Category Archives: Writing

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.”

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.