Here is an interesting song, and I mean “interesting” in a tragic, train-wreck sort of way.
Because it’s a decent melody by a good band with some of the WORST LYRICS EVER.
And the music video itself isn’t horrible at all. It’s fine. The words, though, they hurt me.
And I say this as a fan of Train, a man who has some of their songs and believes MEET VIRGINIA has creative lyrics for a pop song.
First up: the video, which I hope the evil known as VEVO lets you watch.
See? The song isn’t bad. The video is fine.
It’s the stupid lyrics.
Let the red ink flow.
DRIVE BY by Train
On the other side of a street I knew
Stood a girl that looked like you
I guess thats deja vu
But I thought this can’t be true
Cause you moved to west L.A or New York or Santa Fe
Or where or ever to get away from me
(OK, so far, this is alright. Nothing great, nothing horrible. The horribleness is hiding and saving its strength for an ambush.)
Oh but that one night Was more than just right I didn’t leave you cause I was all through Oh I was overwhelmed and frankly scared as hell Because I really fell for you
Oh I swear to you I’ll be there for you This is not a drive by
(I believe the singer — or whoever wrote these lyrics — is trying to say, “This isn’t infatuation, or a one-night stand, but something longer lasting and meaningful, possibly leading up to a white dress, a white picket fence and three yearsof whitePampers.” Thisphrase means, “A gang murders that utilizes one driver and one or more shooters, who send a wall of lethal lead at the homicide victim while making a rolling getaway from the crime.” So the message is kinda-sorta mixed. People hear this and don’t think of happy love. They think of Glocks and funerals.)
Just a shy guy looking for a two ply Hefty bag to hold my love
(Because the only thing more romantic than a drive-by shooting is the leading national brand of garbage bags.)
When you move me everything is groovy
They don’t like it sue me
mmm the way you do me
(The bad pop trifecta: a word from the ’60s that needs to be retired, a reference to litigation and a crude reference to sex.)
Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by On the upside of a downward spiral
(If he were definitely referring to NINE INCH NAILS, he’d get bonus points, but he’s not, so he doesn’t.)
My love for you went viral
(A tiny bonus point for not completing the cliche by name-dropping Facebook or Twitter.)
And I loved you every mile you drove away But now here you are again So let’s skip the “how you been”And get down to the “more than friends” at last
(“You didn’t really like me before, and you drove far, far, away, but now that you’re back, please pay attention to me as a boyfriend instead of some man you don’t really care about.” I believe that sums it up.)
Oh but that one night Is still the highlight I didn’t need you until I came to and I was overwhelmed and frankly scared as hell Because I really fell for you
Oh I swear to you I’ll be there for you This is not a drive by Just a shy guy looking for a two ply Hefty bag to hold my love When you move me everything is groovy They don’t like it sue me mmm the way you do me Oh I swear to you I’ll be there for you This is not a drive by
(The songwriter got ALL the bad cliches and phrases of this song into one tidy package right there. Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! Kind of like a emptying the clip during a drive by shooting. No. Just no.)
Please believe that when I leave
There’s nothing up my sleeve but love for you
And a little time to get my head together too
(To woo somebody, it’s not overly bright to hint that you’re not quite right in the head.)
On the other side of a street I knew Stood a girl that looked like you I guess thats deja vu But I thought this can’t be true Cause
Oh I swear to you I’ll be there for you This is not a drive by Just a shy guy looking for a two ply Hefty bag to hold my love When you move me everything is groovy They don’t like it sue me mmm the way you do me Oh I swear to you I’ll be there for you This is not a drive by
(A repeat and recap of all the bad lines from before, in case we hadn’t heard them the first, second or third time.)
A successful band like Train probably hires songwriters for some — or a lot — of their stuff. Which is fine. You need to focus on touring, performing and shooting music videos. None of those are bad things.
The words, though, actually matter. They matter as much as the bass line, the lighting on the set and the type of leather jacket worn by the lead singer.
Spend a little more time and money on the words, because I used to hear “Train” and think of two good songs. Now, the first two things that pop into my head will be “drive-by shootings” and “Hefty bags.” Which is too bad.
Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy.
We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.
Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.
Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.
Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.
Okay. All done?
Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.
This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.
The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.
The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.
Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.
Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”
The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.
And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.
The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.
Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions
This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.
You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)
Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.
Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.
This isn’t my usual thing–it’s not the first page of a Classic Novel professors decided in some secret meeting, probably in a Best Western outside Cleveland, they’d force all of us to write term papers on. And it’s not a bestseller which absolutely stinks.
