Rewriting, Part 2

The first chapter of a novel has to do several things. It has to introduce the lead character or characters, and in a way that lets us understand who they are — fighters, beggars, accountants, bored housewives, whatever. If there are two or more characters in the opening scene, we need some understanding of their relationship(s). The opening has to establish the setting. And it has to have some action or tension — a hook — that will carry the reader forward.

In tackling the rewrite of my magnum opus, I’m starting, quite naturally, with Chapter 1. The existing draft does all of the above, and in what I hope is a rather graceful way. We meet Kyura, her Uncle Dulan (who owns the inn), and her friend Meery. In the first paragraph Kyura and Uncle Dulan are arguing; that’s a low-key hook, but I think it qualifies.

Sounds great, right? But there’s a big problem. The chapter is structured backwards. Kyura and Dulan are arguing about something that happened in their world an hour before, but that the reader hasn’t yet encountered. And then the chapter backtracks to the inciting event, which is the arrival at the inn of a family of elves. It’s not even a flashback, technically: The chapter just has two scenes in reverse chronological order.

So I try to put them in the natural order — first the elves arrive, and then Kyura and Uncle Dulan argue about it. And that doesn’t work at all! The exposition that I had cleverly worked into the existing draft can’t gracefully be jammed into the scenes when they’re in the “correct,” “natural” order. And yes, there’s a fair amount of exposition. The reader needs to know that Kyura is 17, that Uncle Dulan owns the inn, that her friend Meery works beside her in the inn, that Aunt Timabara is dead, that Kyura has, up to this moment, had very little contact of any kind with elves — stuff like that.

I’m reminded of a concert I attended, many years ago in San Jose. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks were the headliners. At some point Hicks, who had a notoriously laconic wit, told the audience, “You folks probably think it’s easy, being up here playing and singing. It isn’t.”

The goal of the writer is to make the flow of the story seem easy and natural, but it isn’t. Considerable artifice is involved.

I don’t want to get hung up on Chapter 1, so I think I’ll leave it as is and go on. Either I’ll think of another way of structuring the chapter, or I won’t. Later this year, if all goes well, you’ll have a chance to find out what I finally decided.


All writers, no matter how accomplished, can benefit from hearing a second opinion from a thoughtful reader. For many years, I was the second opinion. My functions at Keyboard included copy-editing, technical editing, and some big-picture critiques as well.

Before my first two novels were published, they were edited. I still haven’t quite forgiven Shelly Shapiro at Del Rey for making me change this sentence: “His people were hers’ enemies.” And no, that apostrophe is not a fleck of grit on your screen. This is a perfectly grammatical sentence that happens to contain an almost unique double possessive.

But all that is prelude. What I’m discovering this week is how useful — and how challenging — it can be to have a novel scrutinized by a developmental (big-picture) editor whose role is purely advisory. She can’t require me to change anything: I still get the final call. But boy, am I going to have to roll up my sleeves and do some more work! My Scrivener file now has dozens of embedded notes [in boldface, in brackets] that I’ll be hacking my way through. Some will require moving chunks of text from one chapter to another and then smoothing over the seams. Some scenes will need to be rewritten.

I thought I was done with this book. (Actually, it’s a four-volume series that tells one long continuous story. Whether I call it one novel or four depends mostly on what mood I’m in.) After I went through the whole thing last fall, tidying it up, I said to myself, “Okay, that’s it. No more edits.” But then I started wondering: Would I benefit from hiring an editor?

We all prefer to think, “Oh, my creative work is just wonderful as is! An editor will just tell me, ‘Tweak a couple of adverbs and delete a couple of commas and it will be a best seller!'” But that’s pure delusion. It’s the ego grinding its gears, nothing more.

I scouted around online — carefully, because editing isn’t cheap — and found someone that I was fairly confident would do a decent job. And indeed, I’m not disappointed. Now that I have her notes on Book I of the series, it’s clear that I made some mistakes and missed some opportunities. It’s going to be money well spent, and I have some serious work to do.

