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.

Hymn Sung to “Kingsfold”

I love this hymn, written by a Quaker teacher in 1906, sung to a traditional English tune called “Kingsfold.”

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,

Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;

If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,

I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,

Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;

If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;

Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,

Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy Name alone.

Great Pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.

The choir in my church was to sing an arrangement of this song today, and I could have joined them if I wasn’t with my sweet wife having another little girl. We had prayed for an easy delivery of our fourth daughter, and we received it. Thank the Lord. The next day after we returned home, my wife felt a hardening in her leg with some pain when she drew back her toes–a potential blood clot in the leg most afflicted with varicose veins during pregnancy. We called her midwife and obeyed the summons to the emergency room downtown. A five-hour wait to be admitted to a labor room upstairs for another uncomfortable night on a hospital bed for my good, good wife who only wanted to recoup her strength from carrying and delivering the baby.

But I am able to write you tonight because we have returned home. Thank the Lord. The symptoms in her leg were not a serious blood clot, though maybe asuperficial one treatable with heat and aspirin. We can rest at home without blood thinners and monitoring. The Lord saw us through the drenching spray of a rough sea, and will continue his faithfulness as we raise our daughters I have no doubt. Now, to bed.

A City By Any Other Name Would Still Smell

Seattle, Washington, hopes to draw tourists and new residents by calling itself “metronatural.” For those of you in the back row, that’s like metropolitan with a part of that word replaced by another word so that the final word is–I don’t know–kewl.

What does “metronatural” say to you? If it doesn’t say, “Visit Seattle for your kind of vacation,” then you can add it to your list of ways to spell “failure.”

This reminds me of a breifly lived slogan my city did while I was away in college. In print with designed letters, it’s attractive enough that you may miss the words: “Live it, love it, it’s Chattanooga.” That’s close to “like it or lump it.” Perhaps others agreed with me, which is why the city’s current tagline is “The attraction’s only natural.” Similar to Seattle’s, when you think of it, but less hokey.

Traffic is irrelevant to your blog’s success

Someone in the marketing department is talking about blogging in 2006. He seems to make good points, but I still don’t like the label “Web 2.0.” It’s old-school, though it may be a better name than anything that would be more accurate.

Feel free to comment on Brandywine Books in this thread whether or not it relates to this list of blog observations. Complain, entreat, rebuke, what have you.

I like it when the elves trick me

My mind is sterile, tonight, clean as a boiled sheet. All I can think of to do is to post a picture and tell you about it.

Elf maiden

This comes from my last trip to Norway. There’s a place called Flåm, on a beautiful fjord. A funicular railroad runs up to a mountain station from there. Some people take the train for practical purposes, but much of its business is tourists (like me, on two occasions).

This picture shows a place on the route where they stop the train so people can take photos of the waterfall. The first time I took the trip, with my dad, we got out and took pictures, but they were a little disappointing. In two dimensions, it just wasn’t as dramatic as it is in real life.

This last time the tourist people had jazzed it up. When a crowd comes out to gawk, a girl in folk costume comes out and stands on the rocks. She mimics singing while a loudspeaker plays a haunting folk song. At one point she disappears behind the rocks, and another girl dressed just the same pops out of a building nearer by, as if she had magically transported herself. Clearly she’s a huldre, an elf maiden, trying to lure us to our deaths in the fast water.

It’s hokey and corny, but you know what? It works. Not just for the drama, but because including the girl in your photo adds perspective to the whole thing and makes the waterfall look much more dramatic. In other words, the fake thing makes it more real.

I don’t know what the moral of this is. Perhaps it means it’s OK to go over the top now and then, as long as it works and nobody’s fooled.

Lewis link

I got this link from the New York C.S. Lewis Society’s newsletter. Sort of.

Apparently the BBC has reconfigured its website, and the precise link I got from the newsletter didn’t work. But, in my selfless zeal to provide the best resources to you, the valued reader, I worked my way through the maze and found the right place.

What you’ll get here is two sound files made from voice recordings of Lewis himself in his career as a BBC broadcaster. One is from 1944, part of the broadcast talk that became the book Beyond Personality, later a section of Mere Christianity. The other is his introduction to The Great Divorce from 1948.

I’ve often dreamed that original recordings of Lewis’ BBC broadcasts might be found. Apparently these bits are all that were actually saved. (Yes, I know about the Four Loves recordings, and I have them. But I’m told those aren’t his best work.)

But personally I don’t believe the recordings are lost. I believe the BBC is sitting on the original wax disks, terrified that the release of the full series would singlehandedly bring Britain back to God.

It would dishonor me not to wear a tie

Thoughts thought while preparing to go to church for the meeting last night:

“Looks like rain. I’d better wear my trenchcoat.

“If I wear the trenchcoat, I’ll have to wear a tie.

“You cannot wear a trenchcoat without a tie. If you do, you look like a pervert hanging around a playground, not the International Man of Intrigue you bought the coat to resemble.”

Dave Lull sent me this link to a Reason article by Jonathan Rauch which explains Honor Cultures (one of my current obsessions) pretty clearly.

Bored of deacons

I don’t have much time tonight. I’ve got to go to church to participate in a long, boring, meeting. I know it’ll be long and boring because that’s the only kind we do.

