Someone Asked if #NeverTrump People Would Come Around. This Was My Response.

I do not like that Donald Trump.
I could not, would not like that chump.

I would not vote him here or there,
I would not vote him anywhere.
I would not vote him then or now.
I would not vote him anyhow.

I do not like his orange spray tan.
I do not like his tiny hands.
I do not like his gibberish.
I do not like his childishness.

I don’t like his rhetoric.
I don’t like his politics.
He has not read the Constitution.
He does not have any solution.
He does not like free trade and speech.
He does not love that liberty.
He loves walls and lots of rules.
His economics are for fools.
There are no checks and balances
To counterweigh such lack of sense.

So, I do not like him on the stump,
I will not take him with a lump,
Not with a poll jump,
Not with an endorsement bump,
Not in a trash dump.
Not with a sump pump.

I will not change my mind, I won’t.
I don’t like him, no I don’t.

I hate authoritarians.
I hate all that collectivism.
I will not support that rump.
I will #NeverVoteforDonaldTrump.

Opening Scenes That Hooked

Dr. ElevenAs promised, I compiled a list of opening scenes that successfully hooked me in recent years. These are books I either did or would spend money to read based on the opening pages. I haven’t finished them all—I generally have multiple books in progress—but the opening scenes and sample chapters hooked me enough to shell out money for the rest of the book.

In compiling this list, I further refined the concept of using urgency to hook readers in the opening pages. The urgency that compels me to keep reading arises from a need to get somewhere. It can be a character’s need to reach a destination, either physical or metaphorical—safety, justice, love, conquest, information, etc. Or it can be my own need as the reader—to achieve understanding, solve a mystery, explore an imaginary world, resolve an emotional issue vicariously through the characters, etc.

Author and writer C.S. Lakin, who is currently doing a blog series on first pages, explains it thusly:

To make a brain go into alert mode, some mystery or element of danger, or the incongruous, must cross its path.

With that concept in mind, the following are hooks that worked for me:

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell:

BEFORE OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.

In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house’s furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.

Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife’s first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.

The voice is strong. The prose is clean and clear, yet distinctive, and pleasing in pace, structure and lyricism. It inspires confidence in the author.

A potential destination has already been suggested: the birth of a baby. Obstacles have been presented: the encounter with the bear, the struggles to furnish their home. Complex and potentially dark emotional dynamics have been presented: the point-of-view character has failed to complete the necessary preparations; his pregnant wife has had to take over the lead role; yet he still speaks of having “given her” their shared dreams. There is an implication in the wording of the last line that later stages of the pregnancy will not be attended with the same joy and celebration.

All of this is interesting. My “spidey sense” is tingling in wariness of an emotionally charged and possibly disturbing tale to come. Because the writing is so strong, I feel confident the author knows how to deliver that tale.

I have not read past these three paragraphs. Based solely on their strength, I would pay money for the rest of the book—if magical realism were one of my genres. It happens not to be (I only got the sample chapter because a friend and fellow writer is reading the book) so for now this remains on my maybe list.

The Martian, by Andy Weir:

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them.

This opening doesn’t merely foreshadow a coming challenge—it opens smack in the thick of one. An urgent destination has already been presented: the POV narrator needs to get unfucked. We already know some of his obstacles: he is stranded alone in a location so isolated no one will find his records for a hundred years—and everyone thinks he is dead. That’s pretty dire.

I also liked the clean, confident prose and voice, both of which made me want to spend more time inside this character’s head. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book. I haven’t finished it, but only because I ended up seeing the movie first.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker:

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.

We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Second beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

Again, we have the urgency presented up front. There is a disaster of some sort. It has to do with hours not pooling into days. It is like “a tumor blooming beneath the skin.” That sounds bad. Plus it’s mysterious. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s so horrific my mind has never contemplated the possibility.

I also like the prose. I don’t think it’s perfect—do seconds really “bead” into minutes?—but I do think it’s some of the best. And from a first time novelist! I loved the imagery of the night workers, tuned in to the hours of darkness, somehow perceiving an impending disaster before everyone else.

I bought and finished this book, and will check out any future novels by this author.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison:

Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

“Cousin? What…” He sat up rubbing at his eyes with one had. “What time is it?”

“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”

“Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”

“Get they clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”

“A message from my father?”

“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!”

What hooked me was the way they talked. What’s toward? Is’t not what I said? Canst do nothing for thyself? I wanted to keep reading just to “hear” more of that.

Notice that the language was set in an urgent scene. Setheris is snarling. Maia is fumbling. There is an absent father. A messenger has arrived, creating a stir in the household not unlike a fire.

This immediate urgency combined with the pleasing manner of speech kept me reading to the end of the sample chapter, by which a point destination had been announced, obstacles presented, and conflict demonstrated. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book and finished it quickly.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel:

THE KING STOOD in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.

“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.

“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible.

Station ElevenI bolded the line that hooked me. This is an interesting example, because it may have succeeded due to my own ignorance. Having never seen or read King Lear, I didn’t know if there were supposed to be centaurs (I also had no idea what the book itself was about). I read into that line that something otherwordly might be occurring, and it gave me chills. Enough to keep reading the sample chapter, which maintained the lyrical, otherwordly undertones, lending an almost mystical atmosphere to what were seemingly ordinary surroundings.

I loved the first chapter, loved the book, and it is now one of my all-time favorites.

Now, there was an immediate, dire emergency occurring by the end of the fourth paragraph of the book. But it was not occurring to the POV character of that chapter. Another, different thread of urgency pulled me along. That was the sense of being on the brink of something uncanny, potentially disturbing about to occur; something that made you tense and overcome with the beauty of things all at the same time, reluctant to continue but lured onward by the beautiful writing.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little further down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

AnnihilationI bolded the elements that hooked me. A potential destination has been presented: the resolution of the expedition. An obstacle has been foreshadowed: the impending threat no one sees. Mysteries have been revealed: a tower that is not supposed to be there; an untroubled landscape called Area X that has been abandoned for decades for strange reasons.

