How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

kim jong un

The Most Used Word on Campus

University of Arizona

Spend an enlightening lunch listening to students converse at the University of Arizona student center, and you cannot fail to hear one word repeated endlessly from everyone around you.  In fact, when I began to notice the overuse of this word, I decided to count the number of times it was uttered by just the student nearest me–who was attempting to describe her reaction to a party attended the previous weekend.  (In three minutes she used the word 93 times.)  Interrupting a professor who was eating his lunch outside, I divulged this, and was told, “I try to make my students aware of the word, because when they talk to me it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying.”  The word is ubiquitous.  Actually, no, that’s not THE WORD.  I now fear to use THE WORD because I might catalyze it, thereby infecting my writing with its regressive contagion.  THE WORD obviously has a viral quality to it, even on campuses of so-called higher learning.  Say it or write it too often, and I might soon discover that I can’t stop the momentum.  It will muscle itself into every sentence I utter, until I’m reduced to stuttering it in convulsive, brain-frozen exasperation.  Can a single word be a life form?  Can it multiply so prodigiously that only ceramic earplugs worn 24/7 have any hope of protection?  How would you avoid being influenced by peers using THE WORD the way a soldier uses a machine gun on full auto?  Perhaps what’s needed is a high tech helmet, with built in sensors that screen out THE WORD.  A computer feedback device inside could interpret what the lifeform is trying to tell you, and also rate the intelligence of that lifeform via a frequency counter.  A video camera could capture and project their expressions inside the helmet, rendering them as a virtual display that could be analyzed and decoded.  That way, the wearer wouldn’t have to think or remember prior prevarications.  College administrators could monitor their use of THE WORD, and reward or punish them accordingly.  Maybe a shock can be delivered, if not measured in amperage, then in flashed statistics of all the innumerable products and services where THE WORD appears, waiting to be clicked.  This pop cultural meme, this inescapable social currency, this post-modern, pre-apocalyptic marketing tool is even now taking over every space, not just cyberspace.  Unite with us, now, oh ye in defense of the language, as we oppose muddy thoughts where breeds these horrid bugs!  Would you like to learn more?
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Recruit:  Yeah, like, what do I, like, have to do to, like, earn my citizenship, man?

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Deconstructing the Word “Shit”

ShitIf you think outside its box, (and each word has one, just as each person lives inside innumerable boxes inside puzzle boxes), the word “shit” loses its repulsive emotional power and becomes just four letters on the page, with no more effect than any other arrangement of four letters.  For example, rearrange the letters and you have “hits,” which has attractive power inside a Top 40 box.  In Star Wars there is the evil “Sith,” another anagram.  Repulsive, but not considered vulgar.  As a noun, “shit” means “feces,” the inevitable transformation of food, once enjoyed and deconstructed by every body.  As a verb, “shit” means to soil oneself, which also happens to every body if they reach a certain age.  Yet as a word trapped within its usual box, the word is used as an epithet or curse.  In other words, we have decided that this short arrangement of four letters should retain a quality of repulsion, and therefore we restrict the use of the word in speech through censorship of various kinds.  Consequently, if we hear someone using the word, we assume they are “intellectually challenged” (ie. an “idiot”), with a small vocabulary and inferior education.  But imagine William F. Buckley using the word, which he did (albeit not often).  Or the Pope, instead of “poop.”  Do you now feel cheated just a bit of the knee-jerk reaction which the title of this blog first induced?  
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    Writers always seek the best word to use, drawn from their experience and vocabulary, and this also leads them into considering how culture perceives these symbols.  The best writers labor over constructing sentences in such a way that new revelations of insight into a character’s complexity can be mirrored in the reader.  Consider James Lee Burke, a mystery writer who never uses clichés, and always works for new combinations and depths.  Another way to write involves using short sentences, seeking emotional reactions by hammering home viscerally-charged phrases, and not caring so much about subtle or deeper understanding.  Think James Patterson.  Patterson outsells Burke, and while both use the word “shit,” Burke would never use a cliché (except in dialogue) such as “he screamed like a stuck pig.”  To Burke, that phrase is a box he thinks outside of.  To Patterson, it is just another tool in his arsenal to produce more books.  (He started as an ad man, after all.)
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    Now consider society and culture at large.  How often do we find ourselves influenced by the “groupthink” or “doublethink” which television’s box assimilates and then regurgitates back to us in an unending feedback loop (because that’s the most efficient way to maximize profit)?  The answer to that is every time we turn on this “boob tube.”  Which is why reading is more important to the preservation of the imagination, and to thinking outside that box of boxes.  Words have meanings–and form concepts–but those concepts are fluid, and meanings tend to change over time.  Both poetry and good music point toward concepts which words only seem to hint at.  Great prose does this too.  There is alchemy involved.  Magic, if you will.  With imagination as a tool, you find it easier to think outside whatever boxes trap you.  You see people differently, and yourself as well.  In contrast, my sister went to a local Goodyear with a leak in a radiator hose the other day, and they tried to charge her $300 to replace it.  They perceived her as gullible:  a woman in a box.  So a $5 length of rubber hose, a $2 clamp, and 10 minutes time became $90 for parts and $210 for labor.  Likewise, the Pentagon routinely gets charged millions for parts that cost thousands.  Programs advertise “free money from the government.”  Entitlement fraud is rampant.  Pork barrel projects are considered political “rights.”  This is because Uncle Sam’s box is in being perceived as a “sugar daddy.”  In my own case, two of my novels were perceived by agents as being “outside the genre box,” meaning cross-genre and hard to market.  “Is it mystery, scifi, literary, adventure, romance, or what?” I was asked.  “Well, it’s all of the above,” I replied, inevitably leading to the response, “not for us.”  But don’t readers want to be unable to guess the ending?  Apparently not.  We prefer McNovels with predictable experiences.  We want politicians who promise change, yet we don’t want any change (think doublethink.)  This is exactly why prejudice doesn’t go away.  We condemn it, yet still encourage it.  Illogical puzzle boxes inside cardboard boxes.
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    Any single man will tell you that they are perceived differently when in company of a woman.  Suddenly, you are “there,” where before you were invisible.  A similar cultural box bases social acceptance on whether you are married.  In restaurants, when alone, I am hustled to make my order, hustled to eat my meal, hustled to pay the check.  When dining with friends or my sister, there is a completely different attitude.  The difference is that of being a serial killer versus a standup comic.  Polite urgency versus “genuine” compliments and effusive smiles.  Likewise, hotels and cruise ships base their rates on double occupancy, so if you try to book alone you are often asked to pay as much as two people.  And there is no service which matches single travelers in this predicament.  (Only one ship out of hundreds doesn’t charge a “single supplement fee,” and so if you don’t want to travel where it goes, you’re out of luck.)  
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    Boxes exist everywhere, (racially or sexually-motivated, age-related, or religion-based) and we are the unfortunate cargo.  Those who stay inside these boxes, seeking group popularity, will never become the next Steve Jobs or William Gibson or Lady Gaga, and we keep ourselves inside these boxes by giving in, following trends, watching game shows, accepting the status quo of values and “opinions” (which are engineered for us.)  The media’s objective is to keep us in boxes which can be marketed to.  Politicians are all about boxes they can control.  Culture is about preserving boxes that, when stacked to the high heavens, block real creativity and individuality by presenting more-of-the-same, and judging anyone who deviates as “inferior.”  Which is also why, when you go to most movies, or turn on Direct TV, what you usually get (while acquiring diabetes, attention-deficit-disorder, Alzheimer’s, and obesity) is just more “shit.”  Noun.    

shit