300 words

I came across another article on what to write on the first page. I know it’s getting old, but I will try to answer it again. This article asks you to infuse five things:
1. A powerful opener.
2. Unique perspective.
3. A well-realized world.
4. An authentic voice.
5. Attention-grabbing characters.

Since one type written page contains about 500 words single spaced and 250 words double spaced, you have to do all of this in that many words. You also should open with action, as opposed to, say, the main character waking up in his bed with a hangover. You have to “show, don’t tell” and you have to make sure that every sentence will either “advance the plot or expose character”. Though 250 words is not a tied and fast number, the number of words in the first page would still be less than 300 words tops.

Also, you have to present an urgent problem with a time limit. In case you forgot, a story is about (somebody) who needs to (blank) the (blank) before (blank) is (blank) otherwise (blank) will (blank). That much must be presented on the first page or the reader will cease to care. That’s a lot of things to do in 300 words.

When you say “powerful opener”, the first thing that comes to my mind is “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” But something else might hit you harder. You can google for some good opening lines. In fact, I wrote about opening lines before.

Recently, when someone on Facebook asked if it was sufficiently attention-grabbing to have a story open with a description of someone waking up with a hangover, I suggested opening with action and suggested an opening line.

I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

That is not bad for something to post on a Facebook thread, but as an opening for a book, it is not quite a powerful opener.To turn a static descriptive line into something more engaging, you need to inject sensations like sounds, smells, or feelings. In this case, the cop is hungover and his footing is uncertain. How about this:

The world rolled more than I intended when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

A little more visible, but not good enough. Should I add something in front of this line or after this line? I am describing a scene, but I also want to pack a punch. Maybe I want to add something more crafty and powerful in the beginning, or I might want to run with it and add something after. Word to the wise: When in doubt, add after. Do not try to embellish the opener with something contrived.

The world rolled more than I expected when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. The jet liner started screeching in my head again. The cup was hot in my hand.
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.
“Hi, Marv.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from his clipboard.
“Morning, Frank.”

That is already 100 words.
You can already see the scene, but it doesn’t quite draw you in does it? Firstly, the main character is just a generic drunk cop. Secondly, this looks like an ordinary neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. The passage could be the establishing scene of a Criminal Minds episode. How can we make this drunk cop special? How can we change the scene to Victorian England, or at least make Cleveland seem more interesting?

First, change the characters.The easiest, and increasingly popular (if not overused) method to make the main character more interesting is to switch genders. Turn Marv into Martha and Frank into Carol. I think it was Billy Wilder who said, “If a man comes in through the door, it is not interesting. If he comes in through the window, it is interesting.” It is a reflection of the stereotypes we still hold in our minds that we find it interesting when a homicide detective is a woman. Be that as it may, we only have so many words to make this scene interesting.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.

160 words. A little more interesting.
(By the way, do women actually forget to take out diaphragms? I know a guy whose used condom fell out of his pants in the middle of class in college. You forget to take off weird things when you are in a hurry in the morning, but it can’t be common. I wonder how real this scene feels. That would be a question for the beta readers.)

Next, the scene. It does not have to be Victorian England, but it has to be interesting. That does not mean that a generic city cannot be interesting. Even a place like Fargo can be interesting if you describe it well. So far, the only word that describes the setting is “lawn”, which projects a surprising amount of information. Almost anyone who has ever lived in North America can picture an abandoned house with a lawn. And that leads to a whole train of associations. Let’s scrap the lawn. There are no kids riding bicycles under sunny skies here.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash.

Now I am debating with myself whether I should describe the spray-painted graffiti on the walls or get on with the story. This actually an opportunity to inject the “unique perspective” and “authentic voice”. It is always the stuff that you don’t need to write that renders voice to your story.
Voice is reflected in what the narrator sees. What does she notice about the graffiti? Is it the size, the colors, or the words? Does she pick up the lyrics to an old song, focus on the profanities, or snicker at outdated political chants? And what sort of voice is it when the narrator notices that the forensic guy vomited beneath the words “Impeach Nixon”? How is that different from, for example, saying the guy barfed under the word “fuck” or that he looked small against a giant mural of a penis?
Bottom line; this is how you infuse voice into your words. It can make or break your book, so get serious.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.

That projects some character and voice, not a very likable one so far, but one with personality. And it also places the scene in a grittier, more interesting place. This above paragraph leads to “Hi, Martha” which is the first line spoken. Up to that is basically a thinly disguised exposition, even though it is a description of events. So now the real action begins. It is 203 words up to this point, and I have less than a hundred words to present the story question, which is 1) what the problem is, 2) what the protagonist must do to solve the problem, 3) the time frame in which she must finish the task, and 4) what will happen if she fails to accomplish the task within the allotted time. So without further ado:

“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same individual, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is probably white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

That’s exactly 300 words. Does it catch your attention? I don’t know. Honestly, I am not satisfied with it. Good enough for a first draft, I suppose.

What I think is missing is the hook. An opener that carries a punch. So I will break my 300 word rule and add one more line at the beginning. Something ostensibly a graphic description of something visible, but conveys emotion of the scene. Something short and clear. I’ll nick a few words here and there to make it close to 300 for the first page. Then maybe on the second page, I will add something to describe the character.

The sky hung grey where duty called.
My tousled hair rolled surprisingly far as I nearly stumbled when swerving to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy, rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same killer, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

“How old was she?”
The smell of blood was overwhelming. And there was the chicken meat smell of fresh corpses. And the smell of wet hair.
“Same age group. Twenty-two or three. We won’t know for sure until we get a positive ID.”
The victim’s wrist was very thin and her skin was still fresh and smooth. Dark and beautiful.
When I grew up, boys played with boys, Jewish girls played with Jewish girls, and black people lived down the street. We all went to the same elementary school but we did not really mix very much. I thought I grew up to be decently inclusive, color blind practically, and could work with anyone without trouble, but when it was time to actually sleep with a dark skinned man last night, I took two more glasses of Scotch than I should have to help me go through with it. And as the puss from the diaphragm ran down my thigh and the sick burned my throat while I tried hard to swallow it down, I felt in my guts that I hated myself. A loving man I did not deserve had to be tolerated with the help of whiskey.
“Bitch,” I said.
“What?”
“No, not her.” I stood up, and immediately felt the blood draining out of my head, the floor a ski slope under my feet.
“I was talking… about myself.”
A cold chill gripped my body and liquid squeezed through the goosebumps. 
“Are you alright?”
“Fine.”
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks, Martha.”
“Seriously, are you okay? What the hell happened last night?”
“Nothing. I just… need to step out and drink my coffee.”
I straggled out of the scene and saw the young forensic guy still recovering by the spray-painted wall. I briefly thought I might join him and barf, but more uniforms were showing up and I had to put on a brave face.
The coffee was still too hot to really drink. I tried blowing on it. Slowly.

