Making the Work

No. 30 >> The Firsts Issue: Sentences, novels, and a lowfalutin bucket list.

MAKING THE WORK // First Lines

Call me Sloperella.* I have been sloppy in my duties as a writer. I have scrutinized my opening lines. The results are disappointing.

What got me thinking about first lines? Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, a book co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. It’s highly readable and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in its subject. The first chapter is called “Beginnings” and is about the beginning of Kidder and Todd’s working relationship at The Atlantic, but also about opening lines. The first piece of Kidder’s that Todd ever edited began with this sentence: “In the spring of 1971, someone went mad for blood in the Sacramento Valley.”

Todd said the sentence was melodramatic, but a fellow student of Kidder’s at the University of Iowa had previously praised it. Todd, like Montaigne, has a bias for “quiet beginnings”, saying that: “Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away.”

I thought about my first lines. I know how important they are, but I’ve almost willfully refused to dwell on them because I already have enough hang-ups as a writer. I was curious though and decided to take the first sentence from each “Making the Work” column from the past twenty-nine issues and paste them into one document. I studied them and wondered where my Leonine pride had been when I published them.

To my surprise, there was only one sentence that I found beyond reproach: 

“My friend Tiger calls the voice inside her head her roommate—as in, ‘Oh, that’s just my roommate talking.’”

This next sentence comes close to being acceptable: 

“I’ve been daydreaming about prize money the way I used to dream, when I was a kid, of Ed McMahon showing up in a van with a bunch of balloons and a giant cheque.” 

Alas, a “bunch of balloons” is cliché and there’s something off about the rhythm.

There are a few others that need a light edit, like: 

“I am lining my words up in their sentences like rambunctious children who need to be disciplined (they just want to play).” 

Why not “I’m” instead of “I am”? Also, I couldn’t, and still can’t, decide on a better way to deliver “they just want to play” (a separate sentence perhaps...or would an ellipses work?).

Here’s another: 

“God help me, but I had sexy dream about Patrick Swayze last night.” 

What’s that “last night” doing there? It weakens the sentence and isn’t important. 

Throwing in phrases like “last night” and the “other night” seems to be a tick of mine. I also use other sentence deadeners like “one day”, “recently”, “once”, “for as long as I can remember”, “currently”, “I remember” and “always”. My friend Susan Swan, who used to be my thesis advisor, might’ve called those words “lint on the suit of the prose.”

Now, here’s a first line that imparts useful information, but is absolutely pedestrian: 

“I’ve been reading Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art.” 

And this one is effortlessly pedestrian without even bothering to be useful: 

“This is what happens.” 

I started looking at the first lines of other things I’ve written. They, to my relief, are decidedly better. Some favourites:

“You get his call, him so serious sounding saying, ‘We need to talk.’”
“The sweat stink hits first, then the noise: leather berating leather; the creaking chains of the swaying heavy bags; the ba-da-da-dum of the flubbery speed bag; the whispering jump rope and rhythmic gallop of feet.”
“I wake up at god-knows-what-time with lips as dry as bread crusts.”
“Fanny Slapper bosom cupcakey tassel twirled with her cushy tushy and cotton floss lipglossy.” 

(That last one is not the delusional product of an MDMA high, rather I’m imitating James Joyce for a class assignment. Try saying it out loud. It sounds fun.)

This whole exercise has been sobering, but exciting because it makes me feel more engaged with craft and I know I can write better prose. Though now I’m worried about how to end this...what makes a good last line?

* With apologies to Herman Melville and Ishmael.


SOCIETY // First Novel Awards

The Walrus Magazine did a nice thing. They invited me to the fancy-schmancy Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville for the First Novel Awards that their Foundation co-hosted with Amazon last Thursday. Presumably, I was invited because I have a short story coming out in The Walrus this December. I almost turned the invitation down because I was worried about what to wear. For those of us who work at home “business casual” means “day pajamas”, which means our dressier attire probably isn’t dressy enough. I asked Facebook for their opinion on what to wear and my friends replied with things like, “tiger-striped omnitard” and “squirrel costume with large acorn as handbag”. While I’ve had a lifelong dream of owning a squirrel costume, I’d always thought it’d be more for going to the grocery store. 

