Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Getting Started

Very well, let’s get down to the work itself.  I am afraid for the gentle reader at this point because I am going to talk at great length about my own work on this blog.  The agenda here is to discuss writing.  I can accomplish some of my goals by discussing the writing of other people, but where it comes to why a particular thing has been written a particular way, I am at my best when deciphering my own writing.  I can guess at the intent behind the work of Charles Dickens.  But I can only be absolutely certain about the work of Alexis Smolensk.

I am also afraid that I won’t be able to promise a short post today.  When possible, I will try to be succinct, and since I will be posting every day, now and then I shall have to be.  But today I shall write until everything I wish to say has been said, however long that takes.

I would like, now, to introduce a book of mine.  No, I will not be posting large passages of the book, since it is not the finished work, but the fluidity of the work in progress that is the agenda here.  Nevertheless, it will work to give some background about the book, and to make note that the book will figure in many posts in the future.

The title of the book is ‘Act of God.’  I completed the first draft in 1998, the second and third drafts in 1999, and the last draft in October 2000.  There is much history about the book, its creation and the education it eventually gave me, and I will in time cover all of that.  For the present, allow me to focus on the book, and the book alone.

It is a thriller in the pattern of North By Northwest, in that an unsuspecting novice is thrown into a situation of international intrigue and forced to cope.  He has some horse sense and some courage.  He is in love with a woman who does not know, and it is through this woman and events surrounding her that he is dragged into the mess.

I have no intention of hiding the point of the novel, since the point here is to discuss the point.  In one sentence, the plot of the novel is that a woman terrorist intends to kill hundreds of millions of people in the United States by the release of a plague-creating virus.  I’ll jump right to the end of the novel and tell you that she succeeds.

I had a number of purposes for writing it.  I wanted to present a play that described the relative lack of concern all people feel for the tens of thousands of deaths that occur every day.  I wanted to place a story in the restaurant industry, where I had worked for a number of years.  And finally, I wanted to provide a vehicle for a character that had been haunting numerous story ideas for more than a decade.  That character was Julia Skayakovak, who was the terrorist in this novel.

Aside from my failure to sell the novel, there are some problems with it now that have precluded my redressing it and attempting to sell it again.  I pause here to make a comment about failure – writing is, in large part, the failure of projects to get off the ground, and the failure of finished projects to receive attention.  Every writer who has been at it for years is familiar with the growing stack or file folder rich with projects that one day he or she hopes to get back to ... if ever they solve the problem in chapter two, etcetera.  I have a considerable pile of these manuscripts.  Some are truly worthless, representing periods when I wrote purely for myself.  Others, imaginably, could be reworked.  Act of God is one such manuscript.  Maybe.

We are nearly at the point where we can get down to the nitty gritty.  It seems only natural that if we intend to discuss a work, that we discuss the beginning of the work ... i.e., the opening paragraph.  That lede to the novel which frustrates so many writers, and which is given an importance perhaps out of proportion with a work of 70 thousand or more words (Act of God, as it stands now, is 80,307).

I am now opening this file for the first time in about five years.  I shall write out the whole first paragraph, then return to deconstruct it sentence by sentence.

There’s a steel pin driven through the bone above my left knee, with a half-an-inch length sticking out.  The skin has grafted around the pin, now…both pins, actually, since there’s a second one pushed through my shinbone below the knee.  Between them hangs a solid-metal frame, which means I don’t bend my leg…and for the most part, I’ve learned not to miss-step.  That comes with practice.  I recommend that anyone unfamiliar with discomfort have it done.  It’s really the way to go.

The speaker here is Seth, who tells the novel from the first person.  As can be read from the above, Seth is a cripple.  One difficulty at present in rewriting this novel comes from the changes in medical practice.  Seth would not now have had the procedure that results in his circumstance.  Even when this was written, under normal conditions Seth would not be living his life with the pins and frame holding his knee.  However, in the novel, it is revealed that Seth escaped from a hospital upon learning that he is wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl.  This is all explained in chapter four, when Seth talks about his past, and I could get into all of that – but for the present, let’s keep with the discussion of the novel’s opening.

Let’s take the first sentence:

There’s a steel pin driven through the bone above my left knee, with a half-an-inch length sticking out.

Those words are carefully chosen to tell the reader about the speaker.  ‘Steel’ conveys hardness, brutality, cruelty, as does the word ‘pin’ within the context of the speaker’s leg having been violated.  The image is intentionally unpleasant in order to grab the reader’s attention, while at the same time thrusting the reader away with the graphic clarity of the image.  The bone, a part of the body not normally thought of as being pierced, gets all the focus.  The remaining image of ‘sticking out’ is that of exposure, even vulnerability, like an arm hanging out of a car window.

