How Mean Was He?

Remember one-up-man-ship?  Like when you could stick it to someone by showing him/her that you had it worse in your day?  You know, the kind of thing that spawned old jokes like:

‘Man we had it bad – the rats in our apartment were bigger than cats!’

‘Rats?  We didn’t have no rats in our apartment – the cockroaches ate them all.’

At one time, this approach spawned a few comedy sets where the comic would look at the audience and say something like: ‘He was stupid!’ (or whatever) and the audience would be encouraged to shout out: ‘How stupid was he?’  Then they’d get: ‘He was so stupid he…’  Fill in an outrageous example and get the laugh.

If you’re wondering what triggered this little foray down memory lane, it’s due to a book a read lately about writing.  If you’re new to my blog you may have missed the fact that I spend endless hours writing novels.  I have three in various stages of construction and, since my only training in writing was what everybody got in school, I’m also spending time learning more about the craft of writing by… reading books.  There are lots of titles out there and I’ve read a few things that weren’t too helpful.  Then someone put me on to a book by Les Edgerton called ‘Hooked’ (Writer’s Digest Books, 2007).

This is a great text – a must read for anyone interested in writing fiction – or at least interested in writing fiction that might sell.  It’s full of solid advice on structure and the elements that go into successful stories.  If you haven’t ever taken courses on writing (or even if you have), this book will help you look at your work in a new way and provide guidance that will make your writing better – and it’s entertaining.  

In fact, the only thing that didn’t have me completely entranced was the occasional example the author chose to illustrate his ideas.  A case in point came from a discussion of the importance of opening sentences, critical in getting anyone to read your story (this includes agents and publishers of course).  Edgerton came up with an opening from one of his own short stories as one of the examples of opening sentences that would ‘hook’ the reader.  Here it is: ‘He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.

I read this and instantly thought that someone, just before the beginning of his story, had said: ‘He was mean’ and the audience shouted back: ‘How mean was he?’  My reaction rather undermined Edgerton’s point – unless I took it as a negative example.  But even if his choice didn’t work for me, I still have to say that Edgerton’s book had me hooked.

TL; DR (note the ; Brendan – I’m listening!)

He was so mean… go ahead, give it a try.

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