Going Plotless

In my last post I described the rule-breaking writing exercises I’m working on with my writing group. I promised to post an example:

Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with multiple trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?


Trisha ran.

A mourning dove flew about, ready to lay some eggs, searching. For what? She’d know it when she saw it.

A roadrunner hopped up to the edge of a patio covered in glossy Saltillo tile, recently sealed. It watched the large docile creature sitting at a white bistro table, a man eating a turkey sandwich. The roadrunner didn’t know the turkey was turkey, but that didn’t matter. It wondered in that indistinct animal way whether the tile would be slippery, whether it was trustworthy. The roadrunner made its move.

A woman gazed out her front window over her kitchen sink. She always happened to be doing the dishes. Trisha appeared to her as a flash of sunny blonde hair moving in that smooth manner of golf carts, the ones that seem to glide over the hills, turning without needing to slow, almost liquidly. The girl didn’t have things in her ears, those gadgets they usually have. Good for her. Live a little. The woman went to the pantry and used a wooden spoon to knock down a box of low sodium wheat thins from a high shelf. It fell onto the counter and she dove out of its trajectory. It landed on its side and spun a bit, but stopped at the edge of the counter. A few crackers fell to the floor, and her Yorkie looked up at her with a question in his eyes. Was she wearing a bra? The woman looked down at her own very liberated chest. The Yorkie, being a Yorkie, acted like he wasn’t all that interested, but he circled around, his little paws tap-tapping coyly, always coming back.

The roadrunner hopped up, landing on the hard solid foot of the large docile creature who appeared to be taking in some form of nourishment.

The man did not move a muscle. He tried to stop breathing. He couldn’t believe his luck. What a story this would make, a roadrunner landing on his shoe, begging for food.

“Go on, Yogi. You can eat it,” the woman squealed, pointing at a nearby cracker, snapping her fingers. “C’mon.” Live a little. She didn’t want to bend over to pick up the crackers. Her back hurt.

The roadrunner hopped back down, forgetting its previous concern about the tile. It was only a little harder to walk on the tile.

The Yorkie sniffed at the perfect squares which were somehow not broken from the impact of the fall.

Trisha turned the corner. Easy enough given the perfect curve of the sidewalk, one which widened at turns. This curved bit of sidewalk had been inspected recently for tripping hazards (anything over 1/4”), along with the rest of the street.

The Yorkie’s nostrils flared. Millions and trillions of bits of information flew into a black tunnel that opened into a wet cave. Things we don’t know.

In any case, the sidewalk wasn’t the problem. A palo verde stuck its green claw out into Trisha’s path. It reached for her as if animated by her arrival, but really it dipped in the gust of wind which had just picked up violently for a second. The green claw had smaller green claws, all of which were armed with needles. All this claw-ness would later be masked by thousands or millions or some other high number of flowers, cartoon shapes of crayon yellow. But it wasn’t that time of year. Now the palo verde looked like a massive pile of homogeneously green sticks randomly stacked on top of a wandering trunk. The trunk the same blah-green as the sticks, except for a few brown marks where it’d been scorched.

The microburst of wind and the bob of this palo verde branch sent some number of insects into the uniform blue sky. It was the kind of dusty day that obscured distant mountains.

In a swimming pool in a Santa Fe style house way out on the east side—granite counter! stainless appliances heated pool travertine thru out. Gorgeous Mtn.views a Must See!—a lizard clung to a vertical island, a bit of mineral deposit which had collected on the edge of the pool. Its “fingers” worked best on natural things, not so well on slippery tile, and the lizard just happened to be lucky enough to drop over on a spot where the minerals had deposited themselves over the tile. The lizard eyed the water each time the wind kicked up a slight wave. If it weren’t for the occasional eye movement, this lizard would look exactly like the lizard a few blocks down that had gotten itself stuck in-between a window pane and a screen. A perfect specimen of natural taxidermy, fried in the sun, still clinging to the screen, immortalized forever like a pressed flower. That lizard was about the same size as this one, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side. A cute little guy. It was that time of year for lizards to be out and about, and for them to be about this size. This lizard clinging to the mineral deposit, it flattened itself into a slit of shade from the overhanging concrete edge of the pool. The overhang saved it from frying in the sun. It also prevented it from escaping. Not in any real way, but in a lizard-brained way. In the same way that the window-fried lizard could’ve theoretically gotten free if it had known how to go out the way it came in.

