Category Archives: Writing

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!”

Learning to Love the Bomb

Cheryl Magness says she’s been an editor all of her life, but she’s given up her Grammar Nazi ways. Style guides disagree and change over time. English words and usage change, at least in a limited sense. Really what we all want is clarity and internal harmony.

One of the rules that has rubbed me the wrong way is how to indicate possessives for names ending in s. I’m still most comfortable with the old style, like you would use for a common noun, such as the hounds’ kennel, but the current rule is to use an apostrophe s for all names. It’s Jesus’s robe. It’s Theseus’s spear and Xerxes’s dog biscuit. It would be Roberts’s rules, if Robert had an s at the end of his name, which he doesn’t, so that one is still Robert’s rules.

If I were to edit your manuscript, I’d reflectively correct towards to toward and forbid your using whilst. In fact, I would snicker behind your back if you used whilst anywhere but in the mouth of a stuffy English statesman.

Cheryl offers a good example in the acceptability of sentence adverbs and whether we should allow statements such as “Hopefully, it will rain.” How many that’s should be allowed on a page is another good one. For the unpolished writer, these are somewhat critical choices. They approach the territory of an editor’s real work: verb agreement, word choice particularly in the troublesome word area, and readability. You want an editor to help you put our language its best use, one who knows what the rules are and when to push them aside to make a better story. Grammar Nazi’s usually aren’t too good at that part of it.

Writing report, 2/1/17

Today was an unusual day, but not a bad one (which was fairly surprising. To me, it’s an axiom that Change is Bad).

I had to take a half vacation day, because it was the seasonal feast of the Sacred HVAC Inspection. The spirit of Natural Gas must be appeased, lest he smite the firstborn (that’s me) with carbon monoxide poisoning. Because this solemnity requires carving out a whole afternoon for the sake of about a half an hour of actual service, I figured I could do some writing. Somewhat to my surprise, I did.

My latest book is a challenge. I don’t know if I just got out of the habit of novel writing during my 2 ½ year detour Through the Looking Glass (i.e., in academia), or if I’m just getting old, my eye dimmed and my natural force abated.

But this week has been good. I’m facing one of those plot intervals that I hate. You’ve got a Big Event coming up (in this case an actual historical event that I can’t move around), and a space of time to fill leading up to it. Various plot threads need to be developed in that space, but it’s like building a bridge across a broad canyon – there’s a big space to fill and not a whole lot of attachment points.

But I’ve been working manfully on bridging that space this week, and – not easily, but steadily – I’ve been making progress. “Having once got my method by the end,” as John Bunyan said, “then ever as I pulled, it came.” The pulling can be hard, but the story is coming. And I think some of the stuff isn’t bad.

I’ve got a long way to go, though.

How Victorian Literature Inspired African-American Writers

Despite many arguments to the contrary, many writers and literary advocates have yearned for unique voices within single cultural traditions. In the early days of this country, we wanted to forge distinct American literature that was not dependent on our British roots or British authors. We continue that yearning in all artforms today. You’ll remember that one of the strength’s of the Netflix original Luke Cage is how culturally black it is.

In his fascinating and original new book, Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, Daniel Hack provocatively joins the contrarian chorus by examining the relationship between one of the most marginalized literary traditions and one of the most dominant. He has found that a wide range of the most important 19th-century African-American writers drew from and engaged with writers of equal importance to the Victorian literary tradition.

While it may be natural to want one’s own voice in art, many of us may unrealistically define that uniqueness. We may chafe at anything at smacks of dependency while ignoring the relationships and influences we cannot avoid. Nothing, after all, is truly original. (via Prufrock)

Writing a Book? Don’t Ask.

Writer Samuel D. James used to love being asked, “When are you going to write a book?” I mean, gosh, he might say, do you really think I should?

I probably mumbled something in false self-effacement, then spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about what kind of signature would be best for book signings. For me, that simple question was a validation–more than a query, it was an assertion that my talent and my work deserve the honor of being bound and sold in bulk.

The question felt great at first. But eventually something changed. What had sounded like the ultimate “You the man!” started sounding like the knowing inquiry of an accountability partner. As I was asked more and more about writing a book, I came to intensely dread that conversation.

