Category Archives: How We Create Magic

Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.



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Put Things in Piles

girl with pile of paperI have a horror story about a college writing class (I’ll pause while you recover from shock). At a college where I taught writing, we had a professor who would give his first-year students a page of detailed instructions on how to write, literally telling them sentence-by-sentence how to write an essay. Naturally, this wild incompetent also used the 5-paragraph essay format.

What that tenured professor did not teach his students was how to work their way through the complicated, sometimes sloppy, process of examining a topic, generating ideas about it, and figuring out how to organize those ideas (i.e., the way we actually write out here in the real world).

Now, if you’re not a prisoner in a college English class, but you’re writing something for a rational reason, such as needing to say something, no one will be sitting there telling you what each sentence is supposed to do, or how many paragraphs you need to have. You’ll have to figure it out, considering the audience you’re writing for, which is what college students should be doing, so as to develop that useful skill.

And if you are not an incompetent writing teacher, one of the things you can teach in a writing class is basic concepts, such as taking your ideas and grouping them in various ways, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the writer’s thoughts and thus understand what is being said. The most basic way to group ideas is in paragraphs, or to use a metaphor I like at this moment, put the ideas in separate piles.

The paragraph was a great invention, because it’s so useful in letting us show those different piles of ideas. But if we step back from the metaphor a moment, we recognize a difficulty. These ain’t colored shells. We’re talking about ideas here, so there’s no clear and easy way of knowing what goes in which pile (in spite of appallingly stupid practices like the “5-paragraph essay”—and if you ever had to do that, on behalf of the entire English profession, I want to apologize to you).

So what does make a proper paragraph? In part, it depends on what you want to say, but in part (we don’t tell students this), it depends on the context. For a news article, the paragraphs should all be fairly short. For a serious report, maybe in business, medicine, or engineering, the paragraphs may sometimes be rather long. And if a paragraph fills more than a page, no matter what the context, it’s too long, because then you’re not seriously using paragraphs.

In addition to understanding how to use paragraphs, there is the question of how to show the reader when a paragraph begins. I know of three ways, though I’ve only seen two of them ever used. One way would be to start every paragraph with a special symbol, which could be anything ♣, as long as everyone knows what it is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done, however.

The way a paragraph is normally indicated, of course, is with emptiness. On paper, we always begin a paragraph with a tiny bit of blank space at the beginning. On screen, that’s rarely done, and instead we use an entire blank line between paragraphs. I’ve also seen people on paper use indentation and a blank line at the same time. Using both is redundant and over time will be way more expensive, to add all those extra blank lines on paper.

Last week at work I was looking at a manuscript I was supposed to edit. If you are not one of the lucky people who read this blog regularly, I’m a copy editor on a medical journal. So I looked at the manuscript, and while the authors had used paragraphs, they had some that went on rather long, followed by others that consisted of one sentence. At one point, I even addressed the authors out loud: “Do you know what a goddamn paragraph is?” I also addressed the authors with some other pertinent words that were needed at the time.

Then I realized that the authors of the article had brutishly done nothing to indicate where paragraphs started. They were using paragraphs, but if you ran your eye down the left margin, it was solid text. I thought Where on the entire planet Earth have you seen this done? What makes you think this is OK? Though I think I did see it done once, I believe in a French magazine. But it’s still incredibly stupid.

From working at the journal where I labor so avidly, I’ve come to understand that while most of our writers are as good as nonprofessional writers generally get, some of them are about as bad as the students I used to have in college writing classes. This is why we need copy editors willing to curse and cry over the trash and then fix it.

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I, Like, Speak Like, You Know

criticism of young peopleAbout a year ago, and I am not making this up, I was in a shop somewhere and someone said to me, “Are you a writer? You look like one.” They didn’t mean someone famous, because honestly, how many writers would anyone recognize? They just meant in general sort of way, and I thought Hmm, could it be because I have a look of tantalizing sophistication and my eyes express a quiet wisdom? Then I realized it was probably because I forgot to brush my hair, my shirt had stains on it, and I was looking around like “where am I?”

I’ll take either one, however. I claim my identity as a wordsmith, which has been hard come by. Wordsmithery is not a skill I was born with, of course. No baby comes into the world knowing how to spell “abstemiousness” or how to punctuate a dependent clause. It has been a slow slog learning all that stuff, yet here we are, the quintessence of an audacious linguophile. According to myself.