The man smiled and called out, “Here roadrunner,” tossing out a piece of bread. What a story.

The roadrunner hopped back, dodging an object. It stopped at a safe distance and reconsidered.

The palo verde moved very slowly toward the things that gave it life. What gave this particular palo verde tree life, or more of it, temporarily, was the growth of this branch in this direction.

The HOA had not counted this branch as a maintenance issue since it didn’t obstruct the path.

One hot current of air wanted to go one way, a cooler current wanted to go another way, and there was a sort of atmospheric traffic jam. The palo verde branch got jostled down, out of harm’s way. It bent, but didn’t break.

The pool lizard clung on.

The other lizard clung too.

The endless blue sky so uniform it might as well have been a paint color sample stayed right where it was.

The man threw another piece of bread, bigger this time.

The pool lizard tried to escape, but rediscovered the problem of the overhang. Now it faced the other direction, away from the water.

The roadrunner looked at the bread. It wanted the turkey, not the bread.

The man threw another piece of bread, further away this time.

The roadrunner walk-hopped away.

The man called out to it, but the roadrunner disappeared into a wash, behind some treacherously thorny stuff which the man didn’t feel like getting into.

The mourning dove picked up a stick, flew it to some high-traffic location which she’d picked out for her nest, tried to fit the stick into her nest and noted several big animated creatures moving in the proximity of her real estate. She dropped the stick onto the ground. She stood on the edge of her new digs—the lid of a box filled with garden tools, tools that needed to be used on a regular basis now, since it was that time of year—and looked at nothing for a while with her thoughtless black eyes. The big creatures backed away. She didn’t look at the stick she’d just dropped. She didn’t look at all the other sticks she’d dropped, the ones right there. She flew off in search of a new stick.

Trisha ducked.

The roadrunner came back to the man. The man finally gave him what he wanted, a bit of turkey. The roadrunner gobbled this down and waited for more, which came forthwith. The roadrunner ate as much as he could, then waited for a big one, a nice fat slice. He snapped it up in his lethal beak and ran off with it to find his mate, who waited for him behind some prickly pear. He showed it to her.

The man with the sandwich chased the roadrunner down into the wash to see where it was going with the turkey. He saw the female roadrunner and this confirmed what he’d heard about roadrunner mating rituals. My discarded turkey is like a giant diamond ring. Turkey bling. He couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he helped a fellow male get laid. The female seemed ready to submit, but at the last second she ran away with the Albertson’s deli meat dangling from her beak.

The palo verde got a few of Trisha’s golden hairs, but she got one of its claws, one of the dead ones, one which had dried out and for that reason snapped off easily. She swiped it off her head without missing a step. The stick flew onto some blah beige landscaping rocks and rested there, virtually hidden.

The man with the sandwich tripped and landed in the prickly pear. In his palms there no longer resided a turkey sandwich, but instead a story, one he would not share.

The mourning dove picked up a new stick. This was a perfectly good stick. It caught her eye because shiny things were attached to it. She flew her treasure to her new home. A big featherless biped stood near her space. She didn’t notice until she’d nearly reached her abode, at which point startled, dropped her golden stick, fluttered into a nearby mesquite. Another nest grew under her box, a better nest than her own, but she didn’t know. She flew away, searching for a new stick.

“Get into the fucking car.”

Trisha ran faster. She knew she couldn’t out run a car, but she ran anyways.

A wave of pool water splashed the lizard and cooled its scaly back, but it did not take this as a boon. It twirled frantically, its tail whipping. Then a basket scooped it up. It’s little legs flailed randomly until it fell over the the edge of the basket and into the cool blue.

The Yorkie brought his delicate pink tongue down to a square. The square lifted, stuck to his wet tongue, then dropped. “Yes, you can eat it. Go on.” He looked up with a question in his eyes.