A., my favourite +1, ended up getting spiffy new brown Oxfords, so he was all set with those, dress trousers and a navy blue shirt. While shoe shopping, he sneakily bought me a sheer floral kimono that he’d seen me eying up, so I wore that with my black maxi-dress and red lipstick. When we entered the hotel’s light-filled ballroom, A. was walking like he was wearing flippers on account of the stiff new shoes and I was worried I looked like a shrubby Stevie Nicks. Nobody pointed and stared. Funny how that works.

It was crowded and we didn’t recognize anyone, except for Linden McIntyre. We got gin & tonics from the open bar (are any two words as sweet as “open bar”) and stood by tables displaying oysters lazing on their half shells and crustacean claws looking both sci-fi and posh. In the corner, we saw Big Capote and Beck II hobnobbing. Big Capote is Jared Bland, Arts Editor and Beck II is Mark Medley, Books Editor, both at The Globe and Mail. If you could see them, you’d understand their nicknames. 

We tried to pick other writers out. The gent in the faded suit jacket and runners? (“See, I could’ve worn my Crocs,” said A.) Definitely the guy wearing the graphic tee under his blazer. Probably the stocky guy with the beard. Mostly, it seemed like the room was full of people who publish, edit, and represent writers—many of whom looked like they’d just come from work where they always wear suits and such.

While A. window shopped appetizers (window shopped because he reacts very badly to garlic, so has to avoid most appies, but will torture himself by gazing at them), I went to get a straw to stop the ice from getting in the way of me slugging my drink (if questioned, I was prepared to say that it was because of my sensitive teeth). The straw worked and by the time the lights dimmed, my neuroses had downgraded from florid to simply lush. 

The Books In Canada First Novel Awards, as it used to be called, began in 1977. Four titles competed for the prize that year. This year, sixty-three novels were in the running. Alexandre Gagnon, manager of Amazon Canada, told us this in his amiable opening remarks. Gagnon has one of those thick French accents that sounds like a put-on by a prank caller, so he was fun to listen to. 

Then came host, Shelagh Rogers. “Thank you very much for that almost funereal introduction,” she said to Gagnon as she took the stage. She was wearing a black dress with a chunky turquoise necklace and chunky turquoise glasses. (“She was more like Gabereau than I thought she’d be,” A. said later.)

Rogers introduced Nick Mount, the head judge. He’s also the fiction editor at The Walrus and the man responsible for acquiring my short story, which is why we call him Daddy Walrus around our place. “As I learned last night,” Rogers said, “he has a stunning collection of Spice Girls paraphernalia.”  

“It’s not just a collection for me, it’s an investment for the future,” said Daddy Walrus. Then, lowering his voice, “Someday, my son, this will all be yours.” 

Writers Richard Wagamese and Helen Humphreys were the other two judges, but only the latter was in attendance. Rogers had her up on stage to talk about judging. They stood facing each other so we saw them in profile. It looked awkward, but also strangely endearing—like they were two wrestlers about to tenderly embrace. 

Rogers then introduced each of the finalists, revealing a little known fact about each of them, which she’d learned at dinner the previous night. After each author gave a short reading, she asked them a question or two. For brevity, I will give you the highlights in field note format.

Author: Alix Hawley
Impressions: Like Rogers, in a black dress with a chunky turquoise necklace.
Little Known Fact: “She was Miss Kelowna, second runner-up.”
First Novel: All True Not a Lie In It, a retelling of the life of American folk hero Daniel Boone.
Quote: “I left my tiara at home.”

Author: Emma Hooper
Impressions: An ivory and pale blue halter dress with a pattern that would also look pretty on a tea cup. The kind of cute extra-short bob with extra-short bangs that looks like you took a regular bob and shrank it. A touch of Bath, where she currently resides, in her voice.
Little known fact: “She was a circus freak.”
First Novel: Etto and Otto and Russell and James, in which an elderly woman walks across Canada to see the Atlantic Ocean.
Quote: N/A. I apologize, my notes failed me. I was distracted by the unfortunate sheen of a grey shirt worn by the gentleman in front of us. We used to have sheets with the same sheen. They gave off an air of desperation so we got rid of them.

