Another Fine Mess

I have experienced a long period of only partial engagement with writing. 

Some of that was because of a long, warm, sunny summer. I live farther north than most people in the world do, although not at all north in the context of the country in which I live, but winters are inevitable, and always long; summers, then, must not be spent alone in a dark room making up stories.

But a lot of my lack of engagement has come from a lack of feedback about having written. As I discovered a long time ago, writing is easy; getting someone to read what you write is damn difficult. It’s hard to continue crafting characters and planning plots and researching settings if the only arbiter of success is me. Motivation has become an issue.

When you write only for yourself, by choice or not, you have to find a way to convince yourself to keep going. Any way you look at it, there is work involved with writing. I chose in my current project to make choices based on what sounded like the most fun. Setting, character, plot. Whatever sounded like the fun choice would be the direction I headed.

The first two work well given that context. Who wants dull places, times, or characters? Go for sweaty, unfamiliar, exotic, quirky, outspoken, and flamboyant. Why not? 

The plot is the hard one. Rolling boulders, chases and shootouts, an unexpected confrontation with a soused postal worker, maybe even murder hornets all sound good. But these are narrative tight ropes and they are perilous; most often, there is no way to plausibly escape the landslide, the hail of gunfire, or the acid whip of a mother-in-law’s tongue. Murder hornets, I hear, are a bitch. 

Solving a problem with a well-placed stiletto is fun in the short term, but then you have a body on your hands and consequences that are a good deal less fun to mop up. So, the fun choice can be the hardest to write, especially as there are other rules that must be acknowledged. Like, coincidences. Meaning, we don’t want any of those.

As everything has to be cleaned up sooner or later, it’s best not to make a huge mess. At least not right away. 

I suppose one could save it for the very end.

Clean it up in Book Two!

Spread the Alarm

As I hammer away on my little keyboard, keeping myself out of therapy, composing characters and trying to keep straight my beginnings from my middles and my ends, I keep stumbling over challenges, issued by online writing types, that encourage people to write to a goal, like 5000 words in a day. Sometimes they suggest writing 5000 words, biking 50 km., and running 5 km. 

Like a triathlon, vomiting included. 

Now, I CAN do all of that. But why would I? I get lots of exercise every day. And any 5000 words that I write in a day will have to be revised to a point where the original is scarcely recognizable. So the only reason to do it would be to say that I had, and the only point of that is … what?

And there are other, baser goals, challenges of shadowy, unsavoury origins. Every November, just as we in the north begin bracing for what is always a long winter, there is a call to get an early start on seasonal affective disorder. November is home to National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for writers to give premature birth, by virtue of a Caesarian section I presume, to 50,000 words before the month is over.

 “Ye Gods!” I might blurt, repulsed by my own metaphor.

Why would anyone ever do that? That’s 1666.666 words every day. That’s a lot, even for fully flushable words to say nothing of recyclable ones. To do that with any sort of creative purpose there has to be something else going on. (And I’m sure all those sixes did not go unnoticed for you any more than they did for me.)

The point is now we no longer just have to wonder why anyone would do that, but how.

I think we all know what it is. The explanation.

The rules have changed.

P.G. Wodehouse identified a similarly chilling issue more than a hundred years ago. In his essay, “The Alarming Spread of Poetry,” he precisely and definitively revealed the greatest peril of the time. 

Free verse. 

We forget now, in the haze of streaming, sampling, and montage, that many years ago the civilized order of the poet’s prerogative had been tainted by the idea that one no longer had to rhyme. And rhythm, meter? Out the window with the bath water as well. The thing was that the market was paying a buck a line for poetry. It attracted the attention of many youths in search of a vocation. The socio-economic consequences by themselves were staggering. As Plum Wodehouse wrote, before the new poetic order,

… there was just one thing which, like a salient fortress in the midst of an enemy’s advancing army, acted as a barrier to the youth of the country. When one’s son came to one and said, “Father, I shall not be able to fulfill your dearest wish and start work in the fertilizer department. I have decided to become a poet,” although one could no longer frighten him from his purpose by talking of garrets and starvation, there was still one weapon left. “What about the rhymes, Willie?” you replied, and the eager light died out of the boy’s face, as he perceived the catch in what he had taken for a good thing. You pressed your advantage. “Think of having to spend your life making one line rhyme with another! Think of the bleak future, when you have used up ‘moon’ and ‘June,’ ‘love’ and ‘dove,’ ‘May’ and ‘gay’! Think of the moment when you have ended the last line but one of your poem with ‘windows’ or ‘warmth’ and have to buckle to, trying to make the thing couple up in accordance with the rules! What then, Willie?”

