Category Archives: Writing

Keys to Mediocrity

“Only the mediocre are always at their best.”

Jean Giraudoux

Having different strengths as individuals, we will take different writing advice, uh, differently. Put that on a t-shirt.

Thinking of my own strengths, I can point to two solid words of writing advice that have helped me maintain the level of mediocrity you’ve come to expect from my posts on this blog.

  1. No dedicated writing space. By using this laptop and my tiny desk for many activities aside from occasional mediocre writing, I encourage distraction and my habitual multitasking. I may be a fairly gifted multitasker, actually. I get all kinds of stuff done. Not thoughtful blog posts that build an enduring readership, but tasks, man! tasks get done. With a dedicated space, one can mold physical habits to aid the dedicated task, so when I sit down to write, I actually write. Often I open the blogger, and all my thoughts sneak out the back.
  2. No writing notebook. I’ve used writing a notebook in the past for many things, including review notes on books I read. I don’t think going back to any of that would interest me today, but notetaking helped me think and remember observations far better than my current non-method. I’ve had a few good blogging ideas recently that were nowhere to be seen later in the day. When I first thought of this post, I thought I could rattle off these other ideas, but no, I don’t have any other ideas. I am a stranger to them.

Now, I’m on the loveseat with the laptop and Splatoon on the big screen: no distractions at all, words flowing like cold butter.

Speaking of multitasking, I’ve avoided social media for a few weeks and feel somewhat liberated. I’ve fueled their accounts with too much of my attention.

Photo by Marcelo Novais on Unsplash

“That should be in quotes,” he said

“By her troth,” she said, “she thought it was time to bid Mr. Mertoun gang hame and get bandages, when she had seen, with her ain twa een, Mordaunt ganging down the cliff like a wildcat….”

What you see in the passage above is an example of something I had heard of (from my friend, the scholar Dale Nelson), but had never encountered – or hadn’t noticed before. It has to do with the use of quotation marks. Turns out the rules have changed over time.

For you and me – living today and erudite as we both are – the rules of quotations are fairly simple. You’ve got direct quotations and indirect quotations (there are probably proper names for them I never learned – feel free to enlighten me). A direct quotation is supposed to recount what the character said, word for word. Direct quotations are to be set off with quotations marks:

“Lars Walker’s books,” he said, “are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.”

Then there are indirect quotations, usually indicated by the word “that”:

He said that Lars Walker’s books are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.

The quotation way up at the top of this post comes from Walter Scott’s The Pirate, which I reviewed below. The speaker is a woman named Swertha, and the “she” who thought it was time to bid Mertoun “gang hame” was Swertha herself.

Quotation marks were a relatively new thing in those days, and writers hadn’t yet worked out exactly how they should be used.

Our rules for direct and indirect quotations are, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. They should not be applied (in my view) to older literature, such as the Bible.

Is Ghostwriting Ever Right?

Several hours ago on Twitter, a young writer rejoiced over getting a ghostwriting gig, calling it an important step in her freelance career. For a writer wanting to work (and get this, receive money for that work as if he were a plumber or politician), an offer to write a book under someone else’s name can sound par for the course. It’s similar to other ways someone with a fistful of dollars can shove it toward a writer to ask for words in return: blogs, speeches, marketing, and corporate copy.

A friend of Orwell’s said, “There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.” But the freelance writer hopes to forge another path.

In the current issue of World magazine, Jenny Rough quotes differing opinions on ghostwriting. Some writers would say they couldn’t compose their books alone; they needed to work with a subject expert. Some athletes, actors, and speakers recognize they don’t have the skills to tell their story on paper, so they need a writer to communicate for them; readers will likely buy a book by that actor they love before they buy one about him. Perhaps it feels more personal.

Is it a problem for readers to believe the celebrity whose name is on the cover actually wrote the words on the page, scribbled notes to himself during dull meetings, pounded his own keyboard, cried over an editor’s red ink, and procrastinated until being overtaken by the threat of an existential deadline?

