Category Archives: fun

Sure-fire opening lines

This was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in want of readers must be possessed of a good opening line. A book is a relationship – many of us spend more intimate time with books than with people – and it is important to start the relationship off on a good foot.

So, naturally, I wondered whether good opening lines for books were like good opening lines on Tinder.

A book, of course, is not addressing you personally. Still, like your first message to someone on Tinder (I’m told), a book’s opening line should include a couple of attention-grabbing details, be about something the reader is interested in, refer to things they know about, present honesty and vulnerability, and leave the reader wanting to know more. It’s even better if it’s witty.

On the other hand, books are supposed to bring adventure, with danger and disturbance. It’s safe, since you can close the cover and return to normalcy, but it can’t be like a nice date. Death makes for bad dates but good reading.

So, as a study in pragmatics and discourse, let’s try some opening lines of books lightly adapted to be Tinder opening lines and see how they do.

  • “Hey. I am somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert and the drugs are beginning to take hold.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • “Good evening. It is a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • “JSYK, everything in my profile happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
  • “Greetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • “How’s it going? If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
  • “Greetings. I am a woman who has discovered she has turned into the wrong person.” (Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups)
  • “Nice day, eh? The sun is shining, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
  • “A bit about myself: All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
  • “Yo. I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)
  • “Hi there. I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” (Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche)
  • “Good day. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
  • “My name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and I almost deserve it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

From these we observe two further truisms:

  1. The genre expectations of narrative fiction are sharply different from those of dating.
  2. Most protagonists of novels may be very interesting to read about but are not the kind of people you would want to go on a date with.

Book sniffing note: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1964 edition

I first met this set of encyclopedias in 1976, when they were a dozen years old and I was just a bit younger. They were on a bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Fredonia, New York. I courted them again and again over three decades: whenever I was visiting and not occupied with other things – setting up domino reactions, blowing soap bubbles, photographing family, seeing local sights, watching television, playing darts in the cool empty basement – I might pull out a volume and look for something to read, just as I would at my own home with the World Book encyclopedias and, later, a much newer set of Britannica with soft covers that smelled of educated leather, a very different smell from any other encyclopedia.

This set travelled with my grandmother to a seniors’ residence. And then, when she was reducing her possessions to those few that would fit in a smaller apartment, I finally took it home with me in a rented car. It has anchored the bottom shelf of my bookcase for about fifteen years now, half of that since its original owner departed in hopes of meeting the source of all knowledge.

I don’t often pull out a volume and open it. I don’t need to; fresher information is available in fire-hose quantity through the same device I’m typing this on, and even the entertainment value of this dinosaur of knowledge is not as great as other options.

But a computer does not feel like a volume of this 1964 set of Britannica. And it certainly does not smell like it.

I have pulled out volume 7, Daisy to Educational Psychology, this evening. It is in good shape, less bumped and broken than some of the others. It feels solid, like a volume you would pull off the shelf in the first library where you learned what solid, smart books feel like. Though it would make a poor pillow, it is as comforting as down and cool, dry linen, inviting you to black-and-white dreams of knowledge. It has a hard cover in a deep red textured material that is at least meant to recall leather. When I open it, it makes a high, resonant creaking-cracking sound, something between a straw slurp and the opening of an ancient coffin from inside.

And then I smell it. Because that is what one does. There is nothing other that plucks the strings of memory as smartly as smell. You don’t know for sure that you are getting the real, authoritative, well-aged knowledge unless it smells like a book from your school library.

And this does. It smells like the grey-suit-with-school-tie version of a book. It is a crisp smell but not sharp, neither flowery nor floury, but partway between an HB pencil and a soda biscuit. It smells like the book where I first learned of logarithms; it smells like the book in which I made my first explorations of the German language. It smells like the official records of things my parents and teachers did. It smells like the elaborate mathematical equations it displays: it is the book-smell version of a schoolchild’s idea of an Ivy League physics classroom. It smells like maps and diagrams and dot-screened documentary photographs as you first learned the smells of such things. It smells like a Christmas morning of the mind.