It’s a random book I saw on the Twitters.
I did read out the first page of the prologue, and the first chapter. The cover and synopsis are more fun to play with, though.
Let’s check out the cover, then the synopsis / back page text, and we’ll chat.
Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.
In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where Man has conquered the heavens, while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life … for the right price. Where hot rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies.
Tiger Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century. Now, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He makes a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, legal and otherwise.
Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.
But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.
Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Tiger and newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.
Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.
Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.
Edits and notes
The cover: Hey, I like it, especially given this looks like an indie book on a low budget. Does the job for a sci-fi novel just fine. Thumbs up.
The synopsis: This is what got me to write a post. You had me at “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers.”
Here’s a shot at the synopsis to pump up the wild stuff and slay boring bits:
Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.
In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where
Hot–rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies. Man hasYet conquering the heavens made man while at the same timebecoming quicklyobsolete on Earth, his own world. A worldwhere science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life …—for the right price. Where
Tiger (If your love interest is a fox-woman, don’t make your hero’s first name Tiger–confusing, and no, you can’t call him Tiger and reveal in Act 3 that he’s a genetically engineered tiger thing) Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century.butnow that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He making a living nowdoing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.legal and otherwise.
Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, TigerThomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.
But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quicklyturns sour.
Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, includingkilling anyone who stands in their way. ThomasTiger and his newfound companion soonfind themselves on the run from adeadly, high-tech unit ofbounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim?Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.
Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.
Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.
Edited synopsis as straight text
Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure.
Hot-rod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Yet conquering the heavens made man obsolete on Earth, where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life–for the right price.
Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, making a living doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.
Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago.
But when he rescues a genetically engineered fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming turns sour.
Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way. Thomas and his newfound companion find themselves on the run from deadly, high-tech bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself?
Feels faster and smoother. Mostly, it’s a matter of killing words. Could we have killed even more words? Maybe. Always worth trying, though I was working hard to edit with a light touch. Itchy Pencil is a real disease. There is no known cure.
The other bit I wanted to delete is everything dealing with his old flame, which felt like the B plot. You don’t see her on the cover, and there are no high-tech Boba Fett types chasing her around the galaxy. The fox girl as the A plot, though fox girl NEEDS A NAME if she’s so important to the story, and that name better not be something like Fox Amber Harrison, or I will throw the book clear across the room.
What say you–how else could we give the synopsis of “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” a boost into orbit?
I was shocked — SHOCKED — to learn that there are mystery novels featuring talking cats, cats who help old British ladies solve murders and whatnot.
Then my mind was blown to itty bitty pieces when I heard this isn’t a fluke. There isn’t a solo author who did this and was magically successful at it. Many, many authors write Talking Cat Cozy Mysteries, and people hand over pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents to buy these novels and read them.
So much so that Talking Cat Cozies are an entire flipping sub-genre now, just like there’s an entire section in the bookstore dedicated to Sparkly Vampires and the Angsty Teenagers Who Love Them.
Everybody knows cats can’t talk. Porcupines, now, talk up a storm.
This made me think, which is always dangerous.
What if somebody wrote a Talking Cat Mystery where the cat … is secretly the killer?
So I wrote the first chapter of an evil talking cat mystery. Here’s the first page.
A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER
Chapter 1: My Secret
It should not surprise you that I know words. Even the Dog knows words, and does tricks, and he is Simple.
He did not stop chewing his bone while I sat in the lap of the Woman and watched the Glowing Box show a story about a sheep dog that knows thousands of words.
I would not know so many words without the Glowing Box.
I sat beside the Boy as we watched the Sesame Street to learn about letters and numbers and words.
He grew taller. I learned all I could.
When they left the house, I pushed the buttons on the Boy’s ABC toy to know letters and sounds. To spell small words. I learned how to press the button on the small stick to make the Glowing Box come alive and go to sleep. To climb on the boxes in the garage to push the other button to make the Biggest Door open and close, the door they use to keep the Metal Horse asleep in its cage.
Oh, I learned many things. And I know these things must be Secrets that the Woman and the Boy cannot know.
Tonight, I have a bigger secret.
After the Boy and the Woman go upstairs, where I am not allowed, I will sneak out of the Dog’s little door.
Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.
And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.
So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel by Donald Westlake, a master of the craft.
THE AX by Donald Westlake
I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough,I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience,had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.
Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.
NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM
This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.
So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.
What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.
You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.
Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.
The whole novel is like that.
If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.