In most cases, it is.

Jared Wilson has written many times on pastors who desire to write. Being known for their words in the pulpit, pastors will be expected to write their own books. If they don’t, they’ll be expected to acknowledge who did.

Author Angela Hunt told World she “realized it wouldn’t cost authors anything to reveal they had help. ‘It doesn’t belittle them to admit they’re not professional writers. Many secular writers refuse to ghostwrite for the same reason we Christian writers do—it’s not honest, and it disparages the work of the writer who has worked hard to learn the craft.'”

For January and February 2020, you can get two months of World magazine for free by referring yourself or someone you know.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash.

Friday Night Fight: Macbeth vs. Macduff

We used to have a tradition of posting “Friday Night Fights” here, showing videos of Viking reenactors going at it with blunt blades. Some of them were friends of mine; occasionally I was involved. We haven’t done that for a while, but I’ve decided to share this clip I found. It involves two fighters doing Macbeth’s death scene from Shakespeare’s play, while fighting with period swords and armor.

It’s not as good as I’d like it to be, and not only because the acting sucks. Macbeth wears a mixture of mail and lamellar (small plates) armor, and lamellar is not generally approved by serious reenactment groups nowadays. Macduff wears some kind of pelt, which is pretty much a Hollywood costuming thing, and they both wear greaves, which are also a faux pas among reenactors.

The fight isn’t bad – it’s quite good in places, certainly better than what you’ll see in movies. Though I’m not sure what it’s about when they both lose their shields and then reclaim them. Still, it’s interesting from a combat point of view.

Why this video? Well, I’ve had Macbeth on my mind lately. I’m strongly inclined to include him in my next Erling book. He was about 17 at the time the story starts, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have been in Norway then. His Scottish Highland home was definitely part of Erling’s world. I have an idea that throwing him into the story might enhance some of the themes I’m developing.

But I haven’t decided yet how to portray him – as a budding villain, as Shakespeare paints him, or as a virtuous and pious young man, which the actual historical record would indicate.

We’ll see. The story will tell me how it wants me to treat him.

Biographical stand-ins

I caught an old movie the other day. “Till the Clouds Roll By,” starring Robert Walker (no relation). It’s a biographical film, based on the life of Broadway composer Jerome Kern.

I like old movies in general, but this one interested me because I knew Kern wrote along with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton in his early years, doing a lot to invent the American musical comedy as we know it. Up until their time, Broadway musical plays had been mostly adaptations of European ones. This team, plus a few others, invented more character-centric stories, where the songs always advanced the plot. I wondered how the movie would treat that collaboration.

They treated it, in typical Hollywood fashion, by replacing it entirely. In the movie, instead of working with various collaborators, the young Kern teams up with a fictional older lyricist named Jim Hessler (Van Heflin). The Hessler character comes fully equipped with a fictional family, including a young daughter who becomes a surrogate little sister to Kern, and adds dramatic conflict to the third act so that all can be resolved in the big musical climax.

That got me thinking about the subject of fictional characters. That is, fictional characters included in real life stories, in order to avoid using real people – who sometimes sue you (or their heirs do) if they don’t like the way they’ve been depicted. (Movies were made about Wyatt Earp before his widow died, but they had to change his name, because she refused to give approval.)

Perhaps the most famous case is Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, introduced in Henry V, Part 1. Falstaff was a stand-in for a genuine historical figure named Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had a similar career to the fat man in the play, except that he joined the Lollards, the proto-Protestant followers of Wycliffe, and eventually died a martyr’s death, roasted over a fire. His descendants, who were influential, made it very clear that they did not want their ancestor belittled, so Will Shakespeare just wrote Oldcastle out, replacing him with Falstaff. Probably just as well.

In both versions of “Shadowlands,” the film about C.S. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman (I prefer the original BBC version), we see Jack together with his friends, the Inklings, debating, laughing, smoking pipes, and drinking beer. Except for his brother Warnie, who plays a major role in the play, all these friends are fictional. There is no J. R. R. Tolkien there, nor any Hugo Dyson or Owen Barfield. Including them (especially Tolkien) would have been a distraction, I imagine. The audience would be trying to identify them rather than following the story.