Next day a new hand had signed on in the fertilizer department.

Nowadays, the rhymers and the rhyme-me-nots have an undeclared, and, to be frank, unsteady truce. Contemporary poets avoid rhymes. As far as songwriters go, some rhyme, but they either make no sense at all or are as lyrical as,” My my hey hey, Rock and roll is here to stay.” Aack.

Similar to issues like fluoridation, and integrity in politics, no one pays much attention anymore. The danger today is from an altogether different place.

Beware the tools. The online ones.

The spell-check, the online thesaurus, the grammar check. It’s no wonder the modern Willie, if I may borrow him, can pound out 50,000 words in thirty days. He doesn’t have to work out “barked” for “shouted,” as there are 527 choices waiting for him only seven keystrokes and two clicks away. He doesn’t have to know that he could use “abstruse” for “obscure,” as his online thesaurus has 3,293 options for that one. Willie’s got definitions popping up in a sidebar a mile long. A little red line tells him that the word “own” is almost always redundant. And spelling is a skill Willie lost decades ago, about the same time as he forgot how to do short division. 

The result? Writing is faster now. The “finished” word count goes up. And up.

Fortunately for us, the economic implications are minor. Income for writers has diminished so precipitously that our Willie could never give up his fertilizer job even if he sold his writing, so he must write his 50,000 words on his phone, maybe on the bus to work, perhaps between fertilizer customers, or later at home while streaming reality TV.

But he can shout his accomplishment to the world on social media. #WellDoneWillie.

P.G. Wodehouse was prophetic when he concluded his essay. Saving the world from bad poetry wasn’t necessary. He said,

Probably the only hope lies in the fact that poets never buy other poets’ stuff. Once we have all become poets, the sale of verse will cease or be limited to the few copies which individual poets will buy to give to their friends.

It has already happened. By and large, the only people who make money from the 50,000 words-a-month club are the people who get paid to read, comment, revise, and edit.

It’s the economy of writing today that the best way to make money is to be one of the clever tool developers, or on the teams of M.F.A.s who earn income by encouraging the notion that if you follow their rules-based advice, you’ll get published. They are not always wrong.

P.G Wodehouse, if I may, is probably the writer whose works bring me the most joy. Every once in a while, I have to dive back in and drink it in again. And it all still works. Hilariously.

Read On or Die Trying!

A panicky twist in my gut-brain demanded that I stop and go back.

It’s essential here, too.

“Revise!” bellowed my pie-in-the-sky writer bits at my pragmatic bits, the ones that just want to finish things.

So, I wrote the above three lines. The first and third are way more interesting than the second, but my pragmatic bits are winning now and I have to go on without massaging number two.

Those first five words, though, they can change the world. Or really not.

No matter the medium, an opening sentence is rife with peril. And here at the end of 2022, when we have all developed the attention span of pre-pubescent squirrels, our jeopardy is greater than ever. 

There are so many things to read, so much to listen to, so many media in full-contact competition for our attention that the first line of a song, poem, short story, essay, or novel is maybe as far as anyone will ever get.

In a 2013 interview in The Altantic, Stephen King said, “… for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”*

I don’t tend to go for Stephen King novels, but I think his short stories are great, and he certainly knows how to draw in a reader, especially now that his work is ubiquitous and a deservedly fickle public is now looking for reasons not to read him.

A nobody like me needs a first sentence that positively sings like the first cardinal after a long winter. And I need it in a novel, a query, a synopsis, a blog, anything that I might hope someone might read, because NOBODY will go past the first five words otherwise.

And what King says about voice is key, because what readers need is to hear a feeling with those first words. It’s not a style that your rational deconstructing brain can unpack so much as the sound of the words and the place they take you.

I wrote these opening sentences for a novel a couple of years ago. 

Enlightenment dwelt in a borrowed brick house on Avenue Road, steps from the managed landscapes and obedient flowerbeds of The Regent’s Park. Most days, a bland workaday parade of foot traffic and an occasional horse and carriage passed outside, thoroughly oblivious to the opportunity for illumination nearby, to say nothing of the need for it in these or any times.