The skin has grafted around the pin, now…

I meant this second bit to convey that a lot of time has passed, and that healing has occurred.  It is important to introduce the element of the speaker’s personality as someone who has lived with this for a long time, and has adjusted.  The word ‘graft’ refers to growth, development.  It is a positive word.  And while ‘heal’ may have worked here, the sentiment that a changing and a moving on is stronger with the use of the word graft.  Heal denotes only that something lost has been regained.  I may be pedantic here, but words have very specific meanings, and even if readers do not consciously register the meanings of words they read, they reflect in their minds the myriad incidents of a particular word being used in a particular context, and as a writer you are able to make that reflection set the tone of your story.

…both pins, actually, since there’s a second one pushed through my shinbone below the knee.

Reading this now, I truly hate it.  I’ve always been uncomfortable with it, but after asking a lot of people back in the day if they had any problem with it, and not finding anyone who did, I had convinced myself somehow to leave it.  I wouldn’t now.  What’s wrong with it is the clumsy, afterthought aspect of it, dragging the reader right out of the narration and reminding them that this is a novel.  I find this unimaginably stupid after writing two good starts.  Rather than joining this to the foregoing with an ellipsis, it should have been made into its own sentence, something like, “A second pin, like the first, has been driven (not pushed) through my shinbone.”  Obviously the shinbone is below the knee.  Why would I write that?

Because, sadly, we convince ourselves that it is all right, that it isn’t that important, and that it can stand.  With distance, we will know better.  Or we will have an editor who will wisely fix it for us.  Except that the editor won’t change the word ‘pushed’ to the word ‘driven.’

Between them hangs a solid-metal frame, which means I don’t bend my leg…

Again, an ellipsis that shouldn’t be here.  I unfortunately write in them constantly, a habit I have of thinking in the first draft that they ‘feel’ right and that they belong.  As I get older and smarter, I tend to strip them out of later drafts.  Someday, I suppose, I’ll be smart enough to get rid of them altogether.

Now, the only thing this sentence really means to describe is the word ‘solid.’  That’s the critical word that needs to be in the reader’s mind.  However awful this arrangement of pins and bones is for Seth, the arrangement is solid as a rock.  This is critical because, when later in the story Seth is thrown around by various events like pursuits and explosions (yes, both!), it must be in the reader’s mind that the frame isn’t going to bust, snap, bend, break or any one of a dozen other possibilities.  The aforementioned ‘graft’ is good for that too, since trees and bones graft together, not flesh and muscle.  All the various descriptions in the paragraph do their best to compliment this idea of solidity, to reassure the reader that however brutal this is, it can take the punishment and keep on going.  The inflexibility of Seth’s leg is only one more addition to that premise.

…and for the most part, I’ve learned not to miss-step. 

Again, this sentence is shit.  There’s no sense in pulling punches.  It’s a weak structure, it doesn’t need the casual colloquialism “for the most part” – since the fact here applies universally, not just some of the time – and the words miss-step could do very well to be replaced with something like ‘trip.’  I read things like this now and I want to bang my head on the desk.

Anyway, it means to suggest that Seth is careful, and it fails utterly because it is so badly written.

That comes with practice.

This little bit of trash is no better.  Both it and the previous clause should be worked together into one firm and structured sentence that conveys, again, that Seth is a careful, careful man.  He has to be.  He has – pins – sticking out.  Except for the fact that none of this paragraph can ever be written like this now (because of the medical advances), I would rewrite this sentence to make my point clearer.  As it is, the whole paragraph has to go, along with the frame itself, and be replaced by some other arrangement that still makes Seth’s knee – on its own – an inadequate machine.

The importance of Seth’s knee is absolutely paramount to the novel.  An alternate title to this novel could be, “Seth’s Knee.”  It is because of Seth’s knee, and his inability to make it work the clutch of an old water truck, that the plague is released into the Milk River of southern Alberta and thence into the Missouri, the Mississippi and all the water courses connected with that system.  It is therefore very appropriate that the first paragraph of this novel is about Seth’s knee, even when the reader has no idea just how important this is going to be.

Interestingly, I always have an eye for a reader picking up a novel more than once.  I reread works all the time.  There are definitely parts in this novel that the reader will miss the importance of the first time through: small jokes that won’t be funny until you’ve read everything.  In a way, the first paragraph is like that – because when you’ve read the critical paragraph at the end where Seth is trying to press the clutch down with his knee – by that point having had the frame removed – the reader is meant to wince doubly upon reading the first paragraph again.

