My Terrible Surprise – The Dreaded High School Novel

A couple days ago, Mary Robinette Kowal asked if I’d care to donate an act of whimsy to a fundraiser she was planning to Sequence Jay Lake’s Cancer.

I said I’d be happy to, and she put me in as their $17,500 goal, tucked between Scalzi and Gaiman like the ham in a coolness sandwich.

I had a couple ideas for what I could do, but wasn’t sure what would sound best, so I told Mary to put me down for “A terrible surprise.”

I figured I’d have at least a week or two before I had to come up with anything. Plenty of time for me to wrap up my own fundraiser, finish a story I have due, and do my amazingly good Kermit the Frog impression singing Rainbow Connection.

Or maybe I’d dig out my Dr Horrible lab coat and engage in a little mad science on my webcam…

Then Mary launched her fundraiser raised more than 20,000 in a single day.

Which was cool. Don’t get me wrong. But it meant I owed them something whimsical NOW.

Unfortunately, I have a bit of a cold right now, so singing is out. And all my glassware is boxed up in the basement. So I decided I’d post up a poem I wrote twenty years ago when I’d first started reading Terry Pratchett. It was called “A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End.”

Despite the fact that I wrote it ages ago, and I can still remember the first few lines:

Oh wizard’s staffs are long and hard and known throughout the land.
A sight to heed, and fear indeed, is a wizard, staff in hand.

It’s everything you’d expect, a long, metrical double entendre. Fanfic I wrote before I knew what fanfic was….

Here’s the problem. I can’t find it. Not in my computer files, and not in the hoarder-esque boxes of old writing I keep squirreled away. Not anywhere.

But I did find something else. A piece of the novel I wrote in high-school.

While it isn’t terribly whimsical in and of itself, I’ll post it up here in a whimsical way, laying open my secret shame for everyone to see.

For you youngsters out there, this is what a dot matrix printout looks like. It’s the closest thing to a cuneiform tablet you’ll ever see.

I started this novel when I was 15-16. It’s the characters are D&D characters created by me and my friends.

This is the start of chapter 4. Don’t worry about being brought into the middle of things. So far the novel has consisted of two flashbacks and a dream sequence. The only action has been our three intrepid adventurers (A barbarian, a dwarf, and a Cat-Man samurai) have moved from one bar to another and  been given a quest by a monk named Dron.

Brace yourselves….

*     *     *

     Lambernath, the all seeing, stood wiping his clean oak bar with his clean, white, linen cloth. As his hand continued it’s unceasing movement it’s owner watched the four figures at the bar and silently gave thanks that there was more to be seeing lately.

     His eyes slowly passed over them all in turn, first the self proclaimed monk, Dron, who had sat waiting at his bar for nearly a week for a band of adventurers to respond to the leaflets that he had posted all over the town. Lambernath knew how anxious he was for help after the many long hours slowly sipping wine in the Cask. Lambernath had known when the trio of adventurers came in that the monk would do everything he could to sign them up.

     Still polishing, Lambernath looked over the dwarf sitting next to Dron. He seemed to be the stereotypical dwarf, his beard was more jet than silver and bristled out from his face and hung down to his waist. His commonplace chain mail hauberk hung to his knees and hooded his head, nothing surprising, as a matter of fact he had seldom seen an adventuring dwarf clad in anything else. His weapons though smaller than the battle axes that so many dwarves preferred were axes nonetheless. His ruddy complexion, fondness of ale, long pointed nose, the swagger and boisterous manner all perfectly dwarven. ‘If I saw him in a room full of mercenaries I wouldn’t notice him at all.’ All of these things viewed together make what a dwarf is expected to be, but it was too perfect and thus suspect.

     Lambernath shook his head as if to clear it, and chastised himself for thinking too much. “Just a dwarf,” he though, “they’ve never been much for originality anyway.”