This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”
Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched (We already know she’s looking and watching, so these words get slain.)The last of Georgia’s hills receded and the red earth appeared, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw (Looked, watched and saw all in the first paragraph, three shining beacons of bad writing, so let’s kill the last two.) her at the first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.
Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. (Now we go back in time for backstory, which is Boring and must die.) For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. (This would have been good in the present tense, as an exciting start to the novel: “So I’m flying through this tornado, wishing I’d taken the train.” Nope.) For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair. (More exposition and backstory without the barest hint of conflict.)
She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. (Nice imagery in the last line.) She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment – a roomette, they called it – but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to PULL THIS LEVER DOWN OVER BRACKETS, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.
End of Page 1
Notes from The Red Pen of Doom:
You don’t need Michael Bay explosions on every page, especially when we’re talking about lit-rah-sure.
But you do need problems. Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at them and let them find a way down.
Jean Louise Finch (Scout) doesn’t get up a tree on this page one. There are no rocks aimed at her head, no suspense or trouble at all, unless you count the porter possibly walking in on Scout wearing only her pajama tops, though that sort of situation belongs more in a book with Fabio on the cover.
This page one is all description, exposition and backstory.
Later in the book, we learn our heroine is traveling by train to meet the man she’s being pushed into marrying. That’s a real conflict. Why not foreshadow that?
Put her back on a plane instead of the comfortable train, and give us that tornado again, with a first line about Scout gripping the arms of her chair as the pilot headed insanely through the edge of a tornado and she headed insanely back home to a marriage she didn’t want.
Give us something. Anything.
Because I’m feeling kind, I didn’t get into the brutal reviews of this novel, ones by people who pay the mortgage by reading and reviewing book-like objects of all sorts, or the whole controversial shebang about changing Atticus Finch from an iconic hero into a villain who’s sympathetic to the KKK.
I’m simply going after the first page, and the only job of a page one page is to make readers turn to page two, then page three and finally page 288 or even, if it’s a Stephen King doorstopper, page 1,104.
This first page fails at that job. I have no interest in hearing more about the interior décor of this train, no desire to see more of the scenery flashing by and no hope that this story will get any more interesting as it chugs along.
Verdict: Put it to rest, gently, far from the spot of honor on the library shelf for To Kill a Mockingbird.
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)
In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That
Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.
Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.
Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?
Not really. Bring it, Melville.
by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.)It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.(On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. 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.
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.
The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.
Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.
There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.
Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.
How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…
If you like music — and who doesn’t? — you have to love music videos. ICE, ICE BABY is a classic that deserves a closer look.
You’d think there’d be a market for music videos, some kind of channel on the Glowing Tube where you played music vids — which the artists produce and hand to you, for free, just to get the publicity — while you charge GEICO and Miller Lite many, many dollars to run ads in between Lady Gaga and AC/DC classics.
I mean, the Glowing Tube only has 45,982 cable channels right now. There’s a market for this stuff, right? The last thing we need is more reality shows.
HOWEVER: let’s get on with dissecting ICE, ICE BABY by Vanilla Ice.
Here’s the video. Watch it.
He can dance, can’t he?
Now, let’s find our red pen and interpret the lyrics.
ICE, ICE BABY
Yo, VIP, let’s kick it!
(Hello, my listeners of high status. Should we start?)
Ice ice baby, ice ice baby
(The first part of my nickname is relevant, sweet-hearted stranger. My real name is not necessary information, although repetition may boost both my name recognition and my record sales.)
All right stop, collaborate and listen
(Halt whatever you’re doing and do your job, which is paying attention to me.)
Ice is back with my brand new invention
(I don’t want you to think that I’m a one-hit wonder. Think this song is good? I have many, many other creative rhymes and melodies that spring forth from my brain all the time.)
Something grabs a hold of me tightly
(When I get inspired by an idea, it consumes me.)
Then I flow that a harpoon daily and nightly
(After an idea for lyrics come to me, I practice 25 hours a day, just like Ahab and the whale or whatever.)
Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know
(Will I ever cease to be a creative and successful rapper, with loads of cash and girlfriends, and instead retire from the spotlight to Florida, where I remodel McMansions in hopes of turning a quick profit? That hypothetical situation is too ridiculous to even consider.)
