What I Learned From Writing Porn

Young actors, as we all know, will take any paying job they can get while hoping for a part—the cliché is that they’ve all waited tables at one time or another.

It’s not so different for young writers. They’ll write anything, if the job pays. Catalogs, instruction manuals, even pornography. I can personally attest to the latter, having written a baker’s dozen “dirty books” as they were called then, in the mid-1960s—almost fifty years ago now.

I’m not talking Henry Miller here, or D.H. Lawrence, and certainly not the Marquis de Sade. I’m talking about the stuff of Penthouse letters, except more explicit. And longer. Think Fanny Hill, in modern language, and not so well-written. Nothing to do with children or violence.

Now you have to understand the public morality of the mid-1960s—an age of short haircuts, Brooks’ Brothers suits, and no facial hair, when marijuana was rare, feminism not yet a force and the sexual revolution undreamed of.

Of course, everyone was just as interested in sex as they are now, but they kept their fascination as secret as they could, embarrassed by it. Today,  the Internet, Lady Gaga and TV shows like “Two-a-Half-Men” make that pretense difficult. We all just assume.

Anyhow, in those years, New York City, which where I lived at the time, was the American capital of secret sexuality. And the epicenter of this fascination was that great mid-city thoroughfare, 42nd Street, between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue.

Today, 42nd Street is among the most family-friendly boulevards in America. outside of Disneyland. Back then, it was home to a couple dozen “bookshops,” selling pornographic novels, magazines, films and erotic paraphernalia, as well as six or eight ratty but once glorious movie palaces, continuously running films designed for men in raincoats.

Practically every city in America had at least one or two of these specialty bookstores, patronized by quite upstanding businessmen and politicians, by clergymen and police chiefs, all shopping as quickly as they could, praying never to bump into anyone they knew. These were the outlets for my shadiest writings, which were in no way illegal, but which were unlikely candidates for the New York Times bestseller list.

I wrote these books under a variety of pseudonyms, mostly for a publisher that called itself Midwood Press. The deal was this: $1000 per book, COD, no royalties, no publicity, no remainders, no agent, no editing, no nothing. The book had to be in story form, between 250 and 275 manuscript pages long (we didn’t think in word counts in those days), grammatically correct and competently-typed. Did they sell? I suppose so, enough that the publisher encouraged me to write more.

Why, you might wonder, was I willing to do such a thing (and it wasn’t just me, dozens of other writers did the same)? What about my moral scruples? Well, I’ve always been a free speech absolutist and I’ve always thought sex was a natural and positive part of the human experience, so scruples really didn’t enter into it. Besides, the books paid the rent and put food on the table. And they allowed me to practice my trade.

Each of these books took me three or four weeks to write, at the most. I’d start by making a three or four page outline, divided into chapters, then use the outline as a kind of writing guide, a habit I still follow. Each book had five or six sex scenes—lengthy descriptions intended to be erotic–connected by a thin plot of no special merit. While I took care with my spelling and my grammar, re-writing, even polishing was beyond the job requirements, or my inclinations.

So what did writing pornography teach me? Most important, it taught me that I was capable of writing a coherent, 275-page book, with characters and a plot, and rather quickly at that. It forever banished the lurking fear that such an accomplishment was simply beyond me, that I would be forever limited to writing news and feature stories.

For a young writer, that’s no small deal. No writer is sure he can write a novel until he or she does it. So even writing a terrible novel, a novel unworthy by any measure, with zero redeeming social value, is a terrific confidence builder.

If I ever happen to teach college-level novel writing, in fact, this would be my final exam: One complete and coherent novel, at least 250 pages long, with a beginning, a middle and an end, of no literary merit whatever. Could be pornography, but a romance, a thriller, a detective story or a sci-fi tale would be just fine. Rewriting and polish would be unnecessary, in fact penalized if used excessively.

If the student’s novel met all these criteria, I’d give it an A. But the grade would be much less important than the effect on the student’s psyche, the proof positive that he or she was able to write a novel.

As I wrote the dirty books, with their studly men and voluptuous vixens, with their routine, almost vestigial plots which connected a series of sex scenes, I slowly began to believe that I could write something better. I felt I could create some reasonably credible characters, beef up the plot, and could replace the sex scenes with actions that had no prurient intent.

Eventually, I wrote myself out of this job. I started making puns, telling jokes and involving my characters in funny situations. My editor warned me: “Sex is not funny.” But I persisted and when my porn became more and more satirical, my editor said she thought it was time for me to move on. So, move on I did.

I decided to write a spy thriller, a genre I’d always enjoyed and knew pretty well. The result was Endgame (Avon, 1975), an Arab-Israeli spy story set mainly in Copenhagen, the first work of fiction I’d written under my own name. It sold pretty well. And there wasn’t a sex scene in it, in fact I’ve never written another.

 

 

 

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Why Fiction Writing is So Damn Hard–and How to Make it Easier

          Writing fiction is damned hard. We all know that. But why is it so hard? After all, talking—producing a continuous flow of words—is pretty easy. Three-year-olds do it effortlessly. Wait, you say, fiction is different. Oh yeah? What is fiction, except fantasizing at length, which is also well within the powers of the average three-year-old. But writing fiction? That’s a different story.

I figure it this way:  Fiction writing is hard because it requires that you do three things at once: 1) create believable characters, 2) tell a compelling and coherent story and 3) choose the right words and nothing but the right words. This is the linguistic triathlon in which we’re all competing.

So, what can you do to make this formidable task easier? I can’t tell you with any certainty what will work for you—we all have our habits, our preferences and our predilections—but I can share my method and you can apply all or parts of it as it makes sense to you.

What I do is what the triathlete does: I separate the three components of the task—characters, story and language—and work on them one at a time.  Here’s how:

I begin with a document I call “Cast of Characters.” I list every major character who’s going to be in my book—at least, all of them that I know at this point—and I depict them, usually in utilitarian and telegraphic language. No need to be fancy.

I describe them physically, psychologically and economically. I list their quirks. I work out their relevant back stories. I note their relationships with each other. I mention their hopes and dreams. I determine their motivations and what’s at stake for them in the adventure I am about to tell. I put all of my ideas on paper, even the bad ones.

After I write this, I let it cook for several days at least, maybe longer. Often, as I lie in bed waiting for sleep, I watch my characters in my minds’ eye, interacting, dealing with problems. I think of what they could do in various circumstances, alone and with each other. I add and delete stuff as it occurs to me.