     Following in dwarven tradition, instead of hammering out the details of the deal Deverax preceded to get hammered.

     Dismissing the dwarf from his mind, the magic user turned his attention to the two oddly matched friends that sat, huddled together. One was dressed in simple leathers, unremarkable except for their size. Occasionally they creaked as Kahn’s muscles bulged when he gestured to emphasize something he was saying. Lambernath strained to hear what they were talking about, but their speech was nonsense, unlike any of the half dozen languages he was fluent in, or another dozen that he could recognize.

     The other’s garb was foreign, and though the eyes of Lambernath the all seeing had beheld many things, they had never seen anything like what the black cloth mask and half cloak hid. His curiosity piqued, he brought to memory every reference to human/animal crossbreeding he could. But nothing matched up. The magic required to make a mating between two different species would be enormous. And the result would probably be much more animal than human. Lycanthropy seemed out too, the change from human to animal was quick and at both human and animal stages the lycanthrope was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

     After a long moment of deep thought on the subject Lambernath gave it up as another one of the many things that he would probably never know.
The three seemed to be well prepared on the physical side of the adventure, But it was always a good plan to have a cleric or a mage along on an adventure. Or, if you could manage it, both. This group had neither, and aside from the obvious magical benefits that come with a wizardly companion, it was good to have someone along to do the heavy thinking. Fighters never were much good at that.

     “Admit it.” Lambernath said to himself, “You want to go with them, you’ve tried the life of an innkeeper and it bores you!” But another part of him wanted to stay where he was, where it was safe. This part had been stung by the dwarf’s remarks about mages. Meant to goad Dron, the bars had hit home with Lambernath instead. Finally he decided on a course of action, he would make his availability known and wait to see what happened. But they would have to ask him, his wounded pride demanded that much.

     Lambernath turned to the dwarf, obviously the leader of the group. His mind working out the perfect thing to say to him. Something that would suggest his availability without making it seem as if they couldn’t handle the adventure themselves (even though they couldn’t) , something that wouldn’t make it seem as if he really wanted to go (even though he did), and most importantly something to appear to the dwarf’s rough nature. In the second that this took, Lambernath turned to Deverax to find that the dwarf was staring intently at him. Cool and calculating, the dwarf’s icy blue eyes showed no hint of the ale that Lambernath had seen him consume.

     Lambernath started to wonder how long the dwarf had been watching him while he had been watching the dwarf’s friends. The carefully thought out words lay forgotten and unused, indeed useless under that gaze.

     They’ll do just fine without me, Lambernath though. He dropped his eyes to the hand that still polished the bar. He stopped the hand and turned his back on the bar. When he spoke his voice was oddly subdued.

     “More ale, anyone?”

*     *     *

Ahhh…. The terrible commas. The recurrent it’s ~ its mistakes. The obsessive internal monologue. The over-description. The cloying reek of cliche….

Best of all, you should know that Lambernath wasn’t a main character in the book. He wasn’t even a secondary character. He was just the innkeeper. The next day everyone left the inn and you never saw him again. He had no business being a POV character.

Simply said, it’s a train wreck.

Here’s the thing. Am I glad I wrote this book? Were the hundreds of hours I spent slaving away at it worthwhile?


The whole purpose of your early writing is to make mistakes so you can get them out of your system. That’s what first novels are for.

You can see a few good ideas in there, desperately struggling to raise their heads out of the morass of mistake. I was trying to build mystery. (The cat man was actually a Kensai with a magical curse in his past.) I was trying (and failing) to figure out what a plot was.

And I was trying to show that while the dwarf *looked* cliche, there was something more to him that just a stereotype. It was my first fumbling attempt to twist a genre trope into something fresh and new. Not that I knew what the word “trope” meant back then….

And of course, you can see that Lambernath contains the seeds of a very, very early proto-Kvothe.

 (Photo Courtesy of Deviantart.)