And they all had living families, always potential complications.

It makes perfect prudential sense to fictionalize.

And yet I always feel a little cheated when it’s done.

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

McCarthy: How to Write a Science Paper

Novelist Cormac McCarthy has edited the work of many scientists at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. A couple of them distilled McCarthy’s advice into a list, published here by Nature. Much of this list is straightforward, so here are a few standouts that may make you say, “But I thought I was writing a science paper.”

  • “Don’t slow the reader down. Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.
  • “And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.
  • “When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work. “

This third point is advice many writers need to consider: give an editor time to work with you. When a writer hires an editor to clean up his work and asks for it returning as soon as possible or a week earlier than normal, he is asking his editor to let things slide or focus on only on essentials. With time an editor can highlight a paragraph as confusing and ask the writer to rework it or point out other things that need work and have no set fixes.

(Link via Karen Swallow Prior; Photo by Jeremy Bishop from Pexels )

Reviews Are not Strictly Evaluations

John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.

Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.

A Writer’s Anniversary Thoughts

This summer, one of our favorite authors, Jared C. Wilson, has three ten-year anniversaries, and he reflects on those years at his blog. “It was an odd feeling at the time when Your Jesus is Too Safe became my first published book. I’d been trying ten years at that point trying to get published as a novelist.”

That novel, Otherworld, has seen the light of day, and he has two others in the works, but only one with a contract (let’s step it up, publishers). “By God’s grace, I have been privileged to write nearly 20 books and study resources in the last 10 years.” His next published work looks exciting: The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth, coming January 2020.

Writing the range

One of the many interesting sidelights to doing script translation is becoming familiar – at one or two removes – with the scriptwriting process. (And I’d like to mention at this point that I am not working on a screenplay of my own. I think I’m possibly the only person involved in the industry who isn’t. I’m pretty sure all the gaffers, grips, insurance underwriters and caterers listed at the end of the credits are all working on their own screenplays.) One project I worked on recently provided an interesting case study.

I remember wondering, as a boy, “Why aren’t movies more like the books they’re based on? Why not just take the book as it is and film it?” I’ve heard other people asking the same question.

Well, this particular recent project appeared to be an attempt to do just that. It looked like the screenwriter (and I won’t even tell you if it was a he or a she, and I’ll change all the details, because of my non-disclosure obligations) was the novelist themselves, trying their hand at a screenplay for the first time. They had simply transcribed his/her/its book straight from page to screenplay. And it didn’t work at all.

Imagine a scene in a movie of any genre – we’ll make it a Western because you’ll know right off the script I was working on was not a western. A cowboy sits on his horse, in the rain, and the camera watches him sitting there. He’s just thinking. In the novel, we could go straight into his head and hear his thoughts. But this is a movie. If this cowboy is thinking about, oh, Miss Sally at the saloon, and whether he’s going to marry her, and what they’ll do about buying a ranch, and the social disease they now share, it would take a pretty outstanding actor to convey that particular information just through his facial expressions and body language.

No, you’ve got to take that interior monologue from the book and transform it into visual and audible information. You have several options for doing this.

  • Voiceover: This is closest to the original book, but it’s out of fashion. Audiences find it corny, unless employed for stylistic and ironic purposes.
  • Flashback: You can cut back to a scene between Ol’ Cowpoke and Miss Sally. This is a good option, but it’s a change from the book. A sub-option is to change the plot a little and add an earlier scene dramatizing this problem.
  • Invented dialogue: You can create a conversation which doesn’t occur in the scene in the book. You can have Ol’ Cowpoke confide in one of his buddies over coffee around the campfire. Or he could even talk to his horse, which would provide a challenge for the actor.

Offhand, those are the options I can think of for handling this problem.  And most of them involve altering the story.