Nebb

Deep in the middle of the twentieth century, it was still a tough game to be an honest Negro in the Land of the Free. Nebb never managed to get himself called James or Carlson, his real names. Not once since he got to California. He ran a liquor shop and never broke the law but that did not stop the cops from picking him up at his store one summer night. He was lucky it never happened until he was almost twenty-eight.
He was cuffed and taken to the interrogation room where two white cops in plain clothes began to question him. Well, one of them did. The other just stood in the corner and twisted his whitened knuckles on a big old Billy club with his fists so tight you could almost see the juice squeezing out through his fingers. The other sat across the table and smiled a friendly smile. Nebb knew right away that if he gave one wrong answer that Billy club would swing and crack his skull.
“How you feeling, Nebb?” the Good Cop asked.
“Fine, sir,” he answered trying to sound calm but not too calm. A Negro too calm always angered white people.
“We don’t want to hurt you, Nebb. You give us some answers and I swear we send you right home without a single bruise”
“Thank you, sir”
“Smart boy”
The older cop turned to the stone-faced younger cop standing with the club.
“Didn’t I tell you he’d be a smart boy?”
The big man with the club did not even return the smile to the man who was obviously his superior. He merely kept twisting his knuckles on the Billy club. His face looked more ready than ever to beat the living daylights out of Nebb.
“You will help us, won’t you Nebb?”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
He put an elbow on the table and leaned forward. Then his friendly smile faded.
“Where is Dennis Keenan?”
His first impulse was to ask “Who?” but he stopped short. Nebb had never heard of Dennis Keenan. He did not know who he was. He did not know where he was. But if he said so, he would be beaten to a pulp and thrown out with the garbage. If he died during the brutal interrogation that was to follow, the cops will always have a good reason why a Negro had to be killed. It was so easy to pin a crime on a dead black man.
The room smelled bad. It was as if they used engine grease to wash away the blood and guts of countless colored suspects. Brutality stained the plastered brick walls and the paint that peeled from it. The table in front of Nebb had a plywood tabletop nailed on over the original, probably in a rushed repair job after someone’s face was forced into it once too many times. The corners were worn and rounded and the plywood splintered there. The table’s corners had seen heavy use. The splintered corners looked cleaner, the wood being fresher.
Nebb searched his mind for the right answer. There was not much time. If it took too long, the old cop would give the young cop the signal to break him in half. But he could not ask who this Dennis Keenan was. The cops would think he was playing dumb and give him the beef. He could not ask any other question either. Any question that meant “I don’t know” would instantly be interpreted as “I don’t want to tell you”. It was suicide to say “I don’t know”. But he could not answer where this Dennis Keenan was because he did not know. What to say? He had to think fast.
Finally, after long seconds, he came up with a reply.
“I’ll find him for you.”
The cops were silent. It was silence so solid you could hear the paint peeling off the walls. There was no way to tell if the answer was the right one or the wrong one. Nebb waited, thinking as fast as he could the next thing to say. He could hear a voice talking down the hall complaining loudly about the lousy coffee in the diner down the street. Someone with an Italian accent was discussing baseball. There was an electric fan somewhere sputtering into a steady buzz. A typewriter was tapping away unsteadily. The walls were like an echo chamber and everything sounded cold even through the hot summer air. But the next sound he would hear could be the breaking of his own bones. Cold sweat crawled down Nebb’s face. He did nothing to deserve this. He had never been on the wrong side of the law. Yet he knew instinctively that his number was up.
Then suddenly the older cop broke into a big smile and turned to his younger colleague.
“I told you he’s a smart boy,” he said triumphantly. Then he turned back to Nebb.
“How long will it take to find him?”
“Depends,” he said. Then he added “Dennis Keenan might have friends.”
“But not as many as you, right?”
Who do they think I am? Nebb thought. The cops must have thought he was the leader of the mafia or something when all he ever did was run a legal liquor store in Vermont Square, South L.A. After he returned from the war Nebb moved to Los Angeles to take the factory job that was supposed to be waiting for him. He was hired and fired in a matter of months for no reason at all. After that he took up a construction job and worked for a while in the California housing business. Just when he thought he was learning his craft as a carpenter, he was fired again for no real reason and he spent his spare time helping out at Drake’s Liquor Store. Mister Drake was an old white man who realized early that he needed an African face for his store in a neighborhood that was rapidly turning black. He did not care for black folks any more than the rest of them and it took him a while to find a black store keeper he could trust. But he was a fair man who knew his business and knew it well. After a rough start, he took to calling Nebb his “good nigger boy” and taught him everything about his business. Nebb learned quickly and a few years later mister Drake receded into semi-retirement. He now barely showed up at his store once a week to check the books and left the store for Nebb to run.
“Maybe,” answered Nebb, trying to sound neutral. He may have pushed it, but he had to fish for clues. He added “Trouble is I don’t know who Dennis Keenan’s friends are or where they’re at”.
That was when it happened. It was hard to tell what happened, but it was heavy and it happened fast. Whatever was happening Nebb knew that big Billy club was rushing toward center stage. And it would have cracked right through his face if the older cop had not shouted something at the younger cop to stop him.
Nebb did not know when he closed his eyes. But when he dared to open them again the young cop was standing much closer with his club swung up and the old cop had his open hand outstretched to halt him. The two cops where frozen in this awkward pose until the young cop slowly lowered the club to his side. Nebb was frozen. He could barely make out what the older cop was yelling. “Stand back!” he seemed to be saying, “Get back there!” or something along those lines. He could not be sure.
When the young cop returned to his post at the corner of the room, the old cop straightened his jacket collar and collected what was left of his easy manner. He looked over Nebb with a mix of suspicion and respect he did not show before.
“So,” said the old cop slowly, not the Good Cop any more. “You know that Dennis Keenan hangs with white people. Do you know what kind?”
“No.”
“You better not. And whatever you know you better forget…for your own good”
“Yes, sir.”
The older cop stood up and stood directly in the face of the younger cop.
“We’re done here,” he said.
The young cop protested silently. His already stone face ever so slightly stiffened and he did not move another muscle, his eyes blazing.
“We’re DONE here!”
The young man angrily paced to the door, grabbed the doorknob like he was trying to tear it out and he left the room. Nebb noticed for the first time that the cop’s shirt was soaked in sweat under the suspenders.
“There” said the old cop, stretching out his arms in a big deliberate shrug. “I told you I’ll let you go without a bruise. I’ll walk you to the door just in case”
He regained his smile as he said this.
“Are you afraid of Dennis Keenan, Nebb?”
“A little, I guess”
“Can’t blame you. Where’d you get that nickname Nebb?”
“Sergeant gave it to me in the army” Nebb answered honestly.
“Is that so? What did they call you before that?”
“Junior, sir”
“Well Junior, you got two days to bring me Dennis Keenan or bad things will happen to you. You don’t want bad things happening, do you Junior? When you come back, ask for Lieutenant Northam. Jack Northam. See you in two days”
Northam left Nebb at the front stairs of the police office. Nebb knew he was in trouble. But at least he had a clue. Dennis Keenan was a black man who hung out with white people. Not just ordinary white people, but the kind of white people the likes of Nebb were not supposed to know about. That did not narrow things down much. But it was a start.
He started down the stone stairs. It was a hot night. And Nebb had a long way to walk home.