Yogi took the square into his teeth, carefully, so as not to lose a crumb, and absconded with it to his hiding space between the ottoman and the couch.

I never meant to write this much, but I found myself needing a lot of space to include multiple POVs. Another woman in the writing group managed to complete this exercise in less than one page. She used a sort of free-association to tell her tale, but instead of creating a thematic unity the way I’ve done here, she literally linked the story together by referencing the last sentence. I’d never seen that done before. It worked well in a strange way.

Have you ever gone plotless? Was it on purpose? What did you learn? 


Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)


This post is a little break from phenomenology and AI, but one I’ve been meaning to write for some time now. I read this novel, Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, without knowing much about the author or the controversy surrounding it…I did this on purpose. I wanted to read it on its own merits, then do my googling later.

Spoiler alert…I give the alert, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. Knowing what will happen shouldn’t ruin it for you.

The novel is about a Muslim party taking over the French government. The fusion of religion into French education and culture is central to the themes explored here. Is this fusion a good thing? Bad? The author leaves us in the dark.

We stay in the first person POV with Francois, a Sorbonne professor and expert in Huysmans (whom I’ve never read, apparently an author of the decadent period who later becomes religious). Francois is the embodiment of everything we dislike about the French. And yet, the novel gripped me, despite the fatiguing je-m’en-foutisme of the narrator. Here, the protagonist’s ennui isn’t the point. Rather, it’s part of the point, but only as a reflection of society, as satire. You get that right off the bat, which makes staying in Francois’ head tolerable. Besides, I found myself laughing at the protagonist at certain points, but maybe that’s a reflection of my sick sense of humor. Humor works, however, and I felt pulled along.

The narrator is too aloof and self-centered to give us much perspective on reality. He seems to be a representative of a whole, either academics in general, French academics in particular, or the bourgeois…I don’t know. He basically bumbles about, mostly in his own head. The politics are talked about, but they remain in the background for most of the beginning. This background—revealed to us in dialogue and little details—keeps the tension going throughout Francois’ cliché existential crisis. The author doesn’t take his protagonist’s lack of raison d’être too seriously, and that helps to elevate the novel to a political and moral realm.

Francois does try to become religious earlier in the tale…sort of. I see this chapter as a character-reveal—Francois tries to mirror his own protagonist’s life story—but more than that, comic relief. Before the absolute Muslim takeover, Francois goes to Ligugé Abbey (where Huysmans had taken his vows) in an attempt to etch out some meaning for his empty existence. Only, there were a few things in the way on his path to heaven:

The modern church, constructed within monastery walls, had a sober ugliness to it. Architecturally, it was reminiscent of the Super-Passy shopping center in the rue de l’Annonciation, and its stained-glass windows, simple patches of color, weren’t worth looking at, but none of that bothered me. I wasn’t an aesthete—I had infinitely less aesthetic sense than Huysmans—and for me the uniform ugliness of contemporary religious art was essentially a matter of indifference. The voices of the monks rose up in the freezing air, pure, humble, well-meaning. They were full of sweetness, hope, and expectation. The Lord Jesus would return, was about to return, and already the warmth of his presence filled their souls with joy. This was the one real theme of their chants, chants of sweet and organic expectation. That old queer Nietzsche had it right: Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.

All of this might have suited me fine, but going back to my cell ruined it: the smoke detector glared at me with its little red hostile eye.

He quits the monastery because he’s not allowed to smoke in his room. He can smoke outside. I’m reminded of my time in France…I once saw my Plato professor light up a RYO cigarette in the hallway just outside his classroom, right next to a sign that said “No Smoking.” I consulted with a few students who were also smoking in the hallway. I received a few shrugs and snickers before I decided to light one up myself. I found it thrilling and tried to hide my excitement; they took it as a God-given right. Francois would commit suicide if he had to live in California.

And when Francois says he’s not an aesthete, I don’t know whether I believe him. He does eat microwave dinners (ethnic mostly), but he never fails to mention what kind of food and drink is being served, not even when he can hear bombs going off in the distance. And yet, on the other hand, this non-stop food fixation could simply be French, not foodie-French. Just typical bourgeois French. It’s hard to say, being an American and coming at it from my perspective.