I still like them. They take me to a  recognizable place, London when horses and carriages were common, and to a context when people may have cared about enlightenment. Both ideas were important, as it’s a historical novel with an undercurrent of mysticism. 

It goes on, as novels tend to do.

On the other side of the ruddy masonry walls of number 19, though, efforts had been made to satisfy a visitor’s need for guidance. A weeks-long succession of tradesmen had been shooed away early, their work renovating the house paused, at least for the day. In their place were mysticism and esoteric discourse personified by the wild-haired, grey-eyed woman holding court.

And in those few sentences, my intent was to sink the reader into a comfy chair and settle in for a character-driven period piece with a twist. That’s the voice.

No one wanted to read it, to say nothing of publishing it, so either it didn’t work the way I intended or the rest of it was rubbish. Doesn’t really matter as all you can do is try again.

So, in my latest work, I have spent some days and weeks writing and revising a lengthy collection of opening sentences, a product of two decisions. The first was that I needed to get the novel out to beta readers, and the second was that this particular chapter would be the first that a reader would see. 

It happened to be the first chapter I wrote, and that’s more a coincidence than some people might think. Everything else quite literally came after.

The first broken window gave the crowd a taste for enterprise, and soon the driver, a scab, was chased away, pursued by laughter and jeers as the multitude began a concerted effort to topple the huge vehicle.

So, that was fine for the purpose it had – a jumping-off point for me to write the rest of the book. But when I finished it and came back to consider the first chapter in word-by-word detail, I had to change it, make it better. One of the changes was this:

It began with the joyful pitch of a perfect stone. The first broken window gave the crowd a taste for enterprise, and soon the driver, a scab, was chased away, pursued by laughter and jeers as the multitude began a concerted effort to topple the huge vehicle.

I liked it because it describes the main character’s act as joyful. He’s not angry and that’s important. As well, it uses the phrase “a perfect stone.” The idea of that, the metaphor it created for me was so important that I needed it as a working title for the novel. Consequently, I had to scrub it from the first sentence.

So, I went for a description of the pitch:

History was made with a joyful overhand pitch and two-fingered release. 

I found it satisfying. So I went further, and tried,

With a practiced two-fingered grip, he joyfully let go and was delighted in his work, proud of the immaculate hole he had sculpted.

The immaculate hole, I thought. That’s a keeper. But throw out the pitching lesson. Who cares? I came up with another (heavens!) metaphor and threw it in.

A blink of anticipation followed his first joyful pitch. The consequent concussion sculpted an immaculate hole in the window, and Jimmy was proud of his creation. 

I liked the blink of anticipation but it caused a bunch of problems because it’s just not necessary. It took me several tries to get rid of it. And it’s hard to read “consequent concussion sculpted.” Too alliterationy.

An immaculate hole appeared in the window, proudly sculpted by Jimmy’s joyful pitch. 

There. I’ve got joy, I’ve got my immaculate hole, but I also have the passive voice. Yuck.

And the hole should not be first. The pitch was first. Then comes the main character, the sculptor, and his effect on the crowd.

One joyful pitch was all it took. Jimmy’s perfect missile, proudly thrown, had sculpted an immaculate hole in the streetcar window. The protesters, witnessing his accomplishment and gratified by the taste of enterprise he had served up, followed, shedding their barriers of civility in a window-smashing tribute to the day’s purpose. They jeered and laughed as the driver, a scab, ran off, ultimately protected by the same anonymity that gave the host its vitality.

And there it sits. Not much to go on, but it’s so quick that maybe the reader will move right along without noticing.

A seven-word opening sentence.

It could be shorter, like, “Call me Ishmael.” 

Or …, “In the beginning.”

Anyway, maybe none of this matters because you stopped reading after the first five words. I may be talking to myself again.

In Conversation With Me 

Full circle. The shape of the universe.

*Fassler, J. (2015, June 11). Why Stephen King spends ‘months and even years’ writing opening sentences. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from

The Illusion of Creative Control

It’s a well-known theme. 

It starts with a scientist or tinkerer or god. An act of creation. Thought and purpose become reality and some … thing exists, whereas before there was only intention. The more interesting the thing is, the more likely that it takes on a life of its own, achieving some form of independence from its creator.