Turn off the lights and I’ll glow
(I’m such a star, I create my own light)
To the extreme I rock a mic like a vandal
(My singing and rhymes are so out of the ordinary, you should compare me to the barbarians who sacked Rome)
Light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle
(I can bring excitement to a stage while beating up other men who don’t have my talents, although this may be a metaphor, or a simile, or some other literary term that I can’t be bothered to pinpoint)
Dance, bum rush the speaker that booms
(My fans should gyrate with excitement and gather around the large black boxes that amplify my rhymes and backup band)
I’m killin’ your brain like a poisonous mushroom
(Though my songs are not literally poisonous, they do possess powerful addictive and paralyzing properties)
Deadly, when I play a dope melody, anything less that the best is a felony
(Like I said, potentially fatal poisonous mushrooms that should send me to prison)
Love it or leave it, you better gain way
(It’s advisable to retreat from my path, because I am so talented, tough and unstoppable)
You better hit bull’s eye, the kid don’t play
(If you try to stop me, it should be a fatal blow or shot, because my tolerance for non-fatal blows and bullets is quite low)
If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it
(Nothing is beyond my grasp)
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it
(This is a recurrent portion of my song that I stole from rock stars in the 1970s, and I want you to pay attention to how I’ve incorporated it into my rhymes)
If you are a writer, you know all about the inverted pyramid. It’s one of the first blueprints we get taught: put the most important stuff on top and the least important on the bottom, like an upside-down pyramid.
As a reformed journalist, was I familiar with the inverted pyramid? Nah. I only wrote 5,931 bazillion stories using the damn thing. We were practically married.
Every day, millions of reporters use it to write stories for Papers of News and programs on the radios and the Glowing Tube, so if there was ever a sacred cow in writing and journalism, that cow would be named Inverted Pyramid, and the milk from its udders would contain perfect chocolate-flavored milk decorated with specks of gold.
HOWEVER: I want you to know something. Come a little closer so I can whisper it in your ear: “The inverted pyramid MUST DIE.”
As a blueprint, it’s inherently flawed and bores readers. If you wrote novels, screenplays and TV shows using the inverted pyramid, they’d all fail, because all the good stuff would be in the beginning. The middle would be boring and the end would put the entire audience in a coma.
The inverted pyramid is useful for short news bulletins, and there were technical reasons why journalists use it. You want to get the maximum amount of information to the reader in a minimum amount of time, and if a story runs long, you can lop off the end without consequence. These days, however, the inverted pyramid is simply a flashing neon sign that says, “Reader, you can stop reading any time, because it only gets more boring from here on.”
Look at your local Sunday newspaper. I read The Seattle Times here, and they tend to do these big investigative stories that start on page one, jump to page 5, then jump to pages 7, 8, 9 and 12. I mean, these stories never end. Are they important? Sure. Can I finish them? No. Because they’re written using the inverted pyramid, and even a reformed journalist who loves papers — if you cut me, I still bleed newsprint — can’t get through that ocean of words.
However: a 10,000-word newspaper story is nothing compared to a 100,000-word novel, and I have no problem reading novels. Love ’em.
It’s the structure, the blueprint. The inverted pyramid sucks.
Here, I’ll give you proof.
Years ago, as a cub reporter right out of college, I’d write at least 10 to 20 stories a week. Let’s say 500 a year. And I’d win journalism awards every year. But hey, if I wrote 500 stories, some of those better be good and a few of them better be brilliant, right?
A few years ago, I freelanced a newspaper story, not simply because I still love papers, but because this story happened to a friend of mine.
One story instead of 500. And that story won some journalism award. I went one for one instead of five for 500 or whatever. Hmm.
I wrote this story about 7 years ago. Looking back at this piece, I’m a much better writer today. Parts seem quite clunky. But this piece didn’t win an award because each sentence was poetry. It got an award because I abandoned the inverted pyramid entirely and wrote this piece as narrative non-fiction, which is a fancy way of saying “storytelling.”
If I’d written it using the stupid inverted pyramid, I’d give away the ending in the damn headline, and the last line of the piece — instead of being something you remember — would be something like “The dog was yellow.”
Read this sucker. Look at the structure, the setups and payoffs, instead of the words. And tell me if you think it would be one-tenth as compelling written using the inverted pyramid. Then make a vow to never, never use that obsolete blueprint ever again.
Lost and trapped at 4,500 feet
Special to The Vidette
by Guy Bergstrom
MONTESANO – From the top of Colonel Bob Mountain– nearly 4,500 feet high – Adam Pratt and family friend Amy Smith could see the Pacific Ocean to the west, Mount Rainier to the southeast and everything in between.
The one thing they couldn’t see was Lucas, Adam’s golden retriever.