That’s not to say that I agree with all of her comments.”Pare this scene down to what is really essential”? Maybe not. Maybe I like it just the way it is. But even in cases like that, her comments lead me to examine the scene more closely. What do I feel is essential, or engaging, or beautiful about this scene? If the editor thinks it’s boring, why does she think that?

When The Wall at the Edge of the World was being edited in 1991, the editor (and I’m chagrined to have to admit that I’ve forgotten her name) said, “The psychic/dream sequence at the end drags on too long. I think you should tighten it up.” I re-read it and said to her, “No, I think it’s too short.” She was getting bored because I hadn’t focused well enough on what was important. I strengthened it, adding a thousand words or so, and she liked what I did, and that’s how it was published.

The point being, an editor’s gut response may be on the money, even if her suggestion isn’t. She may sense a problem, but it’s still my job to understand what problem she’s sensing.

Back in the present tense, one plot point was simply too huge a coincidence for my editor to swallow. So I’ve written an entirely new chapter with a newly devised explanation of how Spindler (who among his other accomplishments is a burglar) happens to climb in that particular window at that particular moment.

At several points the editor suggested that I needed to delve deeper into my characters’ emotions. And she was right. I’m not an emotional person, so I sometimes just write about what happened and forget to mention how the characters felt about it. (I think Hemingway did that sometimes too, but I’m not Hemingway.)

A central point of her critique, which I’m still digesting, was that my lead character “lacks agency.” This is a slightly technical way of saying that too often events happen to the lead character rather than the character taking action to move the plot forward. To take action, to be an agent, a character needs a clear motivation — a keen desire. My lead character’s motivation tends to flicker and flop around. She dithers.

That’s bad, right? But here’s the tricky bit: The lead character is a 17-year-old girl. She works in her uncle’s inn, where she waits tables, changes the sheets, and mops the floor. She has not the faintest idea that she’s anybody important. Yet suddenly she’s confronted with the fact that a god, no less, expects her to rush off and defeat the forces of evil. Plus, she’s not Joan of Arc, okay? She has no army. And the god seems not to have noticed or to care about that detail. Having discovered that she’s the Chosen One, she’s left in the lurch by this lackadaisical deity.

Should this character have a clear motivation? Should she take decisive action? Should she roll up her sleeves and say, “Yes, by golly, I’m going to take charge! I’ll smite the forces of evil!” Or should she maybe keep changing her mind, suffer feelings of confusion and inadequacy, and try to avoid making a commitment?

Plotted fiction works best when the lead character tackles her challenges head-on. Or so we’re assured by those who teach creative writing. And indeed, I already have a couple of ideas about how to get my lead character to be more active. But I don’t want to over-simplify her character. I don’t want to turn her into a little tin caricature. Hey, Hamlet dithered. Maybe dithering is not such a bad thing.

If I hadn’t chosen to hire an editor, I never would have realized this was a topic I needed to explore. Whatever choice I end up making, the book will be stronger — a lot stronger. Or at least, I flatter myself that it will be.

The Fact of Coherence

Einstein once said (I think it was Einstein, anyway), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The universe we live in is really a very strange place, and the deeper physicists dig, the more strange it appears. And yet, everywhere we look within the strangeness, we find surprising patterns of regularity. That’s what Einstein was talking about.

I have a sort of half-formed idea about this. I present it not as a statement of fact, merely as a mild observation. Make of it what you will.

I got to thinking about this last month while trying to work through a personal dilemma (the details aren’t important) by consulting the Tarot and the I Ching. Now, any scientist who knows that the sun comes up in the East will assure you that the results you get by shuffling a deck of cards and then laying out ten or twelve of them are entirely random. Likewise casting the I Ching — toss three coins six times, and the results will be entirely random.

