Category Archives: Writing

Taking liberties with realism

Our friend Loren Eaton at I Saw Lightning Fall exegetes the ways the Daredevil series improves its storytelling by getting the real world wrong:

Here’s the interesting thing, though: While all these examples might falter on the ground of plausibility, they do yeoman’s work in developing both characters and plots, in advancing scenarios and revealing personal peculiarities. When Kingpin calls Vanessa on the carpet for concealed carry, viewers learn that she’s not some ingénue, but rather an empowered woman with her own ambitions: “We’ve been sitting here talking for hours, and you’re going to insult me like I have no idea what you really do? … I know you’re a dangerous man. That’s why I brought a gun to a dinner date.”

Read it all here.

What We Eat Vs. Food Culture

Nicholas Hune-Brown describes how foodie trends don’t reflect most of what Americans actually eat.

The gap between the food we cook and the food we talk about has never been larger. Culturally, it’s the same gap that exists between The Americans—the brainy FX spy show that seems to have nearly as many internet recappers as viewers—and shows like the immensely popular and rarely discussed NCIS. Breathless blog posts about the latest food trends can feel like certain corners of music criticism, pre-poptimism, when writers would obsess over the latest postrock band that was using really interesting time signatures while ignoring the vast majority of music people listened to on the radio. The food at Allrecipes is the massively popular, not-worth-talking-about mainstream.

This is another example of how the culture of media people or the culture of the places where most news writers work chafes with middle and small town America. I don’t think it has to be an uncomfortable chaffing, but writers should be aware of it. Food writers may love to write about what’s new and different and extol new theories of nutrition and flavor, but eating has many ties to traditions, personal comforts, family, and even ceremony. We don’t cook for critics; we cook to bless the people at our table (sometimes that just ourselves). And around the holidays, our family traditions (or a specific rejection of them) are like a fuming stew pot, filling the air with expectations. If food writers don’t share our traditions and comforts, if they have deliberately rejected them for personal or professional reasons, then they’re going to push us away from their table to some degree. We may still appreciate what they have to say, but when it comes to actually eating, well, we may ignore them more often than not. (via ArtsJournal)

Cutting Corners with Other People’s Ideas

Some Christian publishers are taking the expensive step of using plagiarism software during their editing process to guard against intentional and unintentional plagiarism, according to World Magazine. Emily Belz writes:

Most publishers think authorial self-preservation, strict contracts prohibiting plagiarism, and a good team of editors will result in a plagiarism-free book. But when plagiarism is unintentional—a missed citation or a miscopied note from a research assistant or just sloppiness—those checks can be insufficient.

I saw this kind of unintentional plagiarism or sloppiness while editing a set a workbooks a few years ago. Usually I was verifying a quotation to see if the attribution was correct, and some of them had incorrect or odd punctuation, so I tried to find an adequately sourced quotation in order to correct what my manuscript. A couple times I found the quotation and surrounded text were all quoted from another work and improperly attributed.

Professor Collin Garbarino gives World this explanation for this persistent problem. “We’ve got some pastors writing books on topics that they only superficially understand. If you haven’t mastered the subject matter, you’re going to have to rely on someone else for your ideas. If you’re under a deadline, you might cut corners.”

Grammar Nazis and Adaptations

A ‘ground-breaking’ study was released this month stating that personality, more than any other factor, influenced the way people reacted to typos and grammar errors.

“In other words,” Russell Working writes, “if you are annoyed by grocers offering a discount on banana’s, you probably trample the neighbor’s flowerbeds for fun and kick your pet skunk when you have a bad day at work.”

Close your mouth; it isn’t that shocking.

More book adaptions are coming to screens near you. After stating he would not, Neil Gaiman has announced that he will be adapting Good Omens, the novel he co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett, for television. Gaiman had been respecting his friend’s wishes, saying they had agreed to only work on Good Omens material together, but Sian Cain explains, Pratchett left a posthumous letter, asking Gaiman to “write an adaptation by himself, with his blessing. ‘At that point, I think I said, “You bastard, yes,”‘ Gaiman recalled, to cheers.”

Cain continues:

Multiple attempts to adapt Good Omens have fizzled out in the past: in 2002, the director Terry Gilliam was lined up to helm an adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Robin Williams in the two lead roles. In an interview with Empire in 2013, Gaiman revealed this adaptation had fallen through because Gilliam’s pitch to Hollywood for financing came just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “[Terry] said, ‘Hilarious movie about the Antichrist and the end of the world,’ and they said, ‘Please go away, you’re scaring us.’”

Also, screenwriter Terry Rossio is working on adapting Pratchett’s Mort, and daughter Rhianna Pratchett is working a script of Wee Free Men, both for the big screen.

Brooks on inspiration

At the New York Times, David Brooks writes a thoughtful article on artistic inspiration, especially for writers:

Well, moments of inspiration don’t quite make sense by normal logic. They feel transcendent, uncontrollable and irresistible. When one is inspired, time disappears or alters its pace. The senses are amplified. There may be goose bumps or shivers down the spine, or a sense of being overawed by some beauty.