 

The Hook, Line, and Sinker

The other day, I wrote a brief analysis of elements that are often found in a good opening line and conjured a sample opener “The sun set warm over the stench of glory.” Now I think I will try to develop that into an actual opening sequence.

As I explained before, the opening of a book is the hook, the line, and the sinker. “The hook” provides the catch, “the line” provides the tension, and “the sinker” provides the direction. If you want to see a perfect example of the hook, line, and sinker, read the opening passage of Elmore Leonard’s Glitz. (You can read all of the first chapter in the Look Inside feature of Amazon.com.) Pay attention to all the colors, textures, movements, and emotions introduced in the first section. And take special note of the particular sound of the language of the story. This is what we want to create for the opening passage.

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory” is a description of a battle field. I did not try to write about a battle field. It was just the first thing that came to mind when I was staring at a bottle of cologne on my work desk in my little cubicle while I was procrastinating on more important work. How do you get this little hook to lead into a story?

Let’s first imagine what the battle field looks like. It is not a modern battle field with guided missiles and smart bombs falling from unseen drones. It is a battle field where men fought at close range with spears, swords, and matchlocks. Bloodied armor is discarded among with dismembered limbs in the moist tall grass. Crows are picking on corpses and stray dogs are gnawing on dead horses. Scavengers are hunting among the dead soldiers for usable weapons and purses with gold, while noble soldiers are looking for enemy officers among the corpses so that they may cut off the heads and bring them home as trophies. It is the aftermath of samurai warfare. How do I tag that information after the opening sentence?

But before I do that, I must decide on the protagonist. You should never introduce the protagonist too late in the novel. In some Agatha Christie books, Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance for the first half of the book. But that is okay because readers already know that there will be a Poirot and know exactly what he is like. In any other kind of book, you need the protagonist to appear on the first page. For this particular story, I think I will choose for the protagonist, Yasuke, the black samurai.

There were not many Africans in Japan in the sixteenth century, and the tall, muscular man with black skin was looked upon almost like a mythical creature. Lord Nobunaga, believing his skin color to be a forgery, ordered to have him washed. Let me see if I can utilize this incongruous skin color to set up the tone of the story.

By the way, tone is very important. Stephen King said that readers do not come to a writer for the action or character or story, but for the voice. In so many cases, voice is a matter of attitude. If you do not know what I mean, take this random quote from Raymond Chandler. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” That is very different attitude from the kind you need to write a samurai story, but you get the idea. Now let’s decide on the kind of voice you need.

Samurai literature is frequently associated with Zen Buddhism. In reality, Zen became popular with the samurai in the early seventeenth century when most of the fighting was over, and the warriors could reflect on the meaning of their lives having spent a lifetime chopping off limbs with swords. These are the people who resonated with concepts like “All things material are the Void, the Void is the material. All is nothingness.” That is the general tone of the samurai novel, and the Zen nihilism is the general attitude.

So now we have the first sentence, the picture of the stage, the protagonist, and the general tone. But we still do not have the line (tension) and the sinker (direction).

Always open a book with a conflict, they say. Conflict never happens without motive. Someone wants something. The other person, or some phenomenon, gets in the way. So what does the black samurai want when the battle is over and won? Let’s say he wants to find a traitor. His master, Lord Nobunaga is dead. He wants to find the man responsible for his death. (I am actually making this up as I go along.) That would make an interesting “line” but what about the “sinker”? Where would the story be headed?

There is no historic evidence that Yasuke fought in the Battle of Yamazaki, but that would be about the right battle to set this story. To avenge his master, he would be fighting on the side of Hideyoshi, and he would be looking for Akechi Mitsuhide, the traitor. But Mitsuhide would soon be dead, so the story will have to re-direct the black samurai toward another conflict.

Another thing I have to think about is the rhythm. How may words you use in a sentence can change the impression of your words. Moby Dick opens with a three word sentence: “Call me Ishmael” which is immediately followed by a sentence forty words long, then a fifteen-word sentence, then a sentence eighty-seven words long. The construction is almost a daring piece of poetry, where the last sentence of the first paragraph reads:

If they but knew it, almost
all men in their degree,

some time or other,
cherish very nearly

the same feelings towards
the ocean with me.

Since our first sentence already has nine words, I figure the optimum number of words in the next sentence would be two or three. Probably two. So I picture the scene in my mind and try to put two words behind the nine-word opening sentence:

“The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried.”

The two word sentence punctuates like an elongated comma. It gives you time to inhale your breath for the sentence to follow. It emphasizes the hook. Now, it is time to expand on the vision of the battle field and see in front of you the black man in samurai armor entering the scene.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Then one fluttered off the perch on broken arrows in a fallen warrior as the man, a black man sheathed in lacquer black armor from head to toe, his hands caked with blood to his elbows, waded through the tall grass approaching the samurai on the ground. His eyes had been lost to the crow, but he was still breathing. The licorice black negro grabbed him by the torso plate and lifted him up to his face. Broken arms dangled in odd directions.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” he barked, struggling with the words.
The samurai gurgled curses through bubbles of blood and fell silent, choking.
The man dropped him, disgusted. Where was Mitsuhide? Where had he gone? The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide was dead. 