When I’ve gone as far as I can go with my cast of characters, I put it down and start on my next document, the outline. This focuses intently on the second element of the trifecta, the story. I’m not thinking of language when I write this, just plot. I’m not developing characters either, except as needed to tell the story. My aim is to get the plot down on paper, to lay out the events in the proper order—what happens to whom and why and how it all ends up.

I have my own method for putting events in order: I list every one I can think of, every problem the characters might confront, every obstacle they must overcome, every interaction of significance, even every likely ending. I make NO attempt to put these down, at least initially, in any kind of order. I just make a list.

When I have harvested every idea my axons, dendrites and neurons can come up with and added it to the list, then I start to put these items into some kind of tentative order, probably chronological. Should new ideas come to mind at any time in the process, I put them where they belong. Should other items on the list prove not to fit, I eliminate them. This takes a lot of time, a lot of experimenting, a lot of thinking.

How do you determine the right order of events? I think that’s something your instinct must decide. But as you comb over your outline again and again, trying things out and switching things around as only word processing allows you to do, you will find that there is a natural order, that A must come before B, or B will be confusing, that M must come before N because in a way, M causes N.

When I think I have a list that works reasonably well, I flesh out each item a bit, with a few explanatory phrases and now and then a snatch of dialogue. I write in prose, creating a kind of Cliff Notes version of my book. I don’t use any formal outlining techniques. I find them artificial and constraining and they’re a real pain to use in Microsoft Word. So, no “I’s, “II’s” and “III’s,” or “A.” “B” and “C,” etc. Just prose. Conversational prose. I’m the only audience for this one.

What I’m chasing here is the story. For me, this is the very hardest part of writing a novel, the most brain-busting part, the part that requires the greatest concentration and focus. And it can take months to produce.

In my experience, outline is not fun, although I have often experienced the satisfaction of solving what seemed an intractable problem, or discovering a way to use a character that had not occurred to me before. Outlining is painful because it requires you to keep your entire story in your head, in brainram.

So, why outline, when you can just, well, start writing and let your characters do what they want to do while you watch the story develop and record it with nothing more than a bit of prodding here and there?

In my experience, outlining makes a novel much easier to write, for several reasons:.

First and foremost, it allows me to focus on story development without worrying about the language I’ll use to tell it. I don’t have to think about dialogue or description. I don’t have to worry about metaphors or synonyms or dialogue tags. I can deal with those things and their brothers and sisters at another time.

Second, when I’ve finished it, my outline will give me the confidence that comes from knowing I have a complete, coherent story. And we writers know that anything that increases our confidence is priceless.

I’ll also be confident enough to deviate from the outline if I come up with a better order of events or something totally new. It’ll be like leaving the highway to check out a nearby attraction, with the knowledge that I can get back on the highway whenever I like.

Third, an outline allows me to write out of order if the impulse strikes me. I think this is a huge advantage. Sometimes, I find myself coming up to a very difficult scene, one that I dread writing. When that happens, I often choose to write a later, easier scene, to get the underbrush out of the way, so to speak, before I tackle the brick wall. Once again, it’s a matter of building confidence. Piling up the pages does that for me.

So, how detailed should your outline be? I’ve heard of writers who’ve written 100 or 200-page outlines. For me, anyhow, this is overkill. My finished chapters tend to run 20-25 manuscript pages. In my outline, each one usually takes up a page or less.

I think that creating an outline is an enormously intense and creative process—more so than writing the actual book in many ways. I know that some writers feel outlines shackle them and limit their options. But I disagree. Big Brother is not watching you when you write. If you want to deviate from your outline, and you probably will, no one will call you on it.  My completed books differ from their outlines by as much as 30%, and that doesn’t bother me at all.

Some writers genuinely do not feel the need for an outline. They know where they’re going from the start. These folks have more ordered minds than I do. Others feel that writing a book is a wonderful journey and they don’t want to know the destination until they get there. These folks have more creative confidence than I do. If you’re one of these writers, you may not need an outline. For the rest of us, it’s a terrific help.

So, okay. If you’re following my plan, you’ve got your cast of characters. You’ve worked out your story. Now you can put everything you’ve got into finding the right words. That may well lead you to revise your characters and alter your story, but you won’t be flying blind. You’ll know where your going and how to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Plea to Writers from Mr. Average Reader

Dear Sirs and Madams:

I have been reading books all of my life and I intend to keep on doing it until the end. I am grateful to you folks for sharing the fruits of your imagination with me and other readers and I have usually enjoyed your books, to a greater or lesser degree.

But…

It occurs to me that our nice little partnership might go even better, at least for me, if I shared some of my thoughts with you—not about any particular books or authors, but about books in general—fiction, I mean. As a reader I think there are things you should know, or things you sometimes forget.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful—I’m sure writing is hard work and that you all do your best—but even the most skillful of you commit a variety of mostly little errors that are quite annoying, although easily avoided, errors that make it much harder to enjoy your books.

Let me start with beginnings. I like atmospheric beginnings as much as anyone, but don’t try my patience. I bought your book because I like stories. I like stories of several different types—adventure stories, romantic stories, stories about human relationships, stories involving history, spies, crime or science fiction. They entertain me, enrich my life and expand my world view. So start your story as soon as you can, with minimal prattle. If you don’t, I’m going to put your book down and pick up another one.

Here’s a small point: Could you give your characters really different names? When you name one guy Melvin and the other Martin, I have a lot of trouble remembering who’s who. What’s wrong, I ask you, with George or Fred? Make them as different as possible. And for God’s sake, make them pronounceable. I don’t want to have to sound them out every time I come across them. The same goes for place names.

Something else about characters. I know you usually describe them at some length when you first introduce them, and that’s good, but from that moment on, you rarely remind me of what they look like or what they do. You just use their names. I know you’ve been working with your characters for months, maybe years, but they’re new to me and my memory isn’t all that good. Remind me occasionally.

And here’s a pet peeve: Don’t confuse me unless you really need to for some reason. Tell me what time it is and where we’re supposed to be, and make sure I know who’s talking. Don’t make me guess—I probably won’t guess right. And if you’re going to do flash-backs or flash-forwards, please make it obvious. Sometimes I don’t catch on for a couple of paragraphs and I have no idea where I am.

Oh, and those fancy descriptions of the weather or the place. I know you work really hard on them and that you are very proud of them, but the truth is, after a few lines, I tend to skim. I mean, I’ve got the idea—and you don’t expect me to read every word, do you? Well, if you do, you shouldn’t. I’m living in the real world, you know. My wife and kids might be pestering me, or I might want to put the book down and catch a game on TV, or go to the kitchen. I get distracted and my attention span won’t win any prizes.