He goes on to explain why he dislikes the question now.

Why Memorize Poetry

To memorise a poem is to inhabit and understand it in a way rarely possible when you just read it.”

James Delingpole decided to memorize a poem and describes for us what we can learn from that practice. “Learning a poem is a good way of experiencing this creative process [of polishing a work to be its best] because, like the poet, you’re compelled to weigh each word.” (via Prufrock News)

Breathless drama in the library

It’s the roughest week of the year for this librarian.

First week of school. I’ve already done my orientations (a lecture and walk-through for Bible school students, a walk-through for seminarians). I’m training two new assistants (most years I have a junior and a senior assistant, so there’s only one to train at a time. But things happen). And I have a lecture to do on writing academic papers, tomorrow (I’ll be doing that with less practice than I hoped). And I’m putting together an article on the Reformation in Norway, for the Georg Sverdrup Society newsletter, deadline coming up.

Oh yes, I sell textbooks, too.

I’m not complaining. The days go quickly, and I’m not bored.

I also agreed, in a preliminary way, to tutor a seminary student in Norwegian. But that won’t happen (if it happens at all) until next year.

Oh yes, the Viking Age Club will be at the Nordic Music Festival in Victoria, Minnesota this Saturday. I’ll be there if I have any strength left.

Slow Down, Young Writer

Agent Steve Laube encourages writers to consider their words and slow down.

Recently I watched the blur of fingers across the laptop keys by the man next to me on the plane and wondered how he did it. Or the skittering twitch of that person typing with one hand on their phone, juggling a bag and a coffee mug in the other. In some ways writing has become a substitute for the spoken word and we are trying to “talk” as fast as we can to “get it done.”

And the loss is ours.

Single words or sentences can carry the weight of an entire article when carefully chosen.

Status report

I owe you an update. You know I’m done with my graduate work. That’s kind of an annoyance, in a way, because I’d gotten used to using school as an all-purpose excuse. “Gee, I’d like to help you move on Saturday, but golly, I’ve just got so much homework to do!”

Hard on the heels of that consummation, I was asked to do another edit on the Viking book I translated. I did that, and then when I had sent it in I re-considered and asked to have it back for one more pass. Because I like to do these things right. I have an idea that this translation will be a large part of the footprint I leave behind in this life.

Yesterday they sent me a draft cover for the book (to be called Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad). I’d share it with you, but I don’t have permission to. And it’ll probably change anyway. But I felt a quiet swelling of pride in my chest when I saw it. It’ll be good. Watch for it. This fall. Sometime.

Looks like I’ll be having some more translation work to do in the future too. I’m going to have to work out how to balance that with my novel writing.

I have been working on the next novel too, though. The problem is that this one’s a toughy. Of all the books in the Erling series, this will be the hardest to plot. It involves the lowest point in Erling’s life, and by extension in Father Ailill’s. I’ve got to figure out how to keep this one from combining the optimistic sparkle of Dostoevsky with the cheery fun of Game of Thrones.

Last night one of the characters did something I didn’t see coming. I’m still working out (while time is paused in his world) how Ailill will react.

So I shall not want for work to do.

Kirkus Interview with Ken Liu of ‘The Grace of Kings’

Kirkus Reviews did an interview with author Ken Liu earlier this year, in which he shares good thoughts about writing and his novel The Grace of Kings.

I wouldn’t consider myself a very fast writer. Almost every other writer I know can draft and revise faster. I have found, however, that the solution to almost any kind of temporary setback in a writing career is to write more, and keeping that in mind has allowed me to keep on writing even when I was not feeling “on.”

The Grace of Kings is your first novel. What are the main differences between writing short fiction vs. long fiction, either in how you envision the story or its construction? 

I think on the practical side, there’s a lot more bookkeeping that must be done with novels: dates, plot points, character traits, worldbuilding details, etc. And decisions you make early on can have consequences hundreds of pages and months or years later. Since I’m not a natural planner when it comes to writing, I’ve had to learn to use various technologies like wikis and timelines to keep all this stuff straight. I suppose in a sense, writing a novel is a lot more like architecture while short fiction feels more like sculpting.

He goes on to describe his use of “silkpunk,” which is “a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity.”