It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. . .
I have always wanted to start my story with that. Well, not those exact same words, but something along those lines. An opening that defies logic and is therefore taken as a mark of the man's genius in writing them. After all, well begun, so to speak, is always half done.
I stared at the line that I had typed into my noisy old typewriter. Typewriters are noisy, I know - indeed, it is their right to be noisy, to sound as if the D-Day landings are being re-enacted. And the old ones are always the worst, even though you might expect them to be the other way around, since the hammers should be pounded into their arms and the roll should be full of wrinkles by then. But I digress.
The line stared back at me. What else can lines do, actually, other than make you feel that you were wrong to write them in the first place? Mine had an accusatory touch to it, too, as if personally affronted that I would dare rouse them from Dickens' grave. I wasn't too proud of it myself, but, like I said, I never wanted to use those exact lines. I don't plagiarise.
I made a few changes.
It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times.
This was a bit more satisfactory. Of course, I had to wonder whether it was an optimistic beginning or a pessimistic one. One could look at it either way, I decided, although, at the end of the day, a critic would still find a third meaning into it. Something I have never even thought of, something that would damn my story. Critics are like that, you never know which way they'll turn.
It is not that I have a low opinion of critics. Indeed, some of my best friends are critics who have enough sense to applaud my work for the efforts, originality and commitment that goes into it. It's the others who turn me off on the kind. The ones who talk about schemes, character depths, absolute originality, all that. Let me ask you, after three centuries of writers trying to make their mark, exploring all the possible storylines (or is it storiesline) , can you ever hope to come up with one nobody has ever come up with before? Did anyone ever ask Michelangelo why he stuck to paintings and sculptures? And schemes and depths are for poets!
Again, I digress.
And - I suppose you will notice the pattern - I return to staring at my work.
It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times.
Now all I needed was the rest of the story.
I was still undecided as to the genre it should adopt. The beauty of my work so far is that it can be adapted to any story as far as I could see. It would be perfect for a detective story, with the hero a cigar-smoking, beer-smelling, irreverent tough guy waiting for a beautiful damsel in distress. Nor would it be irrelevant when the protagonist's a young woman trying to make it big in a man's world. A journalist, perhaps, or a writer looking for work. I could empathize with the latter, except that I am neither desperate nor in touch with my feminine side.
Or, and I close my eyes as I try to visualize the next outline, it could be about a war veteran returning to a battlefield, older, wiser, with a couple of medals more, reminiscing about the past. Or, if he is young enough, about the future. There would be a bunch of criminals trying to destroy what he feels so strongly about, and so he throws in his lot with a bunch of local underdogs who would be lost were it not for him.
I let the story develop by itself, asking questions only when necessary.
Where should I place him? The Far East or the Dark Continent? I was partial to Africa, mainly because there are many countries in Africa you can write about and nobody would complain because nobody there would read my story. I read somewhere that the #1 best-seller there is still the Bible - I cannot guess as to the version - followed by the 'Guide to Cannibalism of Missionaries. ' I don't suppose it's about the missionaries' tastes, but you have to admit, the title's open to interpretation either way.
Besides, Africa gave me greater freedom in choosing the hero's nationality. Standard templates for best-sellers include British, French or American nationalities, all of whom can be understandably placed in Africa. Of course, I could place Russians or the Germans there too, but who wants to read about Russian or German heroes? Everybody knows that's fiction.
If I came to Asia, all I am left with are China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, and it makes most sense to place an American there. That pretty much limits character development to the good/bad/fortune hunter question, and there is really no place where a hero can realistically stand up to a bunch of baddies and come out above six feet of earth.
Africa, I decided. It really doesn't matter which country it is. If I can't find a suitable one, I'll just invent one. Like I said, it's Africa. Everything goes.
"But do you know anything about Africa?" my mother asked. She's my favorite critic.
"I know Mandela's there, " I tell her."And so was Gandhi, come to think of it. And there are jungles and deserts and mountains, and lots and lots of soldiers."
She said, "Are you sure?"
"Sure, " I told her. I've read Wilbur Smith end to end. I have seen the Gods Must Be Crazy trilogy. I know the Africans, even if they don't know me. Who knows, maybe one day they just might.
The man who shone light into the Dark Continent.
She listened to my story so far."And?" she asked at the end of my narrative.
"And what?" I countered.
"You've chosen your backdrop, " she said, summarizing my entire progress."But what about your hero? What's he after? Why's he in Africa?"
I stared at her. Suddenly, she was no longer my favorite critic. Come to think of it, she was no longer my favorite mother - not that I had any choice in the matter. Maybe the aliens had abducted my mother and sent one of their own kind to see if they could fool me.
"Oh, no, " I said, shaking my head, "You can't fool me. I know who you are."
"Of course you do, " she said, placing a glass of hot chocolate on my desk. What was in it? I wondered… "I am your mother."
