Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Safety

Posted by midiguru on March 27, 2015

The logic is really very simple.

You’re in a crowd of a hundred people. Where, doesn’t matter. You could be at a convention, in a shopping mall, in a large restaurant, or on the sidewalk on a busy city streetcorner.

The logic is this: If none of those hundred people is carrying a gun, everybody is safer. If five of the hundred people are carrying guns, everybody is less safe. If fifty of them are carrying guns, you’re in a very dangerous situation indeed.

Why? Because in any group of a hundred people, it’s quite likely that two or three of them are either mentally ill, mentally impaired by alcohol, or just very, very angry. The more people in the group have guns, the more likely it is that one of them is going to pull out his or her gun and use it.

Logically, then, if you choose to carry a gun (a concealed handgun, or openly), the other 99 people in the crowd are less safe. I know that people sometimes claim they carry a concealed handgun out of concern for their personal safety. So the question is, do you care about the safety of the other 99 people in the crowd, or do you only care about your own safety, and the hell with everybody else? It’s really that simple.

Yes, there are good, logical reasons to carry a gun. Not very many reasons, perhaps, but there are some. If you’re a courier entrusted with large amounts of cash or important documents, you should carry a gun. If you’re a private detective, you should certainly be able to carry a gun when your own judgment indicates that it’s a good idea. If you’re being stalked by an ex-spouse or ex-lover, absolutely — carry a gun! If you have a meth lab in your basement, or even a marijuana plantation in your back yard, having a gun within easy reach makes good sense.

But those reasons don’t apply to very many people. Most of us have no reason at all to carry a gun. Yet lots of people who don’t need them do carry them. And why? It seems to me the reasons boil down to two: irrational fear, or an arrogant need to assert one’s individual rights and freedoms even at the expense of other people’s safety.

Please note: Nothing that I have said here has anything to do with your legal rights or the Second Amendment. I’m not concerned, at the moment, about what’s legal. I’m concerned only about public safety.

It’s often useful, in questions of personal conduct, to ask yourself, “What would the world be like if everybody did this? Would I want to live in that world?” If you honestly believe that the world would be a better, safer, and more joyous place if everybody carried guns, I hope you’ll consider, seriously and at length, the possibility that your emotions may have warped your rational judgment.

I like freedom too. But we all have to live in the world together. Sometimes — quite often, in fact — our individual freedom has to be tempered by the understanding of how our actions may affect others.

Posted in society & culture | 2 Comments »

A Cornucopia of Dreams

Posted by midiguru on March 9, 2015

Had an hour to kill today, over in Pleasanton, between doctor appointments, so I drove up to Dublin and wandered around in Barnes & Noble. Amazon is convenient, but I still love browsing in a real bookstore!

The mass quantities of fantasy novels (both adult and YA) I found simultaneously depressing and inspiring. There’s so much out there! Beautiful covers, bold concepts, fat five-volume epics by authors I’ve never heard of. Depressing mainly because of the avalanche of competition. I’m working on a fantasy epic of my own, and right now the prospect of finding a place for it on one of those shelves feels like lifting a ten-ton weight. Inspiring because I want to buy and read all of them!

Eragon, for instance. Years ago I tried the first book and decided it was tripe. By now I don’t remember why I thought that. But (a) it’s very successful, so Paolini must be doing something right, (b) maybe I was being too judgmental, and (c) peeking into it, the prose style seems not bad at all. So maybe I should give it a second chance.

I splurged and bought all five volumes of Michael Scott’s Alchemyst series. Could have bought the first volume to check it out, but it’s a matched set. My copy of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a different size and cover art for the 3rd volume, because I bought it later. Matched sets are lovely.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Professional Courtesies

Posted by midiguru on March 5, 2015

For complicated reasons, I’m ramping up my involvement with fiction writing. Specifically, fantasy fiction. As part of the process, I’m resolving to read successful books by other authors.

This creates a bit of a moral conundrum. I know a few people enjoy reading my blog posts about writing. I’m learning all sorts of things about the fantasy field through my reading — some subtle things, some not so subtle. But I need to be very discreet about sharing my observations.