And yet, these oracle devices seem to work pretty well for me. As a rock-ribbed atheist, I don’t attribute the apparently meaningful outcomes to the guidance of invisible spirit entities. That would be very silly. But when you ask the I Ching whether to concentrate on music or fiction writing and you get a text that refers specifically to music … what is an atheist to think about this?

As we all know, the Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us that over time, in any closed system, entropy (that is, randomness) increases. Order decreases. And yet, everywhere we look in the universe, we see order.

A cosmology book I was reading a couple of months ago pointed out that at the time of the Big Bang, the distribution of particles in the universe was in a state of very high entropy. The distribution of particles was pretty much the same everywhere. It was smooth. We know this, because when we look at the cosmic background radiation we see that it’s pretty much the same in every direction. However, at the time of the Big Bang the force of gravity was in a state of extremely low entropy. That is, there was a huge amount of potential energy in the form of gravity, which began to turn into actual energy as bits of the early universe started clumping together. If gravity had already been in a state of high entropy, stars and galaxies would never have formed.

As an aside, this book explained that life on Earth doesn’t exist by virtue of the energy the sun shines down upon us, in spite of what you’re taught in biology class. In fact, the amount of energy on the surface of the Earth is pretty much constant. At night, just as much energy is radiated away into space as was absorbed during the day. What the sun actually sheds in our direction is low entropy.

The low entropy of gravitation was not, of course, the only way in which the early universe exhibited an extremely regular structure. All of the electrons in the universe (and there are quite a lot of them) are identical, as far as we’re able to determine experimentally. Why are they all the same? There’s no explanation for that; they just are, that’s all. Likewise, the speed of light is a constant. (In fact, there are more than 20 numerical constants — pure numbers — that physicists need in order to describe how the universe works. Physicists have no explanation at all for how those numbers came to have the values that they have.)

The charge of an electron exactly balances the opposite charge of a proton; it isn’t 5/8 of the value of a proton’s charge, or 1.374906 times the value of a proton’s charge. The precise balance of charges between the proton and the electron is about as anti-entropic a phenomenon as you could hope to find. Also the way electrons form shells around atomic nuclei, which is what allows molecules to form and remain stable. Nothing random going on among the electron shells, in spite of the incessant froth of quantum indeterminacy.

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see structure. Galaxies, stars, and planets. The organization of subatomic particles into atoms and molecules. And as we look around at the normal state of affairs on our lovely planet, we see trees, rocks, clouds, hair follicles — structure everywhere!

It may be objected that the existences of trees and hair follicles is accounted for by evolution. And that’s certainly true. Evolution is pretty much a logical necessity, once you have any type of cellular life that is kept organized by large molecules and can reproduce itself. But that fact doesn’t falsify what I’m suggesting; it’s just another example of it. Everywhere that structure can appear, structure appears. Look at a geode sometime. No evolution is involved in the production of geodes — the forces that produce geodes are of an entirely different character from the forces of evolution. Likewise the force of gravity. Gravity has nothing whatever to do with the ability of atoms to gather into large molecules endowed with unique properties. The causes of the structure are different in each case, but in each case, structure arises.

So when I cast the I Ching and get a meaningful answer, the reason it happens isn’t gravity, or evolution, or quantum mechanics. All I can say for certain is that the result of my action has a structure. It appears not to be governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which would dictate that the fall of the coins be entirely random; instead, something different seems to be happening. It’s a pretty darn weak structure, frankly, but it appears to me that the universe is, here as in so many other ways, organizing itself into a regular structure.

Anyway, the Second Law is highly suspect. What it actually says is that entropy increases in a closed system. But we don’t actually know that the universe is a closed system. We don’t know whether the universe is finite (which would make it a closed system) or infinite. What we are fairly sure of is that the structure of subatomic physics — that is, the way electrons and quarks move and interact — has not increased in entropy during the past 3 billion years.

This is not an argument for the existence of “God.” We have no evidence at all that the universe was created. It just is. Nor is it an argument in favor of progress, morality, or anything else, though I’m sure some woolly-minded people would like to think of it that way. I’m just ruminating.