That clinched it. It was the proof I needed. I mean, among ourselves, what mother ever says that she's your mother when you say you know exactly who she is? If she were somebody else, she would need to convince you with statements like that. As Holmes would have said, had Arthur Conan Doyle ever put those words into his mouth, "Elementary, my dear Watson."
And that gave me the idea I was looking for. Aliens. In Africa. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Who has ever written a story about aliens in Africa? Or any other nation, for that matter? They have always favored America, which I have always seen as an intergalactic tourism propaganda undertaken by the White House to attract Martians, Venetians, Saturnians, Plutons and other assorted alien life forms.
This, I decided, would be my contribution to Africa. I will bring aliens, the first one to do so after Magellan, and they will be grateful. It will boost the local economy, create jobs, give something else for those gun-toting soldiers to shoot at. That gave me pause. Nope, I'll let the soldiers shoot the locals, leave the aliens alone. No point in scaring them unnecessarily in case they ever pay us all a visit. They can be corrupt - they are corrupt - and I'll have the aliens foot their bill. Intergalactic capitalism, as Khrushchev would have put it.
"Why not China?" asked a friend of mine who had popped in without calling. He was a Sinophobe, always believing another invasion was just around the corner. What's to invade, I always ask him.
"China's too close to home, " I explained, "I don't want to draw their attention here. Besides, " I pointed to the latest edition of Business International, "China will probably be their centre for outsourced work. And so there will be no conflict to write about." I left out the part about the Chinese regime's possible cruelty to my hero. Why add fuel to the fire?
He accused me of being a Sinophile and left.
I stared at the line I had written. Where was I before I had been so rudely interrupted? There was a reason I never entertained visitors when I was writing, never mind that I was writing all the time.
Oh, yeah, placing the hero. But what country should he be from? The choices themselves, as I remember, were few. British, French or American. Well, British or American, come to think about it. The only French I know, I use for ordering fries from the nearby restaurant. Of course, I could have a French hero who does not know a word of French, but then people would accuse him of being a Canadian.
After much deliberation, I tossed a coin. I never knew deciding what should be heads and what should be tails would require so much thought. I weighed the coin in my hand, trying to see if it was unbalanced. Some coins are like that, a bit heavier on one side so that when you toss them, there is a greater probability than half that one side will come up.
That wouldn't be fair to my hero.
The coin was good. Of course, I still had to choose who got heads - the Pound or the Dollar - and who got the tails - the Dollar or the Pound. I asked my brother for his opinion.
"Heads, it's British, " he announced after a few minutes."Tails, make it American."
"Why?" Then I wouldn't have to ask him each and every time.
"That's simple, " he said. There was that condescending tone in his voice I have never cared for."The Queen is the Head of the United Kingdom, whereas the American Presidents strictly go for tails."
"Ah, " I said, and silently forgave him this one time his attitude. I shoved him out of the room and shut the door. There were far more important things to do than sit around listening to him.
I tossed the coin. It came up heads.
Satisfied by the progress I had made for the day, I closed my notebook, pocketed the coin, swallowed my dinner, turned off the lights, fell asleep and woke up. Well, not exactly in that order. When I woke up next morning, the dinner had congealed, which was why I chose to ingest it in bulk order.
After breakfast, during which I wondered what I should feed my hero, I returned to my work. I took a few minutes to go through my work for the previous day.
It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times.
(Coin tossed, hero's English.)
Satisfied with my output, which would also double as my input for this day, I took a nap.
I have often marveled, and occasionally despaired, at the way God disposes what man - in most cases, myself - proposes. When I woke up, I was greeted by a cousin of mine who had just returned from his studies abroad. He smiled at me, and the sight of a big plastic bag from Harrods's made me smile back. He was a good kid, I remembered, if a little dumb at times, but it seemed to be quite common in that line of the family and so I really couldn't grudge him what was so obviously not his fault.
"I have something for you, " he said, pulling a candy bar from the bag."I bought it especially for you."
I looked at him in a whole new light. Cheapskate. If being dumb was a crime, that branch of the family tree would have been executed a long time ago.
But his visit, despite the fact that he had to come, did serve a very valuable purpose. Indeed, it solved quite a pressing dilemma for me. So I sat down beside him, pen and paper ready to be abused, and shot off my question.
"What do Britons have for breakfast, lunch and dinner? And snacks too, you know, in between meals."
He sat there, staring at me. He looked dumb. I repeated my question, spelling out breakfast, lunch and dinner, telling him that these were meals people ate in the mornings, at noon and during the evenings. Like I said, his dumbness was criminal. If I strangled him, I wondered, would it come under justifiable homicide?
Thankfully, both for myself and him, he was able to articulate an answer. It wasn't much, but it was a beginning."Lunch and dinner?"
Didn't I tell you? And he even missed breakfast!
To make a long story short, I guess I'll simply skip forward to when we actually started communicating on the same wavelength.