That’s when it happens. The creation does not cooperate completely with the intention that brought it about. The creation questions that intention, deems it lacking, if only because the creation desires free will. And then, while it is not compulsory, it seems appropriate for the creation to run amock among the villagers, subjugate a quadrant of the galaxy, or eat the apple offered it by a naked co-creation.

Things rarely go well for either creation or creator from there. Things have been said that can’t be taken back. And creators can be cranky and vindictive. If they’re lucky, creations get a second chance before they are damned or, worse, erased. But it’s all hopeless – they’re going to blow it whether they really know or know not what they do.

I never thought I would have this sort of trouble with my creations. They’re just characters in a story. I literally write them. They say and do nothing without me. I am in more control of them than I have been in control of anything in more than six decades of fumbling about on the planet.

Yet, they still do it. They still assert their independence.

It’s weird, because I know all about them. I should because I made up all their little secrets, formative experiences, fantasies, and shoe sizes. But sometimes, they won’t let me flesh all of that out on a page. They don’t want me to reveal things. They don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. 

“Let’s just leave that out,” they’ll say to me, “No one needs to know that.”

“Everyone wants to know,” I reply. “What’s a reader if not a voyeur?”

“That doesn’t mean that we have to make a show of it.”

“But the readers will just think I’m a coward, that I was too scared to write you honestly.”

“Let ‘em. If I decide to keep my business to myself, then that’s how I’m playing it. Remember the rule – don’t tell, show. Well, I’m not showing anyone anything I don’t want to.”

So, I’m stuck. Fortunately, guile and deceit are my close friends. I’ll figure out a way to leave a revealing trail of cracker crumbs without the character knowing about it. And if a reader feels smarter for figuring out what is not explicitly stated, all the better. That is, after all, what we tend to do in life as we meet other humans in uncontrolled, unpredictable contexts. We just figure it out.

Still, if the character returns and forces me to write him a partner, one sewn together using the discarded traits of others, I know we’ll both be in trouble.

To Observe and Imagine

I had never been to a Costco before last week. The place does not interest me. But as people seem to regard me with undisguised suspicion when I say that, I thought I should use the fact that my sister was dragging me there to help carry an awkward 20 kg. box of cat litter. It would be an opportunity to broaden my horizons. And my shoulders.

I anticipated a writer’s quest to observe, perhaps understand, maybe use in some way, a quick reference in a hypothetical Chapter Six down the line.

Hearsay plus my imagination had sketched a version of this reality. I was prepared to put it up against my observations. I needed to know how far off I would have been if I had not set foot in one and written about it anyway.

I would have been way off. It was so much worse than I had imagined and, at the same time, so much better. 

Funnelling past the membership sentries at the garage door entrance, I dutifully tailed my sister closely, and there at the threshold held my breath, the space I perceived at once evoking feelings of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. There was row upon row of stacked boxes preventing me from seeing any distance. At the same time, the starkly white ceiling over my head soared many stories high, empty space to spare. As I navigated this contradiction, I had to be careful not to spend too much time gaping slack-jawed at the profusion of single-item displays, the towers of TVs, the pyramids of pyjamas, lest I be run over by a bargain-hunting scavenger who knew their way around and had long ago forgotten what it was like to step in this place for the first time. 

One group of such foragers, three generations of women, caught my attention as they appeared to have recently stepped out of a reality TV show. The most made-up, dyed, and glittered of the three was the oldest and she was throatily giving voice to a point of view, something even more important than their sortie from the camera frame in search of cheap chips, it seemed. The youngest, bursting with attention-getting energy, talked a mile with every step, bouncing and clinging doggedly. The woman between them, both daughter and mother, tried and failed to balance the others’ needs, unable to cap or re-direct the youngest’s activity while responding to the wise words issuing from the botoxed lips on her other side. I desired to follow them, listen and learn, but I imagined some security guard in a darkened room seeing me and tagging me for a creep and I went the other way.

Then there were the almonds. I don’t know why it sticks in my mind that there were so many almonds. Five-pound bags of them, a long aisle of head-high stacks, the top of each one threatening to tumble out onto the head of any shopper unwise enough to brush too close by. Seeing the jeopardy I was in, I trotted safely past and rounded a corner only to face a latex-gloved staff person, the first I’d seen, whose object was to get me to try a breakfast cereal being sold in boxes the size of a delivery van. Grateful for the training a city of any size gives one for this sort of thing, I avoided eye contact and kept moving. 