Good enough for a hook? No. Not quite.
The problem is the third sentence. It is the right length but conveys the wrong information. If this was a movie, the scene would be fine. But this is not pictures on the silver screen. These are words on a page, and words have connotations.
Also, the director must direct the audience’s attention on what he wants them to see. We need closeups of specific items. We need words with sounds like noises you associate with the scene.
Let’s try again.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory. Crows cried. Blood-caked hands sheathed in lacquer black armor grabbed a fallen warrior by the chest plate, a pin cushion of broken arrows, and lifted him up above the tall razor grass. Broken joints dangled in odd directions and his eyes, lost to crows, were sockets of darkness in the orange light.
“Mitshuhide wa dokoda?” A heavily accented voice barked into the blinded man’s face.
“I know you. You are the black man,” said the eye-less samurai. Then he vomited as he gargled curses through burbles of blood and choked on his own dying breath.
The black man threw the samurai on the mud. He looked over the battle field strewn with corpses and dismembered limbs, the enemy leader nowhere in sight.  The battle, for him, was not over until Mitsuhide’s head was in hand.

Well, that is better, but now I have a problem with the point of view. This is the omnipotent point of view and it distances the reader from the feelings of the protagonist. Besides, it is kind of confusing when at one point we hear the black man’s voice in the third person, and then, just a few lines later, we know what he feels.

This is barely good enough to serve as a space holder in the first draft. But in the process of writing, the vision of the scene has become more clear and specific. I see a battle field, quiet after the battle, flooded in orange light, razor grass swaying in the breeze, dead horses and soldiers strewn around, smell of blood and guts, buzzing of flies over dismembered limbs, a frustrated black man in black armor wading through the gore to find anyone who might know where the traitor had gone. What we need now is the “sinker” or the direction.

Here is an example of a “sinker”. It is the second paragraph in the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It has no hook and no line. Just all sinker.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

It gives the reader a taste of what the rest of the book will be like. When you have a book titled “Bleak House” and a chunk of the opening passage talking about nothing but fog, you get the idea that the atmosphere of the story is NOT clear skies ahead. A Victorian reader could evidently take a sinker of this kind and still read on. A lot of modern readers will no doubt take this as a signal to put the book down.

The sinker is the voice. The sinker is the sound. The sinker is the mesmerizing hypnosis that turns you into a crack addict for the next chapter before you know you were smoking anything.

So how do you go about writing the sinker? Dickens’ description of the fog is an extreme example, but the sinker usually has a refrain, in feelings if not always in words. It tends to repeatedly hammer in the concept at the center of the story to come.
The sinker for the samurai story might go like this:

Black smoke rose from the camps as the men of the honjin threw bodies of the dead on a fire. The dusk filled with the foulness of burning flesh, and mouths and nostrils became dusty with bitter soot. Columns of smoke slowly multiplied in the darkening sky, announcing to the world beyond that a fight had been won. And yet the traitor was still at large, a taste in the mouth worse than the soot. 
Silhouettes of soldiers stood by the fires, their lances and spetums held erect. Scavengers scurried about, bolder now that darkness was near, looking for purses with gold and weapons to be sold. Foot soldiers and pages parried with them as they tried to retrieve the heirlooms and jeweled armaments, but they also had to carry the bodies for the fires. Noblemen in the camps sorted through the corpses for heads to be severed and taken home as trophies. 
Yasuke, the black warrior, paid them no heed, for he had been fed the cold dish of treachery and it sat ill in his stomach.

Not a perfect example, but good enough for an exercise.

Writing Exercise (3) “The Ghost”

(This is a second draft of the story that was posted on Writing Exercise 2. The opening lines have been streamlined.)

My lunch of grazed foie gras and salted octopi was rudely interrupted by a rugged looking man in faded blue jeans and a worn leather jacket that seemed to have ducked through a hundred gun fights. His moustache was cut apart by scars that made it look like a Hitler moustache with broken wings coming in for an emergency landing.

“Daniel Fairbanks?”

“Yes,” I said.

He flashed his badge. NYPD.

“We need to talk.”

“I’ll see you in my office in thirty minutes,” I said with my usual smile.

I was having lunch with a Republican senator at a restaurant that had recently won the James Beard Award entertaining him with my vast knowledge of movies and television programs relating to police work. I was not about to drop my pretense at being a competent liaison officer.

The detective grabbed me by the arm and lifted me off my chair.

“Right now.”

“Excuse us senator,” I said. I barely had time to tell the waiter to send the tab to my office before I was walked out of the restaurant.

He kept his hand firmly on my arm, his fingers biting into flesh through my tailored business suit, until we rounded two corners and reached a non-descript diner. We sat down and he ordered two cups of twenty-five-cent coffee.

“I am lieutenant Jack Piraino,” he said.

My first reaction was that I wanted to ask for his autograph. This man was the embodiment of my dreams. He started his career in narcotics where he accumulated a substantial number of successful drug busts until a turf war with the DEA put a stop to his winning streak. He then took the rap for a run-in with a rogue DEA agent and was briefly demoted to traffic duty but soon re-emerged as a homicide detective. After an impressive forty three arrests with twenty six convictions and twelve plea bargains, he disappeared off the map. He was rumored to have gone undercover. Every now and then, there was an arrest that was quietly whispered to have been a “Piraino case” but nobody knew for sure. According to his records, he should have been in his mid-thirties but it was hard to place his age from his looks. His pock marked cheeks, his brittle moustache, his scarred knuckles and his hardened demeanor screamed “Tough Guy” like nobody I had ever seen. I was immediately in awe. This was the cop I wanted to be. It was almost like falling in love.

“What can I do for you lieutenant?” I said.

“I need you to help me find a man,” he said.

“Sure thing.”

“He’s a difficult man to find.”

“Right down my alley.”

“I’ve been through every police record, every file. Birth records, death certificates, driver’s licenses, social security, school records, everything. No luck. But then I heard about this guy at the liaison office who could complete any report, find any data…”

That would be me. I made my reputation as a data miner.

“Who are you looking for?”

A fat waitress in a pink uniform and white apron came and dropped off the two cups of coffee.

Lieutenant Piraino paused until the waitress was gone. And then he spoke in a hushed voice.

“Danny Abatangelo.”

I nearly choked on my coffee.

