John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on this day in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Here’s a recording of an interview from the 1960s. I think you can identify the slight slur in his speech, caused by an early tongue injury. By all accounts, it did not affect his lecturing voice, but it did make him hard to understand, sometimes, in conversation.
Today is Thursday. That’s Monk Day for me.
As you know (always a dangerous phrase in a story, but this is real life, where you can get away with lots of nonsense), I am currently a free-lance translator. I work from home, setting my own hours – something less ideal than it sounds. I either work quite long hours, or sit around worrying about not working.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that I work in a manner pleasing to myself – usually in sweat clothes on my sofa (sometimes, for exercise, in an easy chair), with the TV on. I have a current TV routine. The H & I Network runs mystery marathons in nine-hour blocks, five days a week. Thursday is Monk Day. Nonstop Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive police consultant, whose frailty enables him to see things others miss, even as he barely functions as an adult.
This is a character I identify with.
But that’s not exactly my point either.
I’ve had multiple opportunities to view the two-part pilot episode, and the plotting impresses me a lot. I think it’s a very good example of exemplary character plotting.
We have our “hero,” Adrian Monk, who is afraid, essentially, of everything. He has a long list of phobias, but chief among them is his fear of dirt and germs. He keeps his personal space immaculate and meticulously organized, and can’t even shake hands without wiping down immediately with a towelette. He has a nurse/personal assistant who serves as his mediator with the world. Her name is Sharona (she is replaced in the third season, but that doesn’t matter here), and she’s more or less his opposite – she’s an earthy New Jersey girl with a blousy style and considerable street smarts. They annoy each other immensely, but each also provides the other with things they need. In spite of themselves, they care for one another – non-romantically.
So in the pilot episodes, the writers set up a perfectly splendid dilemma for Monk. Sharona is kidnapped by a murderer, who drags her off as a hostage – into the sewers of San Francisco.
This constitutes an existential crisis for Monk. His whole life (and his survival, in his own mind) depends on keeping clean. But now he has to climb down into a sewer, where he must encounter sewage, or possibly lose Sharona.
This is splendid character plotting. Monk’s choice is not only agonizing (in a comic way), but it’s germane to the character established in the story. He is tested at his weakest point. He’s forced to leave his comfort zone, to do what he believes he can’t do. His choice to follow into the sewer (you knew he’d do that, didn’t you?) is in actuality an act of faith.
Dramatically, it’s far superior to the more famous “Sophie’s Choice.” Sophie’s choice achieved drama purely through its extremity, but revealed nothing about her character and taught her (and the reader) nothing but despair. The author who counsels despair is like the debater who ends the argument with a punch in the face. It’s effective, but nothing is learned.
Monk is good for you. Good for me, anyway.
Today has been, and continues to be, a heavy work day. I have an assignment from Oslo, not for a translation, but a sort of research job. I’m scanning through a very long document, extracting relevant passages into a separate document.
Not uninteresting. And it will take a while. Which is nice, since my time for translation will be curtailed when I go on jury duty. That promises a healthier paycheck at the end of the month.
Today’s Writer’s Aggravation:
There’s an article in the current Writer’s Digest about finding time to write, and writing faster. And it’s a good article, all in all. Lots of handy tips that are likely to be useful to aspiring authors.
What annoys me is the closing line. It goes like this: “And with nine minutes a day, you can arrive at The Sound and the Fury (97,000 words) in just under four months.”
That’s inspiring, but overpromising, friend. I’ll grant that it might be possible to finish a first draft in four months, employing the methods suggested. But that first draft will not be a novel. You’ve still got another year (or six months, anyway) of revising. It’s great to finish a first draft. I’ve often said that getting that one thing done is (to my way of thinking) the most important milepost in the process of writing a book.
But books aren’t written – they’re re-written. Heaven help the agent who gets that 97,000 first draft in the email from some nine-minute-a-day writer who thinks that’s sufficient.
Surprise! I don’t have a book review today. I binge-watched Daredevil yesterday, to take my mind off… things.
One-paragraph review: Worthy of the first two seasons, superior in some ways to Season Two. I thought the climax a little contrived, but it was good. Odd to have a superhero season without the hero getting into his suit once.
I shall tell you how I live my current life. This schedule may change; in fact it’s likely to change.
My life kind of centers on free-lance assignments coming in from Meteoritt, my Norwegian employer. The business day in Oslo starts while we’re asleep in Minnesota, so one of the first things I do when I wake up (which is pretty much whenever I want to) is check my email for a notice. It’s always in the form of a request – sometimes a personal request, sometimes a general appeal to the group. Sometimes I miss out on those, though, since the local Norwegians have a time advantage. But the boss often offers me exclusives, because she likes my work. I have no complaints.
If I get an assignment, there’s generally a deadline. And I’ll already be a few hours behind. So my day is generally devoted to that work. I do take frequent breaks though (which accounts for the amount I’ve been reading lately). I can’t do translation steadily for several hours – it just wears me out and my body rebels. As the day goes on, though, I find I can usually work longer sessions, and the translation – for some reason – seems to get easier in the evening. And into the night.
