The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton

The Architecture of Happiness and writing.

I first became a real fan of Alain de Botton’s writing in 2005 when I was visiting Paris by myself for about two weeks. I stopped in at Shakespeare & Company

right by the Seine and prowled around their shelves for an hour or so. It’s pretty much the only English language bookstore in Paris and it has a long and venerable history. But that story is for another blog.

While there, I bought a copy of The Art of Travel written by De Botton. I was so delighted with it that I carried it everywhere and read it in numerous cafes and restaurants. The author and I seemed to be very like-minded— and so, a very agreeable companion indeed. I walked about and photographed as much of that beautiful city as I could. Here’s a photograph I took that afternoon, walking along the Seine.

So, why do I love The Architecture of Happiness? It has a very different way of looking at architecture than I’ve come across before. He sees our architecture as emanations or expressions of human nature and its needs and perhaps helps us understand why we seem to have such different tastes. In particular, I like his sense of humour. He writes about the buildings and their design as if they were people. Some architecture is obstinate or stubborn or timid.

He raises lots of other questions. Even if you lived in a house which you considered to be aesthetically pleasing or—even beautiful, you might still be in a bad mood. This, of course, challenges the notion that beauty is happiness.

John Ruskin, artist and writer, had a lifelong love affair [as do I] with Venice. He remarked that despite the beauty of Venice, sadly few Venetians seemed elevated by it. According to him, they carried on as their usual selves arguing, stealing and cheating apparently unimpressed with their gorgeous surroundings. This reminds me of a paragraph in The Art of Travel where he speaks of a person relaxing somewhere in the Caribbean and whose mind invariably returns to problems at the office. When we travel, we forget that we have to bring ourselves along—our whole bag of cares and concerns.

Since De Botton links our mood with our architecture—what it says about and to us—I find that it is really useful in writing descriptions in novels. When a writer wants to create a mood, he/she can certainly do well by developing the physical setting. Knowing what kinds of architecture send what sorts of messages can be very helpful.

In talking about certain “principles” of architecture [which would apply to all forms of art, I think] he discusses the appeal of balancing contrasting opposites. He argues that we, as human beings, all have our discordant elements, our contrasting aspects of our natures. And so, we seek to harmonize them in our architecture, our literature and painting, just as we do in ourselves.

When writing of the virtue of elegance in architecture, he mentions certain bridges. When architecture modestly resists the force of nature [such as a bridge or a vaulted cathedral, it may be called elegant in that it modestly resists the forces of nature. Literature can also be elegant such as a brief arrangement of words conveying great meaning succinctly. And in writing, this is what we need to strive for. And so, to be brief, I will stop here.

Do you like De Botton’s writing? Let me know what you think.


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The Writer’s Voice


Sometimes critics speak of a writer’s voice. But what do they mean?  I think of it as a goal to be achieved on a very long road. It’s that uniquely personal “way” you have of expressing yourself to the world in word and thought—the sum total of yourself as a human being. You might say it’s the Holy Grail of writing.

But how and when do you find your voice? I remember when one of my sons was in grade eight. His English teacher complained to me that he had not yet found his own writing voice. Astonished, I said, “He’s only twelve. Surely you know that writers spend their lives seeking that voice and then perfecting it?” Before you find that Grail, I think there are many steps and stops along the way.

I remember attending a writing class when I was not very far into writing a first draft of Conduct in Question, the first novel in what eventually became The Osgoode Trilogy. I was truly amazed to hear the teacher say that he usually revised his work twelve times—on average. My God! I thought. You mean three times won’t cut it? And so, began a very long journey through countless drafts of three novels, featuring the protagonist lawyer, Harry Jenkins.

It is said that a carpenter must have proper tools and this is true of any craftsmen—writers included. And she must be skilled in the use of those tools after long years of practice. So what are the tools of the writer? Many of us spend hours choosing just the right computer and clearing away a quite space of our own to write. Certainly, we need pens and paper and lots of good light. Oh, and an ergonomic chair. Fine, so far as it goes.

But what else is needed? What are the real tools of the writer? Dare I say, a strong, fundamental grasp of the language, a broad vocabulary and a sense of grammar, are necessary? This does not mean a writer must be able to cite a rule for every sentence she writes, but she must have such a fine grasp of her tools so that their proper use is automatic. After all, they are only tools with which to express one’s view of the mystery of life and they should not get in the way of the flow of thought. Unfortunately, I have seen writing in its most formative stages, where the lack of knowledge of sentence structure is appallingly absent. [My children have referred to me as a member of “the grammar police.”] Surely, mastery of these essentials must be the very first step on the journey, before one can even begin to explore and express one’s thoughts and passions.