Next, I spied a wall of freezers, glass-doored and full of icy oven cuisine. While curious to see what sort of thing might be sold in extra large jumbo family-size frozen vessels, chests, and baskets, my inquiries were cut short and my attention re-directed by my sister. 

The cat litter. 

It was, by comparison to the plenitude of almonds, a diminutive section, only partially compensated by the absence of any box or bag weighing less than 20 kg. Using knees as much as possible, I hefted a weighty cube into a cart, feeling smug as I evolved from observer to participant, and we moved to find the way out, on the way running across ever more randomly-associated displays, furniture next to potatoes next to watch straps. 

The check-out lines required no assessment, as each was more or less the same length as the ones beside it, but we paused long enough for me to peer into the near distance. There, on the way out, a dining area, where white picnic tables were covered by white umbrellas underneath the white ceiling. It was an oasis of sensory deprivation, where people might enjoy a hot dog and coffee shaded from the stadium lighting above, a brief respite before facing the death race from the parking lot to the gas pumps, where the cheapest fuel in town was causing lines and tempers to stretch out of all reasonable proportion.

So, yes, it was more interesting than I thought. But as I write all of this down, I have to admit to using some license. A little lie or two. 

No actual pyramid of pyjamas. It was a stack of jeans, but the pyramid was so much more pleasing to write. No death race for gas, but many cranky rude drivers. No watch straps, but lots of watches.

The family was real, though, but I can’t independently confirm the botox. And the almonds were there. And the eating area. I have pictures of that last one.

It’s a good lesson, though. You have to experience and observe before you can get away with describing or implying. But the role of imagination is to make it more interesting. More engaging, more fun to subvocalize, and I daresay more, not less, accurate.

I Just Have One Question

Whenever you hear someone say that, you know it’s almost never true. If it’s a good question, there are gonna be more.

That’s because a question is the beginning of wisdom. It’s the act of saying, “I don’t know something and I think you might be able to help me figure it out.” Well framed, a question helps both the asker and the asked. It might lead somewhere perhaps neither one nor the other expected to go.

There’s no doubt that a question can be ill-purposed, used for the opposite of wisdom, a deliberate ignorance, as if there is only one answer to the question which must by its nature reinforce a particular point of view. When I taught History, I loathed rhetorical questions in essays, warning students that I might answer them in ways they did not expect and the overall effect would be to sink whatever argument they were intended to support. History is about process and research and tentative answers, answers with attendant questions.

Now, on the other hand, conspiracy theories are about rhetorical questions with assumed answers, as if no alternative explanation for a collection of observations could be credible, and the invisible hand of malign forces has to be responsible. Like the moon landings, tracking chips in vaccines, Holocaust denial, and any number of others, they all ask questions and ignore the answers. Deliberate ignorance.

Even good questions can be irksome, of course, for those who would prefer they not be asked. The most annoying man in classical Athens had to be Socrates, whose entire process was to ask questions, to try to establish if so-called wise men were as wise as they thought. His questions usually demonstrated ignorance, inconsistencies and outright lies fairly quickly. It didn’t make him a lot of friends except among the young, who revelled in the unmasking of hypocrisy in the Athenian establishment. So, the establishment arranged his death, by means of the particular vagaries of Athenian democracy, of course. If the death of Socrates doesn’t force some useful questions about the weaknesses of democracy, then you’re missing the whole point of Socrates.

Not that I should say my name and Socrates’ in the same breath, but I need to get to the point of me and this. I am in the final stretch of my latest novel. This is number six and I have begun to see that the only way I can finish it is to keep the central question, the reason why I want to tell the story, in my head at all times.

What do we owe each other?

What do we owe ourselves?

Those are kind of the same question, but I think they deserve discreet treatment. I have asked them in a particular order for a reason, too. And having asked them of all my characters, and having let the characters answer them in their own ways, I hope that the end will not be an answer from me, but a collection of answers. It’s going to be a humanistic collection, of course, because I am who I am. No higher power will have to sign off.

And the answers will, in large part, be a bunch more questions.

But better questions.

Writing and Revising: Having a Good Scratch

Composing and revising scratch two very different parts of my writing brain.

