by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
May 5, 2004
ADVICE TO AUTHORS
SEATTLE, Wash. -- On the wall next to this computer is a small memo to myself:
What, I wonder, would a stranger, a house sitter, say, make of that? It is actually quite simple. Those are the titles of three books, with their pub dates, that the Seattle Times asked me to review.
The first two were followed by the now obligatory colon plus subtitle, but GOD is there in lonely splendor. Not GOD: The Supreme Being. Just GOD.
Want to write a book that will be reviewed everywhere and might even sell enough to make you some money? First, choose a title of rock bottom simplicity. ONE, say. Forget the colon, not ONE: THE FIRST NUMBER. Just ONE, period.
Think of the possibilities. Browsers will be hooked by the opening: "You thought you knew one, right? The number between zero and two? Think again. One ought never to trust one's uninformed speculation." And one is...I mean...you are off!
Romp through not only Bartlett's but all the original sources of Bartlett. Show that in most languages ONE is singular, and the opposite only of plural (more than ONE), whereas in ancient Greek ONE is merely a third of a trinity: singular, dual, and plural. And you thought you knew ONE.
And here is some more advice that might come in handy to further your writing career.
While waiting in the parking lot of a grocery store, I picked up a friend's book , "Morality for Beautiful Girls," by Alexander McCall Smith. Here is the first sentence:
"Mma Ramotswe, the daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe of Mochudi, near Gabarone, Botswana, Africa, was the announced fiancée of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, son of the late Pumphamilitse Matekoni, of Tlokweng, peasant farmer and latterly chief caretaker of the Railway Head Office."
Whatever my spell checker may think, if one in the throes of cardiac arrest can be said to think, there are no misprints in my copy of what must be the worst opening sentence in a work of fiction ever. It is so bad that one can only suppose it was deliberately bad. I am sure that Smith is capable of "All happy families resemble one another," or "Call me Ishmael."
It might in fact be a fiendishly clever means of making sure that such readers as I, well-known troublemakers, are eliminated by the fail-safe triage of a radically unreadable sentence. So remember that, and take as your model Tolstoy or Melville. Or Jane Austen: "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." -but you know the rest.
But look at me: I've covered the title and the first sentence and omitted the truly essential part of the opening, the epigraph. Here all I can offer is an example. For the inevitable collection of INK SOUP that a just Providence will one day decree, I have chosen this from Proust:
Pour donner dans un livre...l'impression achevée de la frivolité, il faut une dose de sérieux dont une personne purement frivole serait incapable. (To give in a book a perfect impression of frivolity would demand a degree of seriousness quite beyond any completely frivolous person.)
And that is not self-congratulation. I merely wished to draw the reader's attention to the genius of Proust.
In any case, be sure to have your agent send me a set of bound galleys.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.