If I hadn’t written that terrible book. If I hadn’t made the pointless decision to have the characters move from one bar to another. If I hadn’t foolishly switched POV to focus on a character that was utterly useless to the story, I might never have written Kvothe. Which pretty much means The Name of the Wind wouldn’t exist.

Anyway, I hope y’all have found this at least slightly amusing. Thanks so much for helping out Jay.

*     *     *

And if any of y’all are still feeling altruistic, you could always check out my fundraiser: Worldbuilders. We’re giving away thousands of books to encourage people to donate to charity.

You can click here if you’re interested in the details.

This entry was posted in Dr. Horrible, fanfic, Fuck Cancer, My checkered past, Stories about stories., the craft of writing. By Pat25 Responses


  1. Cee
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:57 AM | Permalink

    At last, the blog post that finally prompted me to make a long overdue account here.

    Simply put, Pat, that was wonderful. I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say, as a budding author, it’s so reassuring to read that even the ‘real thing’ went through the infamous, clichéd-teenage-writing stage. In saying that, I can still detect an element of Rothfussian flair. (I mean that as a compliment!)

    Anyway, first post sort of became rambling. Suffice it to say that as a person whose first real characters were named Salinarah and Amacahrei (they were Priestesses of Light, only one fell to the Dark), my confidence has been much boosted. Cheers. <3

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:01 AM | Permalink

      That makes me happy. I was hoping that a few aspiring writers would get a little boost from this.

      If it helps, I think I wrote a whole short story once where the two characters were only referred to as “The Dark One” and “The Druid.”

      • JamaicanSmiles
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 5:48 AM | Permalink

        May or may not have created an account with the express purpose of telling you that you are a god, and that the first thing I thought of upon reading that reply was “Kill The Dark One and The Druid, leave the third for questioning.”

      • Deborah Wolf
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:47 PM | Permalink

        I had a novel-in-progress in high school (also dot matrix!) that featured an eighteen-year-old boy who happened to be an expert on swords and armor…because, yanno, he’d been in a local theatre troupe. So when he was sucked into that mystical other world he was able to cross blades with the best of them…

      • Anonimous
        Posted February 9, 2016 at 10:03 AM | Permalink

        When you think about it, I once written a story where there were not even one single name… I wonder if this is Ok?

        oh, and taking about insane POV character’s choices? I wrote once a poem where my one and only POV character was a lake. That did nothing. At all. So yes, we young writers are doing the most ridiculous things we can, and quite often. Though, I’m probably much worse than you were when you were 15.

  2. Mossy Toes
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:14 AM | Permalink

    As another aspiring writer, I’ve received something of a confidence boost myself. I know that I can do better than that (even if I can’t do anything near tNotW in it’s published state [yet!])–and daresay that a few of my own high school efforts, a few years ago, were better than that by a fair margin.

    Thanks, Pat, for reminding us that everyone starts somewhere–and that humble beginnings can hide such great heights of achievement!

  3. Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:51 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, that is really inspiring. Perhaps one day i’ll have the courage to put my unpolished pebbles online ;-).

  4. Posted January 13, 2013 at 5:17 AM | Permalink

    I thought of Kvothe as soon as you established that the scene was from the inn keeper’s POV. And then you went and said that it was a post-Name of the Wind version of Kvothe. Yay for the crummy first novel, which led to the amazing first published novel somehow. No shame in the mistakes we make, it’s how we learn, and you obviously learned well, Pat. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jule
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:26 AM | Permalink

    Fascinating. The first lines are quite similar to The Name of the Wind innkeeper intorduction. And… Wasn’t your D&D character a mage called Lambernath?

    It reminds me of my own feeble efforts at writing a novel during high school, and not just because of D&D. I always created characters that were sort of me but more interesting, magical and having exciting adventures. I don’t want to presume to much, but maybe that’s how every author starts?

    Anyway, I see future literature students dissecting this post when writing essays on how Kvothe came to be.