Back when I was applying my love of well-crafted language in the most ironic fashion possible (teaching college writing), a few times I had a student who said, “I write like I speak.” I’m not sure now whether such a student wanted to justify their style as authenticated by the speech learned at dear mama’s knee, or whether they were trying to explain why they were so goddamn awful.

In any case, they were mistaken. No one writes like they speak. They may be heavily influenced by day-to-day speech, so that they think “I would have” is supposed to be “I would of” but once the letters appear on the page (or screen, these days), it’s another world. Other than for literary purposes, or when very drunk, most writers are at least trying to adhere to what they consider “proper” writing.

Writing is extremely different from speaking, and I’m not even addressing the point that writing is as artificial as a business suit, a social invention. Speech, on the other hand, is natural in the sense that every person is born with that capacity. So when we write, no matter what we write, we are riding on a different kind of donkey from the one that bounces us down the road during a nice chat.

To take one quick example of the difference, a written sentence, with rare exceptions, must always have a subject and a verb. If it does not, we have a term for that—sentence fragment, i.e. only part of a sentence. I guarantee you the concept of a sentence fragment did not exist before the invention of writing. In speech, we absolutely don’t think about that.

The sentence fragment is an example of the difference between speaking and writing, but there are bigger differences than just sentence construction. Because writing can be edited, it is more logical and has far less repetition than speaking. In addition to all these edited differences, no writing is ever truly like speech anyway, because real speech sometimes sounds like this:

  • “well she was— let me tell you about her, I mean, if you, or anybody was asking…”
  • “uh, well, I’m, don’t know, yeah I don’t know about that, since we’re going…”

Speech is often full of incoherent noise and starts and stops and thinking. Only some college freshman essays are like that.

When fiction writers create dialogue, the question arises, or should arise, as to how to make the writing sound like someone is really talking. Inexperienced writers may not do this well, making their characters always speak in perfect edited sentences, which is, um, not like how people talk, you know?

The trick in fiction is to create the illusion of speech. You can’t really write exactly like people talk, as that would often be gobbledygook, and you want the dialogue to be understandable as well as carry the story forward. So as a fiction writer you learn some tricks to make the dialogue sound occasionally broken, interrupted, or paused for thought, but you always pay attention to how well the basic message is coming through.

So we’re like, uh, you know, and stuff.

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The Two of Us

dog and orangutanWe’ve had lots of rain here lately, including monsoon crazy rain on Tuesday afternoon. Watching the water rise, I’ve been thinking about things in twos, and I don’t just mean giraffes, mountain goats, and naked mole-rats walking up the ramp onto the ark. I was thinking about other wild creatures, like artists and writers.

I know what you’re thinking. Wait a minute. Writers in pairs? Isn’t one enough to deal with? I’m compelled to go off topic for a moment to tell you something I experienced years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was there with my wife (at the time) in a graveyard of famous people, when I saw the grave of the wife of Pushkin, who is by far the most well known poet in Russia. I pointed the grave out to my wife, who said (and I’m not making this up), “She was the wife of a writer. I feel sorry for her.” And I was like. . . what?

Regarding the idea of pairs, how much collaboration goes on in different art forms? With music, yes, there is lots of collaboration. Some forms of music have both words and music, so different skills may be involved, requiring two people. More importantly, a lot of music is made with several instruments, so you actually need more than one person. Collaboration would be natural.

What about painting? A few weeks ago, while I was in Charleston, one of the art galleries I went into had paintings in which two artists collaborated. One person painted an image, then the second artist added something to it, producing, in the cases I saw, fairly surrealistic art. But think about it. Have you ever heard of a painting that was done by two artists? It’s actually so uncommon as to practically not exist.

With writing, there are some types of writing where having more than one author is common. In science, a single author is so rare as to seem a little strange when it happens. At the medical journal where I’m an editor, in three years of working there, I have never seen an article by only one author. Most of our articles tend to average maybe seven or eight authors. I even asked Uncle Internet for an example of a science article with many authors, and I found that in 2015, the article announcing discovery of the Higgs boson (I’m not making this up) had 5,154 “authors”.

