Category Archives: Writing

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)

Writing a Book? Don’t Ask.

Writer Samuel D. James used to love being asked, “When are you going to write a book?” I mean, gosh, he might say, do you really think I should?

I probably mumbled something in false self-effacement, then spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about what kind of signature would be best for book signings. For me, that simple question was a validation–more than a query, it was an assertion that my talent and my work deserve the honor of being bound and sold in bulk.

The question felt great at first. But eventually something changed. What had sounded like the ultimate “You the man!” started sounding like the knowing inquiry of an accountability partner. As I was asked more and more about writing a book, I came to intensely dread that conversation.

He goes on to explain why he dislikes the question now.

Why Memorize Poetry

To memorise a poem is to inhabit and understand it in a way rarely possible when you just read it.”

James Delingpole decided to memorize a poem and describes for us what we can learn from that practice. “Learning a poem is a good way of experiencing this creative process [of polishing a work to be its best] because, like the poet, you’re compelled to weigh each word.” (via Prufrock News)

Breathless drama in the library

It’s the roughest week of the year for this librarian.

First week of school. I’ve already done my orientations (a lecture and walk-through for Bible school students, a walk-through for seminarians). I’m training two new assistants (most years I have a junior and a senior assistant, so there’s only one to train at a time. But things happen). And I have a lecture to do on writing academic papers, tomorrow (I’ll be doing that with less practice than I hoped). And I’m putting together an article on the Reformation in Norway, for the Georg Sverdrup Society newsletter, deadline coming up.

Oh yes, I sell textbooks, too.

I’m not complaining. The days go quickly, and I’m not bored.

I also agreed, in a preliminary way, to tutor a seminary student in Norwegian. But that won’t happen (if it happens at all) until next year.

Oh yes, the Viking Age Club will be at the Nordic Music Festival in Victoria, Minnesota this Saturday. I’ll be there if I have any strength left.

Slow Down, Young Writer

Agent Steve Laube encourages writers to consider their words and slow down.

Recently I watched the blur of fingers across the laptop keys by the man next to me on the plane and wondered how he did it. Or the skittering twitch of that person typing with one hand on their phone, juggling a bag and a coffee mug in the other. In some ways writing has become a substitute for the spoken word and we are trying to “talk” as fast as we can to “get it done.”

And the loss is ours.

Single words or sentences can carry the weight of an entire article when carefully chosen.

Status report

I owe you an update. You know I’m done with my graduate work. That’s kind of an annoyance, in a way, because I’d gotten used to using school as an all-purpose excuse. “Gee, I’d like to help you move on Saturday, but golly, I’ve just got so much homework to do!”

Hard on the heels of that consummation, I was asked to do another edit on the Viking book I translated. I did that, and then when I had sent it in I re-considered and asked to have it back for one more pass. Because I like to do these things right. I have an idea that this translation will be a large part of the footprint I leave behind in this life.

Yesterday they sent me a draft cover for the book (to be called Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad). I’d share it with you, but I don’t have permission to. And it’ll probably change anyway. But I felt a quiet swelling of pride in my chest when I saw it. It’ll be good. Watch for it. This fall. Sometime.

Looks like I’ll be having some more translation work to do in the future too. I’m going to have to work out how to balance that with my novel writing.

I have been working on the next novel too, though. The problem is that this one’s a toughy. Of all the books in the Erling series, this will be the hardest to plot. It involves the lowest point in Erling’s life, and by extension in Father Ailill’s. I’ve got to figure out how to keep this one from combining the optimistic sparkle of Dostoevsky with the cheery fun of Game of Thrones.

Last night one of the characters did something I didn’t see coming. I’m still working out (while time is paused in his world) how Ailill will react.

So I shall not want for work to do.

Kirkus Interview with Ken Liu of ‘The Grace of Kings’

Kirkus Reviews did an interview with author Ken Liu earlier this year, in which he shares good thoughts about writing and his novel The Grace of Kings.

I wouldn’t consider myself a very fast writer. Almost every other writer I know can draft and revise faster. I have found, however, that the solution to almost any kind of temporary setback in a writing career is to write more, and keeping that in mind has allowed me to keep on writing even when I was not feeling “on.”

The Grace of Kings is your first novel. What are the main differences between writing short fiction vs. long fiction, either in how you envision the story or its construction? 

I think on the practical side, there’s a lot more bookkeeping that must be done with novels: dates, plot points, character traits, worldbuilding details, etc. And decisions you make early on can have consequences hundreds of pages and months or years later. Since I’m not a natural planner when it comes to writing, I’ve had to learn to use various technologies like wikis and timelines to keep all this stuff straight. I suppose in a sense, writing a novel is a lot more like architecture while short fiction feels more like sculpting.

He goes on to describe his use of “silkpunk,” which is “a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity.”

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.”