Books and movies are different media, and they work in different ways. You can’t get away from it.

Copyediting Stereophile Magazine

Vintage editor Richard Lehnert tells something of his story in this three page web article on his years at Stereophile magazine. (via Prufrock News)

Larry would hand me endless accordion-pleated foldings of copy, printed in some knockoff of Palatino by a clacking daisy-wheel printer on a single endless roll of paper. I would take them home, mark them up in red pencil, and then, if delivering them after or before office hours, drive in my ’66 VW bug from my abuelita hovel on Alicia Street, in the Barrio, to Early Street, and leave them in the Stereophile mailbox—until one day four long articles bleeding red with my crabbed edits vanished from that mailbox, no doubt seized by an irate postperson, and I had to do them over from scratch.

An authorial sin

When I spend substantial time with a book, and then throw it aside in frustration, half-finished, I don’t like to name the work or its author publicly. After all, I haven’t given either of them the full time they asked for. But I sometimes want to tell you about it, anyway, in case it might be of some use – especially if you’re a writer.

So it is with the book I 86’d over the Easter weekend. It shall remain nameless. It shall not go unchastened.

It was promoted as a sort of Wodehousian comedy, and I guess it was. In a way. It was generally lacking in actual funny lines, but the author did a fairly good job of building up ridiculous situations, so that I sometimes chuckled over the altitude of the gag, if I can put it that way.

But he offended me – as a Scarlet Letter puritan – by treating it as a matter of course that a couple will fall into bed the very evening they fall in love. It got worse when I learned that the (admittedly charming) main female character had been married before to a man who adored her and was faithful, but had dumped him because she wanted more excitement in her life.

That ain’t funny, in my world.

And then, about halfway through the book, the hero made a stupid, stupid decision. A decision calculated to bring him trouble and put him on the run from the law. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d ever do the stupid thing. It was illogical and imprudent. Worse than that, it was out of character.

In other words, it looked as if the author had forced the decision on him against his will, simply to keep the plot going. If he’d done anything that made sense, the story would have been over. And happily.

My righteous writer’s fury blazed up against this author, and I cast his book into the outer darkness of Kindle limbo.

Go and do thou differently, O writer.

The need for Christian artists

Andrew Collins writes in his article, “How Art Moved Me Beyond the Cliché,” about overcoming a blasé familiarity with Scripture. “I recently read through the Psalms—one song every morning or evening. But when I got to Psalm 23, something happened. I read through it in a minute or two, and not a single substantive thought went through my head. When I reached the end, my mind was blank.

“Why? Because it’s Psalm 23! Everyone knows it. I’ve probably had it memorized since I was 7 years old. Over the years, the psalm has dissolved, for me, into a rote sequence of words. What a shame. Gratefully, I remember Jon Foreman’s song ‘House of God Forever.'” 

I’ve had a similar revitalizing through Michael Card’s songs from the Psalms in his album, The Way of Wisdom. His renderings of Psalm 23 and 139 have stuck with me for twenty years.

Dana Gioia on Catholic Writers

Poet Dana Gioia from a recent interview with Image Journal

Image: Do you consciously think of yourself as part of a tradition of Catholic writers?

DG: I am a Catholic, and I am a writer. I don’t think you can separate the two identities. But I have never wanted to be “a Catholic writer” in some narrow sense. Was Evelyn Waugh a Catholic writer? Was Flannery O’Connor or Muriel Spark? Well, yes and no. They were first and foremost writers who strived for expressive intensity and imaginative power. Their Catholicism entered into their work along with their humor, violence, sexuality, and imaginative verve. The few devotional works Waugh wrote are his worst books. His merciless early comic novels, which are Catholic only in their depiction of a hopelessly fallen world, are probably his best. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a deeply Catholic novel about free will, but it is also a violent, dystopian science fiction novel about social collapse and political hypocrisy, all of which is written in an invented futuristic slang. There is something complicated going on here that cannot be simplified into faith-based writing.

A Conversation with Dana Gioia