These other writers aren’t just “the competition.” They’re my colleagues. If (when!) my own work is published, I may run into some of them at conventions. How will that encounter go, if I have savagely trashed their masterpiece in my blog?

My basic approach, since the world of books is huge and my patience is limited, is to read the first 100 pages of a novel. At that point I feel qualified to draw some conclusions about what the author is up to. Yes, the story may take an unexpected turn on page 150, but if the author hasn’t hinted about it by page 100, that in itself is a defect.

In the last few days I’ve delved into two different novels in this manner. One has no plot at all, and the other has too much plot. And there’s almost no way to explain what I mean by that without providing examples from these specific books.

Plotting is a tricky business. What it boils down to is that you want the reader to be wondering what happens next. You want the reader to want to keep turning the pages.

The plotless book is mainly just an unrelieved litany of depressing events. After a hundred pages, I’ve given up wondering if something wonderful is going to happen next. The main character, a boy 9 or 10 years old, is mainly an observer. He has no power to affect anything, and doesn’t even try. I feel no desire to keep wading through his misery.

In the book with too much plot, the main character has a clear goal — to rescue her father, who has vanished. She faces terrible dangers, and takes some decisive actions. That’s all to the good. But she’s not just the main character — for the first hundred pages, she’s basically the only character. (The book’s title is her name, in fact.) We know she’s not going to die in any of her horrible encounters with monsters at every turn in the road, because if she died, the story would end. And for quite a stretch of time, she has no companions who might be gravely injured, or disappear into a crevice in a glacier or whatever.

Eventually — big surprise! — she will run into a handsome young man who will turn out to be a both a prince and an expert swordsman, and they will fare onward together. Even then, we can be confident that the young woman will emerge victorious from her next agonizing difficulty, just as she did from the last one. And there’s nothing else to care about. No matter how nasty the author makes her journey, she is in no danger at all. As a result, her travails, no matter how harrowing, soon become tedious.

You know who I like? Carl Hiaasen. I read his books clear through, from beginning to end. They’re not fantasy, of course; they’re crime novels. But he keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Things that you don’t expect keep popping up, in part because each story has several viewpoint characters, and in part because he has a well-developed sense of whimsy. Some would call it sarcasm. He’s clearly having fun making up the story, and he wants you to have fun too.

That’s not the only way to make a plot that will grab readers, but it’s a good one.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Something About the Age

Posted by midiguru on February 28, 2015

The modern world is not a nice place to get old in. At least not in the U.S. Rather than being venerated for our wisdom, we geezers seem to be on our way to the trash heap. What I’ve been seeing this week is happening in the music industry, because that’s where I am, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to the music industry.

One friend, now in his early 60s, has just been laid off from an editor job he has had for eight years, at a well-known country music publication. His brother, who edits a drum magazine, just now sent me an email saying he’s working a 15-hour day to meet his next deadline. He no longer has an editorial staff; it’s just him.

Keyboard’s new issue arrived today. 52 pages. That’s slim. I know Steve Fortner is doing the editorial chores there by himself — probably some 15-hour days. Recently someone posted a photo on Facebook of the Keyboard editorial staff from the ’80s, and Michael Molenda, who is still editing Guitar Player after all these years, commented that in those days we had as many editors just for Keyboard as they now have for Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player, and Electronic Musician combined.

It’s not just that the publishing world has changed, though that’s part of it. What we’re also seeing is that the work of skilled writers and editors is no longer respected. Work your fingers to the bone and then get tossed out on the street — that’s the way it happens.

I feel very lucky to have gotten off as easily as I have in the geezer department, but I can’t claim any credit for it. My parents were able to buy a house in the suburbs in 1964. I inherited the house, but if my mother’s final illness had lasted ten years instead of six months, we would have had to sell the house to pay for her care. I’d be in a whole lot worse shape — maybe working 15-hour days, or maybe scrambling around trying to find a job, any job, at the age of 66, instead of being a gentleman of leisure.