Inspiration is always more active than mere appreciation. There’s a thrilling feeling of elevation, a burst of energy, an awareness of enlarged possibilities. The person in the grip of inspiration has received, as if by magic, some new perception, some holistic understanding, along with the feeling that she is capable of more than she thought.

My own experience? True inspiration is a rare but heady experience. Just as a fisherman is willing to wait long, boring hours before his catch strikes at the bait, the writers churns out reams of verbiage on pure discipline, but that occasional moment of bliss when Inspiration hits releases emotional adrenalin that sends you back to work with fresh motivation.

Thanks to Brad Day for the link.

Plans: How to make God laugh

I have to get back in the habit of blogging five times a week, even when I don’t have a book to review or some link to share. I think I won’t go back to talking about my personal pains and neuroses, or at least not as much. Anyway, I’m presently enjoying one of the most pleasant periods I’ve enjoyed in some time. I’m done with grad school – nothing left but getting the document in the mail. I’m still adjusting to the freedom. And I’m coming up on two months since my surgery, so my incision’s largely healed up and I’m suffering more from the stiffness caused by learning to walk straight and unsupported again, than from post-procedure discomfort. I don’t recall ever feeling so stiff as I did last week, but then I’m calling on muscles I’ve permitted to dog it for more than two years.

My obvious next project is to start the next Erling book. Don’t have a title yet (I do know the title of the next book, assuming things fall out as I plan), but I know the period of history I need to cover. The days of purely imaginative Erling novels (West Oversea, Hailstone Mountain) are over. Now we get back to established fact, and the epic face-off between Erling and King Olaf Haraldsson, who was destined to be Norway’s patron saint.

But I wasn’t sure how to approach this stretch of the story. Part of the problem is that it’s going to involve the lowest moment in Erling’s life. You’ve got to finesse that kind of plot point with great care.

Last night, driving home from work, my mind sparked across one of those synaptic gaps that puts two things you’ve been thinking about separately into bed together. And I figured out – I think – a way to approach this book. So I sat down and wrote about a thousand words.

This is what we writers call “a start.”

Oh yes, it’s time to start playing Viking in earnest again. Next event – we’re helping with the Icelandic horse exhibit at the Minnesota Horse Expo at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul, April 22 and 23. I plan to be there both days, if my body fail me not.

Jeeves Was Scarcely Mentioned

In Wodehouse’s first story of the exploits of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, many of the familiar details are present: the language, Bertie’s aunts, and the predicament that needs resolving.

But there was one notable exception: Jeeves scarcely got a mention. “I still blush to think of the off-hand way I treated him at our first encounter,” wrote Wodehouse. He would flesh him out later. “[A] tallish man, with one those dark, shrewd faces” who brings order to the scrape-ridden world of Bertie and his friends with noiseless omniscience. In that first story, however, there is no hint that we are in the presence of a “bird of the ripest intelligence”, who “From the collar upward…stands alone.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten around to this story. My first foray into this part of Wodehouse’s world was with one or two stories from Very Good, Jeeves, which being written in the late 20s was beyond establishing many of the principles. When I saw that another book, Carry On, Jeeves, began with what you might call an origin story (originally published in 1916), I read through that one before returning to the other. I like to keep things in order.

Jeeves and Wooster came into play for Glenn Fisher the other day when he praised these habit of two writers he admires. “Both JG Ballard and PG Wodehouse challenged themselves to write 1,000 words a day.”

That may be just the idea I need to press ahead with my own goals.

‘Mary Sue the Barbarian’

Patheos Public Square has published an article by me. You can read it here.

It is Christians, after all, who (almost alone in our present age) recognize that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Our confessions declare that we are not good people but evil people, saved not by our golden deeds and noble aspirations, but by the work of Someone Else. To look into our own hearts, recognize the evil there, and mine that material for dramatic ore ought to be no problem for us. We’ve seen our sin (presumably) and repented it. We are under no further illusions about our essential goodness. When a story calls for a monster, we ought to have plenty of models at hand. We ought to have Legions.

‘Less Than Words Can Say,’ by Richard Mitchell

Children are much smarter than we think. They know when they are being deceived and defrauded. Unless they can utter what they know, however, they know it only in part and imperfectly. If we do not give them the language and thought in which they might genuinely clarify some values, they will do their clarifying with sledgehammers. None of the lofty goals named above can be approached without the skillful practice of language and thought, and to “emphasize” those “areas” in the absence of that practice is to promulgate thought control rather than the control of thought.

Richard Mitchell (1929-2002), was a professor of English and classics who published, as a sort of hobby, a newsletter called “The Underground Grammarian.” His great crusade was opposition to the ways children are educated today, especially in such programs as what is called “values clarification.” In his view, writing and thought are the same thing. If you never learn to write clearly, you will never learn to think. And when the majority of the population in a republic is no longer capable of thinking, it must fall.