Based on those hooks, and the clean prose, I finished the sample chapter. It had a certain similarity to Station Eleven’s first chapter, in that nothing outwardly awful happened—yet it managed to leave me tense and disturbed with the sense of impending horror. Can’t stop reading and can’t bear to go on.

This isn’t  one of my usual genres. Actually, I’m not even sure how to characterize the genre—speculative horror, I guess?—but it’s not one of my usuals, however we slice it. I still bought the book. I had to read it with all the lights on. Even then, it was hard to go on sometimes. Yet I finished it in two nights.

And I LOVED it.

I have also read the second in the series (the third is downloaded and waiting). I am fascinated by these books. The prose is powerful and has some of the same lyrical graces as Mandel’s. Beyond that, VanderMeer does two things so skillfully I can’t wrap my mind around the level of talent. He shows, without telling, nuances of psychological and interpersonal dynamics that turn every interaction between the characters, however seemingly mundane, into riveting story elements. And he imparts a near overwhelming sense of psychological disturbance without resorting to anything overtly gory or horrific.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sounds enfolded me and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven.

was a finicky baby; I wouldn’t suckle unless the wet nurse sang exactly on pitch. “It has a discriminating ear,” observed Orma, a tall, angular acquaintance of my father’s who came over often in those days. Orma called me “it” as if I were a dog; I was drawn to his aloofness, the way cats gravitate toward people who’d rather avoid them.

He accompanied us to the cathedral one spring morning, where the young priest anointed my wispy hair with lavender oil and told me that in the eyes of Heaven I was as a queen. I bawled like any self-respecting baby; my shrieks echoed up and down the nave. Without bothering to look up from the work he’d brought with him, my father promised to bring me up piously in the faith of Allsaints. The priest handed me my father’s psalter and I dropped it, right on cue. It fell open at the picture of St. Yirtrudis, whose face had been blacked out.

The priest kissed his hand, pinkie raised. “Your psalter still contains the heretic!”

“It’s a very old psalter,” said Papa, not looking up, “and I hate to maim a book.”

“We advise the bibliophilic faithful to paste Yirtrudis’s pages together so this mistake can’t happen.” The priest flipped a page. “Heaven surely meant St. Capiti.”

Papa muttered something about superstitious fakery, just loud enough for the priest to hear. There followed a fierce argument between my father and the priest, but I don’t remember it. I was gazing, transfixed, at a procession of monks passing through the nave. They padded by in soft shoes, a flurry of dark, whispering robes and clicking beads, and took their places in the cathedral’s quire. Seats scraped and creaked; several monks coughed.

They began to sing.

The cathedral, reverberating with masculine song, appeared to expand before my eyes. The sun gleamed through the high windows; gold and crimson bloomed upon the marble floor. The music buoyed my small form, filled and surrounded me, made me larger than myself. It was the answer to a question I had never asked, the way to fill the dread emptiness into which I had been born. I believed—no, I knew I could transcend the vastness and touch the vaulted ceiling with my hand.

I tried to do it.

My nurse squealed as I nearly squirmed out of her arms. She gripped me by the ankle at an awkward angle. I stared dizzily at the floor; it seemed to tilt and spin.

My father took me up, long hands around my fat torso, and held me at arm’s length as if he had discovered an oversized and astonishing frog. I met his sea-gray eyes; they crinkled sadly at the corners.

The priest stormed off without blessing me. Orma watched him disappear around the end of the Golden House, then said, “Claude, explain this. Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he … what’s that one called? Offended?”

I bolded the hooks. The opening paragraphs about music from the time before birth were enough to draw me in initially.

Then there are touches of humor: Orma calling our POV character “it;” her being drawn to him like a cat; her father inventing a better grade of dead wife; the priest purporting to improve on Heaven’s intent.

There are mysteries presented: Why does she remember the time before birth? Why does Orma call her “it?” Why does he seem unfamiliar with the concept of “offended?” What is the complicated  and burdensome inheritance from the mother? What did Yirtrudis do to earn the priest’s disfavor?

There are also hints of obstacles: the emptiness inside; a dead mother and distracted fatherr; a hidden past; religious conflict.

The scene in the cathedral intrigued me. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but there were elements that stimulated me—saints and heretics, superficial piety, intellectual honesty–and I wanted to know more.

I prefer bold, confident world-building where the author does not feel the need to explain or justify it. She just believes in it so strongly the reader can figure it out from the vivid details; no explanation required. This book was like that.

Arguably there is not a lot of urgency in the opening pages.  Nevertheless, several strains of mild urgency combined to draw me along: wanting to figure out the mysteries; wanting to understand the world; the character’s need to fill the emptiness inside with music; my vicarious indignation on behalf of the fallen saint Yirtrudis and the character’s distracted but intellectually honest father.

I bought this book and LOVED it. There’s a sequel called Shadow Scale that I own but have not yet read.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein:

I AM A COWARD.

I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers–and even though I am a girl, they always let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, i know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.

The writing is clean and confident. The voice is strong and clear, but anguished. The narrator is in some dire situation in which she has given up resistance. What happened to make her do that? What deal did she make? I would have to keep reading to find out. Bonus points that there’re apparently Scottish people involved and I’m going to get  historical information about WW2.

This book is also not one of my usual genres. It has a bit of a “girl power” vibe that isn’t my usual thing. I loved it nonetheless. The fascinating illustration of what it was like to be a British pilot—and a female pilot—during WW2 will stay with me forever. I was moved to write a (positive) review, and bought this book for someone else as a gift.

