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.

The Scariest Words

Eat your soggy vegetables first. Always good advice.

Rip off the band-aid. Just practical.

Always get the bad news before the good. Goes without saying.

Write what scares you. Scary.

I have just finished another revision of a 95,000-word manuscript and sent it off to another editor. And a lot of it was scary to write. I creeped myself out. Where does that come from, all that pathological gunk? Every time I read it, I traumatized myself, not because I write creepy really well, but because I’m afraid it says something about ME.

If I understand creepy well enough to write creepy, then maybe that makes me a … creep. Even if I’m not, maybe people will think I am. Readers are judgy, especially if we’ve bought a book and spent time with it. We deserve to be.

I remember reading Robert A. Heinlein years ago and kind of concluding that he had turned from a bit of a fascist (Starship Troopers) to a bit of a dirty old man (Time Enough for Love). We are always trying to infer relationships between characters, contexts, and conflicts with the authors who wrote them.

Natch!

But it ain’t so. Anyone who has to flesh out an antagonistic character has to take them somewhere believable, make them make sense to themselves. But it doesn’t mean that we are projecting ourselves into them. We’re imagining, not remembering or wishing.

This is, by the way, why I still suspect that good ol’ Heinlein was a bit of a dirty old creature because, forget the bad guys, his good guys were … creepy. And earlier, they were kinda fascists. And I do think you have to admire your protagonists, cheer for them even as you ruin their lives.

Anyway, writing what scares you takes you to those places where you have to listen to the Dark Side whispering at you. So much more fun than listening to the tough-but-fair commanders, the kids with pluck and gumption, the puerile self-righteousness of Star Trek: Discovery. No, I want to be creeped out by someone who does bad things for reasons that only they think are good.

And as for being scared, I know the two scariest words anyone can ever write on a blank piece of paper.

Chapter One.

The Curse of the Comically Common Name

When I tell people my name, they don’t laugh, usually, and they don’t ask me how to spell it.

Usually.

They do pause, almost as if I had said my name was Harry Ball or I.P. Knightley. Well-trained people keep their comments to themselves, while others conjure up something like, “Well, that’s an easy one.”

When you Google “David Smith,” more than seven million results show up. Lots of professionals, politicians, even show-biz types. Amazon gives me more than 20,000 results, and 6895 show up in Goodreads. I’m in there somewhere, sure, but it’s hard to find me among all the actual accomplished people.

No problem. 

Of course, that’s not always true. I have had problems – a job that should have been offered to me was offered to a different Dave Smith, cops are keen to know when I was born just in case I am the badass Dave Smith they are looking for, and I used to get email intended for the Dave Smith Centre, an important place which does important drug treatment work. 

A common name is a curse for anyone who wants to be discoverable, searchable in the contemporary connected context. It’s like having no metadata for your novel. You just put it out there as a novel and people have to look through all the other novels to find it. Or maybe just 6895 of them.

So maybe I need a new name. And you’d figure that might be fun, as I’ve had this bland name my whole life and I have the chance to change it, not legally, but just in this one little part of life. But it’s not. Fun, that is. It’s a minefield of names that remind me of people I already know (so I can’t be a Greg or a Mike or a Steve), names I can’t stand (not listing any here, as I don’t want to piss anyone off), and even names that might be cultural appropriation (no matter how much fun it is to say Jorge, I cannot be Jorge).

And the choices are complex for other reasons, even if I just wanted to change my first name. For example, Xavier Smith might be distinctive, but there are a few U.S. football players with that name and they might be cool and I am not. It seems dishonest. Search Beauregard Smith and the results are horrifying. Look it up yourself if you want to.

We all know that my first name is not the issue, anyway. Undoubtedly, the Smith is the thing. Out it goes with a suitable plop.

Still, while I might use my first name, maybe it’s smarter not to. Using initials might also give me that S.E. Hinton advantage, temporarily disguising my gender. She wanted boys to read The Outsiders and I might want to write for an audience that would rather read what a woman has to say (which is most audiences for novels today). People always say not to judge a book by its cover and we all know that people ALWAYS judge a book by its cover and that the author’s name is a big part of it. Gendered names are the first thing many people notice after the picture of the heaving bosom, and even before the title.

I have initials that might work. D.S. And I have a middle name that I never liked but that might be useful. And it’s kinda still ME. 

D.S. William. 

A cursory Google reveals no novelist. A peremptory Amazon search has the same result. 

Thinking about it.

Writing what you WANT to know … sort of.

I was very young when I was born. 

So, I didn’t know very much and understood less. My observations were neither precise nor witty and I didn’t know what a metaphor is … for. 

For quite a few years a lot of life was a bit of a blur.

And the way I lived it, life was not that interesting. A lot of the people were frankly narrow-minded and dull, and those who weren’t probably escaped my attention because maybe I was a little dull myself.

Perhaps that’s why my experience then cannot inform whatever I might like to write about now

Some people say, “Write what you know.” Many people do.

Fair enough. I get it. Experience informs creativity.

But it seems to me that most of us who try to write fiction live in our heads. We don’t necessarily know things, but we WANT to know. And because we want to know we create. Without direct experience, we try to create a way of knowing by discovering or imagining things that we are curious about or people we can empathize with. And then we either have to do as much research as we can stand or just invent everything.

Having been creative does not mean that someone else has not already said what you said and said it better. It’s terrifying, and it’s really a good idea to research what you want to know starting with its treatment in fiction. To see if it has been done to death already.

Now, I’m not taking a big risk here with my little blog that no one will read, but by conducting the briefest of checks, I see that Dan Brown has said exactly what I have, but without my self-deprecating charm. 

What he said was, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about. Make the writing process a learning process for you.” *

That’s probably the whole point. You have to spend a lot of time living in your head, so you have to spend it with something you’re interested in discovering, not something you already know intimately. We all love our spouses, or at least a lot of us do, but we wouldn’t want to spend every minute of the day with them. And then write about it.

A great deal of my fiction writing is not something I have experienced. 

I would not want to have a lot of the experiences I have written about. I have never had to run for my life from a malevolent antagonist. I have never found the body of a murder victim. I have never used a shotgun, never crossed the English Channel in a 20-foot boat, never watched the receding face of someone I’ve pitched off a precipice, never chased a piece of paper in the wind while dodging steel-toothed excavator buckets swinging over my head. But my characters do all of these things.

I have been forced to research without actually being murdered or dismembered or drowned. All of those experiences can wait … at least until after the weekend.

So for all the successful authors who are pressured to keep churning out sequel after sequel, writing what they know over and over and over, well … poor you. And for all the independent authors who keep writing about things they WANT to know, well, good for us. 

We write for ourselves. 

Unless someone pays us to do otherwise.

And you can always make me an offer.

* Temple, E. (2019, April 5). Should You Write What You Know? 31 Authors Weigh In. Literary Hub. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://lithub.com/should-you-write-what-you-know-31-authors-weigh-in/

Creative Silences

Yusuf / Cat Stevens wrote, “I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul.”

I sing that to myself while I walk the dog on cold, windy days, my Beagle’s ears flapping in a biting northwest wind.

And I listen to the silence that is the wind.

“Where I end up, well, only God really knows,” the song continues.

And listening does take me somewhere.

Because the wind is an unpredictable, sometimes irresistible, and ultimately mysterious force, a silence that takes your mind somewhere else. The wind scrubs everything clean. Then it provides a dynamic canvas on which you can sketch an idea, erase it at once, and sketch another.  

The elements of experience move around each other – aural, visual, kinesthetic and finally verbal – and, without understanding where it came from, there it is – a new formulation, a new context, a new thought.

And it comes from the wind and from whatever other kind of silence you can find.

Away from machines, and voices, away, even, from music, although the silence of some music can be transformationally creative.

There are many silences. The silence of rain on the roof is the one most people recognize right away. There is also silence in birds and squirrels and in the neighbour’s kids jumping on a trampoline. All of it gives your creative mind room to make wind castles and cities of air and drafty moonlit meadows, and, inevitably, villainous farts.

For me, anyway, silence in its many forms is necessary to creation.

Is there silence in social media?

“But never, never, never, never.”

Listen here. The Wind.