What the fuck? Didn’t the word “author” used to mean someone who “wrote” something? Not in science, apparently. And yet we get articles that someone wrote. Maybe just one person. At our journal, we are pretending to fight a battle in defense of the word “author” as a writer. We even require that the authors lie to us and submit a form swearing they all literally worked on the writing. We’re serious as a heart attack about it, and we save those forms for years.

But—ah! here we are at last—what about creative writers, the people who can make their spouses pity the dead? How many books can you name written by two writers? I don’t mean some drivel where a famous person hires a writer to actually do the work, and then they are both “authors”. I mean how many creative works have you seen with two writers?

In poetry, none. There may not be a single poem on the earth written by two poets. I don’t know it anyway.

In fiction, there are a few examples. The only one I actually know off-hand is two novels called The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf by early Soviet humor writers Ilf and Petrov (yeah, I know, “Soviet humor writer” sounds like an oxymoron). The books are fabulous, by the way, wonderful satire, and Mel Brooks even made a movie of the first one. I went looking for more examples and I found a play called “The Mule Bone” by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. According to what I read, that collaboration did not go well. There are a few other examples of collaborative creative writing if you look, but not many.

Why is collaboration so rare in creative writing? I think the answer is fairly easy. All art, at its heart, is an individual expression, from someone feeling the urge to do it. Human beings have created several complex forms of art that cannot be done by one person, and whose lend themselves to collaboration: music, theater, opera, film. Other art forms, however, like fiction, poetry, or painting, tend to be the vision and expression of a single person. Collaborating with a second person would probably change and ruin the first person’s vision. And so we write on alone.

I want to say, regarding this blog entry, that I wrote this all by myself, and I only needed two naps, a half gallon of ice cream, and a brief period of melancholy darkness to be able to do it.

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Let There Be Light

How do you make light flow like water. I saw it done three days ago, so I know it’s possible, but I wonder how. More pertinent to what I want to say here, how do you decide to do that, and to add flowing light to the backdrop of an aggressively modern opera?

Or let’s say you’ve painted a fairly large canvas with a semi-abstract vase of flowers. Do you look at the picture and think, “This really needs tiny white dots scattered at random across the canvas”? So you add them. Or do you have white paint on your brush and accidentally splatter the picture, then think, “Oh shit. Well, I’m leaving it”?

Let’s take a third example, using the Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin”. If you are staging this opera, which is more than 200 years old, how do you decide to incorporate video segments? And if you decide to use video, what will it be, and where will it go, and how will you do it? It would already seem like a lot of work just to decide where the singers should be standing.

I’m thinking a little more at the moment about how people make creative decisions because I’ve come to Charleston, South Carolina, specifically because of the creativity I find here. I’m in Charleston for four days attending the Spoleto Festival, but the creativity here is much more than just Spoleto. I went yesterday to Blue Bicycle book store, where they have a shelf with local writers (particularly Pat Conroy). There are also more art galleries here than any place I’ve ever been. The smallest number I’ve heard was around 45 galleries, or up to 80.

From the last two days I’ll consider three more examples of creative decision making: (1) a painter I happened to meet and chat with, who had his easel set up outside painting a boat; (2) a poet who lives here and works with highly structured poetry, and (3) Gullah basket makers who live out on the barrier islands and who come into Charleston to sell baskets on the steps of the post office.

(1) The painter is named Ignat Ignatov, from Bulgaria, but living now in Los Angeles. He came to Charleston to judge an art show that runs for 17 days in a park here, and he also told me he has work hanging in one of the galleries in town. I went to the gallery and looked, and for much of his work, I could recognize it, with broad brush strokes, in a semi-abstract style. I liked it very much, by the way. When I asked the gallery manager, however, I was shown other things Ignat had done in radically different styles. I wondered how a decision is made for how to work on each painting. Is it conscious? Is the style inspired by the subject? Does the light itself affect how he decides to paint something?

(2) I also talked with a woman who told me her husband is a poet, but a poet who works in a more structured and controlled way than most poets. I would probably consider him a more serious poet, having had a lot of experience myself with people who pour the words out, and out, and out, in one sitting and then don’t touch the poem again. By contrast, the poet in this case has worked with verses of three lines (I think I got that right), organized in a particular way—something, in other words, that would take a lot of conscious control. Why do that? What is the creative impulse to use any particular structure and not another one?