Speaking of my attention span, not to put too fine a point on it, I bore easily. I don’t know if that’s true of all readers, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We want things to happen. Big things, little things—doesn’t matter, just make sure it’s something. If you go on for pages with nothing happening, you’d better have found a way to make my heart pound or my mind buzz.

Listen, I know you sometimes want to make philosophical points, or explain complicated matters, but take it from me, your average reader, you’d better not go on too long or you’re gonna lose me. When you must do something of this kind, break it up and give it to me in digestible pieces, or interrupt it with some kind of action. Even a person stubbing his toe would do.

And a word here about paragraphs. Don’t make them too long. I get lost and I have to back up to the previous indent. And I don’t like to go backwards. And that goes for sentences as well. I’ll tolerate an occasional two-breather, but I didn’t buy your book in hopes of finding another Faulkner.

Also, I’d wish you’d be considerate of my feelings. I can’t speak for every reader, of course, but as the average reader, I can tell you that when you make me like someone and then you kill him off, I’m not going to be a happy reader. Likewise if you randomly put children or innocents in danger. This is a cheap trick, in my opinion, and if you do it, I will be angry at you and probably put down your book.

In general, we readers aren’t fond of what we think of as “cheap tricks” – memory loss, cell phones whose batteries fail at a crucial moment, a secret twin who suddenly shows up and overturns the apple cart, crucial new facts you’ve had no good reason to hold back, tardily revealed. You might think you’re providing a delightful surprise, but more often than not, it’s just a groaner.

Speaking of groaners, I’d like to mention clichés. We notice them, believe me—not just linguistic ones, but also character and plot clichés. We readers don’t expect you to come up with something totally new. In fact, we’d probably be nervous if you did. But please don’t mix four or five plot clichés together and expect us to like it. Please don’t give us unremittingly evil villains or flawless heroes. We like to read about people, people who seem real to us. We like to invest in their fates.

Don’t risk our disbelief. Most of us are eager to believe, or to try to believe just about anything you tell us. Don’t abuse that readiness by confronting us with stuff that really beggars credibility. We’re generally on your side—but if you insult us by giving us something we can’t swallow, you’ll lose us.

The same goes for facts. In general, we like facts. They ground a story and bolster its credibility. But if you get one wrong, we’ll never believe another word you write. We are extremely unforgiving about such things. It’s like that movie “Somewhere in Time,” in which Christopher Reeve successfully travels backward in time from 1980 to 1912, via self-hypnosis to find Jane Seymour, only to have the illusion shattered when he finds a 1980 penny in his pocket. Give us no 1980 pennies, please.

Another quick way to lose us is with a metaphor or simile that doesn’t work. When I come across one of those, I get embarrassed for you, and I don’t think that’s how you hoped I would react. Better nothing than a bad metaphor.

Now about endings. I want a genuinely satisfying ending, a full-blown conclusion, all the threads tied together—nothing vague, ambiguous or inconclusive, please. Don’t leave it up to me to figure it out—if I can. When I put your book down, I want to bask in some kind of feeling of closure. I want to feel I know how it all turned out.

I think I can really sum my discomfort with you in a single sentence: I get the feeling you don’t think about me very often. When you’re writing, do you ask yourself if I’ll understand what you’re saying?  Have you forgotten to tell me something I need to know?  Are you sure I know who’s talking? And finally, and most important, are you making very sure, sentence by sentence, that you’re not boring me?

Think of me as Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder, watching what you’re writing—and consult me frequently. If you sometimes read your work aloud to yourself, include me in your imagination—and listen to me. I won’t steer you wrong. I promise.

Sincerely

Mr. Average Reader

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What John Hohenber taught me about dealing with NOISE

Once upon a time—and I know this because I saw it with my own eyes—New York City had seven daily newspapers: the Times, the Post, the Herald Tribune, the Daily News, the Mirror, the World-Telegram and the Journal-American.

This was in the late 1950s, the tail end of an era in which the print media dominated the news. It was also when I went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, hoping to join the journalistic fraternity, which I greatly admired.

In those days, the J-school had but 80 students and at least a dozen professors, many of them part-timers on loan from the New York Times, people whose bylines were familiar to us all. We J-school students worked the same hours the Timesmen did—nine-to-five every day, Saturdays and Sundays off.

Every morning, one of the Times’ reporters brought in that day’s New York Times assignment sheets. These assignments were doled out among us. Our job: to go out into the city—the UN, the Mayor’s office, police headquarters, the docks, wherever the story might lead.

We were to join the group of reporters from the city’s seven newspapers, gather the news exactly as they did, report back to the “City Room” at Columbia, sit down at one of the typewriters and start pounding away. We were to meet the same deadlines as the real New York Times reporters, and our stories would be judged against theirs, and by the same editors.

On the first day of school, I found myself assigned to Brooklyn Police Headquarters, not on a specific story, but to join the reporters who regularly hung out there and sniff around for the best story of the day—a fatal car accident, perhaps, or a bank robbery, or if I were really lucky, a gangland murder.

When I arrived, I walked into a scene I’d never expected: seven beat reporters, one from each newspaper, crammed into a single high-ceilinged room across the street from Brooklyn Police Headquarters, playing poker, reading, telling old war stories.

Then a phone call came from Police Headquarters. “My turn,” said one of the reporters, getting up. He stuck a hat on his head and left the room. An hour later, he was back. He shared what he learned with his colleagues, after which each one wrote up the story for his own newspaper.

The pattern repeated itself all day, each reporter taking his turn—except when his city desk called him with a scoop or an exclusive. Then he’d do the reporting on his own and call it in, no sharing with others.

That day, after all seven reporters had had their turns, the police phone rang again. “Well, Columbia,” said one of the reporters, “I think this time the bell tolls for thee.”

I swallowed hard and picked up the phone. “We’ve found an adult male in Prospect Park, “ the police dispatcher said. “Dead of gunshot wounds to the head. Detectives going out now.”

“I’ll be there in a second,” I said. I looked around at the other reporters in the room. “Do us a favor, kid,” one of them said. “Get the goddamned name right.”

I did, I’m proud and more than a little relieved to say. And after I delivered the information to my colleagues,  I hopped on the subway and headed up to 116th and Broadway, to Columbia. In a half hour, I walked into the huge J-school city room, with its 80 formidable manual typewriters, each squatting on an old wooden desk. A few student reporters, having returned from their assignments, already occupied the desks, having  and were reviewing their notes.

I sat down at an empty desk in the middle of the room and rolled a piece of yellow newsprint—the cheapest paper you can buy—into the old Smith-Corona. It was a simple enough news story, I thought. Man found murdered in a Brooklyn park, assailant unknown. Police talking to witnesses, no leads yet. I thought about how I should write the lead.

Somewhere a few rows behind me, a typewriter began clacking away. Someone had gotten a head start on his story. Then it was another typewriter, two desks over from mine. And a third, near the front of the room. After that, a bunch of them, surrounding me. The student reporters were filling up the room pretty quickly now, and most of them had started typing the moment they sat down. Not me.

I fiddled with the paper in my Smith-Corona and tried to concentrate, but I felt like I was swimming in a sea of clacking typewriters. How was I to write in a cacophony like this?

Then I felt someone standing behind me, looking down at me. It was my school advisor, John Hohenberg, a tall, imposing grey-haired man who, in addition to his teaching, presided over the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes. He arched an eyebrow and regarded me. “Got a problem, son?”

“The noise,” I said. “It’s too much—I can’t even think.”

Hohenberg pursed his lips and looked at me. He shook his head, puzzled. “Noise? What noise? I don’t hear anything.”

“But all the typewriters, the clacking noise. It’s a mad-house.”

Hohenberg tilted his head and listened. “Don’t hear any noise,” he said.

“What?”

“Quiet as a churchyard,” he said with a wave of his hand.

Our eyes met and held. I could see he wasn’t kidding. He kept looking at me, not saying anything, then he pointed to my typewriter and wiggled a finger at it. “Better get to it,” he said. “Deadline’s in about a half hour.”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said, and turned back to my typewriter, not inclined to argue and I felt him move on. I got to it.

I spent the better part of a year surrounded by those 80 clacking typewriters, writing. And I finally got it: if you really want to write, you’d better learn how to compose serviceable prose no matter what’s happening around you.

Noise? What noise?

 

 

 

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First review of A.S. Blodgett’s Sensational International Bestseller, “Another Nice Day”

Reprinted from the Review of Literary Books. Review by Eric Fowler-Partridge

I’m not going to beat about the bush. A. S. Blodgett’s latest work, “What Happened Then” is one of the year’s finest books.

There are characters, many of them, but not too many, and a complicated plot, which turns out to be quite simple, in a setting both comfortingly familiar and eerily unusual. As for length, the book is just right for some readers. It comes to a highly satisfying conclusion, yet leaves room for an infinite number of sequels, a feat few writers have mastered or even had the courage to attempt.

“Another Nice Day” is an age-old story with universal appeal, yet it breaks new ground on every page. Although I have read nothing exactly comparable, I must say it is a superior specimen of its type, following in a long and honored tradition, but in no way derivative.

The sex scenes, and there are many, are always appropriate to the story and unlikely to trigger the dog-earing of a single page. The violence is gruesome and shocking, but probably won’t provoke nightmares in younger readers, for which this book is unsuited anyway.

Although I read “Another Nice Day” very carefully, I was unable to find a single adverb in the text, not even in dialogue. This can be said of very few recent novels, if any (and about non-fiction, the less said the better.)

In fact, if my observations can be trusted, the author has made great progress in eliminating superfluous parts of speech. Indeed, it is difficult to find prepositions—I only once noticed the word “of”—and articles have been ruthlessly trimmed. Blodgett is too generous with adjectives, however, and his extravagant use of nouns and verbs is a distinct weakness.

But Blodgett’s word choices are, without exception, exemplary, although perfect might be a better word, or maybe ideal. The dexterity with which he has wielded his thesaurus inspires awe, if not fear. Typos are at a minimum (the worst being the addition of an extra “g” to “egregious”), and page and chapter numbers are quite accurate.

The story itself proceeds in an almost infinite series of perfect arcs, like a herd of gazelles bounding across an endless meadow. The pacing is unflagging, as though the writer is being chased by a pack of ADHD eight-year-olds, all demanding he get on with it without a single gap, hiatus or lull, all ready to rip the book to shreds and eat its pages if it slows for a nanosecond.

Of the descriptions, little needs to be said. They paint pictures in readers’ minds that no film could equal. We are always aware of the season, the view, the time of day, the weather, the smells, the noises, the flora and the fauna—well, nothing that can be perceived by any of the five senses is slighted.

The same is true for Blodgett’s characters. Thin or fat, tall or short, phlegmatic or garrulous, hairy or bald, buxom or flat, we are never forced to wonder about to the expressions on their faces, how they dress, how they sound or how they smell. In fact, we are never allowed to forget for a moment.

It needs hardly be said, which won’t stop me from saying it, but in this book, Blodgett demonstrates an enviable mastery of dramatic writing. There are countless examples in which he places the emphatic word of the sentence at the end, no matter how awkward this is. Furthermore, a diligent search reveals no lapses into “seemed,” “almost,” “nearly,” “very,” “kind of” and similar vague qualifiers. Grammatically speaking, it’s either on or off, yes or no, big or little and nothing in between.

Stylistically, the book perfectly conforms to the Chicago Manual. Numerals are spelled out, except, of course when used as numbers, at least over ten. In a series of three items, commas are used except for the third item. Punctuation is placed within quotation marks, even when this defies logic.

Rarely are words other than “said” used in dialogue tags, although the author did, on one occasion, deploy the wildly inventive, “he sneezed.”  Unfortunately, he followed this with the overreaching eccentricity, “ she coughed.” But I cavil. Clearly intensive work-shopping has ground away almost all of the book’s lumps, filled in its gaps and denatured its kinks. It is nothing if not smooth.

So I recommend “Another Nice Day” without reservation. It will appeal to everyone familiar with the well-established rules of composition one hears about in the better MFA creative writing programs.

 

Harvey Ardman

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How to turn the tables on writer’s block

Writer’s block can take several different forms. The most common is paralysis at the keyboard. You sit, fingers poised, and practically nothing happens. For days or even weeks at a time.

But writer’s block can present in other ways. For some people, it is the inability to force yourself to sit down at the computer. Everything else—anything else—seems more important. You can always find a reason not to write.

Writer’s block can also show up in conversation. It presents as a pathetic eagerness to discuss your book with anyone willing to listen, whether or not your audience has asked to hear about it.  This is often a substitute for writing.

