When Writing is Like Landing a Plane


Writing a transition for my book as I flew into Kennedy airport, I realized that my job and the pilot’s job weren’t all that different. Of course his takes years of training, the mastery of a highly complex machine, and the responsibility for numerous lives (and schedules). Mine just takes sitting at the computer in my pajamas.

However, as a metaphor, and I hunt for metaphors like a pig rooting for truffles, it’s not bad. A more accurate one might be the astronaut in the landing simulator, where mistakes aren’t fatal and do-overs are the point.

Writing a novel, you often find yourself circling the airport of a vital incident, working the background and the exposition, setting the scene and dressing the stage. Though this sort of throat clearing can go on for too long, and sometimes exposes a fear of narrative (“I know I’m about to make something bad happen to my character, but I’m not sure what he-or-she is going to do about it so I’ll procrastinate instead”), it’s often necessary and can even be fun. The problem comes when you have to find the runway and set the story down without crashing.

High-altitude holding pattern

In the old days, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, this problem frequently came up at the beginning of a door-stop tome. In A Tale of Two Cities, after a full chapter of historical context, sparked by the justly famous torrent of paradox (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”), Charles Dickens floats over the whole of England in 1775, a daringly high-altitude holding pattern which reveals an entire landscape of crime and politics, scandal and subversion, in France as well as England.

Dickens waits for his second chapter to make his landing: “It was the Dover road that lay, on a Friday night late in November, before the first of the persons with whom this story has business.”

With only the slightest shudder of industrial rubber on oiled tarmac, we have arrived, taxi-ing to the terminal. Suddenly, with one stroke (and twenty-six words), we are standing on  a specific road, on a specific night – a chilly one in late autumn – and about to meet the characters who will escort us on our journey.

This same moment, where the narrative pulls together and tenses for action, is found in all stories, even the fairy tales we read as children, where a discussion of the kingdom and the castle and the Royal Family eventually sharpens into action with the true magic words of the sorcerer’s story-book: “One day.”

From abstraction to anecdote

The smallest child can feel that thrilling pivot from abstraction to anecdote: “Then one day, after a decade of peace and prosperity, when war seemed like a dream that no one could quite remember after waking up, a lone rider appeared at the castle gate, dusted with new snow, his shirt torn and his horse bloody.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! Enough of all that boring history and tranquility. Suddenly the pale landscape teems with questions: who is this rider, why is he alone and what happened to him? We have been brutally yanked into the vivid onrushing present moment, and those two words, “one day,” are the ancient, gnarled, but still sturdy hook that grabs us by the neck and puts us there.

For modern writers, it’s not quite so easy. The fairy tale option is out and so is the luxury of beginning a novel with a long expository slab of text. Mostly our descents into the particular happen in mid-chapter, and require the kind of “performative” sentence, turbo charged with mystery, threat and invitation, I used to believe were only required for a novel’s opening line. Turns out, you need quite a few “first sentences” to keep a book puddle jumping from incident to incident, and whether you’re making your final approach from an info dump or a flashback, making the touchdown a smooth one is vital. And fraught with hazard: any pilot can tell you, landing is the most dangerous aspect of any flight.

Two-word sentence fragment

I managed to do it with a two-word sentence fragment last week, though it took me most of a week to find the words in question. I was writing the chapter where the horrible dad (“Scrooge” in my Christmas mystery), finds out his son Martin is gay, resulting in a catastrophic and potentially tragic rift in the family, with a brief glimpse of a grim fate that will serve as my “Ghost of Christmas Future” moment.

I’d been talking around the big scene, setting up the home situation and the clueless parents, trying to get my plane back on the ground again, peering through the fog for a usable runway. Here’s what I finally came up with: the 93 word paragraph approach—and the two word landing.

“If I’m going to stay in the closet,” Martin had said to his brother last Christmas, “I’m going to need a bigger one. Too much clobber – all those batts and kaffies.” That meant clothes and shoes and trousers in British Polari slang. Martin had started using Polari after listening to old Marty Feldman BBC comedy tapes and classic Morrissey albums. It annoyed and alienated their father, it cut and chewed at the thread binding them together, like all the other details had before, but nothing had quite managed to sever that coarse familial twine.

Until now.

Another safe landing, another sigh of relief.

I wrote and deleted many failed attempts at that unexceptional, workaday shift in focus. But the most important thing to remember, as we try for the right transitions and fail, is that we’re in the flight simulator and not the plane. It took Ken Mattingly and his team dozens of tries to find the perfect slingshot trajectory for the Apollo 13 re-entry and splash down.

We should allow ourselves the same luxury. It feels so good when we fully make it work. Passengers always compliment the Cape Air pilot when he brings the little Cessna down with a gentle bump and a comforting roar of the air brakes. Hopefully, readers never even notice those moments. They just know they’re on solid ground again, ready for the next leg of their journey.