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey:

Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a short-fallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

It is hard for me to resent my parents, although I envy them their naïveté. No one even told them, when I was born, that they gifted me with an ill-luck name. Phèdre, they called me, neither one knowing that it is a Hellene name, and cursed.

When I was born, I daresay they still had reason for hope. My eyes, scarce open, were yet of indeterminate color, and the appearance of a newborn babe is a fluid thing, changing from week to week. Blonde wisps may give way to curls of jet, the pallor of birth deepen to a richness like amber, and so on. But when my series of amniotic sea-changes were done, the thing was obvious.

I was flawed.

It is not, of course, that I lacked beauty, even as a babe. …

No, the problem was elsewhere.

To be sure, it was my eyes; and not even the pair of them, but merely the one.

Such a small thing on which to hinge such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. …

And it shone red, and indeed, red is a poor word for the color it shone. Scarlet, call it, or crimson; redder than a rooster’s wattles or the glazed apple in a pig’s mouth.

Thus did I enter the world, with an ill-luck name and a pinprick of blood emblazoned in my gaze.

My mother was Liliane de Souverain, an adept of Jasmine House, and her line was ancient in the service of Naamah. My father was another matter, for he was the third son of a merchant prince and, alas, the acumen that raised his father to emeritus status in the City of Elua was spent in the seed that produced his elder brothers. For all three of us would have been better served had his passions led him to the door of another House; Bryony, perhaps, whose adepts are trained in financial cunning.

But Pierre Cantrel had a weak head and strong passions, so when coin swelled the purse at his belt and seed filled to bursting the purse between his legs, it was to Jasmine House, indolent and sensual, that he hied himself.

And there, of course, betwixt the ebb tide in his wits and the rising tide in his loins, he lost his heart in the bargain.

Kushiel's_DartAgain, I bolded the parts that hooked. The prose is bold, distinct and sensual; the voice haughty yet defensive; and the world intriguing. What’s a cuckoo’s child? What does it mean to be House-born? What is the Night Court? What are adepts?

I would have to keep reading to find out.

Plus, there’s a child involved, one that is cursed, flawed, and marked—born of star-crossed lovers. It’s not clear yet what the destination is or precisely what form the obstacles will take. But the girl’s need to overcome her curse and my need to solve the mysteries (and keep reading that prose) was enough to draw me in.

This was the first book I read by Carey. I thereafter finished the whole Kushiel’s Dart trilogy, two more trilogies set in the same world, and a handful of her other books. I also recommended them to a good friend who liked them as much as I did.

Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones:

Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed. She rather thought she had read it after all, some time ago. Before she swung her feet across to get on with her packing, she looked up at the picture above the bed. She sighed again. There had been a time, some years back, when she had gazed at that picture and thought it marvellous. Dark figures had seemed to materialise out of its dark centre—strong, running dark figures—always at least four of them, racing to beat out the flames in the foreground. There had been times when you could see the figures quite clearly. Other times, they had been shrouded in the rising smoke. There had even been a horse in it sometimes. Not now.

Here, now, she could see it was simply a large colour photograph, three feet by two feet, taken at dusk, of some hay bales burning in a field. The fire must have been spreading, since there was smoke in the air, and more smoke enveloping the high hemlock plant in the front, but there were no people in it. The shapes she used to take for people were only too clearly dark clumps of the dark hedge behind the blaze. … It was called Fire and Hemlock. She sighed again as she swung her feet to the floor. The penalty of being grown up was that you saw things like this photograph as they really were. And Granny would be in any minute to point out that Mr. Perks and Fiona were not going to wait while she did her packing tomorrow morning—and Granny would have things to say about feet on the bedspread. …

Her hand knocked the book. Polly did not get up after all. And books put down on their faces, spoiling them, Granny would say. It’s only a paperback, Granny. It was called Times out of Mind, editor L. Perry, and it was a collection of supernatural stories. Polly had been attracted to it a couple of years back, largely because the picture on the cover was not unlike the Fire and Hemlock photograph—dusky smoke, with a dark blue umbrella-like plant against the smoke. And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet—here was an odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it. And, surely, hadn’t one of the stories actually been called “Fire and Hemlock” too?

Polly picked the book up, with her finger in it to keep the place in the story she was reading. “Two-timer” it was called, and it was about someone who went back in time to his own childhood and changed things, so that his life ran differently the second time. She remembered the ending now. The man finished by having two sets of memories, and the story wasn’t worked out at all well. Polly did not worry when she lost her place in it as she leafed through looking for the one she thought had been called “Fire and Hemlock.” Odd. It wasn’t there. … Odder still. Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there—and yet she did, very clearly, remember reading all the stories which seemed to be in the book now. For a moment she almost felt like the man in “Two-timer” with his double set of memories. What a madly detailed dream she must have had. Polly found her place in the story again, largely because the pages were spread apart there, and stopped in the act of putting the book face down on her rumpled bedspread.

Was it Granny who minded you putting books down like this? Granny didn’t read much anyway.

“And why should I feel so worried about it?” Polly asked aloud. “And where’s my other photo—the one I stole?”

A frantic sense of loss came upon her, so strong that for a moment she could have cried.

Fire and Hemlock 1There were several hooks for me here. The first was prose that managed to be conversational without being muddled. It got bonus points for being in British dialect.

The second was the mystery-imbued illustration of what it is like to imagine significance into a treasured childhood possession (the picture) and then suffer the nostalgic loss as its power fades with maturity.

Then we get a repeat of the conversational prose, as Polly imagines her grandmother lecturing her not to stretch the spine of the book by laying it down open-faced.

Then comes the coup de grace:

An alternate timeline?! False memories?!

Chills! I’m in. I’m buying. I don’t even have to finish the sample chapter.