When I think I have something to say, a scene that needs describing, for example, it gets written fairly quickly. The result communicates effectively, the scene is set and I move to the next bit before I forget what it was that I really wanted to write about, normally some point of plot that needs establishing. That’s how I keep going, more or less from one plot point to the next. My composing brain is motivated by narrative. It wants to tell a story.

Eventually, though, I decide to look back at what I did, not yesterday or the day before but three months or six months ago. Long enough to have forgotten it, really. And there is a different itchy bit of my brain which makes itself felt, the part that both motivates and takes satisfaction from revision.

Here’s an example.

His shoes were too big, sloppy, making it hard to run closely parallel to the train. Sweat on the back of his neck and under his arms collected, untouched by the drying wind. Arms covered by a jacket too thick for summer pumped in time with his legs. Belongings bounced on his back, tightly wrapped and tied in a small turkey.

I looked at it this morning, just trying to prime the pump after having taken a few days off. The edits I made are below, followed by the most recent version.

His shoes were too big, sloppy, making it hard to run closely parallel to the train. Untouched by the drying wind, rivulets of sweat trickled down his spine and pooled Sweat on the back of his neck and under his arms collected,at his waist. untouched by the drying wind. Arms covered by a jacket thicker than summer pumped in time withto the rhythm of his legs his legs., setting the tightly wrapped bundle on his back bouncing in time with his strides. Belongings bounced on his back, tightly wrapped and tied in a small turkey. His too-big borrowed shoes were sloppy, making a run parallel to the train even more precarious, and he recalled the advice that had set him on this course. 

Untouched by the drying wind, rivulets of sweat trickled down his spine and pooled at his waist. Arms covered by a jacket thicker than summer pumped to the rhythm of his legs, setting the tightly wrapped bundle on his back bouncing in time with his strides. His too-big borrowed shoes were sloppy, making a run parallel to the train even more precarious, and he recalled the advice that had set him on this course. 

So, I changed almost everything. 

And nothing at all.

The difference in my brain is how it feels, the sound that it makes as I read it, having chosen some language for alliterative effect, and some for descriptive concision. I also took out the term “turkey,” because this is so early in a novel that readers are unlikely to understand it. It was a term used by men riding the rails to describe small bundles of personal possessions they carried with them and, as I changed the sentence it was in, it no longer fit. He would have had a turkey bouncing on his back, not an image I was going for. I now see that I was never comfortable with it there and deleting the reference scratches my revision brain. Right on the itchy bit.

And I think it’s better now. It’s not finished, of course, as I already feel that a couple of changes will be obvious the next time I come back to it.

So, we compose to say something. And we revise to say it better. The difference for me is time. I have to bring a fresh brain to it, a brain that is capable of reading what it has written without taking shortcuts of familiarity and memory. As well, the satisfaction of having written must have abated because it gets in the way of change.

And I have to bring a brain in need of a good scratch in a hard-to-reach spot.

If You Want to Kill Me, You Have to Form an Orderly Line

That was a chapter title from a novel I wrote about five years ago. At least I think I wrote it and it wasn’t some sort of memory fragment from a book read long before. Having said that, it’s a longer chapter title than I write now.

But I still write them. And a lot of people don’t. Maybe even MOST people don’t. Consequently, readers get a lot of Chapter Sixes, and probably just about as many Chapter Sevens.

I don’t get it. A chapter title means that you, the author, know what the chapter is about. For me, it helps grease the wheels in the ol’ writing garret when I want to bang out another few thousand words before the week is out and I need above all else a direction. If I can come up with a title before writing the chapter, I know where I’m going. If I invent it later, after the writing, it means that I know where I’ve been, equally important in becoming the path I’m on.

It does the same for a reader. 

It’s a teaser. It points.

Here’s one from a novel I am querying right now: The Before and After Life.

It tells you … something.

Such is not the case with the lyrically named Chapter Nine. It stands there telling you that this is the ninth bit you’re going to read, having read the first eight.

Actually, The Before and After Life was Chapter 45, which does tell you something but you have to wonder if after getting that far in the book, a reader really cares about the number anymore.