It wasn’t always this way. Older workers were once respected for their ability and their accumulated knowledge.

Posted in society & culture | 3 Comments »

Extensions & Contractions

Posted by midiguru on February 20, 2015

This week I’ve been working on updating my Inform 7 Handbook. It’s rather discouraging process.

Central to my discouragement is the chaotic state of the Inform extensions arsenal. In chapter 3 of my Handbook (which is a full-length book that has been, and presumably will be, available as a free PDF), I had guided the reader toward using a handy extension called Consolidated Multiple Actions by John Clemens. Published in 2008, this extension was designed to convert ugly 1980s-style output of this sort:

>drop dollars
silver dollar: Dropped.
silver dollar: Dropped.
silver dollar: Dropped.
silver dollar: Dropped.
silver dollar: Dropped.

…into something much more tidy:

>drop dollars
You put down the five silver dollars.

Needless to say, this extension doesn’t work with the current version of Inform. It’s a fairly complex extension — frankly, it’s beyond my ability to fix it. There is apparently no currently functional extension that does this. As a result, the new version of Inform 7 is actually less capable than previous versions when it comes to giving the author some basic control over the output text.

As a writer, I care about making the output look presentable. Call me eccentric if you like.

Inform 7 was designed from the ground up to encourage third parties to extend its fairly basic functionality by writing clever extensions. This is a valid approach to designing a programming language, I suppose. But it works better if you have a user base that’s, oh, let’s say a hundred times larger than the tiny, scattered community of interactive fiction authors. With such a minuscule pool of qualified programmers (of whom I am not one) to call upon for maintenance tasks, the result is sadly predictable: Stuff doesn’t get fixed.

As the author of Inform 7, Graham Nelson really ought to have understood this long ago. Inform is his creative project — perhaps, in some sense, his life’s work. I don’t know Graham, so I don’t know what other work he may engage in, but he has certainly put a massive effort into Inform, over the course of more than 20 years. And yet it’s not enough.

Knowing that numerous clever extensions would be broken by his new version, he ought to have taken definite steps to insure backward compatibility. Rather than eliminating numerous phrases from I7 syntax (and some features such as the Library Messages from the underlying I6 code base), he ought to have worked out a way to keep those phrases and features available, so that older extensions could continue to use them if need be.

Either that, or he ought to have revised all of the potentially useful extensions himself.

His failure to do either of those things sabotages his end users — the community of Inform authors. He has ignored authors’ legitimate needs.

Graham is a very bright guy. He’s certainly smarter and harder-working than I am. But it’s hard for me to feel enthusiastic about supporting aspiring Inform 7 authors by rewriting my Handbook, when the mastermind who created the entire authoring system shows so little evident interest in supporting them.

I’m strictly a bumble-fingered amateur programmer, not a computer scientist, but I can easily imagine a simple way that he could have preserved the functionality of those old extensions. Edit each extension to put the line “Allow deprecated syntax and features” at the top. An intern could update the whole library in less than an hour. Then tell the compiler that when it encounters a separate .i7x file with that line, it should, for that file only, switch to a different compilation mode — a mode that already exists as a code base, because it’s what the old compiler did.

If he had done it that way, wretches like me wouldn’t have to thrash around for hours trying to make things like Consolidated Multiple Actions work. I’m told Graham teaches at Oxford. Perhaps the words “ivory tower” would not be misplaced here.

Posted in Interactive Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Scatter

Posted by midiguru on February 13, 2015

Having cut my teeth on Adventure back in the early days of desktop computing, I’m comfortable with and partial to parser-based interactive fiction. Apparently the new version of Twine has some very nice point-and-click hypertext features, but that whole way of interacting with the story seems too passive to me. The attraction of IF is, I think, that the fictional world of the story has a sense of mystery and discovery. You don’t know precisely what will work and what won’t, until you try it.

Personally, I’m partial to the TADS 3 authoring system, and in particular to Eric Eve’s adv3Lite library for T3. But Inform 7 remains the more popular authoring system for several reasons, some of them good, some of them not so good.

