Category Archives: Writing

Lost Quotations and Proverbs

I’m looking over some lost quotations and proverbs tonight, lost because they are collected in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words, published in 1907, an ugly volume I plan to throw out because I’ve wasted twenty years of my life with it sitting on my shelf.

Great Scot! The Interwebs have revealed their Mastery of All The Things by producing a copy of Benham’s book in its archives, so I guess it isn’t lost after all — if buried under 305 billion pages of Interweb means it is not lost.

But what was I saying? I’ve kept this book because of its curious collection. After the typical Bartlett’s stuff, it has a section of “waifs and strays,” “naturalised phrases,” and toasts, followed by Greek and Latin quotations, French and Spanish quotations, and then a long list of English proverbs. It’s the non-English language quotations that seemed most valuable to me. Where else would I find a curated list of pearls and miscellany from the past?

Quid enim salvis infamia nummis?
What indeed is infamy as long as our money is safe?

Going to ruin is silent work.

Omnis homo mendax.
Every man is a liar.

C’est l’imagination qui gouverne le genre humain.
It is imagination which rules the human race.

Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio.
What can I do at Rome? I do not know how to lie.

Vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni.
She cherishes the wound in her veins and is consumed by an unseen fire.

But whether we have less or more,
Alway thank we God therefor.

Writing update

I missed blogging on Friday, because I was caught up in… something. I forget what all. Part of it was working on the novel, though.

Tonight I had an obligation at work, and had to stay late.

But I’ve dropped in to tell you that I finished the first draft of my new Erling book, provisionally titled The Elder King. I had feared that the translation work would interfere with the book, but it was not so in the event. In fact, the discipline I’ve had to summon up to produce paying work on the translation seems to have “translated” into remembering how to work when I don’t have a bilingual project going. Thus, I’ve made steady progress on the book.

Now you recall, if you’ve been reading this blog, my dictum that “First drafts are meant to be dreck. Just write it. Worry about making it good afterward.”

That’s where I am now.

But I’ll say this — as I wrote the climactic scene, I got the old thrill. My heart beat faster. I was in the zone. I remembered that writing could be fun.

“Give people a story!”

Defeating Jihad

Met with some students at the Bible school again today for lunch. What we’ve done is start a weekly “Inklings” group, to talk about writing, mythopoetics, theology, etc. It’s an appropriate time to schedule it, as the social branch of the Inklings used to meet at noon on Tuesdays at the Eagle and Child (Bird and Baby) pub in Oxford. We’re exactly like them, except without the beer and the smoking. And with more females present.

Today the subject was “stories.” When they asked me for my input, I quoted something I heard from Dr. Sebastian Gorka, who guest hosted for Larry Elder on his radio talk show yesterday.

Gorka said (as I recall it) that when he’d finished his book, Defeating Jihad, he showed the manuscript to his wife. Her response was, “Is this all there is?”

I’m sure that Gorka – like all the rest of us writers – had been hoping for a response more along the lines of “This is the most wonderful thing I ever read! I laughed, I cried, I wanted it to go on forever!”

But she explained. “You’ve got to give people a story. Nobody will care unless you tell them a story.”

So, he says, he added a long preface, telling the story of his father. His father was in the anti-communist underground in Hungary, during the Cold War. He was betrayed (by the noted Judas, Kim Philby), and sent to a political prison. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he was released, and he decided to flee to the West. A friend asked him to take his 17-year-old daughter along with him, so she could live in the free world. They managed to escape (crawling through a mine field at one point), and eventually settled in England. He and the girl married, and Dr. Gorka is their son.

“Whenever anyone talks to me about my book,” Gorka said, “they never talk about the body of the thing. They want to talk about that preface – the story.”

Just say what you mean!

I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.

Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.

I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.

Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.

But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.

We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.

But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.

And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.

But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”

I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.

‘Where have the words gone?’

My wife is beginning to write a book. Her editor is the son of a Nobel laureate, but that is Oldthink. Because he is a clever man who keeps his finger on the pulse, he has my wife recording podcasts even before the book is begun.

Richard Brookhiser of National Review writes about his wife podcasting the subject of her book as she writes it, giving a glimpse perhaps of the future of words. (via Prufrock News)

Commitment (in two senses)

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Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev

I’m still keyed up about my sudden admittance to the ragged outskirts of the movie industry. For all I know, this translation experiment will be a failure, culminating in shame and derisive laughter. And yet it seems to be going pretty well so far. Which leads me to ponder, after the manner of a script doctor, where this plot line in my life started.

It was a summer in the 1970s. I’d recently graduated from college, though I was still living in an upstairs apartment on campus. The woman I had fallen in love with, more than any other before or since, had recently left the country. I had a strong feeling that I’d never see her again (I was almost right), and that I would be forever sad and alone (I nailed that one). So what was I to do with the shards of my hardly-begun life?