Author: Sean Michaels
Impressions: A little like a young Paul Giamatti in profile. Glasses. A pocket notebook instead of a pocket square tucked into his suit jacket (or at least, that’s what it looked like from the back row).
Little Known Fact: Rogers didn’t give us Michaels’ LKF. This lack of symmetry was upsetting, so I Tweeted Rogers later to ask. She Tweeted back: “I wanted to break the pattern. It has to do with sailing with a billionaire on a catamaran.”
First Novel: Us Conductors, a fictionalized account of the Russian scientist/inventor/spy Lev Termen, who invented the strange instrument called the theremin. Also, it’s already won the Giller Prize.
Quote: Of the theremin: “The way you play it is by longing at it.”

Author: Guillame Morissette
Impressions: The guy spotted earlier in the graphic tee! We found out later it says “BOOKS ARE RIDICULOUS & IMPORTANT”. Also, hip glasses and another fun French accent.
Little Known Fact: “He has the same muscle mass he had when he was eleven.”
First Novel: New Tab, about the year in the life of a young Montreal video game designer.
Quip: “I feel like I’m at some sort of weird bachelor auction, so feel free to shout numbers.” Also: “I enjoy making fun of myself. I enjoy self-loathing.”

Author: Chelsea Rooney
Impressions: Smooth hair and an elegant nude-coloured sheath dress. I learned later from her Twitter page that a ten-year-old had told her the dress made her look like “a giant finger.”
Little Known Fact: Her novel had started its life as a travel piece.
First Novel: Pedal, in which a graduate student and a pedophile embark on a bike trip across Canada.
Quote: “I wanted to address the issue of stigma around sexual abuse.”

Alexandre Gagnon then came back to present the award. “We did contemplate having a drone deliver the envelope but when we looked into it it got pretty complex so we went the traditional route,” he said. Then he announced the name: Alix Hawley.

“I’m literally speechless,” said Hawley when she accepted the prize and got a little weepy. Then she said something like, “as I followed Dan through this story...” I liked that, the intimacy of calling Daniel Boone Dan.

The prize for Hawley, is $7500 cash, a $750 Amazon gift certificate, and one of those trophies that can be kept by the front door in case the need to bash an intruder arises. 

 “Let’s have a drink,” Rogers said in closing. 

We had one more. We talked to Guillame Morissette and Daddy Walrus. We cruised the appetizers one more time (I caught A. sniffing a piece of flatbread for garlic), this time with the gin munchies. On the way out, I used the palatial ladies’ room where I saw myself in the full-length mirror and realized I didn’t look like a shrubby Stevie Nicks after all. 


PROJECTS // A Lowfalutin Bucket List

Bucket lists make me anxious. I’m already ambitious and I don’t need a bucket list bullying me, plus I don’t qualify for the Make a Wish Foundation to fly me to an ice hotel to drink vodka and swath myself in furs. I’m not even saying that’s what I’d put on my list of things to do before I kick the bucket, but you know what I mean. A Lowfalutin Bucket List though, now that’s something I can get into.

A Lowfalutin Bucket List is a list of small, attainable things that one can achieve pretty much any ol’ time with limited resources. I checked off my first LBL thing this week: I learned to make animated gifs from YouTube videos. 

First, I messed around with a few online programs like Giflike and Gif to YouTube. They weren’t very fun because they felt overly-complicated. Then I remembered about apps and went to the Chrome Web Store and downloaded MakeGIF Video Capture, which, after using, I think should be renamed Giffy in a Jiffy. All you do is go to YouTube, open the MakeGIF icon that the app installed on your toolbar, cue up your video, press “Start”, and then press “Done”. You can also add a caption. Then you hit “Generate GIF” and download it to your computer. With that, I give you my first two animated gifs:

Sarah Silverman on the wage gap:

And the beloved OMG Cat: