Category Archives: Writing

An Ear for Editing

Speaking of Metaxucafe.com, author Joe Clifford Faust writes about criticism of his current playwright project. IN short, hard criticism is good.

I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s own writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.

But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. . . . Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. . . .

Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work – and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.

People Don’t Read Classics; They Only Talk About Them

Ella askes an important question: “If you want to be a good writer, do you need to read the classics?” She believes her writing has improved after having read great literature for the past few years, but she wonders if it is necessary. Should the average writer read the classics in order to mature or are there other options, this one being simply the road less traveled? I think the would-be good writer should read the classics and study some of them too. But now that I’m thinking about it, “good writing” is a fairly relative term, isn’t it? We have to define what we mean by “good writing” before we can decide how to accomplish it.

For more writing advice, Mark Bertrand suggests spending time singing, painting, photographing, or other creative, non-writing enjoyments as a way to enhance your creative writing. I guess blogging doesn’t count, does it.

Writing Advice

John Baker has a series of short posts on learning to writing which may interest you, starting here. Of course, you can take them or leave them and still be following his advice in post three: “Don’t listen to other writers.

This note on pacing is worth meditation. Baker quotes Gustav Mahler saying, “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower not faster.”

In his post on beginnings, he writes, “Don’t open with a character alone just thinking. Unless it’s a momentous decision or in mysterious circumstances. I know you can tell me about classic novels that break this rule. When you are writing your classic novel you can break it as well. But for now it is best avoided.”

Bertrand on The Master’s Artist

J. Mark Bertrand describes what it means to write stories as a Christian, someone who belongs to Adonai:

The Master’s Artist isn’t a synonym for “an evangelical writer” . . . It bespeaks an effort to do one’s art graciously, with beauty and truth, to do it theologically, applying the ideas of scripture like so much sandpaper to the ideas of man. The evangelical artist might be content to argue one side against another, but the Master’s Artist argues against himself as well as his world, longing in some small way to be useful as an instrument of Christ’s comprehensive redemptive work.

Von Doehren: When I Became a Christian, I Stopped Writing

Relief Journal Assistant Editor Heather von Doehren on writing as a believer:

To be honest, once I became a Christian (which was just four years ago) I stopped writing—not because I stopped having things to write about, but because I didn’t know how to reconcile being a Christian and a writer. How does someone write about Christian topics without sounding cheesy or cliché? As an atheist, I perceived Christians as annoyingly perfect people (I know…naïve…), who existed in a world that just did not exist. Yet Christian writing almost always portrayed this same polished (censored?) angle on reality. I didn’t know how to write as a Christian because, upon this transformation, nothing was mystically easy, censored, or anything like 7th Heaven.

Once I became Christian, I felt as if all of my actions, words, and thoughts were being held to the highest of all high standards—and not just from other Christians. I didn’t feel like I could be honest about what I was struggling with; in the past, my poetry expressed my human flaws, and in becoming Christian I felt as if I had to censor all those flaws. And no one can write like that. Yes, carrying the label “Christian” means we should be more like Christ; however, just because we aim, doesn’t mean we always hit our target. In reality, Christians aren’t perfect people. But if you look at most Christian writing, you’d think we are.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Heather von Doehren and Relief’s Editor-in-Chief Kimberly Culbertson.

When I see my title clear

Courtesy of Writer’s Digest Magazine, here’s this cute little engine from www. lulu.com that analyzes your book title, to discern whether it’s bestseller quality or not.

Naturally I plugged my own titles in. Personally I think I’m pretty good at composing titles, but the utility doesn’t entirely agree with me.

Two of my titles earned 63.7% ratings, which isn’t bad–Wolf Time and The Year of the Warrior.

But Blood and Judgment only rated 26.3%, as did the original title I wanted for Wolf TimeWind Time, Wolf Time (which I still think is a great title, no matter what anybody says).

Personally I like to have words that start with W in my titles. W has an evocative sound. It reminds me of wind and water.

And Walker.

Relief Journal Short Story Contest

Finding the Profound in the Profoundly Ordinary” is the theme of a short story contest by Relief Journal and Faith in Fiction. From the announcement: “Andre Dubus writes of cooking an omelet and it becomes a holy moment. Marilynne Robinson takes the act of baptism and communion out of their churchly garb and gives them new resonance and depth. Inspired by examples like these, the “Daily Sacrament” short fiction contest will challenge you to explore the everyday in light of the eternal — or the sacred in the surroundings of the commonplace.”

Have you subscribed to Relief Journal? There are benefits to those who donate or subscribe before November 15.

Sometimes stories lie

I sit in a house that’s both quiet and not quiet. It’s quiet in the sense that I don’t have Hugh Hewitt on, as is my custom this time of day (he’s interviewing Andrew Sullivan, and who needs that at suppertime? Or is it Andrew McCarthy?).

