The closing-Tube-door method of writing

800px-london_underground_tube_stock_1992

About ten years ago, when I was still living in London and already writing for The Economist, I got in the habit of visualizing a specific scene whenever I was preparing to write something (ie, most of the time). And I still do it today.

In this mental scene, I am saying goodbye to somebody I know and like, somebody who would not bullshit me–my wife, for instance. She has boarded her train in the London Tube (“subway”, to you New Yorkers), and just as that famous Tube voice says Mind the Gap and I pull back on the platform, she says: ‘Oh, and what’s your next piece about?’

As the doors close, I shout one single mouthful of words into the train. A few words. That’s all there is time for. Then I watch the train pull away, and I imagine her facial expression as she looks through the pane.

  • Intrigued? Good.
  • Thoughtful? Good.
  • Outraged? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.
  • Smirking? Good, if that’s the kind of story it is.

But what if the reaction on her face is:

  • Ho-hum. Not good.
  • Bored. No go.
  • Squinting. Ouch, I must have shouted out a cliché.
  • Disgusted.

Often, I iterate story ideas in real conversations, of course. But there isn’t enough time to do that with the thousands of half-formed story ideas that teem inside my head at any given moment. And conversation has a drawback: You have time. Time to explain… and explain… and explain. The writer needs the opposite: to be constrained into one short phrase only.

So the big surprise is that this mental exercise alone usually does the trick. That ‘trick’ being:

To find something in the everything around me that is worth telling, because somebody will react to it.

Our nomenclature

At The Economist, we have a ‘flytitle’, ‘title’, and ‘rubric’ above every piece, and sometimes a ‘dateline’. In this article, for instance, these are:

The Filipina sisterhood [flytitle]

An anthropology of happiness [title]

Dec 20th 2001 | HONG KONG [dateline]

Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons [rubric]

ONCE a week, on Sundays, Hong Kong becomes a different city. Thousands of Filipina women throng into… [text]

I chose this example because it’s one that worked. Spoken through closing Tube doors, this trio of flytitle, title and rubric would have done the trick. I would know that I’m ready to start writing the pice.

The rubric, Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons, actually came from the editor of that piece, Ann Wroe (usually our Obituary writer, and one of our best). She had taken whatever phrase I had put there, probably a grammatically complete sentence, and chopped it into this open-ended, verbless and … inescapable line. (Notice the alluringly modest some)

So that’s what I do, day in and day out, I think of rubrics and titles. The world is full of things and events and people and sensual inputs. Those are not yet stories. To become stories, they have to fall into place in a way that is interesting. And an essence has to emerge out of them. That becomes the rubric.

The rubric is not a summary (that’s where I used to get it wrong for a long time). It can, but need not be, a thesis, bluntly put. It can be a question, inviting the reader to go on a journey of discovery. Or anything else. The best ones are Haikus, full of attitude. I thought this one, for instance, worked okay, although it bordered on gimmicky:

Google

What a lot of wheatgrass

Jun 30th 2005 | SAN FRANCISCO

Psst, there is news about Google, but don’t tell

IT IS hard to know whether to be impressed, suspicious or amused…..

Really, all it does is to inform you that I’m about to ‘take the piss’, as the Brits would say, on the general subject of Google. If you expect serious analysis after this, it’s your own fault.

Anyway. I happen to believe that this rubric-shouting through closing Tube doors works for all writing at all length. Short blog posts, long essays, even entire books. If you don’t know what that center of gravity is toward which you want your readers to be pulled, you’re not ready yet.

Which makes me wonder, of course, whether I have found the title and rubric of my forthcoming book (which I happen to care about more than about any article I’ve ever written.) You may recall that I recently sent the manuscript to my editor at Riverhead, and that for all sorts of reasons, having to do with the American marketplace, I do not yet know the title and subtitle. It will be determined by the editor, “in consultation” with me. And so I wait.

Lots of Tube doors opening and closing in my mind. Mind the Gap.

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14 thoughts on “The closing-Tube-door method of writing

  1. Andreas – your endearing and (as usual) insightful anecdote, reminds me of a related recurring day dream. Working in London as a corporate wage slave entailed suffering interminable meetings – with much spouting of extended nonsense. During those excruciating episodes I would imagine that Tube announcer saying loudly to the meeting “Mind The Crap”.

  2. Opening a door into your heart is one way to sell books.
    Opening a door into your mind is another.

    I am attracted to stories that open to both.

    By the way, will you explain the difference between the flytitle and the title?