With his food fixation comes a similar sex fixation. His relationships are pathetic and sad, yet it’s another aspect of his life about which he is blasé. Sex, however, is central to his being, it defines him, even when he gets nothing from it. He did once have a sort-of girlfriend, a Jewish student. Out of concern for her safety, she leaves with her family for Israel. He tries to miss her, but in the end he doesn’t.

I’d like to share with you what I consider the most disturbing passage in the whole novel, but one that sums up our protagonist’s character. Francois has just fled Paris, just lost his position at the Sorbonne, and is now unsure where his life is heading. He arrives at a gas station:

The parking lot was deserted, and right away I could tell something wasn’t right. I slowed to a crawl before I pulled up, very carefully, to the service station. Someone had shattered the window, the asphalt was covered with shards of glass. I got out of the car and walked inside. Someone had also smashed the door of the refrigerated case where they kept the cold drinks and knocked over the newspaper dispensers. I discovered the cashier lying on the floor in a pool of blood, her arms clasped over her chest in a pathetic gesture of self-defense. The silence was total. I walked over to the gas pumps, but they were turned off. Thinking I might be able to find some way of turning them on behind the register, I went back into the shop and stepped reluctantly over the body, but I didn’t see anything that looked like an ON switch. After a moment’s hesitation, I helped myself to a tuna-vegetable sandwich from the sandwich shelf, a non-alcoholic beer, and a Michelin guide.

This distance and lack of empathy is meant to be utterly shocking. However, Francois isn’t portrayed as a bad person, but instead a sick person. His only real relationship, the only one which evokes feeling in him, is the one he has with his favorite author, Huysmans (which amounts to self-love, really). When his father dies, he feels no grief. He’s estranged from his family and this matter is treated in a minor way, as a matter of course, yet it plays a huge role in the novel since it contrasts sharply with the cultural upheaval that follows. It’s once again: modern, independent, free-but-morally-bankrupt man vs. family-centered, hierarchical Islam.


Francois ends up finding his raison d’être. He converts to Islam, despite having no religious feeling. In the end, what seems to matter most is not the particular religion he converts to, but having something—anything—to live for. Hence, the submission of modern man. Here we’re reminded of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series: The protagonist decides to fight against the Nazis not out of moral feeling, but just to have something to do with himself. To give this stance more philosophical credence, you might say he overcame the burden of freedom…you might know the popular phrase—condemned to be free…well, all that, & etc. I tend toward the first interpretation (not a big Sartre fan.)

Of course, there’s a huge difference here: Francois does have a choice, his “submission” is not coerced in any strong way, there are no Nazis at his doorstep, and we know that. But when the moment comes when he must make that choice, we also know his true desires. Francois will submit…he holds no ideals precious, not even humanism, which sits vaguely in his psyche as a sort of cultural embellishment which can easily be discarded. He’s allowed to retire if he chooses not to convert, and he’ll receive a more than fair pension. On the other hand, if he converts, his salary will increase, his prestige will increase, and he’ll be allowed to have multiple wives, all of whom will keep him well-fed and well, um, taken care of. His number of wives goes up in proportion to his salary, which goes up in proportion to his prestige, which has already been chosen for him. He doesn’t have to decide or work much for any of this: it’s been determined that he’s a three-wife sort of guy. He can choose his wives or a matchmaker could do it for him. Francois’ life has altered and, from his point of view, for the better.


What Google taught me about the novel:

Submission was published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, the same week that Houellebecq himself appeared on the cover of that magazine. To make things weirder, I was reading the novel when the Paris attacks occurred. To make things even weirder—I was reading this passage when I first heard the news:

“That’s the first fighting we’ve had in Paris,” Lempereur remarked, in a neutral tone. Just then we heard a new round of gunfire, this time quite distinct, as if nearby, and a much louder explosion. All the guests turned toward the sound. A column of smoke was rising into the sky above the buildings. It must have been coming from somewhere near Place de Clichy.