But the house is noisy because I’ve got a half-dozen guys crawling around my roof replacing the shingles, hammering away and occasionally dropping what sounds like sleeper sofas. The Day has come at last. In theory they’ll get the job done tonight, though it looks to me like a lot of work remains.

The previous owner was in love with green. The walls of Blithering Heights are a mottled green stucco, and the shingles were bright green. Up till now I’ve been able to end my directions, when telling people how to get here, with, “And my house is the green one, third from the corner.”

I am not in love with green. It’s my least favorite color, in fact. I chose a solid, conventional brown for my new shingles. I have no objection to standing out from other houses, but I don’t want to stand out in terms of greenness.

My impulse was to shingle the place in red, but I figured it would end up looking like a Christmas decoration.

Restraint is my watchword.

Restraint and “chocolate.”

Hence the brown shingles.

I think I’ve got one more post on subjectivity and stories in me. I’ll just open up the old brain-box and see if anything’s in there…

Nope.

Ready as I ever am, in other words.

I was saying that stories are a powerful means of teaching, because they engage both reason and emotion, thus bringing the whole person into the project.

But this is a sword that cuts both ways (“The Amazing Crossover Cutlass! Only $49.95 in three easy payments, from K-Tel!”). You can use a story to nail truth down in a person’s heart. But you can nail a lie down just as easily.

I read some time back about a phenomenon in cinema called “Movie Logic.” The wonderful thing about movies is that people believe what they see. If you show a car leaping over a twenty-six foot gap in a bridge, you believe it because you just saw it happen, right before your eyes. You don’t think about the fact that one end of a car contains the engine and is therefore much heavier than the other end. For that reason, when a car goes over a gap like that in real life, it tends to nose down (if the engine’s in front) pretty quick. Stunt arrangers load the rears of stunt cars with counterweights to permit them to make such jumps.

How many times in recent years have you seen somebody in a movie run out of an exploding building, ahead of a blast that just barely manages not to catch them?

Care to try that in real life?

It’s similar in stories, though not as vivid. But most of us trust writing more than movies, so I suspect literature may have more staying power in the long run.

How many kids have learned one of their first profound life lessons from Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book? Dr. Seuss explains it all. The Yooks eat their bread butter-side-up, and the Zooks eat it butter-side-down. And that’s all the difference between them. All this war stuff, it’s based on a misunderstanding. All our differences are trivial. If we’d just sit down and talk it over reasonably, why, we’d discover we all want precisely the same things.

Remember M*A*S*H*? The TV show especially. The North Koreans, when we were allowed to see one, were always scared, confused young men who only really wanted to go home. They weren’t interested in killing anybody. The only people who wanted to kill anybody were stupid Americans like Frank Burns and Col. Flag (apparently the rule that we all want the same things doesn’t apply to Americans).

It’s all a misunderstanding! We just haven’t talked enough! Can’t we understand that the North Koreans were always our friends? Even today, Kim Jong Il is just posturing with those nukes. What he really wants is for George Bush to put his arm around his shoulders and tell him how proud he is of him.

We all want the same things. We Americans want our children to grow up happy and healthy. So the Islamic jihadists have to want that too. If they instead strap bombs to their kids and send them out to blow themselves up in crowded markets, well… well, we must have driven them to it by not understanding them enough. And anyway, George Bush signed death warrants in Texas, so it’s all the same.

It must be, because Dr. Seuss told us so.

We need stories that touch our hearts, but we need stories that exercise our brains too. Stories informed with knowledge of the real world.

Remember the movie “Being There” with Peter Sellers? At the beginning Sellers, playing a retarded man who has spent his entire life watching TV in a rich man’s house, is turned out on the street, with nothing but a nice suit and his remote control.

When some young muggers confront him, he tries to use the remote to change the channel.

There’s a story we can learn from.

Living in the purple zone

Let’s see. We were talking about fiction and the problem of subjectivity. It’s a problem for me anyway. The moment I hear somebody saying, “It’s all subjective,” I can feel the cholesterol clumping up in my arteries. I hate subjectivity with Schaefferian zeal. I remember an argument I had with my college roommate for hours one Sunday at lunch (we were eating with girls and could have spent the time more profitably). After going around and around forever, I finally figured out that my roommate had his own private definition of “subjective,” one which bore no resemblance to any recognized definition anybody else used.

He’d defined “subjective” subjectively.

So I’m reflexively resistant to all talk of the “S” word.

But that’s a wrong response. (Blame my subjective reaction.)

Look at it this way:

Imagine two colored vertical bars, like the design on the French flag. On one side you’ve got a red bar—all passionate and fiery and subjective. Emotional. Think of Barbra Streisand’s political philosophy.

On the other side you’ve got cool blue. Clinical. Reasoned and proportional. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Systematic.

Personally I’m a lot more comfortable with the blue side. What good did emotions ever do for me?

But like I said, that’s wrong. (My reason tells me so.)

What do you suppose you find in the middle, between the two bars? A wide white no-man’s-land (again like on the French flag)? An impassible barrier, where never the twain shall meet?