It is the smell of plywood desks with laminate tops engraved by ballpoint pens; it is the smell of sitting lotus-legged on the hard rug floor between rows of shelves in the library, the comforting cliffs of knowledge towering above you as you relax in the quiet canyon of discovery, secure that no dedicated ignoramus will smoke you out. This one smell conveys structure and potential; it tells you that you are about to know more, and there may be a test.

This smell is the wrapping on a gift from God, the God of knowledge, the God my grandmother surely looked forward to meeting. What sort of a grandmother has a set of Britannica? A tall, graceful, smart, witty grandmother, magazine-model beautiful, lifelong teetotaller, former missionary, small-town western New York pragmatic, widow, high-school teacher. A woman who believed in gifts from God and believed that knowledge was one such. A woman whose name was literally a gift from God: Dorothy, from δῶρον (doron, ‘gift’) and θεός (theos, ‘god’).

And these books are a gift to me from my grandmother. She is ashes now, but this yard and a half of unburnt paper – bought when she was younger than I am now – remains. It takes up space I could use for other things, yes, but that’s what memories do.

Cryptic crossword solution

Here’s the solution to the cryptic crossword. If you’d like an explanation for any of the clues, ask away! Continue reading

A cryptic crossword

For fun, because everything is unusual just now, and people may want some diversion, I have decided to make a cryptic crossword. It’s been years since I’ve made one, and never before for this blog, but what the heck.

Some of you know what cryptic crosswords are all about. This is one of those, and there is nothing unduly untoward about it; in fact, it’s smaller than most, and you’ll probably find it generally not too hard.

Some of you, however, will be unfamiliar with cryptic crosswords. They have a more spaced-out grid than the usual American ones, so you can’t fill in a word completely just by filling in all the words that cross it, but that’s not the fun part. It’s “cryptic” because each clue gives the answer two ways – one with a definition and one using wordplay – but you have to figure out which part is the definition and which is the wordplay, because it’s not made obvious for you. The wordplay can involve an anagram (signalled by a descriptor such as “mixed-up”), a pun (signalled by something suggesting “sounds like”), or a deconstruction of the form into smaller bits. Sometimes it’s something a bit more out of left field.

The first example I was ever given was the clue “Country song about sailor.” The solution is ARABIA. Why? Because it’s a country, and in form it’s a song (ARIA) about (on either side of) a sailor (AB – a short form for Able-Bodied Seaman). Other examples that come to mind are “A girl’s lies are savoury things,” which solves to HERBS (because HER = a girl’s and BS = lies, and HERBS are savoury things); “Endless bribery, i.e. corruption, and disease,” which solves to BERIBERI (because endless bribery = BRIBER, i.e. corruption means that I and E are mixing in with that, and disease = BERIBERI); and “Hear the price of corn? Pirate!” which solves to BUCCANEER (because it sounds like “buck an ear” – hear the price of corn – and it means pirate).

OK, here it is. Off you go. I’ll post the solution in a couple of days. Patrons on Patreon will get to see it tomorrow! You’ll see I’m using a letter-number grid to designate the starting squares rather than just numbering them; that’s because it’s easier to read.

 

ACROSS

A1. Birds responsible for nearly all of divorces, weirdly

A3. You slob, I’ve almost gotten confused, clearly

B5. Frosty? Try the south now, dude

A7. The upper limit of a bird’s call

C9. Johnson’s handlers are not worth keeping

DOWN

A1. Slightly too short to go on your head, but you can eat it

C1. Nurse flies across avenue, says A7

E1. In scuffle, raise worn pot and kettle

G1. You shouldn’t need help on this, but here’s help

I1. When they’re blue, they play ball

G5. Love sounds like it could open up for you

A6. One, but absolutely huge

I6. They fought – like cats and dogs

C7. Five at a pot

Some old theatre

Aina and I pulled out some old VHS tapes and have started digitizing them. I found two of me in my twenties performing in plays, for those who are curious and have some time to waste.