“Luke had been up Colonel Bob four or five times before,” said Adam, a carpentry instructor at Grays Harbor College who lives in Montesano with his wife, Sara.
“He was just there beside me a second ago, and he always stays right next to me on the trail,” Adam said. “So I figured that maybe he went back down toward a stream that we crossed 30 minutes down the mountain.”
Adam and Amy called for Lucas; they whistled and clapped.
“I expected his happy face and wagging tail to come running back, as he always does,” Adam said.
They went back down the trail to the stream and thought maybe Lucas would head back to the car, at the trailhead.
Adam put his sweaty T-shirt and a bowl of water where they’d parked, hoping the familiar smells and fresh water would serve as a homing beacon for Lucas.
The beacon failed; Lucas never showed up.
To prepare for a search of the wilderness, Adam drove back to Montesano for clothes, food and camping gear.
He dropped off Amy, jumped in his wife’s Subaru – which she’d already packed with supplies – and they raced the setting sun back to the trailhead at Pete’s Creek, about 20 miles into the wilderness.
“I strapped on my headlamp and went up the trail by myself about a mile and a half,” he said. “It’s not wise to hike alone in the dark, especially in black bear and cougar country. I was drained and emotional, making bad decisions.”
He returned to the car. He couldn’t eat. He and Sara tried to sleep, but they lay awake most of the night in the Subaru, thinking the worst.
Where was Lucas? Was he wandering the forests? Injured and unable to move? Or a late-night snack for a mountain lion?
To the top again
Just before daybreak, Adam strapped on his backpack, kissed Sara goodbye and headed back up the mountain again.
He decided to reach the top of the Colonel and search. If he didn’t find Lucas, he’d continue down the trail on the other side of the mountain toward Lake Quinault.
Maybe the dog had headed toward the small town near the lake. Since it was Labor Day weekend, there’d be more people and activity.
Sara drove to Lake Quinault and started putting up lost dog posters. She asked people she met if they’d seen a yellow dog. She alerted the park ranger station, in case they’d heard any reports of a lost dog with a collar. No one had seen Lucas.
Adam clapped, whistled and called for Lucas as he reached the top of the mountain.
Near the top, he heard faint howling.
“I reached the lookout area and looked down,” Adam said. “About seventy-five feet below the summit, there he was, on this tiny ledge a hundred-twenty feet above the next flat spot.”
Lucas looked scared, but he didn’t seem hurt. But how could Adam reach him?
At the summit, Adam’s cell phone had some reception, so he called Sara and left the message that Lucas was alive, but stuck on a cliff.
He pushed through brush and trees on the steep sides of Colonel Bob, traveling through a twenty-foot cave he had to crouch and crawl through. Then he side-shuffled through open-topped crevice and popped out the other side of the mountain.
To reach the ledge, Adam climbed 60 feet up by hanging onto huckleberry roots and scrub brush.
After being alone on the cliff, Lucas was thrilled to see Adam, wagging his tail and licking his face. He checked Lucas for injuries and was amazed to find the dog didn’t have any broken bones from the fall.
Then the thrill of the reunion hit the Cold Wall of Reality.
“I hate heights,” Adam said, “and it was then and there I realized how stupid I had been. My emotions had got the best of me and now I was sitting on a six-foot by three-foot ledge with my buddy, wondering how we were getting of this mountain.”
Adam offered Lucas a dog bone, but he wasn’t interested in eating. After letting Lucas lap some water out of his hands, he knew he had to go before they both were stuck up there another night.
“Without opposable thumbs, he wasn’t able to follow me off the ledge,” Adam said. “I King-Konged it down the cliff, using the shrubs and roots as handholds, like a monkey.”
After making it through the cave again and back to the summit, Adam went down the mountain yet again, his muscles shaking, his mind spinning. He heard voices coming up the trail but had to stop to rest and eat some trail bars.
At the same time, Sara was at the Forest Service headquarters, asking for help. They told her rescue teams were looking for a group of four lost teens, plus another couple of hikers about 150 miles away.
Stranded dogs? Not a priority.
Sara sobbed; they’d worked so hard to find Lucas, and now he’d starve or freeze to death on a cliff.
She left a voice mail with the only person she could think of back in Montesano: Leo Nixon, a 71-year-old retired dentist and they’d met at Friday wine tastings at Savory Faire, a man who shared their love of hiking local mountains.
Adam headed back down the trail toward the voices. He met a father and daughter hiking up Colonel Bob with their chocolate lab. He asked if they had any rope or a cell phone, since his battery was now dead.
“They helped calm me down,” said Adam, “and they actually landed some of their lunch on Luke’s ledge. To them, I must have seemed like a crazy person. It’s good they didn’t have a rope. I wasn’t qualified to use it to climb. Even if I had training, I was in no condition to do it.”
A daring plan
Heading down the trail, Adam saw another couple heading up the hill, and then a face he knew: Leo, who hadn’t gotten Sara’s message.
“He just happened to take that hike, that day,” Adam said.
Leo climbed to the summit to take a look. He said he had all the necessary climbing gear at home in Montesano and that they could rescue Lucas themselves.
They wouldn’t try it from the top of Colonel Bob, but from below, where Adam had reached the ledge in his earlier, impulsive attempt without equipment or backup.
Since it would soon be dark, they needed to wait until Saturday morning, meaning Lucas would spend his second night alone on the freezing ledge.
On the drive back to Montesano, Leo tried to calm the fears of Adam and Sara, to assure them that it wouldn’t rain, that Lucas wouldn’t try to jump, that no bears or cougars roamed the area.
“Lies, but comforting lies,” Adam said.
Leo stopped at Savory Faire, where Adam and Sara would have been that Friday night for wine tasting if they weren’t spending their time climbing and re-climbing the mountain.
Leo walked inside and casually asked the restaurant owner, Randi Bachtel, if he could borrow his climbing equipment. He refused offers of help, saying he’d called two friends of his who were mountaineers.
Randi, a veteran of Vietnam and local high school teacher, said Leo knew what he was doing. If he had to choose anybody to do a rescue, it’d be Leo, 71 years old or not.
The Silver Panther Rescue Team
At 4:30 Saturday morning, Adam and Sara arrived at Leo’s house, where two of his mountain-climbing friends joined them: Mike Riley of Olympia and Rich Irwin of Raymond.
This would be the third climb up to the summit in 36 hours for Adam, who was exhausted and questioning himself. Could he do it again?
On the way to the mountain, they picked up Amy and her husband, Nate, who’d agreed to make the climb with what they’d nicknamed “The Silver Panthers Rescue Team.”
Adam and Sara couldn’t stop thinking about whether Lucas had survived the night, about the cold, the bears, the cougars.
Driving through the rain and the dark, a dark shape – a cougar – leapt in front of the Subaru and Adam jammed both feet on the brakes.
“It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a mountain lion,” Adam said. “Truly an amazing creature. Truly terrible timing. We said nothing to each other, but we all entertained the same thoughts.”
The cougar spun around and sprinted the opposite direction.
They kept driving.
All seven climbed the trail to Colonel Bob’s summit while it was still dark. The Silver Panthers didn’t lose one step to the younger hikers.
As they reached the top, the sun showed up.
Leo led the way as they bushwhacked through the brush and trees on the side of the mountain. On a semi-flat spot, they gathered their gear and prepared for the rescue attempt.
Leo, Mike, Rich and Adam put on climbing harnesses and helmets.
They walked a narrow ledge to the start of the route Leo had picked out.
And then they started climbing.
Do or die
There’s no half-way in mountain climbing. You make it safely or fail spectacularly.
Rich and Leo set a bottom anchor in the cliff to belay Mike as he climbed toward Lucas.
Mike set a second anchor at twenty feet up, then another at forty feet before making the final climb to the tiny ledge and Lucas.
After taking a minute to calm the dog, Mike set up a rope to top-belay Adam up sixty feet to the ledge.
“I have very little climbing experience,” Adam said, “but I had the best chance to calm down Lucas and bring him down.”
Adam made it up. They attached a harness to Lucas, then hooked that harness to Adam, who pulled the dog tight against his chest.
They would make it down – the slow way or a much speedier one – together.
“I stepped off the cliff,” Adam said, “and the guys lowered us down. Then Mike rappelled down and we all made our way to flat ground and safety.”
After giving Lucas some water and food, the seven-member team celebrated and decompressed. They still had four miles to hike out, downhill, but Adam barely felt it.
“We couldn’t feel anything,” he said, “but relief.”
Leo, Rich and Mike peeled away to climb a nearby peak.
Lucas rode home with his friends. And his family.
Sunday afternoon: Lucas is sprinting around the playground at Crait Field, playing with a three-year-old boy who can’t stop laughing. Lucas leaps off the retaining walls as if he’s weightless and happily picks up his leash to get Adam to play tug-of-war with him.
