Category Archives: Writing

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.”

Good Talk with Writer Trevin Wax

The Calling podcast has a good talk this week with Trevin Wax. He talks about his love of books and his calling as a writer in ways they don’t drip with sap (such as you may or may not read in other places). Here’s one quote lifted off the podcast page.

On writing’s challenges: “The biggest struggle is bouncing back and forth between pride and humiliation. If you’re not careful, that mix can paralyze you. If you take praise or criticism too personally, it’s bad for heart. It’ll shut you down.”

I would subscribe to The Calling, if my podcast app would cooperate with me, but it’s showing me the hand this week.

Home improvement

I haven’t done a Lileks-esque “day in the life” post in a long time.

But your string of good luck is over. I haven’t finished reading a book today, and I’m fresh out of links.

How’s the writing going? It’s going. Erling 5 (I’m pretty sure I’ll come up with a better title given time) is stalled at about an estimated 40 or 50% of its final length. This is the standard half-way (or 2/3 way) slump I generally experience with books. I know where the story is going, and have a general idea of how it will come out. But I have to build a bridge to the rest of the book, and I’m a little vague on schematics and materials.

So I’m studying what I’ve done so far, and I’ve solicited comments from a trusted friend. Usually the answers to these problems can be found in stuff you’ve already written but not thought out sufficiently.

Today in the library I interviewed a prospective volunteer. I think she’ll be a great addition, and she has a library degree, which never hurts.

I called a guy about my garage door. I’ve had it in mind to get a new one for some time. My present one is extremely old, made of wood, and heavy. It runs loose and sits crooked. From time to time it jumps the track, and I’ve called a guy to fix it. I’ve grown to trust him, so when I called him today about the thing breaking down again, I asked him to sell me a new steel door with an opener. It’s unlike me, but I’m tired of living in the first half of the 20th Century, door-wise. We agreed to meet at my place at 6:00 p.m. When I rolled in about 5:30, he was actually just ahead of me. We did a deal. I could probably save some money if I invested time in research and taking bids, but this guy’s cut me slack in the past, and I’d feel bad giving the job to anyone else. It’ll be a couple weeks to get it, because the width is non-standard. Continue reading Home improvement

Book pitch: ‘Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed.’ by Lelia Rose Foreman

Writing Speculative Fiction

My friend Lelia Rose Foreman has written a text book, Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed. It is aimed especially at home schoolers teaching high schoolers. An excerpt from my novel Death’s Doors is incorporated, with my permission.

‘Bandersnatch,’ by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Bandersnatch

Lewis’s writing process was quite different from Tolkien’s. While Tolkien wrote things out in order to discover what he wanted to say, Lewis tended to mull things over before committing anything to paper.

According to a well-known anecdote, C. S. Lewis never read newspapers. “If anything really important happens,” he said, “someone is bound to tell you about it.”

I have a similar attitude to books about C. S. Lewis and the Inklings. I’ve read several, but far from all of them, and I feel no obligation to. If someone writes a new book with fresh information, somebody is pretty likely to tell me about it, in a discussion group or in a review in the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

So I didn’t learn a lot of new things from Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. But this book wasn’t really intended to convey biographical information (though it’s as good an introduction as any for the curious). Its purpose is to analyze the ways in which the Inklings group, which lasted 17 years (quite an achievement for any writers’ group) served as a catalyst for its members’ creativity. She follows the Inklings’ history from its beginning when Tolkien – very shyly and with trepidation – showed a poem to his new friend Jack, taking a chance that he’d be the kind of person who’d appreciate it. Jack Lewis did – with great enthusiasm – and gradually they gathered about them a small community of fellow writers of like mind. They read their work to each other and boldly critiqued it, in a cloud of tobacco smoke in Lewis’ shabby rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford (the famous Tuesday meetings at the Eagle and Child pub were purely social, and guests were permitted, which was not true of the Thursday nights at Magdalen. I was amused to read that Tolkien made the mistake of bringing along the historian Gwyn Jones [a famous name to Viking buffs] one evening, and it got a little awkward, though Jones proved acceptable).

Author Glyer has done a tremendous job going carefully through old manuscripts and notes in various collections, looking for evidences of revision, and correlating them with reports of the Inklings meetings. It was a gargantuan task, and the result is a book that will be valuable to everyone interested in artistic mutual support groups – not just to writers, but to anyone who creates art. I recommend Bandersnatch.

Don’t Talk About Your Book While Writing It

Nick Ripatrazone has released a book that he’s happy to talk about, but he won’t talk about whatever book he may be writing presently. He was advised not to many years ago and has experienced the life-sucking force of talking about his work since.

“Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, ‘to entertain a toothache.'”

I’m sure this is a truism, but I think it’s one I need to follow. Talking about my barely formed ideas lets the air out of them before they have a chance to float, and I’m full of momentarily promising ideas that haven’t taken flight.