I resolved to do two things. I would write a novel, and I would learn Norwegian.

My true motive for writing the novel was (I’m pretty sure) to Show Her. I would be a great and famous literary figure, and she would kick herself for missing out on a good thing every time she saw me guesting on the Carson Show.

That didn’t work out very well. The novel would be finished – eventually – and it would be published, about 20 years later. But to date it has failed to make me a beloved cultural icon.

My motive for learning Norwegian, I think, was that I had a vague idea that someday I’d travel to Norway, where I’d meet a wonderful woman who’d be impressed that I spoke her language and make me forget my sorrows.

That hasn’t worked out very well either.

But I stuck with the plan, by gum. And now the two of them together have snagged me an interesting job.

At this point, I suppose, I should close with a hackneyed meditation on the importance of perseverance.

But that’s only one possible lesson. Another is a similarly hackneyed bromide: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”

Fortunately, insanity is no handicap in the film industry.

The Norwegian word for ‘translator’ is ‘oversetter’

From time to time on this blog, thanks to Phil’s patience and longsuffering, I review movies and TV shows. Sometimes they’re foreign productions, often Scandinavian ones. One of my most frequent complaints about foreign films is the poor quality of the English translations.

It appears I’ll now be in a position to do something about that problem.

Briefly stated, I responded a couple days ago to an inquiry in a Facebook group, asking for people with Norwegian translation skills and writing abilities. I figured I might as well take a shot, and today I have an agreement to work as a freelancer with Meteoritt (Meteorite), an Oslo-based company that does translation, closed captions, and subtitles for film and television productions.

They’ve got me working on a very interesting project right now – but I can’t tell you what it is. There’s a non-disclosure agreement, for reasons that make sense once you get involved. When the project is released, I’ll be able to tell you I worked on it.

Some of you may be asking (as I asked myself) “What will that mean for your novel-writing?”

Well, in the short run, it will make it difficult.

But in a few months, if things go as I expect, my day job situation is likely to change. At that time I’ll probably be in a position to spend more time on the novel.

Maybe all this won’t work out. Maybe I’ll find the company incompatible, or the work too challenging. But if it prospers, it could set me up for my old age in a very agreeable manner.

I’m very happy about this.

‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over. Continue reading ‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

The writer’s road through Mordor

My recent journey through The Lord of the Rings had a business purpose. As I’ve mentioned already, I’m struggling with my work in progress. I thought maybe reacquainting myself with the best of the best might inspire me and shake a few things loose.

And it may have helped. About the time I finished reading, the words finally started flowing again. I solved my plot problem, at least for the moment, wrote a scene I actually liked, and now I’m nearing 70,000 words. I’d like to fill out 100,000 words, because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, but I expect it won’t go that far. Which means I’m within sight of the finish line, metaphorically speaking.

I think I’ve figured out the main reason I’ve been blocked. Ruthless self-analysis indicates I’m terrified of this book. I really want it to be an epic, a saga on the grand scale. And in my heart I’m not sure I can do it. I have this fear that I’ve reached the ceiling of my talents, and no effort will get me any higher.

Which is nonsense, at least theoretically. I’ve spoken and written countless times about the Two-Thirds Slump – the delusion most writers get, around two-thirds of the way through a first draft, that what they’re writing is total dreck nobody will ever want to read. (This is exacerbated by the fact that first drafts generally are dreck – that’s also part of the process. But that’s another lecture.)

So, get up, Mr. Frodo. It’s time for another day’s walk.

“How Being a Librarian Makes Me a Better Writer”

Nautilus Library

Via Dave Lull, an article from Literary Hub. Xhenet Aliu explains how writing makes her a better writer:

A natural-language user might type into a search engine “hospital rubber tube blood infection,” and the information pros who index articles would have had to predict that “rubber tube” might, in this context, equal catheter and return articles like “Infection prevention with natural protein-based coating on the surface of Foley catheters: a randomised controlled clinical trial.” There’s not a whole lot of zing in a title like that, but there is a lesson in how it was retrieved; aren’t writers also responsible for intuiting miscommunicated needs, and articulating that which has been insufficiently expressed? Bad writing ignores natural language in favor to chase the artificial zing, which is what makes purple prose so offensive—instead of using language to facilitate access to meaning, it obscures it with yet more imprecision. Good writing understands and respects natural language, and it considers it in its responses. It’s for the best that writers aren’t paid by the syllable.

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

Saint Thomas’ Day

Erling Skjalgsson's Death

For a change, I’m going to write a day-specific post the day before, so that if you read it tonight, it can depress you all day tomorrow.

December 21 is Saint Thomas’ Day, the shortest day of the year (though they didn’t know that in the Viking Age. They always figured St. Lucia’s Day, December 13, was the shortest of the year. I’m not sure why. Centrifugal force, maybe).