Adam and Sara talk about their ordeal being unreal, a waking nightmare with a fairy tale ending.
“Retired dentist extracts canine from Colonel Bob,” Adam jokes.
Behind the kidding around, there’s a deep sense of gratitude and community. The couple moved here from Michigan and have only lived in Montesano since last November, so they’re amazed and grateful at how people stepped forward to offer their help.
“We couldn’t have possibly rescued him without the help of our friends,” Adam said, “and the kindness of strangers.”
But there’s also an undercurrent of resolve. Of loyalty.
“We couldn’t just leave our little buddy,” said Adam, “on a mountain cliff to die.”
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill didwere not so loyal to their city as not to(if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long,and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficultytrouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads)It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds)Early on,Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzledrink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)
(end of page 1)
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.
I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.
Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.
Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.
Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.
As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.
The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.
It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.
Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.
Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.
Howard Roark laughed. (I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway.)
He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him.A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water.(Whoah, whoah, hold up. So far, it was all tight and Hemingway-esque. “The pants fit him. They felt good.” Now you suddenly switch to purple prose, with granite bursting in flight? I didn’t know that granite rocks flew, or exploded when they did decide to take wing. No.)The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. (More purple prose. Hate it. Though I do smile at all the double-entendre action. Let’s try again.)
The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.(What? I think Ayn Rand was smoking a bowl here.)
His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.(Things are either curved, straight or angled. That pretty much covers it. Maybe the only other people in this book are Flat Stanley and the Blob.) He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind. (No man would ever describe his hair as “ripe orange rind.” He’d say, “I’m a red-head” or “I’m blond” or “I don’t know.”)
He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning (Oh, right. So funny!) and at the things which now lay ahead. (Yes — also hilarious. I laugh at that all the time. Maybe let’s use different ways to hint at backstory and do foreshadowing.)
He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. (Enough with the laughing about things that may or may not have happened, and difficult plans, and thinking about not thinking. We can go to this well once or twice, but not every sentence.)
He tried to consider it. But he forgot. (Or maybe we can jump into that well and stay there forever.) He was looking at the granite.
He did not laugh (Oh, we’re NOT laughing now?) as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature— (You have got to be kidding me.)
End of Page 1
Notes from The Red Pen of Doom
I believe the readers of today – like me – don’t want (a) tons of purple prose, (b) paragraph after paragraph of character description or (c) 3.4 metric tons of purple prose that’s all character description and internal dialogue.
But there are bigger fish to fry here, both in the literary sense of Is This A Good Page One? and in the story sense.
Ayn Rand is a deity among conservatives, because her novels underpin what she calls the “philosophy” of objectivism, which says it’s quite unselfish to be selfish. This is obviously counter-intuitive and quite appealing in a juvenile kind of way, because hey, it’s now my moral duty to do whatever I want. The best way to take care of others is to only care about yourself. The surest path to aid the poor is to cut taxes for the rich. And so forth.
This philosophy intrudes upon the story. Roark, the hero of this novel, roughly has his way with Dominique, the heroine, when they first meet. She later describes it as rape. Dominique makes Sylvia Plath look mentally stable. To show her undying love for Roark, she marries … some rich man. Then she tries to destroy Roark, divorces that rich man to marry another rich dude, keeps on trying to destroy Roark, then finally divorces that other rich schmuck to marry Roark in the end, but only after Roark TRIES TO BLOW UP A BUILDING that he designed.
If you said “This is a book that makes a hero out of a selfish architect who’s a strong-willed, good-looking rapist and terrorist,” you’d kinda sorta be accurate. And yes, I read the entire book. Twice. I WROTE A PAPER ON IT.
So the first page does foreshadow a lot of things. Ayn Rand has “a frozen explosion of granite” in the second graf. She has a whole bunch of imagery and descriptions of Roark’s perfect body.
HOWEVER: If I hadn’t already read this book, I’d see this first page and think it was some kind of historical romance, with Roark’s kilt and dirk sitting over on that rock, his trusty horse waiting for him after he took a swim and rode off to rescue his favorite maiden, a red-haired beauty held captive by the twisted and disfigured Baron of Whateverthehell.
Otherwise, I don’t hate her writing per se. I merely despise it.
Usually, I can fix a line or a paragraph. Big chunks of this first page simply need to die. The best thing is to cut them out.
Does that whack about half of this first page? Yes.
Would that make it better? Yes.
There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.
