Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civil War balancing act

The British hated slavery, but they depended upon the cotton produced by slave labor on plantations in the American South. That devil-and-hard place situation proved ticklish in the 1850s, and for Robert Bunch, Britain's consul in Charleston, it became downright dangerous once war broke out between the North and South.

Christopher Dickey tells Bunch's story in Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, just published by Crown.

Because he witnessed the buying and selling, as well as the physical abuse, of slaves first hand, Bunch hated slavery even more than most of his countrymen. Yet he was a diplomat, so he behaved diplomatically, trying to maintain cordial relationships with slaveholders while regularly sending frank communications back to London expressing what he really thought about the nasty business. Had these letters been intercepted he could have been killed, for he rarely sent his messages in code, thinking that would only make them seem more suspicious.

Ironically, William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, became convinced Bunch favored secession and was working to get Great Britain to enter the war in support of the South. The South, too, expected active support from Britain, but the British, thanks in part to Bunch, managed to straddle the fence until the war's conclusion gave them what they wanted, both a resumption of cotton shipments and the end of the slave trade in America.

Dickey probably tells us more about Robert Bunch than most of us care to read, and his book can get tedious at times, yet it reveals something about the Civil War probably even most devout Civil War buffs didn't previously know.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thinking, feeling animals

Carl Safina's new book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel would once have been unthinkable for any scientist who hoped to maintain the respect of his colleagues. Until recently, questions about what animals might think or feel were off limits for scientists to even contemplate, let alone write books about. That attitude has changed slowly, thanks to the work of Jane Goodall and a few others.

Safina discusses many species, including the human one, in his book, but he focuses mainly on elephants, wolves, dogs (domesticated wolves) and killer whales. What these animals have in common is their complex social relationships, and this requires more developed brains. "Dolphins, apes, elephants, wolves, and humans face similar needs: know your territory and its resources, know your friends, monitor your enemies, achieve fertilization, raise babes, defend, and cooperate when it serves you," he writes.

He ridicules scientists past and present who fail to see the evidence of animals thinking and feeling that is right in front of their eyes, evidence that most pet owners notice every day. "People who don't see the evidence aren't paying attention," he says. Safina's research took him to scientists who are paying attention, those who have devoted their lives to observing elephants, wolves and killer whales. The scientists tell amazing stories about these creatures mourning the loss of family members, heroically risking their own lives in defense of others, solving difficult problems and, especially in the case of elephants and killer whales, communicating complex messages over long distances.

The author may spend too much time on the soapbox for his own good. He is right to explain how these intelligent and sensitive animals are endangered by shortsighted human behavior, but his repeated slams against humans (such as, "Creating problems seems to be one of the things that 'make us human.'") seem to go too far in the other direction. Instead of claiming animals are far inferior to human, he argues humans are far inferior to animals. Yet humans are the ones he expects to buy his book.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Target audiences

An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Does this seem presumptuous? Most writers are lucky just to reach the youth, or anybody else, of their own generation, let alone critics and schoolmasters of the future. That F. Scott Fitzgerald, with novels like The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, managed to reach all three of his target audiences says much for him. Success like that is rare in the literary world, however. I can think of writers who perhaps by striving for future greatness failed to write anything that drew much of an audience even in their own time.

I prefer John Updike's point of view. He said, "When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

Updike's target audience, while still located in the future, seems more humble, more realistic and even more honorable. All books, after all, should be written for readers, not for critics and schoolmasters. Printed on paper and placed on shelves, they are intended to outlive their authors. Whether any future reader will ever discover them and take the time to read them is the question.

At a Friends of the Library book sale in my town last weekend, I noticed all the library discards on the shelves. These are the books the library removed from circulation to make room for newer books. I was particularly saddened when I noticed Michael Frayn's novel Spies among the discards. This is a wonderful book, published in 2002, that reads like an espionage thriller even though it is about two little boys just pretending to be spies. Now no "countrysh teen-aged boy," or anyone else, is going to be able to find it in this library ever again. That's too bad, not just for Michael Frayn but for all those potential readers, as well.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Our expanding vocabulary

The publishing industry, like every other industry, has its own vocabulary, which keeps expanding year by year. Leafing through William Brohaugh's English Through the Ages (1998), focusing mainly on words in the Literature/Writing category, I was surprised that some words are as recent as they are, while others have been in use much longer than I would have guessed.