But as if we needed more, Diana Wynne Jones delivers the urgency: Polly’s frantic sense of a loss so profound she suddenly must weep.

This is another one of my all-time favorites. I was obsessed with this book after I finished it, as evidenced by this marathon post about the ending (don’t click if you don’t want spoilers!).

This and some of the other examples above illustrate the point from my previous post: there is a strong correlation between loving the opening pages and loving the book. It’s not an absolute 1:1 correlation—I have loved books that did not hook at first and hated books that did—but it is very strong.

And that is why so many in the industry insist on hooks in the first pages.

Not every book will hit the mark as hard as these authors did. The goal is to incorporate as many of their elements as possible. Strong, clean prose. Unique voice. Rich worlds. Mysteries. Urgent destinations. In my own future writing endeavors, I plan to use C.S. Lakin’s First Page Checklist as a reference.

Feel free to share in the comments examples of hooks that worked for you

Writerly Tip: The Importance of the Early Hook

I recently joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors group on Facebook. A couple of days ago, a member named Eric Martell posted the following question to the group, which prompted a long discussion thread:

Just about everyone engaged in giving advice to writers seems to agree that today’s readers must be hooked quickly or they’ll lose interest. I’ve read that the first sentence must be a hook; same with the first paragraph and the first chapter. No backstory allowed, just hook the reader with a character that they instantly care about and a question that the character must have answered by the end of the story. …

Do you think that sometimes rules suppress creativity? Is it better to occasionally ignore the advice and write a story diverging from the mainstream for the sake of literary diversity and experimentation?

Both the original post and the comments inspired some thoughts.

First, I’m not qualified as a writer to give feedback on a question like this. I am qualified as a reader, however, to reflect on my own tastes and habits, which I presume are shared by some number of others. As I read the original post and some of the comments, I was struck by the significance of that distinction, i.e. between writers’ feelings about what they want to create versus readers’ feelings about what they want to consume.

Second, there is nothing wrong with a writer focusing on art over reader tastes. Tastes are subjective and vary by individual. Writing doesn’t have to be for other people’s consumption anyway. It can be simply a form of self-expression, a means of giving voice to something inside that wants to come out. We can write for the same reason we sing when we are alone: because we enjoy the act.

Third, however, many writers do want to sell books, if for no other reason than because getting paid for one supports the luxury of writing another. Doing that requires at some point offering a version of the book that will enjoy market demand.

write without fearI think this is what authors mean when they talk about writing with the door closed and rewriting with it open. Or writing without fear and editing without mercy.  Write a version that is for you. Do it fearlessly. Don’t let the world in to mess with your vision. Let the manuscript manifest itself as your idealized version of it. You can stop there if you are so inclined. Or you can proceed to the next step. Open the door. Let the world in. Carve your darlings without mercy. It is okay; you’ll always have that original, perfect draft for you.

Fourth, as a reader, generally speaking, if the first couple of pages don’t hook me, I don’t keep reading. I’m the sort of reader artists and literary types scorn. I’m finicky, fickle and judgmental. I like good writing, but not at the expense of plot. I have a short attention span, but a long list of books waiting to be read. Life is too short, I’m too busy, and there are just too many other books to devote time to one that is less than captivating.

Fifth, technology has impacted reading habits. In earlier eras, there were fewer books from which to choose. They were more expensive to acquire. There were fewer libraries and bookstores; transportation was slower. Having acquired one of the limited books available, a person who loved reading was therefore more likely to stick with it until the end.

As a child and teenager, my situation was in essence like those adult readers of earlier eras. I didn’t have unlimited access to books. Once one was in our house, I was pretty much going to finish it—because there would not be alternatives until a grownup took me back to the library. The book therefore did not have to work as hard to hold my attention; my attention was captive by circumstance (and youth).

I’ve become pickier as my tastes matured and alternatives were more easily acquired. Now I can take myself to the library or bookstore. I have my own funds to expend.

And of course—electronic books were game-changers.

I can download ten sample chapters in less time than it has taken to type one of these paragraphs. I can download ten more over the course of the day. My Facebook friend wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. My mom’s friend’s daughter wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. I saw an essay I loved by this author, think I’ll  buy one of her books. Download the sample chapter. This agent liked these five books last year, I should probably check them out. Download the sample chapters. Etc.

Tonight I’ll  scroll through the list of samples to decide which I want to try first, open it and check out the first page or two.

If they don’t hook me, I have dozens more waiting.

I go through several more until I find one that does hook. Then I keep reading. If I’m still hooked by the end of that sample chapter, I pay to download the rest of the book, which is instantaneously available.

To state it more explicitly: readers don’t have to shell out money until after they have been hooked.

Some still do anyway. There are clearly millions of readers whose habits are different than mine. No one has to write to serve any particular group’s tastes or habits. A corollary to the observation that authors don’t have to write for others’ consumption is that, even if they do, they don’t have to write for particular types of consumption.

[A couple of side notes: I don’t think I’ve ever been hooked by the first two pages but then not been hooked at the end of the sample chapter. However, sometimes I fall out of love later in the book. Also, I do sometimes read and finish books that did not originally hook me, such as when the book has come strongly recommended by someone I know and trust well; when I’m reading the book for craft-related reasons; or when I have been assured that later books in the series get better.]

Sixth, the prior point demonstrates the importance of the early hook (to readers like me, not all readers), but it does not explain what the hook is. Because reading tastes are inherently and inescapably subjective, what succeeds as a hook is going to be different for different people. A hook that hits it out of the ballpark for some readers will be a big, indifferent meh for others.

Theoretically, the hook could be anything. A compelling voice. A character that attracts interest. An expression of humor. Interesting dialogue. A mystery that must be solved. The glimpse into a unique imagined world. A political, social, technological, scientific or historic subject that interests me. Emotional resonance.

It is rarely a single element standing alone. Rather it is something that piques my interest and is supported by other variables, like the power of the prose; the charisma of the characters; the wonder of the world; my confidence in the author; etc.

Often though, the common theme uniting successful hooks is a sense of urgency.

I discovered this after a wise beta reader advised me to reread the first pages of my favorite books. Although the form of the hook varies from book to book, when its substance conveys a sense of urgency, I am more likely to keep reading.

This does not mean the book must open with action or a life-or-death struggle, as I have seen some suggest. Although that is one possibility, the sense of urgency can arise equally from an opening scene devoid of physical action or danger.

It can arise from a great injustice that needs to be rectified; I will keep reading out of a desire to see justice achieved. It can arise from an unfair burden or risk placed on a child; I will keep reading in the hopes of seeing that child reach a place of well-being. It can arise from an unrequited attraction between two characters; I will keep reading to see if they get together. It can arise from a character finding herself in an awkward situation; I will keep reading to reach the point of relief from my vicarious embarrassment. It can arise from the character encountering immediate difficulties in accomplishing an immediate goal (car breaking down while late for work; a storm rolling in on a hike; not having enough cash to buy groceries for a hungry child; etc.); I will keep reading to find out if the character resolves this immediate problem.

While writing this post, I revisited the opening pages of books that have hooked me in recent years. I’m compiling a discussion of successful hooks for my next post. In the meantime, I would love to hear feedback from others about what makes a hook successful for them as readers and examples of books that had it.

Thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Debriefing After the New Star Wars

  1. StarWars_ForceAwakensThe new Luke Skywalker is a girl. Way less sulky than the old one though.
  2. The new Han Solo is super young. Too young to have any sort of crush on like I did the old one. I would mention he has nice lips, but it seems age-inappropriate. #Apophasis.
  3. The chemistry between the new girl Luke Skywalker and the new super young Han Solo was pretty cute.
  4. So were the old Han and Chewy.
  5. The new Darth Vader is not a girl, but still kinda effete.

    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
  6. The new R2-D2 is roly poly and cutie patootie and expressive.
  7. Stormtroopers still shoot wide.
  8. Princess Leia’s face is not the same.
  9. She might be a smoker.
  10. The new Emperor Palpatine is Gollum.
  11. A thing happened that made me feel feelings. Even though we knew it was coming, I wasn’t ready. I will, in a meaningful sense, never be ready.
  12. Something else happened that started out seeming kinda sexist and I was imaging how if even I (who wrote all those sexist things above; see 1, 5 and possibly 8) was annoyed, then the shrill legions must be losing their heads. Then it got gratifyingly unsexist.
  13. You know how we’ve been saying “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” for the last twenty-five years? Well that line has its own new incarnation, and my daughter repeated it twelve times on the way out of the theater.
  14. The family sitting next to us consisted of five members each one decked out in full, top-to-bottom Star Wars character regalia.
  15. The visual effects were pleasing, and the film managed to evoke the originals in style and ambience.
  16. There was a hurdle to overcome in getting the old audience to care about new characters and their relationships without a lot of time spent on back-story and buildup.
  17. I think it worked. It probably did for younger audiences, and I felt like I had gotten there by the end. I wanted more Rey, Finn and Poe and I wanted them all to be together.
  18. Also more Chewy, R2 and BB-8.
  19. I thought the final scene was in Scotland, but it was Ireland and very beautiful.

Writers Tip: Finding Inspiration in Images

TreeI am almost finished working on my first novel. Just one more act to proof and polish. If I am being honest, of course, I have been almost finished many times. I have even been finished a handful of times.

But this feels like the one. Lingering weak spots finally addressed—after a prolonged process I have only just now, with the help of Chuck Wendig, come to understand as the Kubler-Ross model of grief associated with editing and rewriting.

The book may still be too wide in scope and incorporate too many characters. My irreplaceable critique partners will continue to suggest tweaks. But for the most part I have taken it as far as I can without the input of a professional developmental editor.

A part of me feels silly offering anything called a Writers Tip when the above is the sum total of my novel-authoring experience. But on the chance of helping even one person unleash an inner creator, without further delay:

Find inspiration in images.

aurora borealis over the winterlandOne of the early mistakes I made was failing to embrace my vision of the story. In my head, it had a certain feel, an ambience that was central to my affection for it. But I also had an agenda. And the ambience and the agenda were at odds. Once I convinced myself to let go of the latter and embrace the former, the manuscript took leaps forward.

One of the little tricks I started doing after that point was looking for images on the web that matched the feel I wanted in the novel. The story in my head was high fantasy (the abandoned agenda had been futuristic sci-fi), and I found abundant images in the photo albums of the Earth Porn Facebook page. I have also found inspiration Googling such terms as: medieval tavern; walled city; stone keep; Romanesque architecture; Gothic; etc.

When I need a push of creativity, I return to those images. They help me focus on the look and feel of the world I want readers to enter. They provide perfect settings to unleash the characters and find out what they are going to do and say. They also aid in navigating that fine line between two sometimes-competing considerations in novel writing.

On the one hand, as Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggest in their writing exercises book “What If?

Solve your problems through physical detail.

Physical detail about the settings in which your characters exist serves to anchor the reader in a fictional world come to life. Solid. Real. Fully-formed.

lagoonI have found that I notice the absence when I read a book with too few (for me) physical descriptions. I find myself wondering: What does this setting or scene look like? Where are these characters physically standing? What is around them? It is harder (for me) to be in the world if I don’t have enough information about what it looks, feels, sounds and smells like.

On the other hand is an equally valuable insight from Stephen King in his memoir On Writing. I was going to quote from it, but cannot seem to find my copy. I’m sorry, Mr. King, if I am remembering this wrong!