There’s a reason 12 publishers rejected this novel before it found a home. Hate the first page. Hate the hero, and the heroine who tries to destroy Roark because she loves him so much. Hate the story. Hate the “philosophy.” It’s a tough call, whether THE FOUNTAINHEAD or OUTLANDER are more deserving of being thrown across the room. But I’m going with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.
It’s two in the morning. Everybody sane is asleep.
But a secret society of British editors was busy sneaking onto my blog, reading my love letter to all who wield the Red Pen of Doom to pay the mortgage.
I know this because a man in a black hood crept inside my secret lair, entered the bigger turret and whispered in my ear, “Me and my mates are dead chuffed.”
He wore a pendant around his neck that looked a lot like a sharp red pen, dripping blood. Also, he smelled like good tea.
I dig the British, and the Australians, so it’s a happy accident that a bunch of Brits and Aussies and New Zealanders read this blog.
The brilliant and beautiful British editors must have told their friends in Canada, who were also up early for some reason, and hitting my silly blog at an ungodly hour despite the fact that I know Canada is only five hours behind Eastern Standard Time, being up north with the sun either shining all but two hours in the summer and that same daystar hiding out for all but two hours in the dead of dark, dark winter.
(The title makes sense, since the story turns on an actual notebook.)
by Nicholas Sparks
Chapter One: Miracles
Who am I? And how,I wonder, will this story end?
The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. (Melodramatic and clunky.) I’m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me, clicking and groaning and spewing hot air like a fairytale dragon — and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making. Eighty years. , I think sometimes, and dDespite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this iIs this how it is for everyone my age?
My life? It isn’t easy to explain. It has Not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it would be, but neither have I burrowed around with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock:
(end of page 1)
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
The biggest problem isn’t the line editing, though it’s clunky. While clearly first-person P.O.V., he keeps inserting needless attributions like “I wonder” and “I think.” Here’s the monster problem: 90 percent of page one is spent telling the reader — repeatedly — that the first-person narrator is (a) 80 years old and (b) seriously obsessed with talking about how cold it is.
Space on page one is precious. It’s for raising narrative questions that won’t be answered for 400 pages. Compelling questions.
Life or death. Together or alone. Freedom or slavery.
I can imagine a story where being 80 years old and cold is the problem. Maybe a doctor is headed to a remote Alaskan village when his snowmobile breaks down. He’s the only doctor within 200 miles, the only hope for a mother who’s in the middle of a labor gone wrong. Now you’ve got public stakes and private stakes. If he doesn’t strap on snowshoes and get past hungry wolves and polar bears, he’ll die, and the mom in labor might die, and her baby might die — and they’ll be no doctor out in the bush for a lot of people.
So: a cold old man becoming warm can matter a lot in a story.
Not in this story. On this page one, it’s boring.
Having an 80-year-old hero can make this hard. Go back to the first line: “And, I wonder, how will this story end?” Not a lot of suspense there. It’s hard having high stakes when the protag is already looking back on his life, as if it’s already over.
This is why most novels and movies feature younger protags. The more you have to lose, the higher the stakes.
It’s why you have movies like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, not INDIANA JONES AND THE CONTENTIOUS BINGO GAME.
You certainly can have great stories with older heroes. They just have to DO something.
Anthony Hopkins did a great job with Hannibal Lecter, an active and charming killer. Old, yes, but he didn’t act like Sparks’ old man. There is no book called HANNIBAL LECTER AND THE SPACE HEATER.
So, back to THE NOTEBOOK: the beginning should set up the ending. Does the climax hinge on whether our 80-year-old hero puts on another ugly Christmas sweater and finally stops kvetching about being cold? No.
It’s about whether or not he’s alone or together. Whether his wife remembers him or not.
So the first line is on track. Almost. Not “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” And that question should come out of the mouth of the wife.
Or, if Sparks wanted some misdirection, have that question come from somebody else. But since the end is about togetherness, about love and romance and faithfulness, the first chapter should be full of loneliness. Not cold. Not sweaters and scarves and space heaters.
Talk about how friends move, how coworkers get different jobs, kids grow up and stop calling. Spend the first page on loneliness, if you want the ending to be about togetherness.
Had I not read the back cover, and didn’t know the climax of this story, reading page one would not motivate me to read more.
If the narrator complains a lot, and doesn’t think his own life is exciting, why the hell would I keep reading about him? I will now praise the One Known as the Spork: the ending of this book, as a plot, isn’t bad. Page one doesn’t do it justice.
Verdict: Take out the Nine and shoot it full of holes, then burn whatever’s left and start over with a fresh sheet of paper.