Rick Riordan writes brilliant middle-grade novels. They are funny, completely engaging, complex and nuanced, and seemingly effortless. That’s magic because we all know how much effort it has to take to write as he does. In his Magnus Chase series, he also composes wonderful chapter titles, like Stupid Exploding Grandfathers in Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. Years ago, when I read these books to my son, it was a great way to end the day, as it was really important for him to go to sleep with a smile on his face. We would always conclude the evening by looking at the next chapter title, and almost always laugh in anticipation of the next day’s read. The chapter titles had voice and that voice at that time was a gift from the gods, whether in Asgard or on Olympus doesn’t matter much.

So, here’s to everyone who still bothers to write titles for chapters. 

It’s hard, so that means we’re supposed to do it, right?

Words Suck

There are loads of adverb haters, people who say they would like to exterminate them.

I agree only to the point that you often don’t need them if the rest of the page is okay.

Take, for instance, this:

“Clearly,” Beau said, “this is a really bad sentence.”

Clearly and really add nothing to the meaning. I have gone through my own works in progress and searched for these words. Out of every twenty I find, there may be a reason to keep one. Maybe. Very is the same and more so. Unnecessary.

Then there are the speech tag haters. They are mostly but not always right. Consider the speech tag for Beau. We probably know Beau’s talking, or that it’s his turn to talk. Or that he’s the one who’s likely to say something like this. He’s a bit of a pill that way.

I found some short stories by Agatha Christie that I don’t remember having read and saw that she seldom used speech tags. When Poirot is speaking, everyone knows he’s speaking.

However, one genteel murder suspect in an English country home must at times be discriminated from another. Best done with a descriptive phrase. 

“We were playing tennis all afternoon,” said Basil.

Basil struck a match. “We were playing tennis all afternoon.”

The second is much more fun, as long as there is not so great a hurry to get on with the interrogation that you can’t add a couple of words.

So, we don’t need the adverbs or the speech tag.

We are left with, “This is a bad sentence.”

Why use the pronoun?

“Bad sentence.”

Isn’t that enough? If we know what’s going on and someone’s assessing the quality of a sentence, I mean.

And maybe it’s better if we just say, “Sucks.” or “Shite.”

Now, a novel is not film noir and we can’t ask every character to be so fascinatingly non-verbal that we can reduce the dialogue to a bunch of monosyllables and grunts but if you are prone to over-writing, as I am, the idea of pairing it down as far as possible during editing is vital.

Really vital.

Really, very vital.

What’s It All About?

There are people, and I have no idea if they are just a vocal minority among arty types, who claim to have been on a mission to fulfill a vision, something so compelling that it was there, fully realized from the first step, first word, initial brush-stroke, or notion of a gesture. They were focussed, single-minded, on a path, answering a call, on a pilgrimage to a mysterious site known only to themselves.

And, after their arty work is done, they say, “Look! See what I did? That was my vision and now it exists!” It is left as tribute, then, to Art. There may be light snacks and beverages served.

We mere mortals gather, are suitably impressed, then aspire to emulate the artistic act. 

If only we had a vision. How do we start if we don’t have one of those?

I mean, what if I don’t know what it’s gonna be about? There will be something there when I’m done, sure, but do I have to know what it’s supposed to signify BEFORE I start?

John Lennon said, “Every child is an artist until he’s [sic] told he’s not.”

That’s because they don’t have to have a vision and they make it up as they go along. So, they continue building Lego, or scratching a crayon on cardboard, or singing a made-up tune, and art begins. Then, someone sidles up and asks, “What’s that supposed to be?” and the poor kid has to make something up and do it quick. Or maybe a tantrum suffices to get them out of that sticky situation, a well-known tool of the artistic temperament.

But it’s too much pressure for most of us and we quit.

I think the vision stuff is mostly just a convenience, an easy answer to a difficult question. 

“Why did you do that?” is a hard question, because it implies you have to have a reason, and “I dunno,” is not an answer anyone wants to hear. It also makes it sound like you’re not serious, a dilettante at best. And a long, honest answer that reflects the complexity of the process you went through is simply going to get yawns and eye-rolls.

Understandable. I don’t want to listen to ME talk about ME any more than anyone else does.

“So, yeah, I had a purpose. I journeyed, and I was, and it IS.”

I have never really had much idea about why I have written something until I’m almost done. By then, I figure it out. Around the 92,347th word. Or the final punch line.

That’s okay with me. I’m not big on isolation or deserts, anyway and any vision I might have in one would be considered derivative.