In his longish introduction to The Princess Bride, William Goldman sets up the pretense that he didn’t write the novel, that it’s a condensation of a much longer (and really boring) novel by someone named Morgenstern. The book we’re about to read, Goldman assures us, is the thoroughly edited “good parts” version.

Today I’ve been trying to understand the root of my hostility toward Christianity. I generally try to be tolerant, but when I’m in a sour mood I can be quite nasty. Now, I know that many Christians are nice people and have very progressive social views. I applaud their niceness and their progressive views! I’m also aware that many of them would insist that their character and their views arise directly from their religion.

I suppose that’s possible. I suspect that they would be nice people even if they weren’t religious, but I can’t prove it one way or the other.

Be that as it may, I can’t help feeling that their version of Christianity is the “good parts” version. They’re leaving out quite a lot — and not just those vile verses in Leviticus. They’re leaving out the part where people were burned at the stake by the Inquisition, or after being accused of witchcraft. They’re leaving out the part where Christians by the thousands marched off to the eastern end of the Mediterranean and butchered thousands of non-Christians during the Crusades. They’re leaving out the robust support for slavery that was provided by Protestant ministers well into the 19th century. They’re leaving out the way in which the cultures of Native Americans were systematically destroyed because it was felt that the First Nations people had to be forced to become Christian. They’re leaving out the misery of gay teens who are sent off to “reprogramming” camps or simply thrown out of the house and left to live on the street. And probably a few other things too.

The standard response of the modern liberal Christian, when presented with this list of evils, would be something like this: “Oh, but that’s not Christianity! Those atrocities were committed by people who didn’t understand true Christianity at all!” Christ had not entered into their hearts, blah blah blah.

If that’s the case, we’re left to wonder whether Christ is lazy or just hopelessly inept. But I don’t propose to dissect that particular bit of nonsense today. I want to confront the larger proposition.

I’m here to say, no. You don’t get to use the good parts version and ignore the rest of your religion, not when I’m in the room. Those atrocities were committed, in each case, by people who deeply felt that they were motivated by Christian belief — and they were. That’s exactly what motivated them, in each and every case. Their evil is not a separate thing from Christianity; it’s inextricably part of Christianity.

You don’t get to drop your baggage, or cherry-pick. You don’t get to sweep those mountains of evil under the rug. It’s Christianity, every bit of it. If it makes you hideously uncomfortable to recognize that, good! Maybe you’ll learn something.

If I am nothing else, I try to be intellectually honest. I try never to ignore inconvenient facts. The history of Christianity is a fact. You cannot shut the door on it. If you consider yourself a Christian, you own that history.

It might be objected that Christianity in the 21st century is not at all the same religion that it was in the 15th century, or even in the 19th. To a considerable extent that’s true, although festering pockets of Medieval thinking remain. However, this argument utterly fails. Why? Because Christianity began 2,000 years ago. If you’re going to look to an inspiring or supposedly miraculous series of events that took place 2,000 years ago as the fountainhead of the religion that you enjoy today, you can hardly pole-vault over the intervening centuries. Those same events, whatever they were, likewise inspired all of the carnage that spills across the history books.

In a song called “On the Road Again,” Bob Dylan said, “You ask why I don’t live here? Honey, how come you don’t move?” That’s my question for today’s liberal Christians: Why are you still in the church? Why haven’t you turned around and walked out the door? Why haven’t you started looking around for a different religion, a religion for adults? Why haven’t you tossed that dusty old book with the stories about how God commanded the Jews to commit mass murder onto the trash heap, where it belongs?

There are a lot of Christians today — the most vocal members of the fraternity, in fact — who are monstrously evil. We all know it. They promote suffering. They hate people who know how to think. And those are your fellow travelers. They read the same Bible you read. They have the same symbol hanging on the wall (a device the Romans used for capital punishment) that you do. They sing the same songs you sing.

If you hang around with zombies, you’re going to get your brains eaten. Or maybe it’s too late. Have you checked your brains lately?