(3) The Gullah basket makers are famous for the baskets they make using sweetgrass and pine needles (the baskets are also called sweetgrass baskets), and I’ve seen the baskets in museums. One of the most notable things about them is that both the technique and the culture encourage creativity in form, especially regarding the basket handles. Sometimes they curl and twist into handles of fantasy. As she does this (I’ve never seen a man making baskets), what is the basket maker thinking? Is she remembering a dog’s tail she saw last week? Is she inspired by the back and forth curves of a creek near her house?

Since we’re in South Carolina, here in the deep south, it seems appropriate to end this with the Bible. One of the things I particularly like about the Genesis version of creation is that the creation of the world takes place entirely with language. God simply speaks, and things exist. I also know of one ancient Egyptian creation story that does the same thing, creation through language. Creating with words, I can relate to that. But I wonder what he was thinking.

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I Am, Needless to Say, Perfect the First Time

ruined building and restored version

The revised version

Back when Fred and Wilma Flintstone still lived in Bedrock (the late 1970s), I was in college. While I was there, my college sponsored a science fiction convention, and since I was a fan, I attended. For the highlight of the convention, we brought in a very famous science fiction writer. I have just checked Wikipedia to learn that he is still alive, so I guess I won’t name him, though if you’re also a science fiction fan, you’d certainly know him.

At one of the talks given by the Famous Science Fiction Writer, he began telling us what a good writer he is, and he even at one point talked about his ability to write so well the writing wouldn’t need revision, and he could publish it like it was. He was so good, he said, that he didn’t necessarily need to revise.

I want to pause here to say that I have a theory about people who insist on telling you how wonderful they are (and by “theory” I mean bedrock truth). I’ve learned this truth from very close acquaintance with a family member who has illustrated it in detail. Anyone who feels compelled to tell you how good they are is actually seriously broken inside, cringing that anyone might discover the truth. Not that I’m going to name any presidents of the United States.

As it happens, the Famous Science Fiction Writer really is good at what he does, in spite of his obvious insecurity and loud insistence otherwise. But is it possible to be so good you don’t need to revise your writing?

I used to tell my students in first-year prisoner English class that anyone can write below their own level of ability. A college freshman can do it, a famous writer can do it. But to write the best you are capable of, you cannot do this, ever . . . EVER, if you do not revise. Now if lazy writing below your capacity is good enough, and sometimes, frankly, it is, then fine. Dash off an email. Post something on Twitter.

Writing is a complicated activity, requiring attention to many different things, such as the overall subject being written about, choosing which details to add, matching subjects and verbs, spelling the words correctly, getting the punctuation correct. The way the human mind operates, the way we focus, we cannot think about all of these things at the same time. Instead, we focus our attention, in a kind of jittery back and forth motion, on a couple of points, then stop and move to another: “Did I make the really important point I was thinking about a minute ago? Yes, oh, and is that word spelled right?”

Even if the writing process itself were not so inherently scattered, if you are doing the best you can do, that quality is created from repeatedly going over what you’ve written, to find a better sentence structure that you didn’t think of the first time, to add better details than you started with, to cut out something that you now realize isn’t working, and so on. This is real work. And humans are lazy, so it’s understandable why people don’t want to do this.

A friend who is a writer was just telling me about revising a novel she’s worked on for years, a book done in three sections. She has decided to discard one of the three sections, the middle of the book. If you’re not a writer, that probably sounds drastic, though it doesn’t sound that extreme to me. I know how hard it must have been for her to decide this, as I know her well enough to know what an emotional connection she would have to that section. I also think the book will be much more focused and thus improved.

The novel I’m currently revising has been through a similar process, with similar extensive cutting. As I was reading over the book to begin the revision process, considering what I might do with it, I went from thinking “this is a useless, irredeemable mess” to thinking “well, the parts with the two female characters sort of have something in common” and I wondered what if that was all that was there. If I cut out the male characters (half the book), what would happen? I tried it, and suddenly the book made more sense. That was the first step in a long process toward a better book.

Back in those long-gone days when my college held the science fiction convention, I knew that I was supposed to revise writing. My understanding of revision in those days, though, was to change a sentence here and there. It took me many years to realize that the best way to revise is to love what you write, then kill it if you have to.