The death of Erling Skjalgsson (“hero, as you know,” he said, “of my Viking novels”) at the sea battle of Boknasund (Soknasund in the sagas, but that’s probably a scribal error) on December 21, 1028, is one of the earliest datable events in Norwegian history. The earliest is another event in which Erling was involved, the battle of Nesjar, on Palm Sunday (March 25) 1016. Erling didn’t come out too well on either occasion, though the defeat at Nesjar was hardly his fault. Jarl Svein Haakonsson was his commander in that battle, and Svein did not distinguish himself against their enemy, the wily Olaf Haraldsson (later Saint Olaf).

Erling fell victim to a ruse the day he died, again fighting against Saint Olaf’s men. I won’t go into the details; suffice it to say that Erling died with honor and Olaf went away frustrated, soon to flee the country altogether.

Before you ask, yes, I’m toiling away at my next Erling book, which still lacks a final title. As I’ve told you before, it’s a hard book for me to write. I think there are two reasons.

One, Erling’s nemesis, Olaf Haraldsson, appears in this book. This is the beginning of Erling’s long final struggle, a Game of Thrones-like political duel with the young, arrogant Olaf. I like Erling, and do not look forward to depicting his fall.

Two, I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking, “I’ve got to finish the Erling books before I die.” I don’t expect to die any time soon, though the actuarial tables are beginning to catch up with me. But I think I have the subconscious idea that once I do finish the Erling books, I will die. Which is nonsense, but that’s the way my mind works. I’m a fantasy author.

So remember Erling Skjalgsson tomorrow, on the 989th anniversary of his death (think Davy Crockett at a maritime Alamo). Or if you’re doubtful about that, you could remember Saint Thomas the apostle.

Parallel worlds

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Tonight, a writing report. I passed a milestone in my Work In Progress the other night, achieving 50,000 words. I also incorporated a passage of dialogue I’d been saving for the right moment. So I enjoyed a small sense of satisfaction as I went to bed.

I’ve written about courage before, I think. Courage and faith are almost identical in my view – the main difference being the object to which the particular virtue is directed. I’ve written about the fact that good stories are about courage – the main character tries, and fails, and tries and fails again, until everything looks hopeless. But at that point he/she chooses to go on, perhaps without rational reason. And he or she either succeeds, or fails in a way that’s significant.

And it occurred to me that writing itself works the same way. In the course of writing almost any story, there come moments (generally toward the middle or two-thirds of the way through for me) when the whole thing appears hopeless, and the writer is strongly tempted to give it up. The successful ones keep on, hoping against hope, and finish the story.

Thus, what is going on on the page correlates directly with what the author is doing in the real world.

How did I never notice this before?

Small talk

It’s one of those nights when I don’t have anything worth writing. Whatever follows is guaranteed, certified piffle.

I did read another book, but it’s one in a series I’ve been following and reviewing for a while. You already know what I have to say about these books. A Skeleton in the Closet is the seventh in P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater series, about a small town detective in England. What can I say? Like the others, it’s lightweight but likeable. I estimate the Dave Slater books at about the intellectual level of a TV series – an American TV series. Which means they’re entertaining, but they won’t change your life. In this one, a colleague dies in an explosion, and Dave must delve into this person’s personal life, which turns out to have been full of secrets. At the same time, he’s under pressure from what in America we’d call Internal Affairs. In all contemporary fiction series, there’s a moment or two – or several – when certain cultural boxes must be ticked, in order to satisfy the commissars. This is a story where author Ford ticks off one of them. Upbeat and cheerful, good entertainment even with the social freight.

A Skeleton in the Closet

Classes begin at school next week, and I’m in the final throes of setting up the bookstore for fall textbook sales. Nearly done now. Tomorrow should finish it. My main thought as I survey the shelves of required textbooks is, “I ordered too many. I always do. Will the sales of books previously in stock cover the loss?”

God bless instructors who assign books we already have plenty of.

On the writing front, I’ve found my way at last after a long stretch wandering without a map. I feel keenly the fact that a few faithful readers have been waiting patiently for this book for years. All I can say is, I’m bringing it as fast as I can.

They Weren’t Stories

Every published writer is the beneficiary of luck. Among my good fortune was the fact that editors began to treat me as if they were my aunts. They were all women, of course. There were no men in the fiction departments. On one of my visits to New York, three or four editors from different magazines sat me down in the Algonquin, plied me with manhattans, and discussed my career. It was now three years since my big resolution. I was selling stories regularly. One year I sold more stories to Redbook than anyone else ever had, using several pen names. It was the consensus of the group that I was ready for more. I needed an agent.

Ralph M. McInerny, author of the Father Dowling series, wrote about his career many years ago in First Things.

“What I thought were stories piled up on the workbench. With time I began to see why they were rejected: They weren’t stories.”