“He is also known as Danny the Ghost. He’s a mechanic. He specializes in tampering with cars. He also uses some kind of toxin to illicit an ischemic attack to provoke car accidents. He has been linked to at least seven homicides.”

“Seven.” I was shocked.

“That’s assuming he has no other MO. He might have killed more people with other methods, but his signature method with a car has killed seven people. He is a legend primarily among the Italian mob but these days you hear his name from other people too.”

“What other people?” I asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Most recently a New York leader of the yakuza clan Marubatsu Gumi choked to death on a spider roll and there were some whispers that it was the work of Danny the Ghost.”

“That… could have been an accident,” I said defensively.

“All the deaths attributed to Danny Abatangelo could have been accidents. That’s the point. He never leaves a trace.”

“He could be an urban legend. Maybe he doesn’t exist.”

“A lot of people seem to think so. But he does.”

Lieutenant Piraino produced a crumpled piece of paper with a sketch of a man’s face drawn with a ballpoint pen. I could make out that it was supposed to be a Caucasian male with short hair, clean shaven face and a square jaw but that was about it. The artist was not very good. You could not tell who the picture was unless you already knew who you were looking at, but for me it was unnervingly accurate. It was a portrait of me.

 

I, Witch (a story)

“We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.”*
We lived in the shadows, through winters of fear and nights of desolation, treading barefoot through the twigs of hidden forests, over frosts of forgotten plains, through the blood of battlefields, the rot of landfills, over the papercuts of history, giving births, suffering deaths, in the cold light of obscurity. Our vengeance, washed in tears, has dried away to the dusty, powdery, porous bone. Our anger no longer has a beating heart. Our lives, like death, are buried deep in the silent ground.

I, Petunia, have stepped out of the shadows, to deliver a message, only a message, to save Humanity, curse the name, who condemned us. Had our vengeance not been so dried, our hatred not so old and cold, we should not want to do this. We should want nothing more than to watch Humanity, and the irony of its name, burn in the inferno this surface is to become. Yet I am here. I am here to give them a semblance of a chance against an enemy only we, at this time, can detect.

“Hello beautiful,” said a man, a stranger, as I walked by, my eyes straight ahead not registering him.
“Hi honey. Whatcha doin’ tonight?” said another man not long after.
Headlights swam over wet streets in the night. Pedestrians walked by, some hurriedly, some slowly, couples arm in arm, young men in packs, some people carrying folded umbrellas, others just braving the risk of further rain. Some were smiling, grinning, meaninglessly.
“Hey lady, gotta minute? C’mon lemme buy ya’ll a drink.”
I walked by until I reached the police station and walked up the stone staircase to the entrance. Grey cloth covered the metal detectors in the entrance hall.
“Visitor hours are over,” said a uniformed officer.
“I want to report a murder.”
“Why don’t you call it in?”
“I need to talk with a homicide detective, urgently.”
“Give me a minute.”
He picked up an ancient black handset from behind a counter and made a call. After a short exchange, he hung up and motioned me to come closer, picked up a portable metal detector and scanned me.
“Handbag?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Okay. Third door left.”
I walked down a corridor to a cheerless office with a ceiling too high to be modern construction. Varnished wood cohabited with metal office furniture in varying degrees of wear. A middle aged man in shirtsleeves, his tie loosened, looked up from his sandwich, his glasses up on his forehead. He gestured to himself and another man at the adjoining desk.
“Brown. Schwartz. Take your pick.”
“Which one are you?”
“I’m Brown.”
“I’d like to report a murder.”
“Who’s the victim?”
“He is not yet dead. There will be a murder at exactly eight twenty-five. It will be in room 209 of the brownstone at the corner of Easton and Craig. The victim’s name is Justin Crumb.”
The officer looked at me crossing his brow.
“What is this young lady?”
“I am not so young. You have twelve minutes to send someone there.”
“Why don’t you wait on that bench?”
He conversed wordlessly with officer Schwartz, an exchange of looks, gestures and nods, then left his desk.
I sat on the old wooden bench, much older than anyone in the building knew. I felt the spirit of the maker, for it was hand crafted more than a century ago. Old neglected furniture dotted offices like this across the country. This one crafted by a man named Brine with block planes, chisels and saws he inherited from his father. An uneducated man, he lost his family to the Spanish flu, his health to whiskey and his fortune to the whims of the economy. He did not understand the nature of finance any more than he understood the nature of the virus, so he blamed his misfortunes on Jews, just as his forebears blamed their misfortunes on us. I ran my fingers over the almost imperceptible bumps of the wood, the uneven contours of the hand crafted furniture, unappreciated despite its age, in the corner of a police station.
My conversation with the bench lasted over an hour, by which time we were fast friends. I sensed the police officer approaching and I bid farewell, almost tearfully. Good luck to you. May you last long and be well.
“I’d like to talk to you,” said Brown.
“Yes,” I said, still caressing the bench. “I thought you might.”

“Your name?”
“Petunia Stone.”
“Place of birth?”
“Salem”
“Age?”
“Rather not say.”
“We need your age, m’am.”
“Twenty nine.” Actually two hundred and ninety, but close enough.
“Current residence?”
“Homeless.”
“Where are you staying?”
“For the moment, at the Berkeley.”
Brown shifted a little in the grey darkness and yellow light of the interrogation room, his dark face became a little more visible as he lowered it closer to the light.
“How did you know?”
“About what?”
“The death of Justin Crumb.”
“I just knew.”
“We need the truth, m’am.”
“Do you? Do you understand the circumstances of his death?”
“We ask the questions here, m’am.”
“What good are questions if you are unable to understand the answers?”
The two men looked at each other.
“Officer Brown.”
“Detective.”
“Detective Brown, do you understand how Justin Crumb died?”
There was reluctance in his manner as he opened a laptop computer on the table.
“Do you know what a badge-cam is?”
“No.”
“It’s a camera officers wear on their chests to record what they do on the job.”
A shaky video appeared on the screen. A fist was knocking on the door. A balding man in an undershirt answered the door.
“Justin Crumb?”
“Yes.”
“May we come inside?”
“What is this about?”
The digital clock on the corner of the screen showed that the time was eight twenty-four.
“We received a report of a crime in progress.”
“There is nobody here. I, I live alone…”
“We need to take a look, for your safety.”
“I don’t think there is any need.”
“Can we at least see your ID?”
“No!”
“What?”
“No! No! No! Noooooo!”
Then, in front of the shaking camera, Justin Crumb started bleeding from his chest, a horrified expression on his face. A vertical slit opened on his chest as if an invisible sword pierced him from behind. With his lung collapsed, Crumb was no longer able to scream, though his face was frozen in mid scream and the cries of the policemen filled in where he could not. The invisible sword moved upward, snapping the ribs as it went, stalled at the collar bone, then burst up through the shoulder with a vicious crack, spraying an explosion of blood over the screen.
Lieutenant Brown closed the laptop.
“We need to know what happened and how you knew he would die.”
“I want my words recorded.”
Brown looked at Schwartz. Schwartz took a voice recorder from his pocket and gave it to Brown. He put it on the table in front of me.
“Go ahead.”
“I have come to deliver a message. We have sensed the approach of a terrible event. The death of Justin Crumb, an innocent man, was the first of many to come. It two nights, there will be another death, and from there the pace will accelerate, doubling every other day, more or less. It will spread to other cities, other states, then other countries. Eventually, it will become a plague that will engulf the world. Once it gains momentum, it will become impossible to stop. Your window of opportunity is small. You must destroy the steeple of the Blackstone Church, on the corner of Westgate and Brook, before the thirteenth death.”
And that was the end of my mission. That was all that was required of me to do. The puzzled policemen had no grounds to hold me. In the morning, I would have been gone, out of reach and invisible. The warning was given and that was that. Humanity was on its own. Most probably, it was at its end.