It's no surprise that terms like desktop publishing and graphic novel weren't coined until the 1980s or that electronic publishing and self-published weren't used before the 1970s. Investigative journalism may have been done before Watergate, but not until the 1970s was that term actually used.

But a  coffee-table book wasn't called that until the 1960s, which surprises me. The terms pop-up book, speed-reading, legal pad and pulp magazine also were unheard until the 1960s, according to Brohaugh, even though the age of the pulp magazine was nearly over by the 1960s. I was surprised to learn that word processing dates back that far. Brohaugh confuses me when he says the term procedural, in reference to mystery novels, wasn't used until the 1970s, but he says police procedural was known in the 1960s.

Going back further we find the 1950s gave us centerfold (no surprise there), as well as both hardback and softbound. I am shocked that the terms fine print and copyedit are that recent, however.

The 1940s produced comic book, think piece (I would have guessed a later date), cover story and foreign correspondent. The Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent was released in 1940, so unless Hitchcock himself coined the phrase, surely it must be older than that. The phrase writer's block also dates from this period of history.

By 1940 people were saying talking book (no surprise if you have seen the movie Places in the Heart), field guide, library card and photojournalism. Only the last term seems a bit out of place for that decade.

Go back another decade to the 1920s and we find newsmagazine (a surprise), bookmobile (another surprise), press and whodunit. That decade also gave us dust jacket, fan magazine, ghostwrite and newscast. A couple of terms from that decade, fictioneer and magazinist, have already dropped out of use.

By 1920 people were already saying comic strip, subplot, rhyme scheme, newshound, byline, superhero and blurb.

By the end of the 19th century they were using such terms as four-letter word, mumbo jumbo and weasel word. This period also gave us journalese, Americanese, telegraphese and officialese, which shows how you can have fads in vocabulary just like in anything else..

The middle of the 19th century produced a number of words still in use today. These include science fiction (in use by 1855, though I would have expected a later date), folktale, booklet, clothbound, book review (by 1865), potboiler, funny paper and scoop.

Earlier in that century someone coined punctuate, hyphen, exclamation point and past tense, making you wonder what terms were used for these things before then. That period also gave us figure of speech and cuss.

Go back to the 18th century and you find lyricism, dialogue, magazine, autobiography, circular, literature, poetic license and bookstore. The 17th century produced character, memoir, newspaper, biography, font, journalist, alphabetize and plot.

I could keep going. Some of the earliest English words in this category include such basics as book (by 725), verse (by 900), read and write (both also by 900).

Vocabulary, like culture itself, is a product of many generations, each one adding something new to what is already there.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Read at an appropriate speed

Books should be read at the speed they deserve.
James Salter, paraphrasing Jacques Bonnet
in his introduction to Bonnet's book, Phantoms on the Bookshelves

These words came to mind soon after I started reading Owen Parry's Civil War mystery Shadows of Glory, when it took me two days to read the first 12 pages. Now this is a murder mystery, not something by James Joyce or Marcel Proust. Even so, the rich language of the opening chapter deserved to be taken slowly and reread a time or two. I took seven notes during those first 12 pages, further delaying my progress. Here are a couple of passages I noted:

"Twas then I saw her, that woman who would reach into our souls. Well to the rear she stood, beyond the want of the wind-scraped faces -- narrow as lies -- and the pair of worried police fellows, their slouch hats wreathed with snow."

"Her wet eyes were as dead as her husband's body, and she smelled of milk and misery."

Owen Parry, the pen name of Ralph Peters, a retired soldier who also writes novels under his own name, has a gift for descriptive writing, especially in the flowery language of the mid-19th century. I thought it was worth taking my time to get through those opening pages. After that, fortunately, Parry lays off the description and moves into the plot, allowing me to pick up the pace of my reading.