The fourth most common form of writer’s block is devilishly deceptive. You have no trouble putting words on paper. You turn out page after page of grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs. But when you look at it the next morning, you can see it is nothing more than lifeless, unimaginative babbling—drivel, to use the technical term.

(This, by the way, is how I experience writer’s block. It is not fun.)

Writers’ blogs often talk about this debilitating literary malady. They often suggest solutions. Among the most common: taking a break, going for a walk, eating—or drinking—something, exercising, taking a nap. Etc.

Such techniques are quite useful if you’re momentarily stuck or simply tired, But they’re no more able to fix writer’s block than chicken soup is to cure tuberculosis. They are ineffective, because all of them are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of writers’ block. They assume you’re having a problem with your ideas gland—it’s run out of steam, or it’s on an unauthorized vacation, or it needs some time off.

But writers’ block is NOT a problem with the ideas gland. Your ideas gland is probably as good as it ever was. If you’re suffering from writers’ block, you have a problem with access to the ideas gland. And you can get access to your ideas gland only if you have sufficient juice in your confidence gland. Without confidence, you cannot write, and the more confidence you have, the better you can write. Confidence is to writers as breath is to singers.

What causes a shortfall in confidence? Rumination, frustration, failure to meet your own goals. How can you get it back? As I’ve said, the usual writers’ block remedies—rest, distraction, exercise, etc.—won’t work. A shortfall in confidence can be cured only one way: by accomplishment. Almost any significant personal accomplishment will do, but literary accomplishment is the quickest and most effective cure.

About now, you’ve probably concluded that I’m suggesting the impossible. What can you accomplish—especially in a literary mode—if you have writer’s block? More than you think, it turns out. In fact, much more than you think.

In order of difficulty…

1. Read, not for pleasure (or not just for pleasure), but analytically. Keep track of your emotions as you read and figure out how the writer did that to you. Read a book similar to the one you’re writing and note the similarities (and differences) between the author’s way of handling a scene or solving a problem and your way. Pick up a best-seller and analyze its appeal. Read a classic and figure out why it has endured. Keep on with it until you know you’ve come up with genuinely valuable insights.

2. Research. Get your Google going. Explore your book’s setting and timeline. If your book is set in anything but the present, check out the technological developments of the day, as well as the geopolitical situation. Study the difference in social customs and relationships. Research food, clothing, commerce and anything else that could impinge on your story. You may not use a lot of what you find—you don’t want to write a book that reeks of Googling—but you’ll find an abundance of story and character ideas. Identify them. Make notes.

3.      Work on your outline. Go over it with care, adding useful tidbits and subtracting useless ones. Look for plot holes and fill them. Make sure everything is in the proper order. Unless you’re writing experimental fiction, in which case all bets are off, you can’t tell your reader about C before you’ve told him about B. Check each continuing character’s timeline. They shouldn’t disappear from sight for so long the reader forgets who they are. Polish your outline, but don’t try to do any writing. You’re working on the blueprints here, not the interior decoration. Keep on with this until you feel your outline is significantly more solid than it was before.

4.      Develop your characters.  Got a case of writer’s block you can’t break through? Okay, stop trying. Instead, put your mind to work fleshing out your characters, giving them a back story, developing a distinctive appearance or way of speaking or dressing. Figure out how they related to each other before page one. Don’t try to write this. Single words and short phrases will do. Diagrams are all right too. But don’t stop until you’ve added a couple of layers of depth to your main characters.

You’ll probably be able to think of variations on these ideas that fit into your own writing habits and preferences. Go with them. But don’t try to write again until you have really finished one or more of these tasks, until you genuinely feel a sense of accomplishment. Challenge your determination and your intellect. Ask yourself, “Have I improved my book?” If you can genuinely answer “yes,” you’ve got your writer’s block on the run.

But let’s say that you have a truly severe case of writer’s block. You are unable to tackle any of the literary remedies I’ve suggested here. Well, there are still ways to get out of your writing funk, other methods of rebuilding your confidence.

I know one writer, for instance, who broke through his writer’s block by doing his taxes. After discovering he was going to get a $1200 refund, he opened bookfile1.doc on his computer, stretched his fingers and, like magic, the words began to flow again.

Other tasks can also create a sense of accomplishment: changing the oil, building a shelf unit, chopping wood for the fireplace, correctly hooking up the speakers in your sound system, even cleaning the house. Take on something difficult, even distasteful, but ultimately rewarding or useful. Anything will work as long as you truly feel you have accomplished something useful, as long as you have been productive.

How will you know if you’ve truly put your writer’s block behind you? You’ll be thinking of something else, or perhaps nothing in particular, and you’ll come up with a patch of dialogue you need to put on paper, or the description of a character, or perhaps some action, and you’ll be driven back to the computer because you have work to do. And you’ll take up your work and you’ll do it.

Oh, one last thing: don’t tell yourself you’ve conquered writer’s block forever. It will attack you again. But know this: you’ve beat it before and you can beat it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I don’t need no stinkin’ computer

Writing used to be a lot harder, but if you were born after 1975, you probably don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, except if it has been explained to you.

You sit at your desk, in front of your computer, editing your manuscript, effortlessly changing, adding, subtracting, rearranging, without your hands ever leaving the keyboard.

Need a word definition? Click, there it is. Need a selection of synonyms? Click, there they are. Want to change a character’s name? Global-search-and-replace and it’s done. Doubtful about spelling? No squiggly red line and you’re home free.

Want five originals of your manuscript? Load your printer and you’re set to go. Want to query half a dozen agents and send them samples? Power up the email program, make an attachment, and click. Done in five minutes.

Boys and girls, it was not always this easy. In fact, until about 1980—and later for most people—it was a damn sight harder. We didn’t have computers. We had ancient devices known as typewriters. No doubt you’ve heard of them, perhaps even seen a few surviving examples. Some of us, uncomfortable with composing on a machine, handwrote our manuscripts, then typed what we had written. If this sounds labor-intensive, believe me, it was.    

The very first author to have a book typewritten, according to the man himself, was Mark Twain. In 1875, he dictated Tom Sawyer to a typist from a hand-written original draft. Twain had a love-hate relationship with his typewriter, an emotion computer users may find familiar. He twice gave it away, declaring it was corrupting his morals by making him want to swear. But he retrieved it both times.

In my youth, if you typed your manuscript, you had three main choices: portables—machines about the size of three large Kleenex boxes, available in various brands and qualities; full-size typewriters, which were about twice as big as portables, too heavy to schlep but very solid and easy to type on, and electric typewriters.