If there’s no assignment for the day, I can work on my translation for the Georg Sverdrup Society. I’m translating quite a long piece for the next Journal. And, of course, I can work on The Elder King, the coming Erling book, though right now I’m pausing (which one needs to do sometimes when writing fiction anyway) to wait for feedback from my First Readers. I’m not sure if we’ll get the book out before Christmas, but we’re trying.
And how was your day?
Last night I finished another revision of The Elder King, my latest Erling Skjalgsson novel, and sent it off to my faithful First Readers. I still have no idea when it’ll be released, but we’re that much closer.
This has been a periodic Lars Walker novel writing update. Thank you for your support.
A quiet day today. The sky was overcast, the air cool. I noticed this when I went out to get groceries. They were entirely out of Fishers’ Light Dry-Roasted Peanuts at the Cub store. Can Soviet-style food lines be far behind?
Not much happened. I did some translation, but not the kind you get paid for. Then on to the novel. I’m done with marking up the latest draft of The Elder King, and I made a little start on changing the document file.
I’m scared of this book, again. I go in and out with the fear. I actually think it’s pretty good. Maybe almost great. I think I’m afraid because I’ll have to show it to my first readers soon, and they might tell me it’s not as good as I think.
I started to write an essay on leprosy, of all things, for this blog post, but I accidentally lost it and I’m not up to repeating the effort. I’ll just mention that leprosy’s medical name, Hansen’s Disease, comes from a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), who first identified the bacillus, though somebody else actually linked it to the disease. He seems to have been something of a jerk, and he lost his job at a hospital for trying to infect a woman with leprosy without her consent. The fact that he was an atheist should not be taken as a having anything to do with that. Leprosy was a serious problem in Norway, especially among the poor. Hansen, to his credit, managed to reduce the incidence drastically during his tenure as Norwegian medical officer for leprosy.
Photo credit Trey Gibson
In an editorial decision that surprises me, the editors of Writer’s Digest magazine decided to make their November/December issue “the throwback issue.” They’re discussing old school writing approaches and techniques that might be useful even to what, in library school, they used to call “digital natives.” People who grew up in the digital world and take to it naturally, who’ve never struggled with a typewriter ribbon – or a dot matrix printer ribbon, for that matter.
In an article titled “The Pen Is Mightier (Than the Word Processor)” author Elizabeth Sims reports on her experiment in writing her way chronologically through writing technology. She started out trying to write with a reed pen (not very satisfactory), and then worked her way up through quills and steel pens and on to the manual typewriter. She was amazed to find that writing with a steel dip pen was very satisfying and conducive to creativity.
She may not know it, but C. S. Lewis held exactly the same view. He refused to use a typewriter, or even a fountain pen. He felt (and Sims echoes this) that the rhythm of periodically dipping one’s pen in the ink well imparts a quiet rhythm to the writing process, helping the ideas to flow. Continue reading Writing in the past
Week one of unemployment. Or, depending on your point of view, week one of free-lancing. I’m a little confused on the point. In theory, I ought to be throwing myself into my job hunt right now. But (although I’ve cast a few lines into the water), I’ve been too busy… working.
The Norwegian media company I translate for (may they prosper like the North Sea oil fields) sent me a fairly hefty chunk of prose to process – another densely worded script outline. And the deadline was tomorrow, which it almost is now in their time zone. So I jumped on it and turned it in a couple hours ago. Since this will eke out my finances, however briefly, I think it merits priority over mailing resumes.
The idea of just being a freelancer is extremely beguiling. But I need more income sources than this one company. So I guess I’ll be fishing for freelance gigs at the same time I’m looking for a regular job. Sometimes I think the freelance dream is a worthy goal. Sometimes I think it’s moonshine – get a real job. After all, unemployment is way down. Unfortunately, the market for librarians is saturated, and there’s never been a big market for writers.
But we’ll see. I haven’t even gotten my bearings yet.
When I ate at a Chinese restaurant tonight, my fortune cookie said, “You will be wildly successful in the entertainment field.”
I think the Almighty’s just messing with me.
Has anyone told you that with a life like yours, a mind like yours, or a story like that you should write a book? They’re probably wrong.
You can tell a story to anyone who’s willing to listen. But writing a book that people will pay money for or take a trip to the library to read, requires an awareness few storytellers have. It is not performance, not a one-person show. It’s a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.
Speaking from a traditional publishing angle, literary agent Kate McKean explains what it takes it get published and how it’s different from telling a good series of stories. (Via Prufrock News)
I’m looking over some lost quotations and proverbs tonight, lost because they are collected in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words, published in 1907, an ugly volume I plan to throw out because I’ve wasted twenty years of my life with it sitting on my shelf.
Great Scot! The Interwebs have revealed their Mastery of All The Things by producing a copy of Benham’s book in its archives, so I guess it isn’t lost after all — if buried under 305 billion pages of Interweb means it is not lost.