Reframing the Debate

Today’s lightning bolt is an interview with George Lakoff in Salon. I hope you’ll read it, but I hope you’ll continue reading what I’m about to say before you jet off to Salon. The short version: The festering pile of slime won the election because he knows how to work the media. The Democrats lost because they let him walk away with it. The only way to keep this country from crashing and burning (perhaps literally) is to get out inĀ front of him and reframe the debate.

Even before the election, I could see it happening. I get most of my news from Huffington Post, which in theory is a liberal outlet. But day after day, week after week, in the run-up to the election there were four or five times as many photos of the oozing pile of pus who is now our president as there were of his smart and possibly well-intentioned but undeniably cautious opponent.

Can you say “free publicity”? I thought you could.

The same dynamic is still going on. That’s what the stream of outrageous tweets is about. It’s a deliberate distraction, and it’s more free publicity. Every time you go over to Facebook and post a link to an article slamming President Steaming Dog Turd for his latest preposterous tweet, you’re strengthening him. You’re giving him free publicity, and you’re allowing him to put up a wall of distractions between ordinary people and the real issues. You’re letting him frame the terms of the public discourse.

Don’t do it. Just stop.

What we need to do instead (and by “we” I mean our political leadership, but ordinary folks can help) is get out in front of the debate with our own messages. We need two kinds of messages, I think. First, we need positives. As the Republicans attempt to dismantle government in order to turn everything over to private enterprise, we need people — specifically, the leadership of our allegedly liberal Democratic Party — to stand up and say, “Look at all the good things government does for us!” Make it clear to everyone that we need strong government.

Just in case you feel inspired to start the conversation, here are a few talking points.

  • Today I’m eating food that’s free of poisons and harmful bacteria, because government inspectors are on the job, making sure food is prepared and distributed safely.
  • Today I’m driving on a street that was paved by the government. There are very few collisions, because the government keeps the stop lights in good repair, and because people who break the traffic laws are arrested.
  • Today I’m using the Internet, which was first developed by the government.
  • Today I have clean air to breathe, because the government has and enforces laws against air pollution.
  • Today I’m free to worship in whatever church, synagogue, or temple I choose, because our government and laws give equal respect to all religions.
  • Today the government helps take care of those who are old and sick.
  • Today if I have an emergency, I can call 911 and well-trained emergency responders will arrive at my door quickly, courtesy of the government.

Okay, that’s enough for starters. You get the idea. Make up some bullet points of your own, and spread them around. Don’t let the other side get away with peddling the idea that smaller government is good.

On the other side of the coin, I’m willing to consider disseminating some hateful rhetoric of our own. This morning some yobbo or other was spotted referring to last week’s protest event as “the million skank march.” And guess what? He got picked up by Right Wing Watch and then splashed all over Facebook. How about we try giving these folks a dose of their own medicine? How about, rather than Nancy Pelosi and Al Franken wringing their hands and trying to be civil, they come out swinging? How about, “Too many of our Republican legislators are rapists and drug dealers. But I’m sure some of them are good people.”

Just a modest suggestion.

Death & Transfiguration

In the novel you’re writing, is there violence? Do people die? Do any of the good people die? Every writer has a comfort zone with respect to these questions — and every genre has a loose set of rules, or at least expectations.

Last night I watched a Disney movie, Alice Through the Looking-Glass. It was okay, especially the nice digital effects, but it couldn’t quite decide whether it was Indiana Jones or Leave It to Beaver. Lots of heartwarming stuff at the end — most of the bad guys are reconciled, and turn out to be good at heart. One would expect that from Disney, I’m sure. But it reminded me of a Saturday morning cartoon (not that I ever watch cartoons, but I’ve read about this): There was not a speck of violence, not even a fist fight — and nobody died or was even injured.

Right now a developmental editor is working on my four-volume fantasy series, which I hope to have published within a few months. I’m going to be curious what she says on this topic, because in my story people die, some of them gruesomely. There’s no gratuitous violence, I hope; it’s all a result of the plot. I was striving for realism, not for market positioning.