Most electric typewriters were simply electrified versions of ordinary, full-sized machines, but there was one exception, the Cadillac of electric typewriters, the IBM Correcting Selectric, a sleek, monster of a machine. I had a black one.

The IBM Correcting Selectric was a very expensive machine, the costliest one of its kind I believe. I bought mine directly from IBM for about $1200, as I recall. That’s the equivalent of about $6100 today.  And today, as everybody knows, you can buy a decent laptop for $500 and a printer for maybe $150.

The Correcting Selectric was, in its day, a wondrous machine. At its heart was a metalized plastic element about the size and shape of a golf ball. When you hit a key, this little ball rotated in as many as three different directions, smacked up against a plastic ribbon coated with ink, leaving the imprint of a letter on the paper.

And what if, by chance, you hit the wrong key? Well, this was the genius in the Correcting Selectric. You backspaced, hit another key and the ball made contact with a different plastic ribbon, this one coated in white. The mistyped letter vanished. You then backspace and hit the right key. Your error was exterminated.

This sounds enormously complicated and maybe it was, mechanically speaking. But in ordinary practice, the actions were easily and automatically incorporated into your normal typing habits and they hardly slowed you down. You might erase a whole phrase, and very rarely a sentence, but erasing more than one line was beyond the Selectric’s abilities. “Select and delete” or “cut and paste,” if anyone ever thought of such miracles, lay far in the future.

If you wanted to rewrite something, you rolled a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter and, eventually, threw out the first version. You did this again and again and again, scene after scene, chapter after chapter. I typed my early drafts on yellow newsprint, the cheapest paper I could find. I used forests of this stuff, discarding a sheet the moment a sentence or a paragraph turned sour. I filled waste baskets to the brim, never crumpling anything for fear I might want to retrieve it and use it.

Finally, you finished. Or at least you finished the first draft. What came next?  Rewrites, of course. Retyping an entire 300-page manuscript—once, twice, three times—it depended on your time, your energy and your willingness to torture yourself.

The question was, were you willing to retype the whole thing to just fix a sentence? A paragraph? A scene? To change a character’s name?  A date? And how many times could you summon up the will to do this? Even with the finest typewriter on planet Earth, I can tell you that the third or fourth rewrite took all of the determination I could muster.

Only when you were satisfied, or were unable to force yourself to keep rewriting, did you retype the whole thing on white paper. That was a big moment for me. The birth of the baby. The book, the manuscript.

In the 20th century, and all the years before that, it was possible to lose this precious manuscript forever, and irretrievably, to leave it in a taxi, to have it vanish while being copied, to have disappear in a fire or a flood or through postal malfeasance. Yes, I know, you can accidently delete a file today if you don’t back it up, but even then you can often get it back.

So, okay, your manuscript was ready, after much toil. Next step, send it to the agent (s). That required hard copies, expensively Xeroxed, mailed with postage-paid return envelopes. No writers owned copying machines in those days. The Xerox 813, the first desktop plain paper copier, was introduced in 1963—they rented for $5,000 a year. You had to go to a copy center, or ask a friend or relative at a business office.

The corporations quickly caught on to this thievery. They put locks and counters on their Xerox machines to make sure no one was making unauthorized copies. Kinkos came to the rescue, for a price. They could also supply the packing boxes.

And what about those manuscripts you sent out? Sometimes they came back, a bit worse for the wear, sometimes they did not—not necessarily because they were accepted.

So, my younger writer friends, this is what writing was like before you began to practice the craft. It involved exceptionally tedious physical as well as intellectual labor. It was damn hard.

In 1979, I bought myself a Commodore CBM 128, one of the first personal computers, as well as an impact printer, which was so loud you couldn’t stay in the same room with it when it was printing. The computer came in two pieces: a monitor/keyboard unit and a double disk drive for five-and-a-quarter in floppies. I wrote “The Playboy Book of Gadgets” on this machine and left my typewriter behind forever.

The Scribe and his Commodore, c. 1979. At  noon, when the sun came in the window, the disk drive ground to a halt, not to resume its work until it was in shadow again.

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What my Aunt Harriet taught me about writing descriptions

Even now, in her 90th year, Aunt Harriet is lively, alert and knowing. She looks at least ten years younger. Decades ago, when I was in high school and she was a young woman, she was quite a package—small, slim, with jet black hair cut short, bright eyes, a sly, quick smile.

In her younger years, Aunt Harriet had served in WW II, as a WAC in the Women’s Army Corp, I believe. I’ve seen a photograph of her in uniform, and she looked sharp. When the war was over, she went to art school, as I recall.

I have one particularly vivid memory of Aunt Harriet from my early teenage years. She and her new husband, a large, formidable man named Irving had come to visit my parents, Harriet being my mother’s youngest sister.

I was sitting in my bedroom, the one with the cowboy wallpaper, trying to write a paper for English class, listening to music—no one had a TV in his room in those days–not all that interested in aunts and uncles. To my surprise, Aunt Harriet popped her head in. “Watcha doin’, kiddo?” She asked, grinning. Her lips were very red. Women wore a lot of lipstick back then.

“English paper,” I said, glancing at her legs. She was wearing hose with seams.

“Can I see?” She said.

“Well, I’ve just started,” I told her, trying to put her off.

“Read it to me.”

“My 10th grade English paper?” I was a little leary. Whenever I let my mother—the former champion speller of the Akron, Ohio school system—read my English papers, she found every flaw in them, being at least as observant as Sherlock Holmes and much less forgiving. But Aunt Harriet was less dangerous and I couldn’t think of a way to say no.

“Sure, why not.”

“Go ahead,” she prodded.

“Okey dokey.” I cleared my throat and picked up the paper, hoping I’d be able to read my handwriting, which was, and remains, execrable. “The Game,” I said. I looked up at Aunt Harriet. “That’s the title.”

“Good,” she said, encouraging me.

I cleared my throat again. “The Game,” I repeated. “The band music started up,” I read, “The few men on the grassy field stood like statues. The forty-three thousand people surrounding them rose, simultaneously, put their hands over their hearts and everyone began to sing the National Anthem….” I paused. “That’s all I’ve got so far.”

Aunt Harriet nodded thoughtfully. “And it’s very good too. I felt like I was there, in the stadium.”

“But I never even mentioned the stadium.”

“Ah yes, but you didn’t have to,” Harriet said, with her sly grin. “What you wrote made the picture appear in my mind’s eye.”