Some people pride themselves on being able to knock off a 400- or 500-page novel every day or two. Of course, these novels are usually thrillers by the likes of David Baldacci or James Patterson, books that are written to be read quickly. Sometimes quite literally, you can't put them down. These people seem to get uncomfortable when they find themselves stuck with a book that requires a slower pace. They don't want to have to spend a week or more on the same book. That's too bad because some books, including some of the best books, need to be taken slowly to fully appreciate them. Some books, or at least some passages of some books, need to be read more than once.

I enjoy a Baldacci novel every year or so. I get pleasure out of being able to polish off a thick book in just a few days. Yet I wouldn't want a steady diet of this kind of books. Some books, like some meals, need to be consumed slowly and savored.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Criticizing the critics

Alfred Kazin
If critics often have harsh things to say about writers, writers can be just as harsh in their criticism of critics. Sometimes more so. Paul Hendrickson writes in Hemingway's Boat that noted literary critic Alfred Kazin, writing in The New Yorker, said of Ernest Hemingway's new book, Across the River and into the Trees, "(I)t is hard to say what one feels most in reading this book -- pity, embarrassment that so fine and honest a writer can make such a travesty of himself, or amazement that a man can render so marvelously the beauty of the natural world and yet be so vulgar..." In a letter to Harold Ross of The New Yorker, a letter which may never have actually been mailed, Hemingway wrote, "Please TELL KAZIN (if that is his real name) TO GO HANG HIMSELF (Will Furnish Worn Out Rope From the Boat)."

Well, that was Hemingway for you. His comments about other writers and their work could be crueler than anything critics might have written. About James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, he wrote in a letter to publisher Charles Scribner, "I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales." Of Thomas Wolfe, he wrote, "Tom Wolfe was a one book boy and a glandular giant with the brains and the guts of three mice." Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he said, "Scott was a rummy and a liar and dishonest about money." To his credit, at least, these comments were written to third parties and not published in The New Yorker.

Jon Winokur collects some comments from writers about critics in his book Writers on Writing. Here is a sampling:

A critic is a gong at a railroad crossing clanging loudly and vainly as the train goes by. -- Christopher Morley

To literary critics a book is assumed to be guilty until it proves itself innocent. -- Nelson Algren

Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing. -- Joyce Carol Oates

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs. -- John Osborne

Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. -- Samuel Johnson

Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing the open sea. -- John Updike

Why did all these giants descend on me and my little stories? I wasn't doing anything of national import. All I was trying to do was entertain the public and make a buck. -- Mickey Spillane

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Our reading biases

In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, I know perfectly well why I have never read it -- I hate people from Massachusetts...
Joe Queenan, One  for the Books

OK, so maybe we are remarkably free of bias when it comes to people of other races, other religions and other sexual preferences, but chances are there is one area where our prejudices come through, and that is in our reading. However much we may read, we can still read only so many books in one lifetime, and so we must make choices. We must discriminate, even if our reading biases, like the one Joe Queenan expresses above, don't always make sense.

Queenan actually mentions quite a number of reading biases in One for the Books. "I will not read books where the main character attended private school," he writes. A little bit later, he says, "I also will not read books by P.G. Wodehouse, a poncey aristocrat who played footsie with the Nazis during the fall of France." Still later, "I avoid at all costs books about melancholy WASPs, teens with social anxiety disorders, and immigrants who simply will not take no for an answer."

He says he started to read David Benioff's novel City of Thieves with enthusiasm, but decided he didn't like it on page two when the narrator reveals that his grandfather, the story's main character, came to America after the war and became a Yankee fan. Queenan thinks the character should have become a Dodger fan, and his choice of teams ruined the whole book for him. He adds, "I also refuse to read books whose characters or authors have any affiliation whatsoever with the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Duke University men's basketball team, the University of Southern California football team, or Manchester United, the Yankees' vile, English, soccer-playing twin."

Queenan may be a master of overstatement, but I suspect his reading prejudices are real, just as they are real for most of the rest of us. These prejudices may or may not make sense, but they do, in a way, serve a vital purpose. They significantly lighten the task we face, when entering a bookstore or library, of finding something to read. When we can instantly eliminate certain authors and certain topics from consideration, it makes our choices so much easier. Sadly, however, it means we deny ourselves the pleasure of reading some very fine books, like, for example, City of Thieves and almost anything by Wodehouse.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Do it for the Fat Lady

J.D. Salinger's "Zooey" was published in The New Yorker in May 1957, more than two years after the magazine published his much shorter story "Franny." Since 1961 the two have been in print in book form as Franny and Zooey. Although technically two separate stories, they read more like a novel in two parts. "Zooey" is simply a continuation of "Franny," a few hours later.

I commented on "Franny" on June 22, but in brief the story is about a college girl's spiritual/mental/physical breakdown while she's having dinner with her boyfriend. In "Zooey," Franny, the youngest child in the Glass family, has returned to the family home and collapsed in the living room. Worried about her, Bessie, her mother, invades the bathroom while Zooey, her youngest son, is relaxing in the tub and talks him into trying to help Franny out of her funk and, perhaps more important in Bessie's mind, to get her to consume some of her all-purpose chicken broth.

Although he claims to have other things he needs to do, Zooey nevertheless does speak with his sister, seemingly only succeeding in increasing Franny's despair. The gist of her turmoil seems to be that nobody measures up to her own high standards of how people should live their lives. Everyone, including her college professors and members of her own family, are shallow, conceited, hypocritical, etc. Although she is continually repeating the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"), she thinks Jesus himself was a bit rude when he upset the tables in the temple.

The initial breakthrough, in the story at least, comes not with something Zooey says but with something Franny herself says, "I don't think it (college) would have all got me so down if just once in a while -- just once in a while -- there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time!"

Each of the seven Glass children had appeared in turn on a radio program called "It's a Wise Child" on which, ironically enough, the emphasis was on a child's knowledge rather than wisdom. Each of the seven excelled academically. As for wisdom, the eldest, Seymour and Buddy, are highly regarded, except that Seymour committed suicide at a young age and Buddy, a college professor, never seems to be available when needed, such as right now. That's why Zooey, a successful television actor, gets the call.

Failing in his first attempt, Zooey calls from Seymour's old room, pretending to be Buddy, and tries a different approach with Franny, but she quickly sees through the ruse. Yet, perhaps inspired by his surroundings, Zooey reminds his sister of what Seymour used to tell them before they went on the air. He would tell Zooey to shine his shoes, never mind that it was radio, for the Fat Lady. He once told Franny to be funny for the Fat Lady. Who is the Fat Lady? "Ah, buddy. Ah. buddy," Zooey says. "It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."

We must do our best, whether on a radio quiz show, in a college classroom, in a TV production or wherever we are and whatever it is we do, for fat ladies, pompous professors, vain siblings, imperfect people everywhere. Bessie's chicken soup is consecrated, Zooey says, and so, he suggests, are those very imperfect people we share our lives with.

That, from the youngest male in the Glass household, is not knowledge, but wisdom.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Journalism vs. literature

During my long career in journalism, I was never under any illusion I was creating literature. Sometimes it was good journalism. Sometimes it was bad journalism. Mostly it was acceptable journalism. But literature? Never.

So I was a little surprised while reading Jon Winokur's Writers on Writing, a collection of quotations from writers, to find several entries comparing (or contrasting) journalism with literature. Here they are:

Journalism is literature in a hurry. - Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold
It is because journalism must be done in a hurry, especially when it involves daily newspapers, that it so rarely meets the standard of literature. Magazines, which have more forgiving deadlines than newspapers, usually offer a better quality of writing. I am often impressed with the writing in Sports Illustrated, a weekly magazine. Is it literature? I couldn't say, but it certainly is good journalism.

The work of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens becomes more impressive when you consider that they were under deadlines to produce so many chapters of their novels each month or each week because they appeared in periodicals before they were published as books. These people were, in effect, journalists who produced literature on a regular basis.

The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. - Oscar Wilde

This is an exaggeration, but it does contain a germ of truth. Few people do read great literature, especially when it is not required reading in classrooms. Of course, in today's world, few people read journalism either.

The distinction between literature and journalism is becoming blurred; but journalism gains as literature loses. - W.R. Inge

Is Inge saying that journalism is getting better while literature is in decline? Inge died in 1954 when he was in his 90s, so he must have been talking about journalism and literature as they were about 100 years ago. This was, I believe, a time when journalism was improving significantly, though I hardly think literature was declining. It was changing significantly, however, thanks to such writers as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. When I read the book Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies & Triumphs a few months back, I noticed some extraordinary examples of newspaper columns, many of which probably might be classified as literature, although the definition of literature is itself a bit blurry.

Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once. - Cyril Connolly

Well, OK, that's a pretty good definition.  Literature does not have a fixed meaning. It can mean different things to different people, or even different things to the same people at different points in their lives. The meaning of literature is something that can be argued about. Journalists, on the other hand, must make their meaning clear enough so that virtually everyone who reads an article will understand the same thing, and after just one quick reading..

Journalism is more about conveying facts, while literature is more about conveying truth.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Our language instinct

While driving through Oak Openings Park in northwestern Ohio a few weeks ago, I saw a deer by the side of the road. I stopped, expecting the deer to run, either across the road or back into the woods. Instead it just stood there. Then I noticed a tiny fawn standing behind it on unsteady legs. It looked like it may have been born just minutes before. I waited, and eventually the deer walked slowly across the road with the fawn wobbling behind, and they disappeared into the woods.

One of my dictionaries, the Oxford American, defines instinct as "an inborn impulse or tendency to perform certain acts or behave in certain ways." So perhaps it was instinct that caused that deer to move slowly across that road, when its normal instinct might have been to run in the presence of humans and their cars. And perhaps it was instinct that enabled that fawn to walk so soon after birth and to run soon thereafter.

We often think of instincts as something animals possess, not something humans have, too. In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker argues that language, as his title suggests, is a human instinct. Not that we are born able to talk, as a deer is born able to walk. We do have to learn a language and a vocabulary, but we are born, he says, with the ability to use a language, any language, once we learn the basics.

As evidence he points to a typical three-year-old, whom he describes as "a grammatical genius -- master of most constructions, obeying rules far more often than flouting them, respecting language universals, erring in sensible, adultlike way, and avoid many kinds of errors altogether." He observes that children of this age are incompetent at most things, including activities seemingly less difficult than using proper grammar. Yet they can quickly learn to speak the most difficult languages, something most adults cannot do.

Pinker goes on to point out that human infants are born before their brains are fully developed, otherwise their heads would not be able to pass through the mother's pelvis. "If human beings stayed in the womb for the proportion of their life cycle that we would expect based on extrapolation from other primates, they would be born at the age of eighteen months," he says. "That is the age at which babies in fact begin to put words together." So just as that fawn could walk from the time of its birth, so in one sense, human babies can talk from the moment of theirs.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Perfectly aged

I have been reading Donald E. Westlake novels throughout my adult life, yet I am still finding books of his I have not read. I finally caught up with God Save the Mark, a gem published back in 1967. I don't know whether to feel sorry I didn't read it decades ago or happy to have waited for the right time to open it, as with a bottle of fine wine that's been aging in the cellar for years.

This may be the only book title I have ever encountered that has a footnote, at least on this edition. The footnote explains that, according to the Dictionary of American Slang, a mark is "an easy victim," a sucker, in other words. That perfectly describes Fred Fitch, our narrator and main character, who is so trusting and gullible that confidence men, or for that matter, girl scouts selling cookies, can easily take him for every cent he has in his pocket.

This is true even though his best friend, Reilly, is a cop on the New York City bunco squad.

So when Fred inherits a large sum of money from his Uncle Matt, an uncle he didn't even know he had, confidence men (and women) begin to gather like vultures circling a corpse. He doesn't know if he can trust anyone, including his friend Reilly. Attractive women are suddenly interested in Fred. These include Gertie, an ex-stripper he seems to have also somehow inherited from Uncle Matt, and Karen, Reilly's girlfriend. How he escapes with his money does seem to be through the grace of God, except that Westlake leaves us with the possibility that perhaps Fred really hasn't escaped at all.

Westlake started out writing hardboiled crime novels, and he continued with his Parker series right up until the end of his life. Yet it was comic crime novels like God Save the Mark that were his true gift to the world.