None of the primary good guys dies, of course. One of them is shot, one of them has her leg ripped open by a demon’s talon, a few things like that. But several secondary good guys die. I felt it would be a cheap Hollywood thing if none of them was ever really at risk. The stakes, I felt, had to be real. And in the end, the main villain is killed by the two characters you would least think would be capable of pulling it off. I’m not going to say who or how they do it, because you might read the book someday. Let’s just say one of my guideposts as a writer, in addition to realism, is to keep things fresh. In a story that spans four books, finding ways to keep it fresh is an interesting challenge.

That’s nothing to do with violence, of course. Violence is not fresh. Violence is, if anything, terribly hackneyed and shopworn. If you feel you need to toss in doses of violence to keep the story entertaining, I’d say you need to rethink the story itself. Or give up writing and take up gardening.

How much violence to use? It’s a balancing act. As Bob Dylan sang, many years ago, “One hand is tied to the tightrope walker. The other is in his pants.”

All the Soap That Fits

At some point fifty or sixty years ago, the murder mystery was invaded and colonized by the Soap Opera virus. I’ll leave literary historians to work out when that happened. All I know for sure is that the books by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are solidly about the crimes being investigated by the detectives. The detectives barely have any personal lives. But today, the crime that is the ostensible mainspring of the action has trouble pushing its way past the writer’s dedicated chronicling of the detective’s personal life.

As Nero Wolfe liked to say, “Pfui.”

In the last Sue Grafton mystery I tried to read, detective Kinsey Milhone (that is to say, Grafton, writing in the first person) devoted page after page to a loving description of, I kid you not, the canapes at a buffet. That was perhaps an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated incident.

This week I tried a new author, Tana French. Her novel Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and it’s a police procedural whodunit. Aside from one rather glaring unexplained plot problem, the crime part of the story unfolds fairly well. But along the way the reader is expected to wade through page after page about the detective’s kid sister, who is possibly schizophrenic or something — the diagnosis is never clear. There’s also a slab of flashback about how their mother committed suicide. I didn’t even skim-read that part, I just hopped right past it.

Right now I’m about halfway into Jonathan Kellerman’s True Detectives. Kellerman is occasionally good and usually readable. Skimming past the bedroom scenes with amateur sleuth Alex Delaware and his girlfriend is not difficult. But True Detectives is something else again. The main detectives are Moses Reed, a cop on the homicide squad, and Aaron Fox, a black (well, sort of light-skinned black) private eye. They’re half-brothers, and they don’t get along at all. While working on the same case, they aren’t even grown-up enough to share information. We get page after page of family background, including a grade-school playground scene when Moses beat up another boy for making racist insults about Aaron.

And as if that weren’t enough, the book opens with an entire chapter in which Aaron’s father, a cop, is gunned down while Moses’s father, his partner, stands by helplessly.

My theory is that mystery writers peddle this kind of crap because murder is not actually very interesting. Most of the good murder plots were used up by Hammett and Chandler sixty or eighty years ago, leaving only the dregs.

So far, True Detectives is not only larded with thick slices of soap, it’s extraordinarily short on mystery plot. I’m halfway through the book, and all that has been happening so far is that Moses and Aaron are tailing various interesting people around Hollywood and interviewing peripheral characters who probably know nothing of any value. There has been no action at all. Also, no dead bodies.

Two women went missing a couple of years before. Gradually some connections between them are becoming visible, but the connections are, frankly, not very interesting. There’s a Hollywood producer who probably beats his wife, the producer’s creepy son, a movie star who’s a drug addict, a sleazy guy who’s probably a pimp or a drug dealer, one of the missing women’s boyfriends, who seems to be the movie star’s hired gofer — and if you can’t figure out by this point in the book that there was a Hollywood party where bad things happened, you’re not paying attention. Yet after 150 pages, neither detective has even spoken to any of these people! The substance of the mystery, using the word “substance” loosely, finds the detectives tailing these creeps around Hollywood and Malibu and wherever. Also bits of domestic bliss in which Moses hangs out with his girlfriend or Aaron decides what suit to wear today. (Not kidding about that. Aaron is the ultimate clothes horse.)