“Really?” I said. “You know, I was thinking I should describe the stadium—the hot dog vendors, the rows of seats, the concrete stairways and tunnels…”

“Don’t have to,” said Aunt Harriet. “Everyone knows what those things look like. We all have a million images in our minds. You just called one up for me, in fact more than one.”

“I see. So the description isn’t necessary?” I was beginning to get the idea my admirable Aunt Harriet was giving me a compliment, and I was at an age when I was hungry for them. Of course, aren’t we always at that age?

“Well,” she said, “I’m an artist, not a writer. If I don’t put it on canvas, no one sees it. But words are different. And no, this time you didn’t need the description.”

I saw the opportunity to argue, which I loved to do when talking to an adult. “But so much of writing is description, you know, painting a picture in words.”

“That’s true,” Aunt Harriet conceded, “But a few words will do if the picture is already in the reader’s mind. If you tell him what he’s already seeing, he’ll be bored by your words. But if you’re talking about something he can’t picture—that’s when you need to describe, in detail. And he’ll want to read it.”

“You mean if the stadium was some kind of weird new building, or about to blow up,  or painted strange colors?”

Aunt Harried smiled. “Yes, that’s when you have to describe it. Or if the stadium is the focus of the story not just the backdrop.”

Typically, I wasn’t finished arguing. “Yeah, but I could describe it anyway couldn’t I, you know, just to show that I can describe things well, to impress the reader—or Miss Mahaffey.”

“Miss Mahaffey?”

“My English teacher.”

“Ah. Well, you could do that. But is that what your reader wants from you? Or does he want you to get on with the story?”

“But if I don’t describe something, if I use only a few words, the reader will have to figure it out for himself. He’ll have to provide the description, the picture in his mind’s eye.

Aunt Harriet thought a moment. “Yes he will, but that’s a good thing. It will make him feel smart. In a way, it’s a compliment.”

“Smart?”

“Yes. He’ll read those few words and realize what you’re talking about and smile at how clever he is, and maybe how clever you are.”

“Interesting,” I admitted. “So you’re saying I don’t have to describe something at length if I can say a few words that will picture in the reader’s mind?”

“That’s right, Harvey.”

“And the reader will like it when I do that?”

“Well, I did. I think your teacher…your reader will too.”

“Harriet?” It was my mother’s voice, calling upstairs.

“I’m up in Harvey’s room,” Aunt Harriet. “He’s been reading me…”

“No, no, no,” I whispered, pleading.

“He’s been reading me something from one of his school books,” she continued. She winked at me.

“Oh, okay,” said my mother. “Well, come on downstairs, both of you. Lunch is ready.”

My Aunt Harriet and I never talked about writing again and I don’t know if she’s read any of my books. But that little conversation stuck with me. And very often, when I launch into an elaborate, beautifully-written (I hope) description of something everyone can picture,  I ask myself, am I giving the reader an unnecessary demonstration of my lovely prose stylings, mostly for my benefit, or am I moving the story along, for his?

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What I Learned at the Lincoln Theater about suspenseful writing

When I was in grade school—between WW II and Korea—I went to the Lincoln Theater every Saturday afternoon, along with hundreds of other little boys. We came to see the double-feature: two cowboy movies.

The Lincoln Theater, the most decrepit of the three movie houses in Elyria, Ohio, was a big wooden building on the town’s main drag, whose rotting clapboards were black with age and lack of paint. The inside walls were also black and so was the pressed metal ceiling, I think. I don’t know if the color came from paint or dirt—it could have been either.

Our parents parked us here on Saturday afternoons, entrusting us to the crotchety old man and his wife who sold and took tickets, manned the refreshment stand and made a half-hearted  attempt to keep the mayhem to a minimum.  My mother was a worrier, but I don’t think even she was concerned about my safety. We were living in a Norman Rockwell America, long before kids were routinely instructed not to talk to strangers. Besides, what strangers? There were no strangers here.

What we were, inside this cave, was a restless mob of grade school boys, all of us in stripped t-shirts, chinos and Keds. I don’t remember ever seeing a girl at the Lincoln theater, by the way. No official policy had made it a boys’ club, but I’m sure that if any girls dared to enter, even in groups, they would have been considered brazen trespassers and mercilessly and continually teased.

Precisely at 1 p.m., the lights went down and the show started—cowboys and Indians (or robbers or greedy landowners), in living black-and-white, accompanied by the roar of pounding hoofs and six-shooter fusillades. But the soundtrack didn’t really have a chance. Most of the time, it was drowned out by the rolling thunder from the audience, a cacophony of chatter, laughter, hooting, yelling and the occasional outraged or terrified scream erupting from the grade school boys sitting in the dark, at each other’s mercy.

We were not only noisy, we were a squirming, swarming, leaderless mass, a hive in constant motion, shifting seats to get closer to friends or to escape tormentors, desperately scurrying to the bathroom during a breather between gunfights, leaping out of our seats and shoving past a row of kids to raid the candy counter or just plain cruising up and down the aisle because no one stopped us.

As the movies played, a series of skirmishes took place, most of which involved launching volleys of Jujubes or Juicyfruits toward seats occupied by hostile forces. Jujubes, in case you’ve never had the pleasure, were like pellets of  colored Tupperware—practically unchewable transparent red, yellow or green candies about the size of pencil erasers. You could suck them—they melted about as quickly as ball bearings–or risk your teeth in the attempt to chew them. Either way, each one of these things lasted for hours, if not days—unless, of course, you spit-launched it toward someone in one of the rows ahead of you.

Most of the candy we threw or spit-launched hit the mark, I think—I remember the frequent angry outcries of “What the heck!” or  “Cut that out!” or Hey, who threw that!?” (I never heard a kid swear back then). But some bounced off the screen, adding to its random pattern of pockmarks, and a lot ended up on the floor, melting there, and making it perpetually sticky, so that every step produced a sound like ripping paper.

We also ate popcorn, of course. I remember watching the crotchety old man and his wife operating a free-standing antique glass-walled popcorn popper, and angrily scooping the stuff into cardboard boxes. They didn’t douse it with butter—no theater did back then—and even now, I am puzzled by this notion. After all, you eat popcorn for the crunch. Butter makes it soggy. So isn’t buttering counterproductive?

While we munched our popcorn, sucked our Jujubes or caused what mischief we could, Hollywood’s version of the American West flickered on the screen, in films like Raiders of the Border with Johnny Mac Brown, or Hopalong Cassidy Returns, with Bill Boyd and Gabby Hayes, or Marked Trails with Bob Steele and Hoot Gibson. or Death Valley Manhunt with Wild Bill Elliot.