Friday, July 3, 2015

One more white man at Little Big Horn

I wonder if Stephen Moran notices Jack Crabb at Little Big Horn.

Moran narrates Norman Lock's new novel, American Meteor, an epic story in a small package (barely 200 pages) that ends at Little Big Horn. Crabb narrates Thomas Berger's 1964 novel Little Big Man, a much bigger, broader story that also concludes at Little Big Horn. Both are white men whose sympathies lie more with the Indians than with the U.S. Cavalry. Moran, in fact, is determined to kill General Custer before the Indians can.

The novels are otherwise quite different, perhaps most noticeably in tone. While Berger wrote with wit about serious matters, Lock rarely breaks a smile. His topic seems to be the rape of the American West, and he doesn't find much humor there.

What I find amazing about Lock's novel is how much territory he covers in so few pages, both in terms of geography and plot. The story opens with Moran as a Civil War bugle boy barely in his teens. He loses an eye in a battle and, while recovering in a hospital, meets Walt Whitman, who remains an influence on him through the rest of the tale.

Moran gets a medal from Gen. Grant, a medal the boy knows he does not deserve, for his injury had more to do with cowardice than heroism. Nevertheless he is selected to ride President Lincoln's funeral train with his bugle. The train takes him to Illinois, and then he keeps going west, working for the new railroad before becoming a photographer. It is as a photographer that he meets the vain Gen. Custer, who wants photographic evidence of his heroism against the Indians. Moran takes the assignment, leaving a girl and a wonderful career opportunity behind, because he has a different objective: killing Custer.

A longer novel might have served Lock better, for there hardly seems time to develop Moran's motivation for his actions. Crabb at least lived with the Indians for a long time before the Battle of Little Big Horn. Moran just meets Custer, and a few pages later is trying to kill him.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Materena's advice for writers 2

The first line has to make Madame Colette Dumonnier exclaim, "I don't need to interview twenty-five people, I've found my professional cleaner!"
Celestine Vaite, Frangipani

Materena Mahi, as we left her a couple of days ago, is still trying to get that job as a "professional cleaner," which means having to write the first letter she has ever written in her life. She may not know much about writing letters or anything else, but she recognizes that the first line is the key. She quickly dismisses such openers as "I'm a cleaner" and "How are you today?" She wants something that will make Madame Dumonnier want to hire her on the spot, or least make her want to read the rest of the letter..

Materena's search for the perfect first line takes up nearly four pages of Celestine Vaite's novel. Finally she finds it: "I've been cleaning houses since I was eight years old to help my mother." That line gets straight to the point and gives Materena's qualifications for the job in a nutshell. Furthermore, Vaite writes, "That first line, the magical line, unleashes the rest of the letter."

I have often found that to be true, especially during my career as a journalist. Once you find the right opening line, the rest practically writes itself. Yet finding that first line can be a struggle, even for experienced writers.

I recall the time as a student reporter at Ohio University I was given the assignment of covering a lecture by Paul Tillich, the theologian. I filled several pages of my notebook, but frankly I had understood very little of what Tillich said. How was I to build a story out of this assortment of quotes and paraphrases that made so little sense to me? It took me a long time to come up with that opening line, but once I did the story somehow came together. It was printed on the front page of The Post the next day, and it probably appeared cogent to everyone who read it, with the possible exception of Tillich himself.

Sometimes, unable to find a good first line, I would cheat by writing a bad first line, something that was the equivalent of "How are you today?" The right opening line may not become apparent until after the last line has been written. The important thing, especially for a reporter on deadline, is to get started. Often your editors will rewrite your opening paragraph anyway.

Whatever one is writing, whether it's a letter, a news story, a term paper or a novel, a good opening line is key. You want the reader to get interested from the start and to want to read the second line and the one after that. Browsers in bookshops sometimes will pick up a book and read the first line. If it doesn't capture their imaginations, they will put it down and pick up another book.

So what about the first line of Celestine Vaite's novel? Here it is: "When a woman doesn't collect her man's pay she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues to celebrate the end of the week and you know how it is, eh?" That line makes you want to keep reading, eh? It also gives us a clue as to why Materena is so determined to write the perfect letter so she can get that job.