Back in 2009 I wrote The Inform 7 Handbook, an alternative to the official documentation. It’s now quite out of date. Possibly I ought to be thinking about rewriting it. So today I’ve been having a fresh look at I7.

If you’re new to the whole idea of IF authoring, what follows will make very little sense to you. Sorry about that.

I7 provides, by design, a bare-bones world model. The model includes some strikingly powerful features, such as scenes and regions, but there’s a lot that it doesn’t do. Graham Nelson’s intention in making this design choice was to encourage third parties to write extensions for the I7 language. This both streamlined his own already Sisyphean task and encouraged the growth of a community.

Numerous authors have created and uploaded I7 extensions; I’ve written two myself. By including an extension such as Bulky Items or Exit Lister in your source code, you can produce a text game that more nearly approaches your vision of how you want your interactive story to be presented. You don’t have to know how the extension works — just put the line “Include Exit Lister by Eric Eve” at the top of your story, and you’re jammin’.

Sounds great. There is, however, a fly in the ointment.

Inform 7 has gone through several versions during the past ten years. As a result, extensions written for earlier versions quite likely won’t work with more recent versions. This is especially true with respect to I7 version 6L02. Released in May of 2014, 6L02 was a major upgrade. (The current version, 6L38, is mostly a maintenance release.)

Not infrequently, the author of an extension doesn’t upgrade it to work with the new version of I7. Possibly the author has lost interest in interactive fiction, or is simply too busy. For whatever reason, functionality that an author might like to employ by using an extension may be difficult to gain access to.

The Inform 7 website has a long page devoted to extensions, complete with download links. Unfortunately, this page is entirely out of date. None of the extensions that work with 6L02 and 6L38 are to be found there, and most of what’s there won’t work with the latest version(s). Technically, it’s possible that an author who is still using 5Z17 or some other earlier version might want to have access to the old extensions, but basically the I7 site is now riddled with digital rot.

Some of the new extensions are in a github repository. Others are on IF star author Emily Short’s website. But the I7 website itself won’t tell you how to find any of them. (Nor does it mention that the contents it does provide are nearly useless.)

Edited to add: The best way to get a functional pile of extensions is to make sure you don’t have any (at least not where Inform can find them) before installing 6L38. Then use the Public Library page of the IDE to download the new ones with a single click. This works pretty well, though in my preliminary testing I find that the compatibility is not complete. [End of edit.]

It’s possible to download an outdated extension and edit it yourself so that it works with the new version of Inform — but instructions on how to do that are not to be found in the I7 documentation. In particular, older extensions sometimes use a type of widget called a procedural rule. Procedural rules were deprecated a couple of years ago, and they’re now no longer supported at all. So how would the author who wants to use a given extension edit it so as to get rid of the procedural rules?

Don’t ask me. I have no clue.

I was able to update my Notepad extension for 6L38 compatibility quite easily. All I had to do was delete the word “indexed” about ten times. Other extensions will require more labyrinthine revision. I’ve also updated Secret Doors by Andrew Owen, a very nice (and old) extension.

The interactive fiction community is all-volunteer. Nobody is getting paid for maintaining code; nor for maintaining a website. As frustrating as the situation is with respect to I7 extensions, there’s nobody to blame. Okay, we could mildly suggest that Graham Nelson really ought to update his own website, but hey — he has a day job. He has already done tons and tons of hard work that we can all take advantage of for free. Would it make sense to kvetch because he’s let the website slide, or would that just be bad manners?

Maybe instead of rewriting my Handbook, I ought to corral the scattered extensions, fix the most useful ones, test them thoroughly, and upload a zip file containing 30 or 35 assorted items. That might make a good project for this month.

Footnote: Keyword Interface by Aaron Reed is one of the nominally compatible bunch (available as part of the Public Library) that doesn’t exactly work. I now have it sort of halfway working, but a couple of features are not active. I’ve sent an email to Aaron. If I wasn’t down with a bad cold this week, I’m not sure I’d bother. Maybe I would.

Posted in Interactive Fiction | 4 Comments »

Government Isn’t Cheap

Posted by midiguru on February 11, 2015

In the course of a discussion on Facebook — the topic was marriage licenses — I agreed with one of the participants that perhaps the government shouldn’t issue marriage licenses at all. But I pointed out that this would result in a fearful legal tangle. Couples would no longer have protection against their spouse being forced to testify against them in court, because the concept of being a spouse would have no legal meaning. When a person dies intestate, their spouse would have no special claim on their property, because spousalness would have no meaning. The dead person’s blood relatives could swoop in and take the house and the jewelry (as does sometimes happen when one of the members of a same-sex couple dies). I also pointed out that the concept of a couple filing a joint tax return would have no meaning. Each member of a couple would have to file separately.

No, this would be a terrible legal tangle. Letting states issue marriage licenses is much, much easier.

The other fellow, however — a self-described “Jeffersonian Libertarian,” whatever that is — saw an opening and dived straight into it. There should be no income tax, he stated.

I took a moment to point out to him that nobody over the age of eight is to be taken seriously when they say that. An eight-year-old deserves a serious explanation of how taxation works; an adult, not. I explained that I would not respond to anything further that he might say on the subject, because he wouldn’t learn anything, and his idiocies would make me ill.

Since a lot of misguided people doubtless agree with him, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes to discuss the subject here.

Premise #1: Government is necessary. Without government, what you have is armed gangs running everything. They go where they like, take whatever they fancy, and murder anybody who tries to get in their way. There’s nobody to stop them, because there’s no government. Government is our big armed gang. In theory, it operates in such a way that everybody has to play by the same rules. The practice of government often diverges wildly and dangerously from the theory, but that’s not a reason to get rid of government! It’s a reason to reform government.

Premise #2: The modern world is very, very complicated. We face dangers such as toxic pollution and identity theft that Thomas Jefferson never dreamed of. To deal with complicated problems, we need a well-funded government. That’s just obvious. You can’t go after ten thousand scheming and resourceful malefactors with one or two district attorneys and Barney Fife. You need an active judiciary, police, courts, and prisons. You need legislators to pass laws. (Our existing legislators are a cruel joke — but again, that’s not an argument against legislation; it’s an argument for reforming the electoral process.)

Two hundred years ago, the federal government was pretty well funded by tariffs. Tariffs are a tax on imports. But that was then. This is now. In order to have an effective government in the modern world, it’s vital that we have a robust form of taxation.

If you think I’m wrong about any of the above, you’re a mental defective. A waste of perfectly good protoplasm. Please wade off into the swamp that you crawled out of, and die.

The question, then, is what sort of taxation is appropriate. We can consider sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes. We can also consider the government charging fees for services. Granted, our tax laws are a mess — but it seems clear that some sort of mixed system of this sort is probably best.

Most states and municipalities have sales taxes. The sales tax falls hardest on the poor. They pay a greater percentage of their income in sales tax than do the rich. If it were possible to raise all of the money that the government needs strictly through sales taxes, the poor would have no clothing and no furniture, because they couldn’t afford to pay the tax on such items. (There’s a reason why food is not subject to sales tax.) No, a sales tax by itself is not the answer.

Asking people to pay a modest fee for government services is certainly appropriate. But when the fees become excessive, suffering ensues. We can see this currently in the obscene fees being charged for tuition at public universities. The reason tuition is so ruinously high is because Republican lawmakers dig in their heels and refuse to raise taxes. A fee for a driver’s license? Sure, no problem. A toll at a publicly owned bridge? Okay. But a government can’t subsist strictly on fees without raising them to insane levels.

Here in California, property taxes on commercial property should certainly be much higher. The money lost on property taxes in the past thirty years due to the infamous Proposition 13 would have paid for our roads and bridges, a fine public education system, and a whole lot more. Property taxes are not the whole answer, though. For one thing, a lot of people don’t own property. Should they not have to pay taxes?