“Well, it looks as if our little soiree is breaking up,” Alice said.

This passage came early in the novel—before the creepy gas station scene—but you get hints of that same eery blasé distancing from virtually everyone surrounding Francois. Notice the last line of this passage. Alice’s comment is the epitome of insensitivity. Which leads me to think Francois stands for an entire group, as a representative.

The questions that come to mind are: Is the novelist implying something sinister and racist against Muslims in general, or is he putting down European ‘modern man’ as morally and spiritually bankrupt? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter, especially given Francois’ fair treatment in the end if he’d decided not to convert. That’s the wonderful thing about the novel—it lends itself to interpretation and discussion. And it’s a quick read, nothing like Sartre’s lumbering Roads to Freedom, although it seems to feed off of those themes in a fresh way. Submission’s breezy, short chapters make certain unsavory aspects of this novel work, at least for me. The pacing might feel a bit slow at first for those who are used to dramatic openings, but the humor—sometimes risky and grotesque, sometimes light, sometimes dark—keeps the serious and disturbing elements in check. I found myself not really liking the protagonist, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to. His mundane, mostly food-based fixations were well done—a light touch, just enough to provoke a chuckle here and there. The voice is not what I’d call academic, although it seems that way at first. Later you learn that this Sorbonne scholar has a dirty mind, and why we have the phrase, “Pardon my French.”

Last but not least, here’s a photo of Michel Houellebecq which appears as a cropped version on the back jacket cover:


“Je m’ennuie.”


Building Character Profiles From Pets

I like to think of what Geordie Bear would be like if he were human. I know most pet owners think of this from time to time, but I wonder if anyone takes it to the extremes that I do.

In my defense, there’s very little to think about while I’m walking Geordie around the neighborhood. We take the same loops every day, and Geordie’s probably the only one who finds variation in these. Geordie doesn’t seem to mind the same circuits, pee-mailing with the same old characters in Mr. Rogers neighborhood. My not-yet-caffeinated mind wanders into a territory in-between dream and imagination, even while I’m bagging poopies and examining them for colitis.

Today I went beyond the usual characterization of Geordie Bear as British. He’s so very British, there’s no way he could be anything but British, but this is not because of his name.

He’s understated and well-behaved. I had nothing to do with this. I got him at the pound and he just came this way. He hardly ever barks, not even when other dogs bark at him. When he has to go to the bathroom, he walks around a little more than usual. When he wants me to wake up, he shakes his collar. When he gets scared, he sits a little closer to me. The only time he makes his desires perfectly clear is when I sit at my computer in the morning thinking I might actually get to drink a cup of coffee…then he yawn-yowls and jumps up and makes eye contact. The rest of the time he’s super polite. He doesn’t beg at the dinner table, but sits quietly off to the side. He won’t even eat food from the very accessible coffee table, not even when we leave the room. Not even when we leave salami and cheese. Now that’s polite.



Background: He’s not from Northern England, as his name would suggest. He doesn’t have a “Geordie” accent. He lives in Brighton but spent his formative years in London, although his mother moved him to Brighton before he reached ten. He can’t remember why they moved, but he never thinks of going back to London. He doesn’t really think of London as home. In fact, he doesn’t even like going there on business trips because he knows his colleagues will pick some posh restaurant and talk about culture. It’s not that he doesn’t fit in at posh restaurants, not that he can’t talk about culture too, but that he’d rather sit in the hotel room and take advantage of the sports channels and room service.

His mother died of lung cancer when he was in his early thirties. She was a working class woman who held various jobs, but she wasn’t around much and Geordie was often left to fend for himself. Never met his father. He doesn’t think he had a bad childhood, but he’s okay with spending much of his time alone—and he attributes that to his childhood.

Now he’s in his late fifties and works at a big company in the media sector, although his heart isn’t there. Still, the pay is good. He doesn’t mind it too much. He gets on well with others, though he doesn’t make friends at work. If he did, he’d have to take sides sometimes and that would be uncomfortable. He’s looking forward to retirement.