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And Then the Cat Jumped on Those Hounds

ancient Greek bard

Tell us the story of sushi

Last week I was telling someone about going downtown to ride the giant Ferris wheel here in Atlanta, and she commented on how I tell stories. By coincidence, a few days later I was talking to a woman who I met recently, and  to my great surprise, it turned out we know people in common who are devoted storytellers. I mean they are serious about it and attend events at which people get up and tell stories, and they’ve even induced me to attend a few times.

On the subject of telling stories, I’m just now finishing the draft of a revised novel (called Birds Above the Cage). While working on the revision, I spent a great deal of effort on how the story moved along, thinking about whether the dramatic moments came too soon, and so on, what I thought of as pacing. If you think about it, what is pacing? It’s an element of storytelling.

I’ve given examples here of telling a story in a personal conversation, of getting up in front of people to intentionally tell stories, and of treating the flow of a novel as telling a story. People love stories, and both children and adults will sit enthralled to hear a story well told. If we go way back in time to Homer’s Odyssey, in addition to the book being a story, there are multiple scenes of someone telling a story to a group that sits quietly listening. Storytelling is so important to fiction that modern fiction is often categorized as to what type of story is told, what we call genre. Thus we have detective novels, romance, science fiction, and so on, but no matter what type of fiction a person writes, even if the story doesn’t fit one of the common genre categories, telling a story is important.

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller. With a lot of effort, I can do it (as in the last book of short stories I put out, I’d Tear Down the Stars). Maybe I’ve listened to too many stupid cliches about the south, about how people down here are natural storytellers, sitting on the wide front porch, mint julep in hand: “Did ah tell yall ‘bout the time the hounds got loose?” I’ve been led to think that for some people telling stories must be easy, maybe, but it’s hard as hell for me.

Why do people like stories? Important disclaimer here: I don’t actually know anything. If you’re looking for real knowledge, maybe you should stop here and get back to watching Homer Simpson videos. But here’s what I think:

1) It’s just entertainment. A story can pass the time. That was part of the appeal when the bards of Homer’s time told the stories that eventually became the Odyssesy, and it’s the same reason TV shows like “Breaking Bad” become so popular.

2) Perhaps as a variation on entertainment, storytelling may meet a desire for titillation or prying into someone else’s life. To use another ancient example, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother (go find a modern story to match that for straightup weird and icky), or from Victorian novels, how about Rochester’s insane wife locked in the attic? I’m gonna guess that both Oedipus and Rochester didn’t want anybody knowing about that.

3) Though we are mostly not conscious of the fact, I think stories often meet our need for somehow making sense of the world, our need for mythology. So we tell stories both to shape events and to interpret them in ways that allow us to understand our chaotic world a little more.

And here’s a story to finish up:

I first heard of sushi when I lived in California, so long ago Bruce Springsteen was still new. My wife went one day with friends to San Francisco, then came home and told me about this sushi thing, and I thought, well, it will be a cool and pleasant day in Hell before I eat raw fish, by God. Yet last week I emailed a friend here in Atlanta and told her I was in the mood for sushi, something I now love so much I’d eat it once a week if I could afford it, so there we were at the Mall of Georgia, waiting forty minutes for a table at a place where the sushi rolls were as big as footballs, and I’m only exaggerating some. While we were waiting, we walked over to a beef jerky store, and I never imagined there could be such a plethora of dried, flavored meat in one small store. The owner even said he sometimes has alligator and kangaroo, but sadly was out of both. Something they did have, however, was novelty items—are you ready?—of packs of insects. Now in recent years, I have thought about whether I’d eat insects on purpose, and I thought “OK, crickets, maybe. Really really fried.” But one thing I knew I’d never, ever eat, swear on a pickup truck full of holy Bibles, was fucking larvae. Jeeesus, who would even think . . . but I had had a couple of glasses of wine at my friend’s house before we went out. So there I was picking up a pack of “Larvets” thinking Hmmm. It said they were fried, so I bought them, because everything is OK fried, right? On Tuesday back home, with a cold beer, like the bold adventurer that I am, I picked up one of those challenging little critters, trying not to think about what it actually was, and crunched it up. It had a remarkably close flavor to potato chips, so I ate them all. I’d probably do it again.

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