In fact, events would have unfolded very differently had the old bench not begged me to stay.

 

*This story was written when someone in the nanowrimo group on Facebook dared me to write a story beginning with the sentence “We are the granddaughters of the witches you failed to burn.” I had no idea at the time, but the sentence turned out to have been pilfered from “The Witches of BlackBrook” by Tish Thawer. Many thanks to Heather Grossart for pointing this out.

Writing Exercise 2

Read the following story and tell me what’s wrong with it. (Actually, don’t really bother to read. Just pretend that you did and come back to it for reference. Start reading where it says START READING HERE.)

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure. It was an assignment I deliberately lobbied for. I think I have a natural talent for lobbying in the bureaucratic environment. Definitely more than for street level investigation. Even though I sought a career in law enforcement because I desperately wanted to be on the action end of the guns-and-handcuffs game, I gave up on that genre of police work after I realized I had no talent for the job I had romanticized all my childhood. Reality hits you quickly when you badly botch an undercover sting.

My alias was Danny Abatangelo. I thought that sounded a lot more gangster-like than Daniel Fairbanks. I was sold as a friend of a friend of Mickey Donati, a real life crook and a second nephew of a notable made man now in protective custody. A few name drops and some recommendations from carefully planted moles and stooges set the stage for my legitimacy. I was cocky. I was upbeat. I was ready to be Steven Seagal. Why not? I had just received my post graduate degree in criminal investigation summa cum laude from one of the most prestigious universities on the East Coast. I was too naïve to realize that was not where the best ground level cops came from. In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department. I took the advice from the half dozen self-help books I had read which invariably advised me to go straight to the top. So, within a month of being employed, I went over the heads of an entire chain of command, ambushed the deputy chief in the hallway between meetings and talked my foot into the door to the most dangerous segment of the NYPD, namely, undercover organized crime investigation.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for. We attribute all our successes to our own talent and effort and discount the influence of our privileged environment. But when we do not get what we want, we blame it on foreign influences, usually on the failure of others. We are the last ones to see how incompetent we really are. I was that kid. Maybe I still am. When I was diving head first into the underground world of organized crime I was still religiously convinced of my omnipotence. I knew I could accomplish anything if I tried. That kind of optimism, so useful in school, could get you killed in police work. The six weeks of undercover training seemed largely redundant to me. I felt that there was little I could not have learned from two decades of cable TV. The rest I had already read about in postgraduate school and police academy. I played along. I was a good student those six weeks. A few voices grumbled questioning my suitability for a bare knuckles job, but nobody really called me out for the ticking time bomb I really was.

So with little training and less prudence, I suddenly found myself paraded in front of Ronny Fabbri and Vinny Bandoni in a smoke filled dive only three days into my assignment. I felt proud that I had gotten so deep in such record time. Ronny Fabbri, the centerpiece of our investigation, was the head of a medium sized branch of mob activity. He was only a rung or two below being a made man and had a long list of bad things attributed to him. Vinny Bandoni was his beastly right hand man. He was so big, it was said that he preferred pistols that had no trigger guards because his fat fingers would not fit in them. The two occupied a small round table with a large ashtray full of cigar buts and two darkened amish chairs. Ronny was in the process of lighting another cigar. The room was full of gangsters, some well-known some less so, in loose fitting suits, casual shirts and gold ornaments. Minny Campo, the pale, gaunt and whiskered guy who escorted me, introduced me to the crowd as “the new kid I was talkin’ about”. As he said this the room fell suddenly quiet and attentive. If I had any street smarts that should have tipped me off that something was wrong. In fact something was already very wrong. Soon after I met Minny two days before on my very first day, introduced to him by a secret informant for the NYPD, I casually mentioned that I was to be known as “Danny the Ghost”. I got that idea from a short-lived TV series called The Ghost Squad about a group of undercover agents. I thought all gangsters had nicknames like that. As it happens, only the greatest of the great mobsters, the Titans of the underworld, go by compound nicknames. Tony Spilotro was “Tony the Ant”. Tony Accardo was “Joe Batters Accardo”. Charles Luciano was “Lucky Luciano”. And Al Capone was “Scarface Capone”. You have to be feared by the fearless and respected by the most irreverent before you can dare to have a multi-word nickname. You can have a simple alias like “Joe” or “Nick” that is different from your given name or something descriptive like “Scars”, “Shorty” or “Bear” but not a compound nickname like “Danny the Ghost”. A compound nickname is a title bestowed upon kings. Anyone familiar with the world of crime should have known that. In the day following my first meeting with Minny, the word got around and the gangsters spent a whole evening having a hearty laugh at the story of the arrogant young recruit who did not know any better than to breach such a sacred code. And now, I was the subject of show and tell. I was the new kid Minny Campo was talkin’ about.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost” he said after a while. Some fiendish chuckles could be heard from the back of the room.

“Sure. That’s me” I said, putting on my best Dennis Farina impression which is something a twenty four year old guy from the Upper East Side should never try to do in front of real life mobsters.

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” More chuckles.