I agreed a couple years back to serve on a constitutional revision committee. Since then we’ve held zero meetings. I came to look on the obligation the same way we Boomers think back on the atomic bomb scares of our childhoods, something we feared then but need not worry about now (oh, wait…)

But the call finally came.

I’m pondering whether to attend the meeting or just kill myself.

Decisions, decisions.

Being dead is an acceptable excuse for non-attendance, right?

The Litblog Co-op Pick: The Tale of a Rat

This quarter’s Read This pick from the Litblog Co-op is a curious tale of a Boston rat. No, it’s not political commentary. Ed Champion recommends it: “I was entirely unprepared to read a wry and remarkably thoughtful book about the state of imagination in American society. The book had teeth, perhaps a continuously growing set of rodent-like incisors ground to manageable size so that the teeth in question wouldn’t puncture the brain.”

Genes and Big Medical Questions

Speaking of Michael Crichton, his next book promises to have us asking some strange questions: “Could your loved one be missing some body parts? Is everyone at your dinner table of the same species? It’s 2006: do you know who all your children are? Do you know humans and chimpanzees differ in only 400 genes? Did you know one fifth of all your genes are owned by someone else? Could you and your family be pursued cross country just because you happen to have certain genes in your body?”

If we come to a point where we can define our bodies and our mental abilities while living or define them for our children (or by government mandate, one another’s children), then we will have lost our humanity or at least some of it. Mars Hill Audio has discussed this repeatedly, talking to Nigel Cameron about the ethics of current bio-technology. As C.S. Lewis said, if we gain the ability to define our attributes like we can software, we will not have conquered nature; we will have become its slave.

What do you think it means to be human? Are you and I really barely different than apes? Is your body only the vehicle for your soul or whatever is the real you inside?

Call on the hills to cover the lab

I drove up to Fargo, North Dakota on Saturday, for a meeting of the Sverdrup Society (I edit their journal and newsletter). It’s about a four hour drive, with stops. Getting to Fargo from here involves passing through Fargo’s sister city, Moorhead, Minnesota. That reminded me of a story told by my brother Moloch (whose birthday it is today, by the way. Remind me to call him).

Moloch and his wife were visiting Concordia College in Moorhead, their mutual alma mater. They took a guided tour led by a young female student. As they passed by a small hill on campus, Moloch said, “There’s where the biology lab used to be. They tore it down and put in that hill.”

The student said, “No. That hill has always been here. The students talk about it. There’s an Indian legend about it and everything.”

Moloch and my sister-in-law assured her that the hill was modern and man-made, and they’d spent a fair amount of time in the old biology lab on the site.

Afterwards Moloch said to his wife, “You know what this means, don’t you?

“It means we’re older than the hills.”

I thought I’d link to a couple more Viking photos. Since I’m constitutionally incapable of balance in thinking about myself, I need to alternate my nihilist and pessimistic posts with posts of a more full-of-myself, “look at me!” nature.

This first picture is from the Viking Meet in Elk Horn, Iowa. The sinister gang I’m posing with is not my own Viking group, but the Skjaldborg guys from Omaha. And no, I did not tease the big guy about his pink tunic.

This one is from two weekends ago, in Dallas, Wisconsin. Here we see me demonstrating graphically to the others exactly how far my fame and fortune as an author take me in terms of… well, fame and fortune.

Credit to Eric and Shari Anderson for the pictures.

Revelations by M. Scott Byrnes

Part of the appeal of Scott Byrnes‘ science fiction novel, Revelations, is the story behind it. He wrote a screenplay, probably catching a writing bug during that time, and decided to make it into a novel. He says he wanted to bring a pretty outrageous idea down to earth as an enjoyable thriller in the way he believes Michael Crichton does with stories rooted in an odd scientific observation. So Mr. Byrnes saved some money and quit his day job in order to write his first novel. That’s admirable dedication.

Does it pay off? Well, I must say I felt compelled to finish the story. The characters aren’t too round. The writing style is good enough, though a couple parts are laughably bad. One part that should hold several pounds of suspense drops it all by dwelling too long on the characters’ thoughts. The plot stretches thin a bit, the worst coming about midway when the characters tackle some language translation. But storyline is compelling.

A team of scientists are on Mars hoping to uncover something earlier exploratory results have hinted at. In the process, they discover something that radically changes scientific understanding of the red planet. About the same time, a brilliant young man, named Tim Redmond, is ushered out of an African Red Cross camp by federal spooks when his name is called out by a terrorist who has taken international hostages. The terrorist wants world leaders to make a fast decision made about the Martian discovery, saying it will destroy mankind, but how he knows about it and what he wants Tim to do are big questions.

I believe Mr. Byrnes is planning to write more, which is probably a good idea. Judging from this book, he appears to have the talent and perseverance to write strong, entertaining stories. I look forward to hearing of his success in the future.

No One is Morally Ignorant

From my notes on Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

The attack on objectivity of values is not an attack on general objectivity of values, but a ruse for the supremacy of certain values over others. Because you can get a long way in winning your argument if you don’t have to argue for it at all.

Our problem is not the disconnect between the heart and intellect. The problem is what composes our intellect. Nothing is considered moral knowledge today; consequently, no one is morally ignorant.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture