The Most UnKindest Cut

All of the best lies are those we tell ourselves.

Julius Caesar thought that his wife’s portentous dreams, the soothsayer’s babblings, and the bad weather were all nothing, that the Ides of March would come and go and he would continue on his path to absolute rule with the help of his good friends in the Senate.

Because my life and goals are rather smaller than Caesar’s, so are my lies. 

“This is happening,” I think to myself as I pass the 10,000 word mark in a new project. “It’s real.”

“No doubt about it,” I say at 20,000 words. “Voice, plot, setting FIRMLY established. Stay on course.”

“One third done,” I think at 30,000 words. “At this point it’s almost time to consider the next project as I bring this one to its inevitable conclusion.

I was at this point recently when I slowed to a crawl, writing nothing, editing bits here and there. It was then when I began to inhabit my own private way-station, a place where fictional characters wait in anxious queues shuffling from gate to narrative gate in search of a destination worth the trouble of the journey. It is a place I cannot write my way out of, where my characters go not to die, but to languish unfinished, their thoughts, their wants and fears forever unexpressed for the simple reason that they are just not making the grade.

It’s not their fault. They’re good characters. Well written, you know, with back stories and lives and voices and relationships. But something has happened that has prevented them from taking over the novel. They are not driving the action, forming their future and leaving narrative wakes that sweep readers along with them, behind just far enough to pique their interest.

And so it begins. The slaughter.

Descriptive paragraphs disappear, chapters are deleted, sub-plots evaporate, settings melt, and characters are proscribed.

“Look, with a spot I damn him,” I say to myself, except that it’s with a keystroke. Shakespeare always comes in handy when there’s deadly work to be done.

Building Rome is hard. Changing Rome is messy. 30,000 words quickly become 20,000. But when the bloody business is concluded, I am free to go new places, free to make new decisions unbeholden to old ones. I may end up in a better place.

If you think about it, if Caesar had made a few more well timed cuts, his ending might have been happier, too.

Unbearably Ubiquitous

Humans are defined in part by their tools. We’re pretty good at the whole business, to the point that our tools sometimes occupy too large a part in our stories.

Good storytelling should not be about tools, whatever their purpose. If they take too large a role, the entire narrative can be about nothing but access to tools.

Consider the Big Two. Guns and smartphones.

First, shootin’ irons. The gun culture that pervades media, especially American television and movies, has spawned a few cliches that have become as unbearable as they are ubiquitous. Three come to mind easily. 

The first is that in any conflict, they who are simply better armed, who have greater access to firepower, win. Dull. Predictable (same as dull) and lazy. It’s as if people crave that idea that the solution to big problems is as simple as Ronald Reagan thought when he said, “We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” 

Making no judgements about how he dehumanized millions of people and their country (of COURSE I am), that sort of simplicity is unforgivable in a fictional narrative. Even in the relatively uncomplicated good vs. bad world of Star Wars, George Lucas had the cute little Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi kick the tar out of Imperial walkers. Devoted space-opera nerds didn’t like it, but it wasn’t lazy.

The second tiresome trope is the reveal of said firepower. It has gone from a custom-built case and a three-piece rifle to a storage locker full of a grab-bag of gun-metal black automatic assault weapons, to a full-blown walk-in closet packed with ordnance, enough to arm a small army. And directors deal with it like it’s the reveal of treasure. 

“Ooooooooooh,” we’re supposed to say when we see it. “Y-a-w-n,” is more like it.

The third is more subtle. Bad guys, good guys, everybody seems to keep a pistol on the table, and the last thing they do before leaving a room is pick it up and shove it in their waistband behind their backs. We can’t go anywhere unarmed, right, so that makes sense. Guns are tools that, in American film, no self-respecting criminal or cop can do without.

Today, now, there is a newer tool, and another cue for writers or actors and directors to follow as they make transitions. It’s the smartphone. In film, the smartphone is out everywhere – at home, in the restaurant, in the car, in the bathroom, and the last thing anyone does is to pick it up, pocket it, or tuck it somewhere.

The smartphone is the new pistol. You can’t go out without one. Losing it is almost a death sentence. A newer, bigger one is likely to get you out of jams the older ones could not. Like a pistol, the smartphone adds a layer of complexity while at the same time making things too simple. As a gun undoubtedly does, a smartphone changes a power dynamic, but does so in a different way, by providing information almost immediately. Its narrative flaw is that it can make discovering an important fact or idea far too easy. In the same way, a gun waved in someone’s face simplifies a relationship between characters to the point of boredom.

For the writer of novels, the smartphone presents huge opportunities and pitfalls. A smartphone can be wielded by anyone, even those characters for whom guns would be anathema. Now characters must be disarmed from time to time, having batteries run out or coverage unavailable just to force them to use their wits. Someone can be intimidated, stalked, even terrorized using smartphone communication, but so long as that thing is connected to a network, help is available.

An easy fix is to write historical novels. A wired telephone could not be carried out of a room in a waistband. In the 1960s, you had to leave it behind when you went out to investigate that curious heavy breathing in the back garden. Even better, in the good ol’ days telegraphs had to be hand delivered. In some places you had to tip the messenger boy. And it was one-way communication written with as few words as possible, which always introduced a pleasing ambiguity of interpretation. More fodder for the reader’s imagination and the protagonist’s perceptive powers.

Perhaps if we go further back, new possibilities might arise. More than 5000 years ago, Gilgamesh the King, fashioned by the gods to be one-third like them, builds the walls of Uruk. One sunny day (they had WAY too many of those, by the way) Goddess of love and war, Innana, is really pissed off because the temple priests have been skimming more than their share of sacrifices for themselves. Our hero Akadi, which is a name I made up just now, must summon help before the whole city is destroyed by the goddess’s wrath. He uses his cuneus to press 𒀂𒀇𒀧𒀳𒀸𒁐 into a tablet of wet clay and then throws it over the city wall. The tablet lands in the middle of a beach volleyball match between Gilgamesh and his stalwart friend Enkidu (they only play each other, as no one can beat them singly let alone when they play as a team). Anyway, Gilgamesh sweeps his long hair off of his chiselled cheekbones and reads Akadi’s dire warning.

Let the narrative begin! 

I know, my ancient Sumerian sucks. But Gilgamesh has a friend, not a gun, and wits, not a smartphone, but even if he had both and even though he is one third god, the two thirds part that is human will either save the day or not. The flow of the story, the inevitability of the resolution will come from him.

As it has been written, so shall it continue to be done. Even when 10G hits, and we’re communicating with chips that High Leader Elon has implanted in our brains for $459.99 per month ($549.99 for no commercials). 

Big Mistake

I made a mistake yesterday. I watched a movie from about twenty-five years ago. It was called A Perfect Murder, and what became clear as I watched was that nothing was in any way perfect about this film. Including the murders. And attempted murders.

Besides the plot holes and the poor direction (where’s the suspense?) the characters were what really got my attention. 

There kind of weren’t … any. 

Please bear with me as I rant.

The protagonist, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is supposedly in some progressive United Nations job (she mentions the word refugees as a way of signaling her deep commitment to humanity) dressed in a fur coat and five-hundred-dollar shoes, a job which seems to allow her extended lunches a couple of times a week so that she can go off to have nooners with her arty boyfriend is his ridiculously huge studio.

What becomes evident is that, far from being likable, hateable, relatable in any way, she has no character at all. Beyond her ability to part her lips just so when she is trying to appear frightened, surprised, perplexed, sympathetic, aroused, or whatever, a store mannequin could fill in. Now, it would have to be from a posh, exclusive store, because our protagonist is just about as white, as privileged, and as rich as a person can be.

Her husband is the malevolent Michael Douglas, who also has little or nothing that might be counted as character except that he’s … malevolent. He looks good in layers of expensive clothes, and likes to comb his hair back, and if that’s not a clue to deep-seated complex and fascinating personality pathologies, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, he plots to kill Gwyneth using her boyfriend as the blunt instrument. Having found out about the artist’s shady criminal past and about the quality lunches available in Manhattan to UNO personnel, he threatens and bribes the boyfriend to turn on Gwyneth so that hubby can inherit her birthright, a fortune of about a hundred million.

The boyfriend, Viggo Mortenson, threatens to have character when we find out that he learned to paint in prison (is that even a thing?) and he likes to hook up with rich women and walk away with more than their deep appreciation. Later on, when he thinks poor Gwyneth is dead (having hired his inept buddy from prison art school to do the deed for him) he seems distraught. Later, finding out she’s alive and kicking, he seems happy as a clam to leave town for good without her. So, his character is … whatever?

Movies don’t have lots of time for character development, but we should like somebody shouldn’t we? Why cheer for the heroine who is simply exceedingly privileged? 

Should we like her just because her husband’s a bonafide member of the Capitalist-Killer fraternity? 

Because she has bad taste in lunchtime wrestling partners? 

The film shows us nothing else about her but for the fact that she speaks a little Arabic, which is supposed to be some other signal of her all-around terrificness.

A police detective, played by David Suchet, shows up and we are briefly hopeful that an actual character has arrived, as his face demonstrates more complex elements in the first ten seconds on-screen than anyone else does in two hours. But his part is tiny and completely without effect on the plot. A waste.

Who cares, though? It’s a lousy twenty-five-year-old film. Why did this bother me?

What must have been happening was that the director and writer were thinking that just drawing an outline of a rich attractive woman with a New York job would get an audience to like her and cheer for her. And that’s the problem. Assuming an audience’s good will. Big mistake.

Assuming a reader’s, or an audience’s good will or support for a character has to be fatal. We have to have a reason to care. If your protagonist is going to save the universe, we better care about them over and above the saving part. 

We are readers. 

We’re safe at home. 

We don’t need to be saved. What we need is to read about or watch someone interesting. And that is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction – we have to make readers care without falling into trope or cliché. 

The finest prose imaginable will not make me want to read about someone I don’t care about. It would be a terrible mistake to assume any reader of my work would be different. 

People don’t want to read simply because I want to write.


So much work.

Who AM I?

There was once a clever guy called Shakepeare who wrote about a lean and hungry Roman who asked his friend, “Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” After giving it a good try, his mate Brutus says, “No Cassius, for the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other thing.” Cassius goes on to be Brutus’ mirror, laying it on a bit thick if you ask me, but the point is made that we have a hard time seeing ourselves, in knowing who we are. 

As is their prerogative, readers like to make inferences, personal ones, about authors based on what they’ve written. And how writers write about people, no matter how real or made-up they are, will be used against them. Verisimilitude will only increase a reader’s predisposition to make such leaps. 

He MUST be an axe-murderer because he writes about them so well!

I was giving this more thought after having written a book about the interwar period, a time when there were a lot of lefties wandering about questioning why so many men had died in the war and then why the survivors and their families had to suffer through the Depression. One of my characters is one of those lefties, so the novel has a flavour of that time. I offered the book to a publisher who immediately rejected it but directed me to a press which is very left-of-centre and exists for social purposes as much as business ones.

But I just wanted to write an entertaining, convincing book. Does it come across that I’m selling something, specifically lefty-ism? Do I come across that way, like I’m on a mission from Marx?

Everybody says that writing is a solitary occupation. We sit all alone in our respective garrets and live in our heads and some of what we think about spills out onto a paper or is punched out onto a keyboard. Now, the landlady won’t let us put up mirrors on the walls and ceilings, so we have no idea ourselves of even our appearances let alone the cumulative impressions we convey with thousands of words of plot, character, and place, the inescapable conclusions readers make about us given how we begin, the method of our middling, and the nature of our ends.

My way of beginning the novel was a relatively sympathetic, blow by blow portrayal of Bloody Saturday during the Winnipeg General Strike. Does that make me a Bolshevik in people’s eyes today? Most people haven’t a clue about that time (all the more reason to write it) or its dramatic climax (there it is again – reason to write). Does just writing sympathetically about the strikers brand me somehow?

Maybe, maybe not. I guess I need a mirror.

Where’s a Cassius skulking around when I really need one?

The thing is – it’s easy writing stuff, but getting anyone to read it all the way through? Almost impossible. If Cassius were gonna fill my head with how terrific I am, he’d probably have to do it on the basis of a synopsis. Who has time for much else?

So, he’ll get it all wrong, too.

I might have to just go with the flow. Or, in this case, the revolution.

Too bad khaki brings out the green bags under my eyes.

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.