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” Ronny Fabbri repeated very slowly with a menacing smile. He spread his arms in a wide shrug and turned toward the room full of gangsters behind him. There was more laughter this time.

“Do you know what business I am in?” asked Fabbri.

“Yes.” As green as I was, I could somehow feel the tension building up.

“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?” All the gangsters laughed. I felt totally humiliated. I could feel my face burning up.

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there”

Ronny Fabbri was grinning wider. The room was laughing at every word I spoke. It was not supposed to be like this. My head was hot. My mind was in a tailspin. I struggled not to lose my Dennis Farina. The more I spoke the more they laughed.

“I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” He poked my chest with a finger of the hand that held his cigar.

“Y-yeah” I said tentatively. There was a sudden silence in the room. Everyone stopped laughing. The grin disappeared from Fabbri’s face. Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. Half the room seemed to be waiting for the same thing. Seconds ticked away. My temples pulsed. I imagined Fabbri picking up a golf club and smashing in my skull.

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

I could have sworn I heard someone swallow down a gasp. The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

While I was groping for something to say, I nearly jumped at the metallic clink of a Zippo lighter. He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand?”

Before I could respond he gestured to Minny Campo and said “Get him outa here.” He sat back down on his battered amish chair. When my back turned to him as Minny took my arm, Ronny Fabbri called out “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!” The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.

(START READING HERE)

Needless to say, this is a first draft. It is actually like a memo. Something to help you remember what you novel idea was later on when you really have the time to write. Any editor, or even any reader could find a hundred things wrong with it. That is why we all need to self-edit. But editing line by line is such a chore. Nobody enjoys slashing and deleting what they have written. So let me propose a new way to self-edit.

Step 1. Pick out one sentence from each paragraph and copy/paste it. Leave the quotations as they are.

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure.

In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for.

And now, I was the subject of show and tell.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost”

“Sure. That’s me”

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” 

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” “Do you know what business I am in?” 

Yes.”

“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?”

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there” “I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” 

“Y-yeah”

Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. 

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand? “Get him outa here.”  “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!”

The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.

Step 2. See if the copy-paste version makes sense as a story. If you can pick out other sentences that make better sense, exchange them.

The original passage was 1432 words. The copy-paste version is only 367 words. It is not better writing, but you can still follow the story pretty well. Which means that about 1065 words were redundant. More strikingly, the first four paragraphs which had 997 words have been reduced to just 74 words and you can still follow the story. 923 words, roughly 92.6% of the words were redundant.

Step 3. Put back in descriptions that you feel are absolutely necessary, but not more than one or two sentences per paragraph.

Step 4. Start doing some conventional editing.

I think this is a much less painful way to deal with your brainchild. Nobody wants to slaughter their own creation. But you cannot hire a professional editor when all you have is a first draft. You have to chop up your creation and improve it. It’s best to do it in the most painless way possible. For that, a fixed regimen like “Extract only one sentence per paragraph” will come in pretty handy.

Writing Exercise 1

I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey because it has been reported that the lousy prose is contagious. Zoe Williams of the Guardian wrote in her review of E. L. James’ trilogy “Goddammit. I’ve been infected by James’s ominous, staccato delivery. After 1,600 pages of the stuff, you will too. I’m doing it again. I can’t help it.”

Needless to say, James’ books have sold over 100 million copies and has earned the author over 100 million US dollars. It just goes to show that good writing is not necessary for big sales. And it is not just because James’ books are erotica. Stephen King’s books have been trashed by literary critics as predictably as they have climbed the best seller lists. When King won the National Book Foundation award, it should have convinced everyone that his mastery of storytelling and suspense amply made up for his bland prose, but the critic Harold Bloom called it “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”

I have no ambition of joining the ranks of Proust, Joyce and Faulkner. If given a choice, I would rather be E. L. James. But I do think it is worthwhile to at least try to write well. Strunk and White (and their adherents) have repeatedly taught us that brevity is a virtue in writing. Meanwhile, Brooks Landon promotes the use of long sentences. I personally believe that one should consciously use both because different combinations of long and short sentences give different impressions.

As an experiment, I wrote this:

He entered the room. She was there. He ducked. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.

Four short sentences followed by a sentence that spans three lines. The sudden change in the length of sentences gives the scene a sense of breathlessness. Since these were the only words I had written, I naturally thought of it as the opening lines to a story. But if a story was opening, there should be at least a little more description. So I wrote this:

He entered the hidden room, returning to confirm his suspicions, not expecting an occupant. The lady was there, standing with her purse gun in her hand, her eyes welling with rage. He ducked out. She shot. The bullet ricocheted off the wall shredding a shower of debris into the dark hallway, filthy and cold, where he crouched on the floor, fumbling for his gun that was not there, the shoulder holster hanging empty and limp.

Consider a book that begins with this second passage rather than the first one. The increased descriptions make it easier to visualize the scene, but the sense of urgency of the first passage is diluted. It seems to start out slow, then pick up pace. The two short sentences sandwiched between longer sentences seem to be the turning point. So I continued:

              “Give it up!” he shouted his face nearly to the floor. “You couldn’t hit an elephant with that snub nose!”

              She shot again. The bullet pierced the door. Splinters flew, some hitting his face, and a cloud of dust erupted from where the bullet landed, close to his leg. Then, silence. His heart pounded. He reached for his ankle holster. His shoulder hurt. It was the wound he got earlier. He had no time to go to the hospital. Somewhere in his mind his rational brain told him that if his adrenaline was high enough he should not feel the pain and could reach for the backup piece if it broke his shoulder in half, which he could not, and he cursed himself, but it did not help him reach his pistol.

This time, it leaves a different impression. The tension is maintained but the structure of alternating long and short sentences produces an illusion of speed. It reminded me of the picture of a snake. A snake has the same number of scales on both left and right sides of its spine. As the snake curves from side to side, scales on the inside of the curve overlap and make the scales look small. The scales on the outside of the curve overlap less and each scale looks large. When an artist paints a picture of a snake, he can make the difference in the size of the scales more pronounced or less pronounced in the snake of the same curvature by distributing the changes differently. When the size difference in the scales of the left and right sides of the snake is large, the snake looks like it is moving. When the scales are all nearly the same size, the snake looks like it is staying still. I thought the same principle might apply to sentences. So, I continued:

“You gonna add another murder to your rap? Give it up, Maud, it’s over!”