In an admonition not to let your manuscript become bogged down in detail, King uses the example of a rabbit cage on a table. Inside the cage is a white rabbit with a red eight painted on its back.

We all see it.

He does not need to describe the table or the cage. Clearly, the important thing is the red eight on the rabbit’s back, and we see it. King’s suggestion is to provide the amount of detail necessary to prompt the reader’s mind to fill in the rest.

Before I suggested that Bernays and Painter are right about using physical detail to solve problems. King is also right.

Glow worm cavesI want enough information about the physical details of a setting or scene so that my mind knows what to imagine. I do not, however, want paragraph after paragraph of description. Just enough to orient me—and then back to the action!

Using images for inspiration also helps with this. Think about what in the scene is crucial, which elements give it identity. Distill it to those, which could consist of physical detail, emotional perception, imagined smells and sounds—or a combination of all. Then write a description conveying the sense and feel of the scene using the fewest words necessary to get the reader’s mind to fill in the rest. That minimal-but-complete description can be worked into the manuscript as its own paragraph or sentences. It can also be referenced later to anchor and re-orient the reader to the setting as the scene or novel progresses.

Thoughts in the comments. And if you are having a writers-block kind of day and want an exercise:

stones float on water to cross lakeFind an image that speaks to you in connection with your current story. It could be a cottage in the woods. A pristine beach. A high-rise commercial building. An old house in the New England countryside. A ranch in Wyoming. A teenaged house party. A magical forest. The deck of a ship. A formal garden. A colony of sentient bees. Anything.

Once you have it, imagine, if you were there. How would you describe the scene? What words convey the colors, the rocks, the trees, the water, the sky, the architecture? What would you be hearing? What would you smell? How would the air feel? Who is with you? Is it dark and foreboding and you wish you weren’t alone? Are there too many people, jostling and crowding and talking so loud you can’t hear? Are you too hot, too cold, feeling faint, hungry or thirsty? Write it all down. Those details are your future physical anchors to hold the reader inside both the setting and the individual scenes. Distill it to King’s minimum and incorporate into manuscript. Then watch and see what your characters do there.

Gawker, Freedom of Expression and the Power of Consequences

This post first appeared at The Liberty Papers on July 24, 2015.

free-speech-churchillIs Gawker violating its writers’ rights if its chief executive editor de-publishes a controversial post?

What about if a company’s CEO is forced to step down in the face of a threatened boycott over the CEO’s political positions? Is an artist being “censored” if a comic book publisher cancels his covers and suspends him? Is it an unconstitutional “ban” on speech if Amazon and Walmart remove Confederate flag memorabilia from their offerings?

Across the web confusion abounds about what freedom of expression really means.

Most recently, in the messy wake of its sex-shaming post about a private citizen’s violation of Gawker’s neo-Victorian strictures on monogamy, founder and CEO Nick Denton (who pulled the post) had this to say to his editors:

What I can’t accept is an unlimited and subjective version of editorial freedom. It is not whatever an editor thinks it is; it is not a license to write anything; it is a privilege, protected by the constitution, and carrying with it responsibilities.

Literally, every part of that last bit is wrong.

The editorial autonomy of Gawker writers is not constitutional in nature. It is a license granted by their employer—i.e. Denton. Absent a binding contract, it can be revoked at any time without running afoul of anyone’s rights, and certainly not running afoul of anyone’s constitutional rights.

The constitutionally protected freedom that Gawker writers do have (as do we all) is not to publish at Gawker. The Constitution restricts the power of Congress, not the discretion of Nick Denton.

Nor is that constitutionally protected freedom a “privilege.” It is a right.

And it does not have to be exercised responsibly.

It vexes me when people who should know better get sloppy in their framing. Messy language leads to messy thinking and, in the process, dilutes effective defense of this crucial freedom.

Perhaps a libertarian(ish) review is in order.

“FREE SPEECH” V. FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Although routinely used in Supreme Court decisions, the words “free speech” do not appear in the Constitution. In my opinion, overuse of this terminology induces people to mistakenly believe their speech should always be costless and consequence-free.

That is not how it works.

Speech requires a forum, which must be paid for by someone.

In public forums paid for by taxpayers, “time, place and manner” restrictions may be imposed to keep things orderly. But content-based discrimination is not permitted. Even the Nazis get to express themselves.

In private forums, on the other hand, the property owner gets to decide what speech he is willing to host.

There is no “free speech” right to interrupt a Muslim prayer service at the National Cathedral. The Cathedral’s owner, which is the Episcopal Church, gets to decide what sort of speech occurs there. It doesn’t have to (but may if it wants) host Muslim-haters, atheists, rude people, or morons.

Similarly, bookstores are not required to carry every book printed just because the author claims a “free speech” right. The corner market does not have to sell every conceivable magazine. Art galleries do not have to make room for every painting. Radio stations do not have to play every song.

And Gawker does not have to publish every post. (I would totally make it publish this one.)

If a speaker wants his speech to be “free” in the sense of not having to pay for the forum, he must either utilize a public forum or find a private owner willing to host the content gratis. Luckily, in this day and age, there are lots of options for that.

Gawker, however, is not one of them.

Like other private publishers and forum owners, it exercises its right to decline hosting or publishing content it dislikes. There’s a term for that right.

…Oh yeah. Freedom of speech.

FORCE VERSUS CONSEQUENCE

It is tempting to say that Brendan Eich was “forced” to resign from Mozilla over his position on same-sex marriage. That Richard Albuquerque was “forced” to pull his Batgirl cover variant. That TLC was “forced” to cancel the Duggars.

That Nick Denton was “forced” to pull the now infamous Gawker post.