  3. Jag, that reminds of one winter day when we were packed like sardines on the Tube platform, all of us with the flu, it seemed, and looking unurprisingly glum in the cold, dank, dark.
    That Tube voice sounded, but started saying, in thick Cockney: “Oh, it’s great to see so many happy, smiling faces today….” And on he went for a bit in that style, until he signed off with “mind the gap”. By then, he had thousands of sniffly penguins in pinstripes smiling and laughing.

    Cheri: It’s another one of those bizarre traditions we have. It’s just a way of splitting one title line into two, so that you can have a “topic” and then a “title”, where the topic is usually more descriptive and the title often witty or emotive or, god forbid, a pun. For instance, in my piece in the current issue, the flytitle is “Earthquakes”, which is what the article is about. The title is “State of Fear”, which would tell you nothing out of context.

    Personally, I don’t think the double title works as well in the online age as it did in the paper age.

    • Andreas, you state “Personally, I don’t think the double title works as well in the online age as it did in the paper age.”

      I am not too sure why you state this. Is it because most times in the online world there only is space for a subject and text (e.g. in email)?

      Actually after reading this piece I am thinking maybe I should be a bit more creative with the subject headers of the emails used for communication (at a large corporation). The only fear I have is that with a manager whose native tongue is Romansch, he won’t understand my puns. As it is I have difficulty in making him read my mails (if he is in cc: he usually ignores them).

    • Hi Siddhartha,
      I’m not actually sure about this. But paper seems to need and reward visual navigation aids more than a web page does. When you’re browsing through The (paper) Economist, you naturally pick up the pattern of flytitle, title, rubric. Online, that pattern probably is not so clear.

      (In general, I find that a lot our traditional formatting is lost on online readers. For instance, almost nobody who reads a chapter in a Special Report online realizes that it is, in fact, part of a Special Report.)

      I sympathize with your Swiss boss. I have also stopped reading emails where I am in the CC field. Too many emails, too little time. I think the whole notion of CC is as dead as carbon copies anyway.

      But I endorse your appreciation of the power of subject headers. I decide which emails to read almost entirely based on those. They matter.

  4. So you figure out the rubric and title before you sit down and write? That’s probably smart. And efficient. In my line of work (writing comics) I have to convince my editor that a story is good by showing him an interesting synopsis. Only then am I supposed to go ahead and write the script. But what usually happens is that I write the script first. Then when the script works I boil it down to a synopsis, which I use to sell the idea to my editor. Of course if he rejects the synopsis, I’ve wasted a bunch of effort. My dad was a reporter for AP in the 60s. He’d write not only titles but actually the entire story in his head because he loathed re-typing.

  5. I think the two–rubrics and storylines–happen simultaneously in my head, a bit as they did in your dad’s head. As I look into a “topic” and read and have conversations, I mentally try out phrases to say through the closing Tube doors. I go through a lot of different phrases that way. Sometimes, I just don’t find a phrase I like, and I drop the topic. Other times, I find one and run with it. Then I write, “toward” that phrase. But once I have written, I almost always go back and change the rubric.

    My guess, although I’ve never done it, is that would do exactly the same if I were writing comics, or movie scripts.

    BTW, I love those stories from old hacks in the pre-Wordprocessing era. I do wonder how anybody ever wrote anything before there was copy, paste, undo, etc.

    • “……..I love those stories from old hacks in the pre-Wordprocessing era. I do wonder how anybody ever wrote anything before there was copy, paste, undo, etc…………”

      And to think these old days were only a smidgin over ten years ago.

      I, for instance, handwrote. I found writing by hand better, for creative writing, than typing (handwriting allows a more direct connection between thought and execution, perhaps?).

      Perhaps we all might write better if we wrote by hand more?

    • Mr. Phogg, (related to Phineas?). I spend time every day doing some handwriting. It usually flows better. I also use it as a form of meditation. I analyze my own handwriting before I’m about to give a talk or do something that I might be anxious about. I’ve also become aware of people who ‘wrap their thumb’ when handwriting. It’s almost like a class distinction among older people. A lot kids do it these days. Cursive is not taught as rigorously as in my grandmother’s day.

    • Make a fist and then put your pen under your index finger or between your index finger and middle finger. (I can’t find a picture.) This is opposed to how you might hold your distal chopstick.

  6. As the doors close, I shout one single mouthful of words into the train. “If you’re on the Circle Line after 5 pm, remember — YOU CAN’T SIT TOO FAR FROM THE FRONT. (Love you. Mean it.)”

    This is different from ‘the elevator speech.’ (funner)

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