There is, as yet, not the slightest evidence implicating any of the creeps in either of the disappearances of the young women. And as I said, no bodies. The missing women could saunter into the police station on the very next page (though of course they won’t), and the story would be over. No bodies, but there’s sure a lot of soap.

Rewriting History

Getting the details right in a historical novel is always a struggle. There will always be loose threads that can’t be tucked in. But when you know a detail perfectly well and choose to ignore it, what are readers to think?

This month the book group at the local Unitarian Church is reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, so I took it out for a spin. It’s set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early years of the 19th century, and it’s specifically about the evils of slavery. Personally, I prefer not to read a novel in which all of the important characters are either evil or in misery, and in which we know from the very start that there can’t possibly be a happy ending. I’d rather read a book that entertains while it inspires. But that’s just me. Others doubtless feel this novel is important and worth reading.

What disturbs me about it, from a critical perspective, is that Kidd seems quite deliberately to have avoided using the word “nigger.” I haven’t read the whole book, and I don’t plan to, but after 30 pages I did jump ahead to check later chapters. Nope. I couldn’t find the word anywhere.

This is plain cowardice. There’s no way around it. Kidd should be ashamed of herself. If you’re going to write a historical novel, you have an obligation to get it right whenever it’s practical to do so. Not only that, but the word (which was in very common use at the time) has everything to do with the theme of Kidd’s book.

Some racial epithets, such as “darkies,” I think we can safely live without. Kidd’s story is grim enough without those terms. But an author shouldn’t be too eager to (cough-cough) whitewash history.

Possibly the publishers (Viking Penguin) demanded that she get rid of the n-word. Writers sometimes face a difficult choice: Do you please the publisher by being dishonest and damaging your work, or do you destroy your career by standing up for what you know is right?

I hope it was the publisher’s dictate. And I hope she fought them tooth and nail.

Turn Left at Stop Sign

Some things are more important than selling books.

I’ve been thinking out loud on this blog for some years now. Long-time readers (of whom there may be three or four) will have noticed that last year I repurposed the blog, writing exclusively about writing. This was an attempt (which doubtless would have proved completely ineffectual) to use “social media” to promote the series of novels that I’m planning to publish this year. I don’t tweet, but by golly I blog. Or blob. Or glob.

In view of the current political situation, however, I’m going to have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I commented about anything and everything. Writers who appreciate my take on other topics will of course want to stick around, and will find occasional posts on writing tucked in amongst the musing, ranting, and other ill-considered verbiage. If you’ve been enjoying the discussion of writing but find that you’re not in sympathy with my political views, all I can say is, “Fine. Go away. And good riddance.”

The time for being accommodating, for “agreeing to disagree,” has passed. It’s time to resist.

I would leave the United States in a hot New York second, but it’s hard to get a resident visa to live anywhere else when you’re retired — or at least, to live anywhere that I’d want to live. You can get a work visa, but even that is difficult to acquire, and I don’t feel much like working full-time now that I’m nearing 70. I could go to college in New Zealand, I’m sure, but when the student visa expired I’d have to come back to the U.S.

So I’m stuck here. And you’re stuck with me. Sound like a plan?

Coitus Interruptus

There are so many ways to go wrong when writing a novel! One of the nastier ways to fail, I think, is to make an implicit promise to the reader and then not fulfill the promise. When the promise arises out of the emotional core of the story, the failure is all the more galling.

I’ve just finished reading Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s meticulously researched, beautifully written, and very suspenseful. And on the very last page, Harris fails. He pulls out without finishing what he started.

I’m pissed off.