Hobbies: He goes to the beach sometimes to walk around—this is his primary form of exercise. This doesn’t do much for his beer belly, though he tells himself the walk is for his health. In truth, he likes to watch the people, especially the happy families.

He watches “football” and has favorite teams. He’s a bloke, what can he say. Since I don’t know much about sports, I’ll just say Geordie likes to go to a certain pub mostly frequented by the lower middle class (he never eats the food, but never disparages it either) and sits quietly to watch the big games, which he considers monumental events worth sharing with others. The others cheer and get rowdy when the local sports team fares well against the non-local sports team, but he’s more objective in his sports team assessments. He favors certain teams from a more global perspective and keeps up with the players and the minutiae of plays and such, but never does he share these insights with others unless asked. He smiles and sometimes gives a shout—only to fit in—and takes a drink of his beer. It’s not that he’s above these blokes, not at all. He’s really having a good time. He likes their company and enthusiasm. He just doesn’t have a need to root for the local team.

He also watches tennis, golf, and the Tour de France. He fell off his bicycle when he was young, and never got back on it. But he admires cyclists, especially since he knows the dangers.

I’ve made Geordie sound like a sports nut, but his life is not sports. He used to play a bit as a lad, but that’s not it either. He just finds it a nice escape, the same way others like to build model airplanes or read novels. A lot of his colleagues don’t know how much he keeps up with his teams, because he’s not one to bring up subjects that interest him. He lets others bring up subjects and he tries to be a good listener. He reads the newspaper every day, so he knows what’s going on, though he doesn’t care that much about politics.

Fishing. Geordie loves to go fishing, but hardly ever does. He always eats the fish he catches because he doesn’t like the idea of harming fish for no reason. He also likes the idea of hunting, but has never done it. He’d eat whatever he caught, if he hunted. But guns scare him. So noisy.

He likes music, but isn’t musical himself. He listens to popular music, but doesn’t go to concerts. He likes Simon and Garkfunel. Bob Dylan, the earlier stuff. He doesn’t like a lot of hard rock or clanging and bashing around. James Taylor, for sure.

Love life: He lives alone in an apartment that could use a woman’s touch. He’s not sloppy, for a bloke, but he doesn’t know what kind of artwork to put where, doesn’t know what kind of curtains to buy, etc. He’d love to have a romantic relationship, but he’s never been terribly attractive to the opposite sex. People say it’s because he’s too nice. What kind of sense does that make?

It’s true that he’s hard to get to know. He has little ticks and expressions that only an intimate friend or lover would be able to interpret. But once you get to know him, you’ll find him morally outstanding. He’d never cheat if he had a wife. He’d be so good to her. He wouldn’t behave the way he knows his colleagues do.

He knows he’s not supposed to say this, and he never would out loud, but he wants a traditional sort of wife and he’d be happy to take care of her. He wants a wife who appreciates it when he mows the lawn, kills spiders, fixes the garbage disposal. He’d certainly appreciate a wife who cooked for him, and he’d thank her every time. He’s kind of romantic, but romance for him would mean sometimes taking home a nice bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for no reason at all. He wants a no-nonsense woman who will prove that she’s not after his money. (He knows what it means to be poor, but now has a good job and has amassed a decent nest egg, prudently invested.) He’s been burned many times. He’s not bitter or stingy, just careful.

He wants true love. Yeah, he likes long walks on the beach. So he’s a little boring and cliché. He wants someone who appreciates boring, which he’d prefer to call “peaceful domesticity.”

Pet peeves: People who don’t show up on time. People who name drop to make themselves seem smart or well-connected. People who talk loudly or too much. People who gossip. People who hold extreme political views. People who interrupt. People who talk on their cell phones while checking out at the grocery store. But most of all, people who have everything in life and throw it all away by doing something stupid.

It occurred to me that pets can be used as jumping off points to create a detailed character profile from which an entire short story could be built. I don’t know if I plan on doing this, but it’s an interesting idea. In any case, it was a fun writing prompt.

The False Note: Small Decisions in Writing

I found a nice excerpt from an article in the NYT which I think applies to all writing:

Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

I love this quote because it gets at the goal we should have as writers—to make the writing disappear.