No, it’s not like that at all. What you have is a very wide band of purple, graduating from red to blue.

And that purple area is where you and I live. We live in reason and emotion, spirit and body.

Some days we’re closer to the red side. Other days we’re closer to the blue. Some people try to live all the way over on one side or the other (think Sherlock Holmes contrasted with Rosie O’Donnell).

But we all have to live in the purple area. So our communication—our really effective communication—has to be a blend of red and blue, passion and reason.

That’s why stories communicate so well. When God wanted to tell us about Himself, He didn’t dictate a book of Systematic Theology (as I would have advised Him if He’d asked me). He gave us a book full of stories, stories about people’s real lives and how He’s dealt with them.

That’s why a human being in a photograph provides the best overall kind of scale. A concrete post with words “SIX FEET” painted on it might work, but it wouldn’t work as well. Because the story of the waterfall is not just a story of measurements. It’s a story of experience too. The feeling of the spray on your face, the roaring of the water in your ears.

That’s why fiction speaks to people as science and philosophy (essential though they are) never can.

Man is not the measure of all things.

But man is the best measure of some things.

Boring post on interesting writing

In my last post I included a photograph, and noted the fact that adding a staged, theatrical element to the scene actually resulted in a more realistic (and impressive) picture, one that gave a truer impression.

I burbled something fuzzy about the paradox of a fiction increasing realism. I wasn’t up to thinking about it much more at the time.

I’m not actually up to thinking much tonight either, but I’ve been pondering the matter off and on over the weekend and have come up with the following hypothesis.

What the tourist people did, when they added the fictional elf-girl to the scene, was a sort of visual counterpart to what I do when writing novels (especially since I write fantasy).

You had a prospect, a “view” which was most impressive in real life, but didn’t translate well to the photographic record. The problem with the photograph was that scale was lacking. You saw a picture of rocks and moving water, and you couldn’t tell if you were looking at a small mountain stream or a mighty waterfall.

So the tourist people added a human being. She gave it scale. Suddenly you take a picture and you can see how large the waterfall is in comparison to her. The falls comes alive (not to mention that the girl is nice to look at in her own right). You can almost hear the roar of the water now.

Fiction is like that. History (contemporary or older) provides data, data that can overwhelm and bore the consumer. There are a few talented historians who can bring the stories alive, but even their work doesn’t ring bells for many people. Because the historian (generally) follows strict rules. He can only use the documented evidence. He may not invent things. And there’s a lot he can’t know.

His narrative, therefore, often lacks human scale on the emotional level. We miss the drama of the story because the historian can’t tell us how it felt to the people involved—the things they feared, their hates and loves.

The novelist adds the personal element. He tries (with more or less success) to transport us into the skin of a historical character (real or imagined or composite). He tells us how things looked and sounded and smelled. He shows us (doesn’t just tell us) how the issues being contested affected the people involved. The flat photograph acquires proportion.

The subjective human element provides scale.

The irony of this is that subjective things generally make poor yardsticks.

I shall consider that problem tomorrow.

Unless I find I’ve thought myself into a corner and turn to drink instead.

Loving Through Excellent Artwork

Your Writers Group has been talking about excellence.

[Christians] don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art. . . . [But] maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

He’s got a point.

A fictional lie

Hunter Baker has written a very generous review of The Year Of the Warrior, which he has double-posted at his Southern Appeal blog and at the American Spectator blog.

Woo hoo!

(That, for the uninitiated, was a Moment of Optimism. I have them once or twice a year. I’ll keep you posted if it happens again.)

I forget how old I was, or what grade I was in, in elementary school. I forget who the teacher was (though I could make a guess).

She assigned our class to write a short story about Conservation. (Conservation, children, is what we used to have before we had Environmentalism. It was abolished because of its association with Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican.)

I sat down and wrote an easy, boiler-plate, Department of Agriculture Information Office-style tale about a farm family that teaches its old-fashioned neighbor a lesson in Crop Rotation.

I opened it with a line something like this:

“Neighbor’s complaining about his fields eroding again,” said Dad as he came in for supper.

When I’d finished, the teacher looked it over.

“You have to change this dialogue,” she said. “It’s not proper English. You have to say ‘The neighbor’ or ‘Our neighbor.’”

“But this is how people talk!” I protested.

“This is an English class,” she replied. “We write properly in this class.”

I knew it was wrong. I knew that no farmer in this hemisphere ever walks into the kitchen and says, ‘The neighbor…’ or “Our neighbor…” He drops the article. That’s how farmers talk. I lived on a farm. I knew these things.

But I changed the dialogue, because I was a child under authority.

There are people who claim that fiction is a lie, and therefore Christians must not write it.

They are wrong. Fiction is not a lie. Fiction is a shared creative enterprise, in which a storyteller and a reader collaborate to build an imaginary world on terms mutually understood. There is no deception involved, and therefore no lie.

But what that teacher made me do that day was a lie.