I find that hard to argue with.

Less Than Words Can Say was, I believe, his first book. In delightful and often very funny prose, Mitchell skewers various examples of inflated and meaningless writing, especially (but not entirely) from sources in government and education. He disembowels selected passages out of real documents, exposing the emptiness at their hearts and mocking it. For the lover of language, his book is a very amusing read. For anyone who lacks a traditional education in English literature (including the Bible), many of the best jokes will sail overhead.

From the perspective of several decades past the publication of Less Than Words Can Say, it seems to me that things have turned out both better than he predicted, and just as bad. In terms of prose writing, at least in the academic sphere, I don’t think things have deteriorated as much as Mitchell thought they would. I’ve spent the last two years and change in graduate study, and have rarely encountered really bad prose there. Perhaps the level of literacy is higher in Library and Information Science than in other fields.

But in terms of the decay of the capacity for thought, it looks to me, on the basis of current events, that everything he feared is coming true.

Mitchell chose, before his death, to make his books available free of charge to all. You can download a .pdf of Less Than Words Can Say here.

A Critic Is Like a Eunuch…

… in a bakery. Is that how it goes? Whatever.

A.O. Scott would disagree with that metaphor, as he explains in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism. Fangirl Alissa Wilkinson reviews it.

Like a parent reconciling bickering siblings, Scott contends that criticism and art don’t merely need one another. They exist only because of one another: “criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood…”

Doesn’t interpreting art ruin the experience? Can’t we just appreciate it for what it is? “This is an old and powerful—in some ways an unanswerable—argument against criticism, rooted in the idea that creative work should be taken on its own terms and that thought is the enemy of experience,” Scott writes. “And it is indeed precisely the job of the critic to disagree, to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.”

Because there are such things as good and bad metaphors, good and bad headlines, and compelling and lackluster stories. Critics can engage a piece on a different level than we have and challenge us to think about it and our reaction to it, which is close to, if not the same thing as, what artists do.

Pause Story Here For Exposition

I read part of a book last year that started well. The characters were young and humorous. The story promised to be imaginative, but after the main conflict was declared and things began to roll, it all slowed back down when the characters essentially went to school. Not literally. They went to a research library, which is close, but the plot at that point became “Our heroes research the threat and consult experts.”

Close to the same thing happened in another book I picked up last year, except instead of going to school, wise characters with extensive knowledge of the backstory took the young heroes aside to explain many, many things. As I understand it, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones suffered from the same problem.

But doesn’t a story need some explanation? If you’re working on something you want to resonate, something that captures timeless truths, don’t you want to spell a few things out? Sure you do, but you need to tell your story beyond the point where your readers are asking the questions you answer with your exposition.

Writers throw this gutterball for different reasons. Continue reading Pause Story Here For Exposition

Editors Spill It on Fatal Flaws in Fiction

Save the would-be author in your family a few headaches with this book from The Writer’s Toolbox Series, 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. Editors C. S. Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, and Rachel Starr Thomson collaborate on how to handle twelve problems in fiction writing.  Each editor writes on one or more aspects of each of the twelve problems, giving readers what amounts to a panel discussion on the problem areas.

With five editors writing on the same problem, do they repeat each other much? Maybe in the introductory comments, but they work together bring up different angles on the topic. Sentences can fail to communicate in many different ways. Dialogue flaws are multitudinous. A developing writer will likely find many spots to polish when applying this advice to their own writing.

“Once you learn to detach emotionally from the words you write,” Lakin explains, “the battle is half won.”

The editors also give five examples of bad writing on each problem as well as a summary example at the end of each chapter, making this book something of a writing workshop if you’re willing to rewrite each example and then compare your work to the suggestion provided.

The twelve flaws they tackle:

  1. Overwriting
  2. Describing nothing that moves the story
  3. Weak construction
  4. Too much backstory
  5. Point of view violations
  6. Telling instead of showing
  7. Lack of pacing, tension
  8. Flawed dialogue construction
  9. Underwriting
  10. Description deficiencies and excesses
  11. Pesky Adverbs and Weasel Words
  12. Flawed Writing Mechanics

Each chapter concludes with a handy review page listing all of the advice for that problem and a practice example to work on. A book like this should save would-be writers plenty of emotional (and literal) cash when approaching an editor with their manuscript.

Lakin is also the author of The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and other titles in The Writer’s Toolbox Series. She gave me a PDF of the new book in exchange for this review.

How Many POV Characters Should a Story Have?

Writers may ask themselves, “How many point-of-view characters should I use in my story?” And while the correct answer is three (as anyone who’s anyone could tell you), some may want a more thorough answer than that. Marcy Kennedy says, “One technique we can use for figuring out what’s best for our individual story is to write down all the potential point-of-view characters we might want to use, and then ask ourselves the following questions.”