I don’t agree that those molecular decisions are harder to make than the big ones. I spend days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months trying to make those big decisions, lots of pacing around, long walks, reading, ruminating when I should be sleeping. Perhaps it would have been better to say those small decisions add up to make a bigger impact. This I believe. Bad writing can be spotted instantly, regardless of how cleverly the plot is laid out, whereas great writing can make me forgive a few inconsistencies and even a few grammatical errors…a few.

What also struck me was the phrase “false note”— a terrific metaphor. A false note on a guitar can be missing the proper fret entirely so that the prevailing sound makes everyone stop in their tracks. Or it can be something barely noticeable, like the bending of a string slightly too high, or timing that’s a little off, or bad technique, or something else that only musicians would recognize. In other words, there’s a huge range of falseness.

But what is the range in writing? Obviously there are typos and grammatical errors—these make me stop reading if they become too frequent. These are easy to spot and fix. They are like missing the fret on the guitar. You work on strength and agility and practice, practice, practice…sooner or later your finger will get where it needs to be.

The other “false notes” are sentences that simply don’t make sense, not because of any mechanical error, but because the ideas behind them are either confusing or devoid of meaning. These are often sentences that seem lyrical or poetic. Like a guitarist who feels the need to sling his guitar low and play with flashy but terrible technique, flailing his fingers all over the fretboard to make what he’s doing seem harder than it is, these sentences are meant to fool the audience. They often do. Writers and rock stars love getting their egos stroked, and so the cycle of bad quality continues.

These false notes are the most dangerous to writers because we easily get caught up in our own cleverness without realizing that discerning readers don’t give a damn about our cleverness, they want the meaning. They want the truth. This “poet at work” stuff bores them.

The best writing advice I’ve ever heard (and I’m sure some famous person said it and I apologize for not giving proper credit):

Don’t ask, Is this writing good or bad? Instead ask, Is it true or false?

I think this advice achieves a lot with very few words. We tend to aim for good writing, but trying to establish what that is can be difficult, maybe impossible. Debates ensue. It’s hard to achieve something that’s nebulous and external to us.

But truth is approachable, maybe even attainable. To know the truth in writing, we can look within, ask ourselves questions, and scrutinize our words. We can leave the good for literary critics and focus on our work.

Fiction: Would this character really say this? Why is this person sighing? Is this sighing an affectation? Do I want it to be? Why does she cross her arms? Do people really cross their arms in these situations, or did I just put that in there to add a beat, a break from the dialogue? Does the sun really look like that? Would she notice her shadow in the dark, or in the middle of the day, and what makes this possible? Does this plant look like that in that season and that place? (If I can’t remember or know through reflection and research, I find myself going out into the world to experience these things first hand. Just yesterday I squished my face against the door to be sure I got my description right.)

Non-fiction: Should I take out “all” and replace it with “some”? Are there any cases which would prove this statement not always true? Should I look up this tidbit to be sure it’s correct? Should I add a citation? Does each word add to the one before it, does each sentence add to the one before it, does each paragraph follow from the one before? Or am I going off into la-la land? And if I go off into la-la land, does that work in an interesting way, is it deliberate?

(I have to admit, when I come across nonfiction narrative that reads like a syllogism, my little philosopher’s heart goes pitter-patter. I try to congratulate these writers whenever I can, because I know such clarity often gets overlooked. But meandering prose can be effective too, although meandering must have an overarching purpose, it must be unified and controlled by other forces, such as theme.)

To write well, you need to get your ideas clear. Sure, start with your muddy ideas, get them on the page, but put on your Truth goggles in your later drafts. Don’t let your purpose drown in the poetic current, even if you are writing poetry. Your hard work will pay off. Readers will enjoy forgetting that they’re reading. When the writing gets out of the way, they will get swept along.

What do you do to avoid false notes in writing?

How does the context affect what you see through Truth goggles? In the music metaphor, a false note is false in relation to the context. I wonder how this applies in writing.

As always, feel free to comment on anything.