It sounds more melodramatic and provocative to phrase it that way. But to the extent it’s semantically correct, this is not the kind of “force” that runs afoul of the freedom of expression.

Wrongful force is actual physical force used to prevent or punish speech or other forms of expression.

This includes all governmental interference because government action by definition involves force. Even civil regulations (like fines) eventually end with puppy-killing SWAT teams. Of course force exercised by private actors, in the form of violent reprisals, also suppresses freedom and therefore should be resisted with the same passion.

Preventing forceful suppression of expression is a higher order principle. When triggered, that principle transcends issues about the content of the speech being defended.

Why?

Because speech is the most powerful weapon that ever has or ever will exist.

It has the power to topple kings, eviscerate falsehoods, destroy paradigms, provoke thought, change minds and hearts, alter the course of history, and transform the world.

And it can do all that without shedding a drop of blood.

A weapon like that cannot be entrusted to the exclusive control of the few. Enlightened rulers using force to curtail speech have too often gotten it wrong. Power once ceded can rarely be retrieved, and battles not fought with words and ideas will be fought instead with violence and bloodshed.

We cannot retain the best of speech without protecting its worst. We cannot extract its power to do harm without diluting its power to do good.

EVERYTHING BUT FORCE IS FAIR GAME

That being said, everything short of physical force is fair game.

A Congressional communications director can be pressured into resigning (or fired) for making snarky comments about the President’s daughters. TLC and A&E can cancel their reality television lineup for any reason consistent with the contracts negotiated. Customers can boycott wedding photographers or bakers in retaliation for expression of disfavored opinions. Landlords can refuse to rent to people with Confederate flags in their rear windows. Employers can bypass applicants over their social media postings.

Firing. Boycotting. Refusing to hire. Pulling advertising. Canceling subscriptions. Social media flame wars. De-publishing. Disassociating. Shaming.

All of these are fair game. All of these are themselves protected acts of expression.

They may make life unpleasant for the target. They may feel coercive or even deeply wounding.

They’re supposed to.

If speech didn’t have that power, we wouldn’t bother protecting it.

Deciding to refrain from speaking because such consequences are too unpleasant is not a response to force. It is a response to speech.

GAWKER IS GETTING SPOKEN TO, NOT SUPPRESSED

If Gawker were being threatened with forceful suppression of its speech, defending against that violation would be a higher order principle that transcended all others. Personal feelings about the content would be secondary.

But where no force is imposed or threatened, those secondary principles are the only ones at play. The whole point of the higher principle is to create a circle of freedom in which ideas, without limitation, can be explored and judged on the merits. If we never got around to the judging part, we would destroy the very reason for defending the freedom.

Nothing happening at or to Gawker in this specific case poses any threat to anyone’s fundamental right to free expression. The writers are free to write. The owners of Gawker are free to choose what to publish. The editors are free to “fall on their poisoned pens” in protest. Advertisers are free to abstain. Readers are free to boycott.

None of this constitutes a violation of anyone’s freedom. It is what freedom looks like.

Free Speech Aside, Why We Must Defend Those Who Draw Muhammad

This post first appeared at The Liberty Papers on May 7, 2015.

Bosch Fawstin's winning entry in the Garland, Texas "Draw Muhammad" contest.
Bosch Fawstin’s winning entry in the Garland, Texas “Draw Muhammad” contest.

Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest’?”

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi asked that question on Twitter at 8:08 p.m. on May 3, within hours of gunmen opening fire at a “draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas.

It is tempting to answer Callimachi’s question dismissively. Speech needs no why. Freedom of expression is its own raison d’être. That is in fact what I believe.

I am a freedom fetishist.

But perhaps we have strayed so far from our traditions of classic liberalism, become so complacent inside the bounds of our own civility, that we must reflect again on the why of it.

Free speech aside, why depict Jesus Christ floating in urine? Why paint the Virgin Mary splattered by dung and surrounded by hovering vaginas? Why fake an interview where Jerry Falwell confesses to losing his virginity with his mother? Why produce the musical The Book of Mormon?

Free speech aside, why does anyone, ever, do or say or think or draw or write anything profane or blasphemous or provocative or controversial or impolite or mean-spirited or harsh or unkind?

Do only certain answers to that question justify the exercise of such freedom? Insulting to Christianity 15-0505

I sit as I write this in a crowded coffee shop. The tables are small and closely spaced. There are men seated at tables on either side of me. All three of us have matching disposable cups of overpriced coffee sitting precariously on the edges of our small tables crowded beside silver laptops.

There is no way for me to angle my laptop to prevent them both from seeing the screen as I peruse galleries of Charlie Hebdo covers looking for images targeting Christian and Judaic ideas.

Ideas. Not people.

CircumcisionI wonder, what do these men sitting so closely beside me think of these images? By now, they have surely glanced over and seen them on my screen. What meaning have they ascribed to them, to my perusing of them here inside the narrow confines of this crowded coffee shop? What conclusions have they drawn about my character?

I find my mind flowing back through the years to another table in another time. It is more than a decade and a half ago. The table is bigger, square instead of round. In a lunch deli, not a coffee shop, and not at all crowded. I am having lunch with a friend. It is before the days of smart phones, and we are reading different sections of a shared newspaper.

An article captures my attention. I summarize it aloud for my friend. A couple struggling to conceive sought help from a fertility clinic. Ultimately the wife was implanted with embryos that were successfully fertilized using her eggs and donor sperm. A baby was born.

Only there had been a mix-up with the donor sperm used by the clinic. The baby does not have the right look to her parents’ way of thinking.

Her skin is too dark. Her hair is too kinky.

The parents are suing. The article closes with a quote in which they insist they are not racist.

“Right. We aren’t racist,” I mimic, sarcastically. “We just don’t want this baby. For entirely non-racist reasons.”