But this takes us only so far. We have to develop a sense of so many things; namely, plot sequencing, character development, and dialogue, just to mention a few. On top of all of this, we need an idea or many ideas. We need inspiration, plus an attitude of flexibility and curiosity, which permits abandoning a line or direction and picking up a new thread.

I have often been asked if I write on a scheduled basis—so many hours in the morning etc. The answer is NO. I only sit down to write when I feel I have something to say. For me, I do a lot of “writing” in my head. Consequently, when I do sit down to write, I rarely suffer writer’s block. Perhaps that sort of block is really to prevent us from running “on empty” when we have nothing to say. Sometimes, you have to sit back and let the well fill up again. I’ve been asked if I make a plan or outline of the novel before writing it. I am amazed that anyone could do that! For me, it’s a process of growing the characters and the events over time. I do, however, make a chart of where I’ve been.

These are just a few items I’ve found along the path to finding the writer’s voice. But here’s one thing I do try out with each passage. I read it out loud to myself. Why? If you read your work aloud—just to yourself—then something quite magical happens. Your inner ear comes alive. Remember humankind has told stories long before anyone could write. The first story-telling was undoubtedly around the campfire. I find when I read aloud then all the bumps and awkwardness are immediately spotted. I might have read [with my eyes] a certain passage fifty times over and would not have picked up what the voice registers instantly on the ear. Don’t forget, language was first in the spoken form and there is something within us which hears the false or awkward.  If you do this with all your writing, you will quickly become aware of your clumsy wording. Eventually, you will sense the cadence and the rhythm of your prose. And that, for me, is part of the writer’s voice. And, by the way, I did read this aloud. Hope it sounds okay.What do you think?

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Re-learning Old Lessons

Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy


Some issues never really disappear. At least not for me. Just yesterday, I was writing about the Fate of Pryde [the novel I’m working on now] and how it wasn’t “hanging together”.

And so, I came across this article which I had written some years ago about my first novel not “hanging together”, in which I said:

“After I had written probably the sixth or seventh draft of Conduct in Question, my very first novel and the first in The Osgoode Trilogy, I submitted the book to a publisher. Instead of receiving the usual “not for our list” letter, this publisher actually took the trouble of writing me a letter filled with [as it turned out] excellent advice.

Although the characters were intriguing and the story exciting, the plot lines [of which there were three] did not hang together. Elated that this publisher had actually read the book, I embarked on an analysis of my novel from that perspective. And guess what? He was right. The plots did not hang together. It was then that I began to develop the third eye.

Writing is an extremely long journey filled with numerous pot holes, to say nothing of ditches and sewers. When we begin, we take great satisfaction in having written a first sentence, which hopefully catches the reader’s eye and leads up to the HOOK. Yes, I’ve read most of the books on how to write a best seller and even gone to some writers’ classes and conferences. The paragraphs follow one by one and soon the first brilliant chapter is complete. Now, surely, one is a writer.

You are proud of your dialogue and admire your descriptions of character and setting. [I did puzzle over how setting could really be a character in my novel, but I persevered.] You study how to tighten up the “soggy, drooping” centre of the novel and how to build an effective climax. Surely, by now, you’ve written a best seller!

But, as I learned, from this kindly publisher, something structural was missing. Somehow, in this analytical process, it occurred to me that I was not considering the effect I was producing upon the reader. This is akin to the painter who cannot seem to lift his nose from the canvas. But a painter can put down his brush and step back. He can view his painting from every imaginable angle and at any distance he likes. Not so easy for the novelist, who has lost herself in the thickets of sentences and paragraphs so delightfully constructed. In fact, she may have painted herself into many corners without knowing it.

And so, how could I get my nose off the page and see the whole thing? For me, such a task was tantamount to climbing Mt. Olympus, but that was exactly where I needed to be—above the work and looking down on all the intricacies of plot and character interaction. Did all the various parts add up to a convincing cohesive whole for a reader other than me? Again, I think a painter or sculptor would have an easier job of this, simply because he can physically get a better view. But the writer has to get his distance through mental gymnastics. Some find that if they put the manuscript in a drawer, for a month or two, they can achieve that perspective.

No one can tell anyone else how to do this. I am simply pointing out that all writers have to learn how. As for me, I did not realize the necessity of this step until I received that publisher’s letter.