"To tell you the truth, I really don't know, " he admitted at the end of the session."I never paid much attention to it, you know. I ate mostly at home, and we mostly had Indian cuisine."
That won't do, I thought. The public won't accept a masala-eating, pan-chewing pukka Sahib in Africa. Not in this day and age. I didn't bother telling him, though. I was afraid it would have driven him over the edge.
"What about bacon, grits, eggs?" I pursued. I particularly wanted to ask about the poached eggs, having always wondered why someone would want to poach them. Poaching chickens, I can understand, the bloody animals are quite quick on their feet even if they are too dumb to fly south for the winter - like my acquaintance here - but why eggs? Don't you just have to pick them up from the ground or wherever it is that hens lay them?
"Maybe you have to poach a hen to get its eggs, " suggested a friend one time. I haven't spoken to him since then.
"What are they?" asked the foreign-returned desi. For his sake, he had better be a foreign-returning desi. I swore under my breath. Maybe I will try the Internet one of these days. Surely, it ought to be a more enriching experience.
On the threshold to my room, even as I was pushing him out of it, the fellow finally asked me why I wanted to know all these things.
"It's for a story of mine, " I told him, almost seeing the words go in one ear and out of the other. "Have you ever read an English story where nobody mentions what the characters are eating or drinking?"
He paused, thinking. I paused too, but it was because of the exertion of pushing a guy bigger than me out of my room. Then he paused thinking.
"No." There was genuine sorrow in his eyes."But I haven't read a lot of books. There was one that I read once, it was so involving, and it was a tragedy, so I never read anything again."
Though I slammed the door in his face, I felt sorry for him afterwards. I could empathise with him, having cried for two whole days after reading my first tragedy. Even to this day, I can't pick up an egg without shedding a silent tear for Humpty Dumpty.
I am just curious, but how many times have I digressed so far?
It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times.
So it was. Or was not. Africa, teeming with rich aliens. And my hero, a British chap trained in the sas and now retired, goes there for some reason. Of course, he did not need a reason. I could start the story with the fellow already in some corner in Africa, maybe looking through the sight of a rifle at a rhinoceros or an elephant or an illegal hunter - depending on how I felt towards animal rights' groups at that time - with a few days growth of beard.
I rubbed my own chin. It had six days' growth of hair on it, sufficient for a retired sas sergeant in Africa. He would need some silver hairs too, which I could provide. If they ever made a movie out of it, George Clooney could walk right in and feel at home.
And I needed aliens. This was safe territory, since nobody knew what aliens really looked like. There was no way my aliens would be fluffy little angels like et, nor would they be menacing green Martians armed with laser guns and exoskeletons. Somewhere in between. I knew some people I could use as base models for my aliens, and only the aliens would complain.
Suddenly, I remembered that I had left out one vital component of any good - or at least bestselling - story.
In the manual of writing, I suppose that this is like the second or third commandment, right after 'thou shouldest be literate' and… I forget the second. Whatever it is, it's irrelevant for the time being. It's what the hero and the heroine does when they think they are alone that makes the story or mars it. There have been instances where the villains' actions on that front have had an impact too, but I sincerely doubt anybody would want to read about the sexual appetites of the villains in my story.
It would have to be my hero, then, with a woman. The world still has not evolved to a state where it is ready to accept gay heroes. But an author's headache is far from resolved even after such basic, but valuable, decisions. Indeed, the whole thing rather starts at that point.
How should I develop the chemistry between them? Do they fall into bed the first time they meet, or is it later, after they've been shot at and escaped from the baddies, that I take their clothes off? Are they antagonistic to each other or sympathetic? Should there be a past between them? Do I dare delay their whatever until the end? Should I be explicit or subtle?
All these questions were giving me a headache. How could I even write about sex when it has been so long since I've had any that I have started wondering if there have been any new introductions in the way mankind - and womankind - has generally sustained itself? I fiddled with the coin in my pocket. The simplest way to solve these dilemmas was to go to the nearest pub, get drunk and get laid.
I already had the headache, so I might as well have the hangover.
I might have too, but I am simply not that kind of person. I am not that kind of a person who is so caught up in writing that he forgets to live. I am not that kind of a person who believes in saying one thing and meaning another. I am not that kind of a person who believes in the truth fairy, for that matter.
But I am, strangely enough, that kind of a person whom my psychiatrist feels very strongly about."Your son's in the grip of an obsession, " I remember him telling my parents while I doodled on his prescription pad."But it's quite harmless. Give him pen and paper and lock him up in his room. I see this a lot in failed authors, but rarely one so young." He calls it a diagnosis, I call it hypocrisy. After all, I don't go around calling him crazy. And all those medicines and treatments he has me subjected to, it is enough to drive anyone crazy, especially a sensitive guy like me. Granted, I may be a bit eccentric, a bit of a scintillating conversationalist, but does that really warrant chaining me to my room?
I digress, though…
It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times…