Alas, it’s all lost, since the first paragraph is now useless due to technological innovation.  Damn you, brilliant doctors!

I recommend that anyone unfamiliar with discomfort have it done.  It’s really the way to go.

Here, then, is the transitional passage that takes you out of Seth’s leg and into Seth himself … which he will go on to describe soon enough.  Seth is a bitter, sarcastic fellow, who diminishes things like horrible pain to the level of ‘discomfort’ in order to emphasize his bitterness.  Yes, unquestionably, I am Seth.  Except that, in truth, I’m not.  Seth is a particular facet of my character, which I release more in writing than in actuality.  It pays as a writer to ascertain various parts of your personality and hone those parts into individual, unique characters.  You will never know anyone as well as yourself, and no character will have as much depth as the one that speaks directly from your heart.  Writing in the first person emphasizes this, as carrying a personality through an entire novel is a chore.  Third person writing allows for more flexibility, but the voices of the characters will never be as personal.

My decision to write this novel from the first person stemmed from the theme.  Seth is the voice of reason amid the cruelty he witnesses, and it is his tone that translates for the reader a sense of disgust, shock, fear or disbelief as Seth is carried through the elements of the book to the conclusion.  A third-person telling would not have given the reader the same point of view – which is, in fact, the reader’s perspective, because the reader as well is unlikely to have met or interacted with the people Seth meets.

Here, then, I stop.  I hope that the reader of this post understands that my desire here is to provide a depiction of the writer’s trade.  I further hope that other writers, reading this, can understand how to look at a sentence and consider the elements of that sentence, and how every sentence can influence the complete work.  I argue that no sentence should be delivered without that in mind – but simultaneously, I point out that I have visibly failed to do so even in the first paragraph.  Obviously, throughout the book I will have failed to do so again and again.

But we work, and rewrite, and dig out the weeds in the novel and leave what’s healthy and desired.  That is the process.


  1. As just an average Joe, I read the opening paragraph as what it was. Seth had a procedure on his leg and walks better. He is a "cripple". That's all. I read nothing else into it. Is it necessary to get that "deep" when people like me just like a good story/plot?

  2. While it may seem that these things don't matter, your conscious and subconscious is trained to register through the process of living a great deal more than you happen to consider on a moment to moment basis. The explanation for why a particular thing affects you or does not - when you can say exactly why - is demonstrative of this process.

    Writing ... and any art, really ... is the practice of tapping into that process and making it respond positively or negatively, depending upon the purpose of the work.

    Big Rob, if you wish to be a writer, it may do some good to make some examinations into the field of biological psychology.

  3. Alexis, it's very helpful for me when you do get pedantic. My primary interest in this blog is to better understand the nuts and bolts of the craft. Please keep it coming.

  4. Alexis, I have three questions:

    I- Do you think that to force oneself to write about a predetermined subject is a good exercise to develop one`s writing skill?

    II- Do you plan to eventually comment on literally and critique theory?

    III- Do you submit your unfinished work to both "common" and "professional" (I mean, people with some specific critic knowledge) readers?

    By the way, this was a very fine analysis of a text`s flaws.

  5. Wilson,

    1) It is a bit of one and a bit of the other. Yes, it can be a good exercise, and it will improve one’s creativity and approach to any work. After all, what does a humanities or social science education do except to compel one to research a subject and present a paper upon that subject, where before the ability to write upon that subject was not present? So yes, by all means, have others specify topics on which to write. At the same time, however, if you rely upon subjects not from within to become your continued reason for writing, they will become a crutch, eventually destroying your will to write. This is the bane of the journalist industry, where writers grow fat with stories not of their own making, until they have nothing of their own to say.

    2) In time, I suppose, but certainly not as a university professor would expect me to write such a comment, with footnotes to theoretical books written by ivory pundits or the use of quaint technical jargon put forth in tenure-seeking papers. I occasionally read literary criticism – I always enjoyed Harold Bloom or Camille Paglia – but don’t expect a post steeped in theoretical post-modernism.

    3) I constantly give out my work whenever I can, even online. The book mentioned above, for all the dissection in this post, is a very accessible, non-academic fast-moving bloody tale that any average Joe would get a kick out of reading, despite all the bad writing in it. I know, because it has been read by many average Joes and Joans in its lifespan, a substantial portion of which – cooks and waitresses, mostly, who were around when I wrote it - had told me it was the only book of its kind they’ve ever read. As far as professionals go, yes, them too. There is a story about this book and an agent back in autumn of 2000 that I am holding back on – that is a post in itself.