vicious, narrow minds. King Frazzahr died quite simply of a nasty fall down the stairs. We do have plenty of stairs here at Castle Ellegahrt, and so the chances of this happening are much greater than they would be in your land. Have no fear, a committee has been appointed to look into ways we may avoid this unfortunate tragedy in the future, and we trust that an answer is forthcoming within the next few years.
Perhaps you would like to know a bit more about our country. We are not large in relation to the lands around us, but we have very good relations to all, and have had no involvement in disputes since the War of the Brothers in the year 2931. Our primary exports are centered around agriculture, though we have our fair share of lumber, as well. You need not concern yourself with the management of such affairs, as we have numerous committees overseeing practically ever area of government. You may of course make changes to these committees upon your appointment as king, though these changes must naturally first be authorized by the Committee of Change and Progress. But we digress.
There are far too many details for us to cover is such a brief correspondence as this, and so we invite you to bring your family for a week’s stay. Enclosed you will find a key. Please take this key to the nearest elevator. One in a building with more than five floors, if at all possible. Simply insert the key into any sort of a keyhole you see–usually we are told they have some for janitorial use, at the very least–and press the button for the top floor. We will have someone meet you upon your arrival.
Do not worry about sending word of your anticipated arrival time. Just bring enough clothes to last you for a week. We are currently in the summer months, so plan to dress accordingly. We look forward to your arrival.
SORSCORR Head Secretary
Now, what would you have thought from that? I had to say one thing–it read like it was written by a committee–like those letters you always get to take home to your parents about this and that school rule change. The more people you have thinking something up, the less fun and original the end product is likely to be. Still, it did nothing to make me think that this wasn’t some kind of scam job. Travel by elevator. Elevator. Like the one you find in hotels or malls or something. Who did these people think they were–Willy Wonka? Besides, it’s not like we lived in the city, where there were five story buildings on every block. The closest one was the Holiday Inn, and that was like thirty minutes away. I had one guess about what would happen. My dad would file us all into the elevator, we would go to the top floor, the door would open, and a bunch of masked men with guns would rob us blind. Besides, the whole letter sounded like it was straight out of one of my brother’s fantasy games. It had the kind of crazy made up facts that only a man holed up with his computer for days on end could think up. The key idea was original, though. I took it out of the package to get a better look at it. Gold plated, skeleton style. The odds of it fitting into anything remotely resembling an elevator keyhole were slim to none. It looked very hand made, but I guessed that was just keeping in line with the whole theme of the brochure. How wrong I was.
When my dad came home, he was a mixture of emotions. I swear it was like I had opened up his Christmas presents early. I have to confess that I started the argument, but it was a matter of necessities. Never let parents get the upper hand in a discussion. They start trying to pull rank on you, and that kind of behavior can’t be allowed to take root.
“Did you see this?” My dad never notices anything unless it’s shoved under his nose, which was what I was doing with the package right then.
“See what? Oh–a package! Who’s it from?” That’s another thing about my dad–very poor short term memory, though I have to admit, his long term memory is killer. You can’t pull the wool over his eyes for too long, because sooner or later he remembers what you’ve been doing, and they you’re in for it.
“Who do you think, dad? That whole Magnifia deal you wrote to yesterday.”
“Magnifica? I don’t recall writing to–”
“Dad! It was just another one of your newspaper ad things. I’m throwing it away.” Original key idea or not, if I could get rid of this before my Dad read it, we would all be better off. Once he read something, it became as real as anything to him.
“Throw it away? Why would you do that? It’s my package.” He can be fast when he wants to, and he had that package out of my hands before I could blink. He turned it right side up to tear it open. That’s when everything else fell out the other side where I had carefully cut it earlier in the day. Poor memory or no, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice someone tampered with your mail. Dad didn’t take it all that well.