One of the most helpful resources was a book by Robert McKee, entitled Story, Substance, Structure, Style, and the principles of Screenwriting. My copy is heavily marked with red and blue pen and yellow marker. He examines the structure of story-telling from every conceivable angle, taking you through the elements of stories and the principles of their design—all with reference to innumerable Hollywood films. Is this useful to a novelist? You bet it is! With the principles of story design set out, you are well equipped to start your climb up Mt. Olympus.”

And so, you see that, for me writing is a continuous process of re-learning old lessons.

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What’s Wrong with this Story?

Vence in the south of France where Jonathan Pryde lives.






Ever had that feeling that something’s wrong with the manuscript even though you’ve been through it a hundred times? And you don’t know what it could be except that it’s the last fifty or sixty pages which don’t seem to hang together.

I’ve just realized this is my problem writing of the Fate of Pryde even though this is the third draft [I think!]. The characters seem great and well developed. The dialogue is pretty good, although there are certainly spots where it could be improved. So what’s wrong?

Maybe [oh no!] it’s the story itself. As I’ve said before, I usually like to work with one main plot and two subplots, one of which will magnify, comment upon, conflict with or complement the main plot. The third one is the plot which somehow makes things happen and brings the other two together.

Wouldn’t you know it! This is the problem with the manuscript—at least as I see it today. My third plot involves a retired university professor of philosophy, Henry Callan, who is trying to prevent the institution he loves—the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University—from falling into disrepute.

Now this is a venerable institution, indeed and he fears that the antagonist in the novel, Jonathan Pryde,  is about to grant immense sums of money to it.  What’s wrong with that, you might ask? The professor seems to think the Jonathan’s money is “dirty”, gotten from all sorts of illegal activities. And so, accepting these charitable gifts will besmirch the reputation of his beloved museum.

So far so good. But Jonathan Pryde has his own agenda. He has a great interest not only in the professor but also certain permanent residents who live at his own home in Vence in the south of France. These other people are elderly, once brilliant souls, [scientists, artists and writers] who have been nearly destroyed by visions they have had.  Pryde really wants to know whether the professor has had any such visions and if so, what were they like. It seems he is doing his own psychological research.

But that’s enough of giving away the plot [which is not set in stone by any means] away. When I read the manuscript over last night, it hit me. There is no point of confrontation between these two men in this subplot. And worse still—there is no climax to this conflict. You see, I’ve been so intent in working out all the conflicts between my “hero,” Alexander Wainwright, [whom you may have met in The Drawing Lesson, the first in the Trilogy of Remembrance] and the antagonist, Jonathan Pryde, that I left this rather important loose end hanging. I have to build up the tension in this relationship with the professor and then resolve it dramatically so that it fits in with the rest of the story line.

You see—here’s the whole question about Jonathan Pryde. How can the very best and very worst of humanity lie side by side in one human breast? Is my antagonist a Jekyll and Hyde?

All of which is to say— it all comes down to storytelling. After all, that’s really why we read fiction. We want a good yarn which builds and then satisfies our curiosity right to the very last page.

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Literary Agents?

Surprise from the Indie Author.

I’ve writing about indie publishing for quite awhile now and have been exploring social media and promotion of various kinds. But for me, it’s a bit of a problem. I know that a lot of promotion and sales take place on the web and that, with ebooks, we may not really need publishers and literary agents. But is that true right now? Or is it getting that way/ For some people, indie publishing works but for others it can be a really slow slog.

So, I’ve come to some conclusions in this new year and I’d be interested in finding out what other writers think. For indie writers, we are still missing something really important. That is—we cannot get distribution except on the web. Also, we cannot have access to the world of the traditional media. Of course, we can podcast on the web and get reviews and interact with social networks [and that is all great] but somehow, I think we need both lots and lots of web activity, our books into bricks and mortar bookstores[even if those stores are threatened] and on radio and television.

I know the picture is changing and that so much activity has moved onto the web, but somehow, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even those authors who have become successful on the web and have built a base with sales are often delighted when a traditional publishing house wants to re-issue the novel and really get behind its promotion. Otherwise, it seems as if many indie authors just don’t have the time and money to promote to the degree necessary to really get significant sales.

So, I’ve decided to search for a literary agent who might be able to get my novels to a traditional publisher. First, there’s The Osgoode Trilogy, comprised of Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One. This is the trilogy inspired by my thirty years of law practice—all in the legal suspense genre

And then, there’s the Trilogy of Remembrance. The Drawing Lesson, is the first and the next one, which will be available for publication in 2011, The Fate of Pryde. This is the world of art—not the law. As I edit and revise it, I’m finding that it’s the one I like best of all of them.

So, there’s a list of more than one thousand agents and, since it’s a matter of numbers, you can bet I’m working my way through it. If you hear of any agents or publishers out there looking for exciting novels, let me know. And, as always, I’d love to hear about your experiences.






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Usually I write about writing but not today. Everyone is trying to make sense of the massacre and attempted assassination in Tucson Arizona on the weekend. Everyone has a readymade interpretation of events to fit his or her view of the world. So do I.

We do our best to isolate this man and his horrendous actions. He is the other—the outsider. Not one of us. He is mentally deranged. He is a loner. We should have seen him coming and so we should. But the point is that he is us. If he is not us then we as a society are not to blame. He is a part of the human race and we cannot dismiss him as not human. The more we are able to categorize him as ill or mad or whatever, the more he is not one of us. Perhaps we did not see him coming because he really seemed like one of us. Despite his outlandish and frightening actions at school, no one in authority stepped in.

We can find so many places to set the blame. The incivility of political discourse. The availability of guns and the ease of getting one.

That raises the question of why anyone needs a gun. I can see someone in the wilds might want to shoot a bear, but what possible need is there for a person to carry a heavy duty arsenal to the shopping mall?

I know that in the United States the second amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. Historically that right was based on fear several centuries ago that the newly founded government, might someday overtake its citizens and establish some sort of military dictatorship. Fair enough, but it’s now the 21st century. Is the government really going to do this? Since then, the gun culture has become so entrenched that I fear it will never be altered.

It’s not just the ability to buy and carry a gun openly that is the problem. It’s an old argument, but still valid. If you watch TV and movies, you can’t get very far in most films before the guns are drawn.

Speaking as a writer, it’s depressing how many plots turn on the firing of the gun or blowing something up. But dull plotting is a minor complaint.  We get the idea that you solve your problems by shooting a gun or setting off a bomb. On some level, we think it’s the norm and that’s a problem. Gun culture is so deeply rooted that I doubt that it can ever be eradicated unless there is a conscious and concerted effort to do so.

I’ve lost count of the number of distraught, lone gunmen have destroyed lives. If they hadn’t had easy access to a gun, it would at least have been harder for the person to act.  Unless the US can start changing the gun culture, there’s not a lot of hope for any significant changes. These gunmen swim in the same water/environment  as everyone else. The gun culture is an all pervasive and teaches everyone that there is a right to bear arms in a shopping mall and if you don’t like what someone else is saying or doing, it’s all right to shoot them.

What do you think?

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Film as Inspiration

Here’s something funny! It’s a case of the subconscious playing tricks on me.

For sure, watching a movie can be a huge inspiration for writing. So much so that you can worry about unwitting plagiarism. I just posted a short story on entitled, An Act of Kindness, which I wrote many years ago while I was still practicing law. The story is the first public appearance of the hero of The Osgoode Trilogy, Harry Jenkins, Toronto lawyer, who actually was modeled on my deceased law partner. Harry is a great guy who carried me through three novels. Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One, all of which you can find online. I’ll be posting a few chapters of each of them on soon, so take a look.

Anyway, I was sure that I had the perfect plot about Harry’s clients, two elderly women living together in a fine, old house. I’m not going to tell you any more of the story here, but you can read it at the link

Not until a few weeks ago [after about fifteen years] did I realize the inspiration for the

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

story. Remember the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis? Chilling! I turned the TV on late at night during one of my bouts with insomnia, and there it was. Jane [played by Bette Davis] was still terrorizing poor, invalid Blanche. Remember Bette Davis, with her chalk white face, feeding her sister dead rats for breakfast? Yikes! Almost right away, I saw that the film, which I had seen many years ago, was my inspiration for An Act of Kindness. The movie was based on the novel by Henry Farrell.

No, in my story they’re not two sisters—but just what is the relationship? I’m not going to say, because the whole plot turns on that question. My characters aren’t running around the mansion one terrorizing the other with ghoulish schemes. But the stories do coincide in the sense that insane jealousy is at the root of it all. You’ll remember that Baby Jane was always the favored one, but even so, she was terribly jealous of her sister, Blanche.

But at the end, something very strange is revealed to my hero, Harry. So, what to conclude? For me, I think inspiration can be a slippery, mysterious thing which kind of creeps up on you in the dark…and you may never know it until years later. Long live the subconscious, but watch out for it! Read the story and you’ll see what I mean.

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