But I’m sure some writers are able to talk about some stories or ideas they are working on without killing them. What’s been your experience? (via Prufrock News)

Mano a Mannix

TV Guide

Dave Lull has done it again. He found an anecdote about D. Keith Mano in a posting at It’s About TV. The author, Mitchell D. Hadley, recaps an issue of TV Guide from May 18, 1967 (I was about to finish my junior year in high school that week, but we didn’t take TV Guide). Mano isn’t featured in the magazine, but Hadley has a recollection:

It reminds me of a story told by the novelist D. Keith Mano, who was teaching a creative writing class and slogging through some dreadful efforts by earnest would-be writers. When one, complaining about his low grade, protested, “But this is how it was,” Mano replied, “Yes, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And that’s why Joe Mannix’s life is more interesting than yours, Mister Private Detective.

We watched Mannix at our house, but I was never a big fan. I remember that he seemed to get knocked unconscious roughly once a week. I was no neurologist even then, but I was pretty sure you’d be drooling in a nursing care facility if that happened in real life.

Lit By the Numbers

Do you want more math in your literature? Do you enjoy statistics (or is it damn statistics (or should it be damn yankees and their statistics?)?)?*

Well, Ben Blatt has you covered.

The first literary mystery to be solved by numbers was a 150-year-old whodunit finally put to rest in 1963. Two statistics professors learned of the long-running debate over a dozen contested essays from The Federalist Papers, and they saw that they might succeed where historians had failed. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed to have written the same 12 essays, but who was right?

The answer lay in how each writer used hundreds of small words like but and what, which altogether formed a kind of literary fingerprint. The statisticians painstakingly cut up each essay and counted the words by hand—a process during which “a deep breath created a storm of confetti and a permanent enemy.” And by comparing hundreds of word frequencies, they came up with a clear answer after so many years of speculation: the contested essays were distinctly the work of James Madison.

Blatt crunches the numbers on many works to see if writers follow their own rules and other trivia he learn. For instance, does Elmore Leonard follow his rule on sparse use of exclamation points? No. No, he doesn’t.

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

Mano vs. the Oxford comma

Dave Lull sent me a link to this recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. It includes a section on the Oxford comma debate, in which he cites the late D. Keith Mano:

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

I’m frankly a little disappointed — I’ve been won over to the Oxford comma side, myself. I have the idea the Forces of History are in its favor. Perhaps that was Mano’s fate, to be a genius forever tainted by his associations with questionable movements. Playboy Magazine. Dropping the Oxford.

Of course, my advocacy of the O.C. probably dooms it…

6-Second Classics, Litbait, and Commas

If you’re familiar with the classic novels featured in these six second videos, you’ll get the joke. Ad agencies have produced several of these quick takes by YouTube’s request in pursuit of a new, flash ad format to be displayed before other videos. At six seconds each, the ads can’t be skipped past.

In a similar vein, The Wild Detectives bookstore in Dallas is trying to “troll people into reading classic books through clickbait.” They call them “litbaits.” Headlines read, “British guy dies after selfie gone wrong” for The Picture of Dorian Grey. The links led to blog posts with the all of the book’s content included. That wouldn’t turn anyone away, would it?

And chalk another one up for the Oxford comma under reasons it is saving the world. A group of Maine dairy drivers took their company to court to win overtime pay. The law defining exactly what was excluded from overtime lists many things, but it lacks one thing: an Oxford comma.

The law states, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers argued that while they do distribute food, they don’t pack it, so the exemption applies to “packing for shipment or distribution” and not to the distribution. The Circuit Court judge began his decision, writing, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

Become Mall of America’s Writer-in-Residence

In celebration of its 25th birthday, Mall of America is holding a contest to choose that wonderfully creative soul who will spend five days “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words.”

Dude, is this not a call for a writers riot? Several writers should immerse themselves in this mall, if not one of the many malls across America, to write “impressions” of what they see. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that. Don’t let a good challenge go ignored. Post your short impressions here.

Micah Mattax says, “For some reason, my on-the-fly impressions of malls always come out Ecclesiastes, so I won’t be applying. Still, that $400 food court gift card is pretty tempting.”

You bet it is. What are your impressions of a food court feast? What snatches of conversation do you hear as you walk? Is there a spiritual dimension to riding an escalator? America needs to know.

In memory yet Green

Roger Lancelyn Green
Roger Lancelyn Green

My friend Dale Nelson recently sent me a couple old articles on Tolkien he thought might be of interest. One of them was from Amon Hen, the journal of the Tolkien Society, #44, May 1980. It was a piece by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he reminisced on his friendship with the professor. Green has sometimes been identified as a member of the Inklings, but he does not claim that honor (or honour). His article includes the following delightful paragraph:

I never saw The Lord of the Rings before it was published, but heard a good deal about it from Lewis, who kept saying that if only Tolkien would finish it, it would be one of the great books of the century – “But Tollers just won’t finish it! Every time he gives himself a month’s holiday to do so, he begins by reading over what he has already written, and sees how he can better that, and spends most of his month on revising!”