But what was I saying? I’ve kept this book because of its curious collection. After the typical Bartlett’s stuff, it has a section of “waifs and strays,” “naturalised phrases,” and toasts, followed by Greek and Latin quotations, French and Spanish quotations, and then a long list of English proverbs. It’s the non-English language quotations that seemed most valuable to me. Where else would I find a curated list of pearls and miscellany from the past?
Quid enim salvis infamia nummis?
What indeed is infamy as long as our money is safe?
Going to ruin is silent work.
Omnis homo mendax.
Every man is a liar.
C’est l’imagination qui gouverne le genre humain.
It is imagination which rules the human race.
Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio.
What can I do at Rome? I do not know how to lie.
Vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni.
She cherishes the wound in her veins and is consumed by an unseen fire.
But whether we have less or more,
Alway thank we God therefor.
I missed blogging on Friday, because I was caught up in… something. I forget what all. Part of it was working on the novel, though.
Tonight I had an obligation at work, and had to stay late.
But I’ve dropped in to tell you that I finished the first draft of my new Erling book, provisionally titled The Elder King. I had feared that the translation work would interfere with the book, but it was not so in the event. In fact, the discipline I’ve had to summon up to produce paying work on the translation seems to have “translated” into remembering how to work when I don’t have a bilingual project going. Thus, I’ve made steady progress on the book.
Now you recall, if you’ve been reading this blog, my dictum that “First drafts are meant to be dreck. Just write it. Worry about making it good afterward.”
That’s where I am now.
But I’ll say this — as I wrote the climactic scene, I got the old thrill. My heart beat faster. I was in the zone. I remembered that writing could be fun.
Met with some students at the Bible school again today for lunch. What we’ve done is start a weekly “Inklings” group, to talk about writing, mythopoetics, theology, etc. It’s an appropriate time to schedule it, as the social branch of the Inklings used to meet at noon on Tuesdays at the Eagle and Child (Bird and Baby) pub in Oxford. We’re exactly like them, except without the beer and the smoking. And with more females present.
Today the subject was “stories.” When they asked me for my input, I quoted something I heard from Dr. Sebastian Gorka, who guest hosted for Larry Elder on his radio talk show yesterday.
Gorka said (as I recall it) that when he’d finished his book, Defeating Jihad, he showed the manuscript to his wife. Her response was, “Is this all there is?”
I’m sure that Gorka – like all the rest of us writers – had been hoping for a response more along the lines of “This is the most wonderful thing I ever read! I laughed, I cried, I wanted it to go on forever!”
But she explained. “You’ve got to give people a story. Nobody will care unless you tell them a story.”
So, he says, he added a long preface, telling the story of his father. His father was in the anti-communist underground in Hungary, during the Cold War. He was betrayed (by the noted Judas, Kim Philby), and sent to a political prison. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he was released, and he decided to flee to the West. A friend asked him to take his 17-year-old daughter along with him, so she could live in the free world. They managed to escape (crawling through a mine field at one point), and eventually settled in England. He and the girl married, and Dr. Gorka is their son.
“Whenever anyone talks to me about my book,” Gorka said, “they never talk about the body of the thing. They want to talk about that preface – the story.”
I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.
Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.
I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.
Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.
But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.
We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.
But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.
And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.
But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”
I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)
Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”
I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.
My wife is beginning to write a book. Her editor is the son of a Nobel laureate, but that is Oldthink. Because he is a clever man who keeps his finger on the pulse, he has my wife recording podcasts even before the book is begun.
Richard Brookhiser of National Review writes about his wife podcasting the subject of her book as she writes it, giving a glimpse perhaps of the future of words. (via Prufrock News)
Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev
I’m still keyed up about my sudden admittance to the ragged outskirts of the movie industry. For all I know, this translation experiment will be a failure, culminating in shame and derisive laughter. And yet it seems to be going pretty well so far. Which leads me to ponder, after the manner of a script doctor, where this plot line in my life started.
It was a summer in the 1970s. I’d recently graduated from college, though I was still living in an upstairs apartment on campus. The woman I had fallen in love with, more than any other before or since, had recently left the country. I had a strong feeling that I’d never see her again (I was almost right), and that I would be forever sad and alone (I nailed that one). So what was I to do with the shards of my hardly-begun life?
I resolved to do two things. I would write a novel, and I would learn Norwegian.
My true motive for writing the novel was (I’m pretty sure) to Show Her. I would be a great and famous literary figure, and she would kick herself for missing out on a good thing every time she saw me guesting on the Carson Show.
That didn’t work out very well. The novel would be finished – eventually – and it would be published, about 20 years later. But to date it has failed to make me a beloved cultural icon.
My motive for learning Norwegian, I think, was that I had a vague idea that someday I’d travel to Norway, where I’d meet a wonderful woman who’d be impressed that I spoke her language and make me forget my sorrows.
That hasn’t worked out very well either.
But I stuck with the plan, by gum. And now the two of them together have snagged me an interesting job.
At this point, I suppose, I should close with a hackneyed meditation on the importance of perseverance.
But that’s only one possible lesson. Another is a similarly hackneyed bromide: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”
Fortunately, insanity is no handicap in the film industry.