The income tax is a fairly effective way of generating government revenue. Everybody pays their fair share. It’s a progressive tax: Rich people pay a higher percentage than poor people, and that’s as it should be. The tax rate on the rich should be a lot higher than it is, and the rich have way too many loopholes to saunter through, but the basic idea is sound. The income tax is also a way of promoting social policies that the legislature feels are desirable. If you do something that is defined as good, you get a tax break. The tax code that we have is riddled with such stuff, to the point where it’s all but impossible to understand — but again, the basic idea is sound. Tax breaks are a useful way of promoting social good. If you contribute to a charity, for instance, you don’t have to pay tax on the money you contributed. That’s a simple and functional approach to encouraging charitable giving.

People who oppose the income tax usually think that the government can be drastically shrunk without painful consequences. They may even think this is a swell idea, because it will promote freedom. But you know, those armed gangs in Somalia? They have freedom. Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Social responsibility is important too.

Do you know why there’s a Food & Drug Administration? Because in the late 19th century, babies were dying from tainted milk, that’s why. The milk was often shipped across state lines, so states and municipalities had no way to bring the baby killers to justice. The federal government had to step in. This was not necessary in Thomas Jefferson’s day, because long-distance transport of milk was not practical. In those days, if you wanted milk, you had a cow.

This is a fine example of the complexity of modern society, and of the need for strong government regulation. Yes, yes, I know — many government regulations are burdensome, and some are ill-advised or unnecessary. But if there are no government regulations, you get dead babies. Those who object strenuously to any sort of government regulation — they’re baby killers. Keep that in mind.

At bottom, those who object to the income tax are simply greedy. “I’ve got my money,” they whine. “I get to keep it! If the government tries to take it away, that’s theft!” No, it’s not theft. It’s that the government cares more about the well-being of your fellow human beings than you do, you greedy pig. The government quite regularly does a piss-poor job of spending our tax dollars, but that’s not an argument against taxation. If you don’t like how the money is being spent, we can have a debate on that, point by point. Housing the homeless? National defense? Prisons? Higher education? Inspection of meat-packing plants? Disease prevention?

The details of all these programs are complex and open to debate. Maybe we should be spending more money on primary education and less on prisons. But tax whiners don’t want an honest debate. They just want to keep their money and let the rest of the world suffer the consequences. They’re greedy children, and they have no idea how the real world functions.

But try to explain that to them. You might as well be talking to a wall.

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A Small Distinction

Posted by midiguru on February 5, 2015

A friend of mine, in taking me to task for my outspoken contempt for religion, has voiced the odd idea that the good parts of religion are real religion, while the bad parts are a “misuse” of religion.

It’s perfectly true that there are good parts of religion. Charitable giving, consolation in grief, the encouragement to cultivate some sort of mystic consciousness, even the beautiful ceremonies and the great songs — that stuff is all good.

But there are other parts. Burning people at the stake. Genital mutilation. The amassing of obscene wealth. Ostracism of and cruelty toward those who are different.

My friend maintains that those things aren’t true religion. But she’s wrong. She’s wrong for this precise reason: She has no right to define what religion is and what it isn’t. Nor do I. Religious people get to define that for themselves. If they say they’re murdering people for having the wrong religion (or for having no religion), that’s a true expression of their religion, because they say it is.

You don’t get to cherry-pick the good, nice parts and claim those parts are the essence of religion while the rest is human frailty or something of the sort, because you have no logical basis on which to do so. Religion is whatever the religious people say it is. If women’s health clinics are being closed through the industrious efforts of religious people (and they are), and if women are dying as a result (and they are), religion has murdered those women.

The awkward thing about religion, for apologists, is that it’s not fact-based. It’s fantasy-based. That being the case, it’s not possible to make a logical case that activities A and B are true expressions of religion while activities C and D, even though they’re being engaged in by religious people for self-professed religious reasons, aren’t true expressions. There are no facts upon which to use logic. Sorry — there just aren’t.

Posted in religion | 7 Comments »

Your Move

Posted by midiguru on February 3, 2015

Being in a sort of grumpy, withdrawn mood, I’d like to play a game of chess right now. But not ordinary chess — some sort of chess variant. Maybe even try playing Arimaa, a good game that’s not chess but uses a chess set. Maybe a 3D variant, which is difficult if you’re playing face to face, but quite feasible via email.