    Most importantly, however: You can’t just pique our curiosity with the wizard’s staff and leave it there! Now you’ve got to show us the whole thing, including the knob!

  6. dylan159
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:07 AM | Permalink

    Finally my first post too, are we all intimidated by the big Rothfuss entity?
    i wanted to say if I can take similarities with the Old Kote, oh… that’s already been written!
    Pat, are you going to publish some other early pearls? I promise not to criticize too much the essays.
    oh, is already there a storyboard episode young-abhorrent-writers-oriented?

  7. Jorgon Von Strangle
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:08 AM | Permalink

    Finishing a story you have due? Dare I hope to ask the question, long awaited? Am I reading too deeply into one sentence?

  8. Constance
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:10 AM | Permalink

    Following in dwarven tradition, instead of hammering out the details of the deal Deverax preceded to get hammered.”

    This made me laugh due to the multiple levels involved. :D

  9. SparrowClef
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:56 PM | Permalink

    Inspiring indeed. I actually sat down and reread the first pages of NOTW after reading this, just to compare and marvel. Then I created this account to comment…

    Also, am I the only one who is dying to read the rest of this?

  10. JoBird
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 2:50 PM | Permalink

    “Best of all, you should know that Lambernath wasn’t a main character in the book. He wasn’t even a secondary character. He was just the innkeeper. The next day everyone left the inn and you never saw him again.”

    I haven’t been able to stop laughing since I read that.

    This is priceless, Pat. Thank you.

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

      I loved that as well.

      Gun on the Mantle anyone? LOL.

      Aside from that, for Highschool writing I don’t think it’s half bad. I mean, talk about dedication. When I was in highschool all I cared about was music, skating, and boys. :)

  11. Dheimoss
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:29 AM | Permalink

    Is that a IBM Model M keyboard in the back of the picture?

  12. Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:21 AM | Permalink

    Stopped reading at “stood wiping his clean oak bar with his clean, white, linen cloth.” I’m gonna have to set aside some time to properly enjoy this hehehehe.

  13. Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:39 AM | Permalink

    I think that must have taken quite a bit of courage to post. Any second guessing yourself as you did it?

    And, thanks for posting that.

  14. tanis0
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:53 AM | Permalink

    I’ve recently started co-writing my first novel with another commenter. While I feel ok with my current understanding of plot and story, which may be false confidence, my prose is remarkably bad. :D Luckily, my co-writer writes very strong prose, but it’s reassuring to see that my favorite author once wrote nearly as poorly as I do.

  15. Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:28 PM | Permalink

    Man, this is awesome on so many levels.

    I don’t think you can be completely to blame for the lack of plot though. I mean, if you were taking this from your D&D Adventures.

    My group loves me to write up what we did in a session into an actual story. But I freakin’ hate it because we are always doing weird, pointless, stupid, totally non-plot driven shit. I mean, we’ve spent 2+ hours just trying to drag people out of holes before because they *refuse* to remove their full plate armor….
    Plus, I’m always having to explain why three elven druids and a gnome are chilling with an Orc Necromancer….. *sigh*

    Now I just have to know, which character was yours??

  16. Alex
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 1:07 PM | Permalink

    “it was good to have someone along to do the heavy thinking.” Like heavy lifting, but with the brain … i get it. you should recycle that one :D I actually haven’t heard it before

  17. elizabethe
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 7:17 PM | Permalink

    “So far the novel has consisted of two flashbacks and a dream sequence.”

    This sentence made my day and made me laugh out loud!!!!!!

    Aspiring writer number 23 here. My first highschool novel began with blood only the protaganist could see dripping ominously out of a high school locker. I was going to write horror.

    thanks pat!

  18. Posted January 18, 2013 at 6:43 AM | Permalink

    I not only remember dot-matirx printers, I have actually seen (and held!) a cuneiform tablet.

    The joys of pursuing Theological Graduate work.

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