Category Archives: Writing

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!”

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)