              Another shot. He cringed. He could not see where the bullet landed. He could not see her through the crack in the door. He listened for the sound of her movements in the room trying to guess where she was and anticipate the angle of the next bullet to come but the ringing of the gunshot in his ears had become overwhelming and he could hear nothing, or he thought he heard nothing. He could barely touch the butt of his gun with his fingertips. He cursed under his breath. His shoulder ached. He groaned. He gave up. Then he reached for his gun again. He reached harder this time. His fingers were barely far enough to pinch it when a stab of pain in his wounded shoulder struck so powerful it stopped his breath like a baseball bat swung full force to his ribs. Sweat erupted on his face. Cold dampness filled his armpits. He gave up. He stopped reaching. He waited, gasping. There was no sound. He crawled backwards a few feet away from the door, wincing and grunting. Slowly he raised his head, leaning against the wall, sliding his back on the dusty wall until he was upright in a stooping position. Now, he could reach the holster on his right ankle with his uninjured left hand. He drew the gun, a PT-25, and immediately felt more secure. She had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left. He stood up slowly sliding his back on the wall, cracked his ankles partly to check how numb his feet were, they seemed okay, and walked slowly toward the door.

It was breezy writing now, and the last part got lazy. Having lived in Japan most of my life, my experience with guns is limited. An American friend questioned the choice of PT-25 as a backup gun. He suggested a Kimber Solo Carry 9mm. And of course a 2-inch .38 is not an inaccurate gun. But in this case, it is being fired by an inaccurate shooter, so the depiction is not so far off. The problem is that the long sentence that was meant to enhance the sense of speed became a drag when it became explanatory. Maybe I should have put some of the explanation in a thought bubble, like:

“I bet she keeps one chamber empty for safety. That means she has only one bullet left” he thought.

But somehow that does not work. In fact, it seems (at least to me) to reflect his chain of thought less clearly than the original passage. It just needed some emphasis that the thoughts were his. So I added “He realized”:

He realized she had already fired three shots from her 2 inch snubby, a light-weight but difficult-to-aim revolver with five chambers that gun shops tended to push on unsuspecting first time gun owners, and she probably kept one chamber empty for safety like so many women with little knowledge of guns, which meant that she had only one round left.

It fits in well with the fact that he now had the gun in his hand and felt more secure and could think more clearly. Maybe long explanatory sentences are not universally bad. So in the following paragraphs, I ended up incorporating more explanations and trains of thought:

              “It’s okay Maud. Get a good lawyer. Deal your way out. You don’t have to do this”

              He paused at the door wondering if she would shoot again.

              “I’m coming in Maud”

              He slowly went into the room again, gun first, then one eye over the door frame, then his body. The middle aged woman was holding the snub with trembling hands, still wearing the gown she must have been wearing to the cocktail party last night, standing in a room furnished like a swanky office, incongruous to the decrepit building, a most suitable place for a secret money laundering outfit, a serviceable place for a love nest, and the most ill chosen fort for a desperate last ditch stand.  He held his hands up, one hand still holding the small automatic but pointed at the ceiling, approaching the woman slowly and steadily.

              “It’s okay, Maud. It’s going to be alright”

It would be okay. He had it under control. He knew that just a few steps further he could take the gun away from her and all would be over. He smiled at her, spontaneously, almost out of relief. Then suddenly she flipped her gun, pointed it up from under her chin and before he could cry “No!” pulled the trigger making her brain erupt from the top of her head in a shower of blood and gore. She fell to the floor, dead, and that was the way it ended. And the first thought that came to his mind was “I am so fucking fired”.

He was not. He had quit the force almost two years ago. But his shocked mind could not process that at the time and he kept repeating in his mind, “I am so fucking fired. I am so fucking fired” until calm finally set in and he called the precinct. When he realized what he had been repeating to himself, he knew the old captain was right. “You’re not a cop anymore, Fred” he would say. “You told me that about ten times already” he would remind him, to which the wise older man would answer, “That’s ‘cause it ain’t gotten through to your brain yet”. He thought it was a load of crap until this very minute when he, with a dead woman in front of him, in a swanky hidden office room with a large brain stain on the ceiling, caught himself repeating in his mind that he was going to be kicked off the police force. Yes, the captain was right. It had not sunk in to him that he really was not a police officer anymore. Somewhere deep in his bones, he was still a cop until this day. And that realization, combined with the pain in his wounded shoulder and the shock of seeing his suspect blow her brains out almost within his arm’s reach weighed down on him with an unspeakable force. He slumped down on an office chair, dropped his gun and wept. He wept until the police came in. He was not fit to be a cop. He was not fit to be a P.I. After a few run-ins with dangerous criminals when he probed too deep as a private investigator, he was gently told by his former colleague to stick to divorce cases, a rare advice he actually followed, of which this case was one. Tailing what appeared at first to be a philandering husband, digging too deep like he always did, lead him through a chain of events that brought him to this hidden cubbyhole in the inner city, a scene of billions in illegal money transfers, a scene of a money fueled illicit affair, a scene of a murder, a scene of a suicide. And now, it was evident that he could not even handle divorce cases right.

As the crime scene investigators lead him out of the building, in handcuffs like any other suspect, he knew he had to quit. He had to find a new life. He had to start over. And that was how a former staff sergeant of the 101st Airborne, a former homicide detective for the Chicago police department, and a former private investigator, a man too decent, too principled and too inquisitive for all three jobs, became Pastor Fredric Donahue Gallagher.

What began as an experiment in the combined use of long and short sentences turned into a prologue for a mystery novel. I had to think for a while before I came up with the right job for this former cop to move on to. First I thought he might become a cook, but it did not seem right. Then it hit me that a Catholic priest fit perfectly. It is a shame that I know nothing about Catholic priests, or I could have developed this story. I wrote another thousand words or so and realized this was going to become corny at one point or another. In fact, it will become something like the samurai stories written by Westerners, full of factual errors and improbable developments.

While I was writing, I found that I could search the web for such information as the crime rate of various neighborhoods in Chicago and which areas were considered Irish neighborhoods. I could find out what the average income was in a given neighborhood. I could navigate the streets with Google street view. All this should really be a big help in writing a mystery story set in Chicago from the comfort of my desk in rural Japan. But there are lots of mysteries set in Chicago by people a lot more competent than I am. Granted there are numerous best sellers out there written by people who clearly knew nothing about their subject matter, Pastor Gallagher will remain a writing exercise at least for the time being.