My friend snickers. We both get it. We are young and smug and sure of ourselves, signaling our mutual membership in the best of all possible tribes. We start riffing back and forth, mimicking all the things we imagine people blissfully unaware of their own contrivances say in such circumstances.

We’re not racist. We just don’t think the races should mix.

We’re not racist. This is about the children.

We’re not racist. We have black friends.

A man at a corner table looks up from behind his own newspaper and frowns.

Jerk.

I immediately assign him to one of those other, less desirable tribes. One whose members remain fatuously assured of their enlightened values right up until the moment they are handed that baby. The swaddled bundle of Other that forces them to confront the things they had till then been able to deny existed inside their own minds.

Or—

Wait.

Wait!

Does he think we are the—?

Did he misunderstand? We were only…

What? I struggled to think of the right words to describe what we were doing.

Making fun.

Mocking.

Satirizing.

I am fifteen years away from knowing what Charlie Hebdo is.

Poe’s Law is not yet a thing.

All of sudden I see how the view might look from his table. I am no longer sure which of us belongs in which tribe. Which of us is blinded by our own contrivances.

It is not always obvious.

It is not always possible to find a single objective truth in satire, in mockery, in fiction, in art. It is not always easy to define the line between the thing mocked and the mockery itself. Between racism and the illustration of racism. Between mocking racism and perpetuating its existence. Between targeting ideas and targeting people. To avoid the place where laughter collides with conscience. To know if we are punching up or down.

To avoid the inherent limitations of the view from our own table.

But it is in those moments when self-doubt obliterates contrivance that paradigms shift. It is in the moments when we finally sense the chinks in our own armor of righteousness that we fully appreciate the limitations of our perspective. It is where we straddle those lines that cannot be drawn that real debate occurs and social change is worked.

There is inherent value in the speech that drives us to the place where the curtain is pulled back.

And that is why.

As Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors, writes on his Steam Thing blog:

It’s possible, of course, to see the antiracist message of one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as no more than a cover for an underhanded relishing of the racist imagery deployed in it. Parody usually does participate to some extent in the energy of what it parodies; that is one of the risks it runs. Humor is not pure. It speaks to us through our flaws, as well as speaking to us about them—envies and hates, as well as greeds and lusts—and it can’t exist without the license to work with dark materials.

Last year at the University of Iowa, a visiting professor created a sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman papered with articles about racial tension and violence over the last 100 years. Some people complained that it was racist, and the sculpture was removed. Its creator, Serhat Tanyolacar, intended the sculpture to confront the comfortable assumption that our racial frictions are all safely in the past.

Can one of these interpretations be pronounced objectively correct to the exclusion of the other? They are like conjoined twins—one good, one evil—and you cannot kill one without killing the other.

And that is why.

If the message cannot always be nailed down, neither can the direction of the punch, though that was the criteria for meritorious satire recently advocated by cartoonist Gary Trudeau. An LGBT couple denied photography, floral or catering services will undoubtedly perceive the balance of power differently than the Christian business owner bankrupted for expressing religious values that amount in others’ eyes to politically incorrect discrimination.

Which side controls the narrative about campus “rape culture?”

Does Paul Nungesser have more or less power than Emma Sulkowicz?

Are the targets of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical barbs victims, as Trudeau suggests, or are they oppressors, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others might argue?

[T]o portray an institution that mocks any religion’s sacred cows as villainously “punching down” ignores that religious institutions are very much part of the power structure and have been throughout history.

When you’re challenging the gods, and those who claim to speak for the gods, you are always punching up.

Can we say with certainty that Charlie Hebdo’s (alleged) punching down in France does not help people like Raif Badawi punch up in Saudi Arabia?

Like shifting sands, our perceptions of the balance of power change from setting to setting, issue to issue, moment to moment, always influenced by the view from our table. If we refrain from swinging except in the clear cut cases, satire is sidelined precisely at those moments when we stand on the brink, when social upheavals make the scores too close to call.

And that is why.

But it is not all.

Circumscribing speech based on the sensibilities of out-groups marginalizes and infantilizes the members of those groups. It treats them as children who must be shielded from the harsh confrontations that members of other, more superior groups might be expected to handle. As David Frum noted in responding to Trudeau:

It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

In this manner, Trudeau and his cohorts would return fierce debate to the exclusive province of those—white, male and Judeo-Christian—who by dint of their power and privilege can be expected to handle such heady and taxing matters responsibly.

Out-groups are not comprised of children.

Nor are they homogenous. Among their many victims, extremists who call themselves Muslims kill moderates who also call themselves Muslims. Is Charlie Hebdo punching down against the latter—or punching up on their behalf?

People of good faith can reach different answers.

And that is why.

Finally, and here is the crux of it, we cannot make the world safe for the people who would punch up unless we find it our hearts to defend those who will use the same freedom to punch down.

I used to differentiate between government censorship and private consequences for unpopular speech. It was the wrong distinction. The meaningful difference is between non-forceful responses to speech—different speech, firing, boycotting, bankrupting, and shunning, all of which are fair game—versus forceful responses, which never, ever are.

It is not functionally different whether the thugs using force to suppress expression are the official ones we call “government” or a renegade band of religious zealots. If we give in to the latter on the theory that they are somehow exempted from the resistance we would put up against the former, the zealots simply become a shadow government of censors.

We are no less unfree.

If we want freedom to exist for the Raif Badawis of the world, we must defend its exercise by the Pam Gellars.

The peaceful way to do that, to render violence counterproductive to its own ends, is by mirroring the speech that would be suppressed. Even when it is offensive. Even when it is blasphemous. Even when it is rude, childish, stupid, unpopular, pointless or unnecessarily provocative.

Even when we don’t agree. Especially then.

And that is why.