Offhand I can’t think of anyone who would be a candidate for an opponent. If you’re interested, let me know.

Posted in chess | 2 Comments »

Where to Begin?

Posted by midiguru on January 30, 2015

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” But that’s about developing a solid outline, and applies equally well to fiction and nonfiction. Writing a good lead sentence for a nonfiction article is of course important. But in the case of fiction, the question of where to begin the story can be rather vexing.

The Latin phrase in medias res, “in the middle of things,” is a valuable touchstone. Begin at a moment in the story when events have already started bubbling up. This is a fairly modern idea, however, and has as a great deal to do with the desire to sell books. If someone picks up your book at the bookstore and opens it to page 1, you want to grab them from the very first sentence.

John D. MacDonald, who sold a lot of books, once started a novel with the sentence, “We were just about to give up and call it a night when they threw the girl off the bridge.” This is an approximate quote — those paperbacks are in a box in the garage. But you get the idea.

Here’s the opening of The Neon Court, the third volume in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series (paragraph breaks omitted): “I thought I could hear footsteps in the darkness behind me. But when I looked again, they were gone. I was in the middle of a sentence. I was saying, “… ‘dragon’ is probably too biologically specific a way to look at the …” Then someone grabbed me by the throat with the fist of God, and held me steady, while the universe turned on its head. There was a hole in the world and no fingers left to scrabble. I fell into it.” We have no idea what’s going on here, but the writer is doing her damnedest to make sure we will want to keep reading!

This sort of opening was not always the fashion. Here’s a rather more relaxed opening, which you may recognize:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.

Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset….

I’m trying to find an agent for a novel that I’ve written (the first volume in a projected series). Agents typically ask to read the first ten pages — but if you think you have ten pages to get the agent hooked, you’re kidding yourself. If they don’t like the first paragraph, you’re dead in the water. So I’ve been thinking about how to strengthen the opening of my book. While pondering this question, I wandered down to the local public library and happened to pick up a volume containing three novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today she’s best known — or known at all, really — for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it wasn’t her only work. The opening passage of The Minister’s Wooing gives us a unique look at the question:

Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Jones, and Deacon Twitchel’s wife to take tea with her on the afternoon of June second, A. D. 17–.

When one has a story to tell, one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn’t; and one thing so presupposes another, that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged. The small item which I have given will do as well as any other to begin with, as it certainly will lead you to ask, “Pray, who was Mrs. Katy Scudder?” — and this will start me systematically on my story.

The danger, which Stowe alludes to, is that if you jump straight into the middle of things, your reader may be more bothered and bewildered than bewitched. And the more complex the tale, the greater the danger. I once encountered (I won’t say “once read,” as I quickly gave up) a fantasy novel in which about fifteen names of people and places were shoveled into the first four pages in a panic-stricken attempt to explain the back-story to the reader, but without any explanation of who or what any of them was. I’m sure it all made perfect sense to the writer. But as Stowe wisely points out, you know a lot of things that your reader doesn’t.

The openings of Henry James’s novels tend to be rather opaque, but one has the sense that something is being described that is, if not of great moment, certainly worth pondering. I haven’t read James’s The Spoils of Poynton, but I think its opening illustrates this quality:

Mrs. Gereth had said she would go with the rest to church, but suddenly it seemed to her that she should not be able to wait even till church-time for relief: breakfast, at Waterbath, was a punctual meal, and she had still nearly an hour on her hands. Knowing the church to be near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way down again, passing through the corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night’s irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she consent to such contacts? why did she so rashly expose herself? She had had, heaven knew, her reasons….

This is all very mysterious, but it’s so well written that the reader (at least, the reader who has a decent vocabulary and can parse long sentences) is bound to feel confident that all will eventually be made clear.

Somewhere in the chasm that separates Kate Griffin from Henry James, I’m hoping to find a sweet spot.

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