The hero of the story is a young engineer named Attilius, who has rather unexpectedly found himself assigned to duty as the master of the aqueduct that supplies water to the towns around the Bay of Naples — Misenum, Puteoli, Naples itself, and of course Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow of water from the aqueduct has suddenly slowed to a trickle, and it smells of sulfur. So he sets off around the flank of Vesuvius to find the problem and fix it.

You and I know what’s going to happen in less than 24 hours, but none of the characters in the story know. That’s a big part of the suspense.

And of course he meets a young woman and is attracted to her, and when the mountain blows up she’s trapped in Pompeii and he has to brave the falling pumice and clouds of incandescent gas to rescue her. You knew that was going to happen. It’s not a surprise, but Harris handles it deftly.

Along the way, we meet a couple of people and are present at a couple of incidents that are historically accurate. Pliny the Elder, who at the time was the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, ventured out with a ship to try to rescue people, and died on the beach at Stabiae. That’s in the novel. Not historically documented but flawlessly accurate with respect to Roman culture is a subplot in which the young woman’s father, a rich former slave who is pretty much the boss of Pompeii, tries to bribe Attilius, fails, and decides to have him killed instead. The assassin stalks him to the peak of Vesuvius, right into the crater, and Attilius escapes only a couple of hours before Vesuvius blows its top.

Brilliant stuff, right? But here’s where it all goes south. Attilius has arrived at Stabiae with Pliny, and decides he’d rather die trying to rescue Corelia from Pompeii than live without her. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. He barely knows her, but he told her to go back to Pompeii and obey her father without knowing the whole town was about to be buried under 20 feet of pumice. So he sort of has a moral obligation.

Rocks and ash are falling from the air. He makes it to Pompeii. He finds the girl. Survivors of the first phase of the eruption are wandering around in a daze. The girl’s father and his slaves start chasing the couple, plainly intending to kill Attilius. Attilius sees an incandescent cloud of gas rolling down the slope of Vesuvius toward the town. He and the girl run and climb into the roofed-over reservoir into which the aqueduct flows. We have seen this structure earlier in the story, so we know what’s going on. Attilius has in fact narrowly escaped being drowned in an underground portion of the aqueduct in an earlier scene, after he and his workmen went down into it through a manhole to make repairs.

A cloud of incandescent gas will roast your lungs in a flash — but if you’re in a tunnel that’s mostly full of water, you might have some chance of survival.

Are you with me so far? It’s a genuine happy ending, straight out of Hollywood. Everybody else dies, but against the greatest possible odds, in one of the most awful disasters in history, boy saves girl. Or … well, let’s find out. As we reach the very last page, we get this:

People who had fled from their homes on the eastern slopes of the mountain began to make a cautious return before nightfall, and many were the stories and rumors that circulated in the days that followed … [omitting some stories and rumors here] … Most persistent of all was the legend of a man and a woman who had emerged out of the earth itself at dusk on the day the eruption ended. They had tunneled underground like moles, it was said, for several miles, all the way from Pompeii, and had come up where the ground was clear, drenched in the life-giving waters of a subterranean river, which had given them its sacred protection. They were reported to have been seen walking together in the direction of the coast….

And that’s it. After that oblique description, the curtain falls. We don’t get to see them struggle along the underground aqueduct for miles in the dark. We don’t get to see their joy when they find a manhole cover that’s not weighed down with half a ton of pumice. We don’t get to see them smile at one another as he helps her up out of the aqueduct. We don’t get to see them holding hands as they stroll downhill toward the bay.

This is the sound of Robert Harris failing. He just had to be fucking coy about it. Satisfying the reader by actually showing the happy ending — maybe he skipped that lecture in the graduate-level course on creative writing. Or maybe some halfwit college professor convinced him that showing a happy ending would be cheap, that ambiguity is somehow a nobler goal toward which the author of great literature ought to strive. Or maybe his typewriter ribbon was running out of ink. Who knows?

If you want a gruesome lesson in how to destroy a terrific novel in a single page, buy this book and read it.