Gene Autry and Roy Rogers provided the only important stylistic variation in these movies. But we boys loathed both of these guys. We considered the very idea of  singing cowboys offensive and unnatural. We had an active aversion to any hint of romance. We demanded that our heroes restrict themselves to riding, shooting, breaking out of jail and mercilessly slaughtering bad guys or Indians (without visible blood, of course).

Oddly enough, the cowboy double-features were not the highlight of our afternoon movie experience. That honor goes to a particular kind of short subject, the movie serial, a ten or fifteen part story shown one episode a week, featuring Captain America, Buck Rogers, the Son of Zorro, the Tiger woman or, the greatest of them all, Flash Gordon.

What made us love the serials? The unremitting violence and danger, of course—and the cliff-hanger ending, in which the hero was always about to die a horrible death. It was absolutely riveting. Wild horses couldn’t have stopped us from coming back next week to see the next episode.

Years later, as I began writing fiction and casting about for writing techniques to ratchet up the suspense,  I found myself remembering the old days at the Lincoln Theater. Now, that was suspense. The serials had paralyzed us, silenced us and taken our breath away. Why? How had they done that to us? What was their secret?

Thinking about it now, the mystery isn’t such a mystery. Serials put the hero (or the hero’s girlfriend, his dog or someone else innocent and/or vulnerable) in danger, grave danger, mortal danger. And they keep him there, his life at stake, and not only that, but also his noble work, saving the world or whatever. The villain is on the verge of winning, with grave consequences for all.

This was the serial’s writing lesson, I realized. Put the hero in danger. Put something at stake—his life, a relationship, world peace, a crucial business deal, buried treasure—anything will do. And once you get him in danger, drag it out. Tighten the screws, then tighten them some more, until they almost pop, then, finally, in the very nick of time, rescue him.

Of course, the serials took that one step further. The moment the hero is safe, they put him back into danger, something even worse than before. And they do this again and again, week after week, the stakes rising every time. Why not write a book this wayI asked myself.  Put your hero at risk, then save him. Then put him at greater risk, and even greater risk, again and again, and save him again and again, saving the greatest risk for last, and make that one a surprise.

Turns out you never know when life is going to teach you something about writing. The lesson might even be lurking in a childhood memory.

 

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What Bob Metcalfe taught me about grabbing the reader’s attention

          Back in the mid-1990s, two well-known technology gurus who had homes in or near Camden, Maine, got together with a dozen or so local technology-aficionados, me among them, and founded Pop!Tech, an annual technology conference—the East Coast version of TED. One was John Sculley, former Apple CEO. The other was Dr. Robert “Bob” Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and founder of a billion-dollar high tech company, 3Com.

The idea was to attract 500 people from around the country to the beautifully-restored 19th century Camden Opera House every October to hear presentations by some of the world’s most famous computer and Internet inventors and developers.

The project was an immediate success. We enlisted some of the world’s best speakers, drew an audience of big-hitters and generated some national buzz—a pretty remarkable accomplishment, since we started out as an entirely voluntary organization, and our venue was just about as far as you could get from Silicon Valley without getting your feet wet.

The conferences were absolutely wonderful—great ideas being discussed by people smart enough to understand them and powerful enough to act on them. But the monthly organization meetings were a highlight too—all of us, including Metcalfe and Sculley, gathering in a large, handsome meeting room in the Opera House, volunteering for critical tasks and making the decisions that would result in a successful conference.

I remember one meeting in particular. Not only were John Sculley and Bob Metcalfe in attendance, but so were Bob’s in-laws, Bob and the late Barbara Shotwell, both of whom had joined the volunteer corps. We were all talking informally, because that’s the way these meetings went, and Barbara Shotwell, a handsome, well-read and rather dignified woman in her late 70s or so, was holding forth, talking about arranging lunches for Pop!Tech attendees.

She’d been talking for five or ten minutes with great enthusiasm when her son-in-law, the famous Ethernet inventor, interrupted her. Bob is a big man—many people think he resembles football coach Bill Parcells and he enjoys the comparison—and he was twenty-five years younger than his mother-in-law. Bob was a reasonably open person in these meetings, ready to consider anyone’s opinion. When he found fault with what he heard, he had this wonderful habit of innocently questioning the other fellow, his questions usually revealing the guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

Anyhow, Bob rather uncharacteristically—and unceremoniously, I thought—interrupted his mother-in-law, a woman who was accustomed to being listened to and taken seriously. When he broke into her soliloquy, she sat up straight and regarded her famous (and very wealthy) son-in-law with a look that would have flash-frozen a geyser. “You’re interrupting me, Bob,” she said, and there was nothing friendly about her tone of voice. “You do that frequently.”

Metcalfe regarded his mother-in-law benignly. “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want me to interrupt you, say the important things first.”

Mrs. Shotwell flashed the evil eye at her son-in-law. “Hummpf,” she said, and turned away from him.

For a moment, the rest of us were silent. Then John Sculley spoke up. “What’s the next item on the agenda?” he asked, sounding quite innocent. And the meeting resumed, like a film that had gotten stuck momentarily.

Since then, I’ve often thought of Bob’s remark. At the time, I’d been impressed by his ability to come up with cool, witty retort, a comeback which couldn’t be contradicted—although I knew he was likely to catch holy hell when he got home.  But as time passed, I found myself thinking of it in another way. I connected it to my craft.

“Say the most important things first,” Metcalfe had advised his mother-in-law. Maybe that makes sense when you’re writing novels too. So many novels start with descriptions—of the scene, of the weather, of a trip, of just about anything. Is this what the reader wants to know about? Is this what he needs to know about, just as soon as possible?

I guess the answer might be yes—if the weather is the most important thing, or the journey, or the scene. But if none of these are among the most important things, why would I keep the reader waiting? Why would I force him to plow through my opening description before getting got to something that actually matters? Is it because I want him to experience my lovely prose? Am I trying to keep him in suspense? Teasing him?

The more I thought about it, the more Metcalfe’s words made sense to me. What better way to grab the reader’s attention than to tell him something important in the first sentence, in the first few words if possible. The alternative is to start off with something that interested me, not him. And whose attention am I trying to get, anyway? My own?

I’ve decided that most readers don’t have any more patience than Bob Metcalfe. They want to hear the important stuff right away. And if I, as the writer, makes them wait, they’re going to “interrupt me”—their attention will drift. They’ll start to think of other things. They’ll look out the window. Will they ever come back to my book? Is it worth taking the chance?

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