I knew that I had to say something fast, or else I was going to be in big trouble, regardless of my selfless tendencies only hours before. “Dad, let’s not get all worked up about this thing. I mean, do you realize the ridiculocity of this situation?” If there’s one thing my Dad couldn’t stand, it’s grammar mistakes. One misused or made up word, and he would start lecturing you on usage. I swear–he was worse than Mrs. Fossile, my English teacher.
“Ridiculocity isn’t a word, Susie–you really need to watch your usage.” I thought I had him, but then he continued. “I can’t believe you’d go so far as to open my mail! If your mother were still alive–” Yada yada yada. For brevity’s sake, I think I’ll just leave it at that. You don’t want to hear all about how he got mad at me, or about how he threatened to ground me. It really wasn’t fair. After all, I was the one who risked my life for the sake of the family, and yet he didn’t even blink at the mention of “mail bomb.” He ignored the suspicious circumstances of the package’s arrival, and he didn’t find the key in any way threatening or odd. Sure, he said it was very “singular,” but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try it out as soon as he could. If anything, it meant he was all the more likely to go through with it. “Singular” is one of my Dad’s favorite words, and he only uses it when he gets really excited about something.
I still had an outside hope that Jacob would come through for me on this one occasion. He can be a real dweeb, but every now and then he surprised me. This wasn’t one of those times. He only “aggravated the situation,” as Mr. Yates, the school principal, would have said. He thought the brochure was “super cool,” and started debating with my Dad whether it was hand drawn or laser-printed. That’s just like them–the entire family is faced with the impending doom of a move and financial ruin, and all they care about is how the stupid brochure was made. I was still steamed at my Dad for ignoring my warnings, so I have to admit that I lost it at that point. To this day I still can’t quite remember what I said, except that I said what I really thought. In my case, that can be a tactical error. It’s not that I don’t respect my Dad. He’s a great librarian, and he’d be perfect if he just kept to books. The real world has a way of intruding in on his ideals, though, and he doesn’t like to have to face them. So when I told him what I thought of Magnifia and the idea of going to the Holiday Inn to get robbed, he started throwing words around like “grounded for life” and “ungrateful little.” Of course, I suppose I might have used some combinations like those myself–“shortsighted bookworm” bumps around in my memory for some reason, though I’m sure that I wasn’t that cold hearted.
I finally tried to just give him the whole ultimatum routine. In the movies, that always worked. Julia Roberts would give the guy the “my way or the highway” routine, and within moments he’d be doing whatever she said. Well, the movies never showed fifteen year olds trying it, because it didn’t work. I lived in America, the supposed land of the free, and yet I was told every waking moment by adults what I could or could not do. They told me what to read, what movies I could see, what I should wear, what I should think. And to top it all off, they told me where I had to go for a week with my family. To the Holiday Inn to get mugged. I knew that I was going to be the first girl ever to keep a mugging appointment.
When my rage started to subside–somewhere in the middle of my tantrum–I realized that this discussion was going nowhere, so I ran away. For some reason Hollywood presents running away as cowardly, and I guess it might be in war or duels or stuff like that, but in an argument–if you’re a girl–it can really be a great tool. “The best offense is a good defense.” That’s what the coach is always telling the football team while I’m at cheerleading practice, and what kind of defense could be better than running away? There’s no chance of you getting hurt that way. In an argument, all you have to do is leak a few tears and dash off to your room, and the male who just barely was ready to wring your neck is suddenly all hugs and concerns. It doesn’t always get you what you originally wanted, but it does seem to take care of some of those “grounded for life” phrases–at least it did with my Dad.
In my room I tried to regroup. Things couldn’t possibly be all that bad. Even if I had to go and get mugged, I didn’t have to bring any of my nice clothes or anything. Those robbers would be stuck with some blue light specials–no Banana Republic for them. Not that I had any BR–I was lucky to have what Gap clothes I did. But it was the principles that counted. On the bright side, my Dad might even learn a lesson from the mugging. It never even entered into my mind that any of that letter could actually be true.
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