The first is a great British farce, One for the Pot. I’m the lead, playing three different characters. I was 21 years old. It was a community theatre production at the Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton. As I watch it now I can see plenty of things I should have done differently, but it was pretty funny nonetheless, and it had a good cast overall.

The second is a workshop performance of Othello adapted into Jingxi (Beijing Opera) style, not including the vocal technique – just aspects of the movement and plot devices. It was the output of a summer course at Tufts University in 1994, when I was 26. It was directed and taught by Fan Yisong and Sun Huizhou (William Sun), and it included Balinese performer I Nyoman Catra plus a few people who are now professors of theatre. I played Cassio. I don’t think I was very good, frankly (the Othello and Desdemona were much better). But it’s worth watching at least the beginning (after the introduction by Laurence Senelick) so you can see what I looked like when I was very skinny and had very long hair.

Words we love irrationally much

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

I asked people on Twitter about words they love irrationally much. I got quite a few responses. Actually, I got so many that when I tried to retweet them all, Twitter finally told me I had reached my daily tweet limit. And did again the next day.

The words that people love irrationally much are many and varied. But a few words came up again and again, and it’s interesting to see what they have in common. Continue reading

The Editor’s Carols

After my previous editorial music video, I had a couple of requests for some Christmas songs. Which is good, because I was going to do it anyway. Here’s my medley – quick and dirty, because I’m too busy editing to spend all day on it. (I’m not lying: I’m fully booked – editing full books!)

Fly Me to the Manuscript

My friend Mark Allen, @EditorMark, was this week’s host of a recurring Twitter event called #StetDanceParty, where editors can (if they want) take a break for a half hour for some lively music. He messaged me on Monday asking if I’d like to contribute.

“Do you mean I should sing the song?” I asked. “Or choose a video made by someone else?”

“I mean sing, man, sing,” he said.

So (after a couple of days figuring out what I’d sing) on Thursday I recorded and edited this video, put it up on YouTube just before bedtime, and sent the link to him. He shared it with the world about an hour ago. Here it is:

cow-orker

Coworker is a funny word. It’s often misread, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. And while I love a good double entendre, in my editorial role as a professional clarifier I feel it is worthwhile inserting a hyphen to make it clear what it really is: cow-orker. Continue reading

Rime of the Ancient Editor

Marie-Lynn Hammond (a luminary in the world of Canadian folk music and also a professional editor) was asked to write a song to celebrate the 40th birthday of Editors Canada (also known as the Editors’ Association of Canada), and she asked me to join in writing the words. She wasn’t able to be at the conference in Halifax, so I led those present at the opening reception in singing it. Here’s a cellphone video of it.

And here are the words:

I am an ancient editor (well, OK, not that old);
I do to words what’s right and true and also what I’m told.
I mostly work alone and yet I’m not alone at all,
for editing lures many with its nerdy siren call!

CHORUS:
Hey ho! Haul up the manuscriptand brave the waves of prose,
and on the storm of muddy words some order we’ll impose.
Hey ho! Fix up the manuscript by sunlight and by moon!
We’ll steer a course to clarity for deadline’s coming soon!

I sail through books and articles, and sometimes even verse;
I try to make them better or at least not make them worse.
I move, delete, and query, tracking changes all the while,
And though hands and eyes may weary, still I do it all with style.

I toil in anonymity, I serve the author’s voice;
It’s grammar over glamour—but when freelance, I rejoice!
For I can work from coffee shops, or home if I decide,
In my housecoat and pyjamas with my cats all by my side.

And when the writing’s so banal I fear I’ll fall asleep,
[I must] beware the dangling modifiers lurking in the deep!
And if the structure’s full of holes and threatening to sink,
I pray I’ll be forgiven should I end up in the drink!

Our crew’s been here for forty years, and we’re still going strong;
They said that we’d be obsolete, but oh! we proved them wrong.
As long as words are in the world, they’ll need a steady hand,
And that’s why we are editors, and oh! my friends, it’s grand!