"I wouldn't be young again even if it were possible."

- Ruth Rendell
A Debut Novelist: 'Subject Matter Matters'

Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits, talks about his business in ways that make him uncomfortable. "I feel like I’m bordering on saying something sacrilegious here, but here it goes: There’s a common strain of thinking among writers, particularly literary writers and the institutions that foster them (conference/colonies/workshops), that insists a book is only as good as its writing."

Although he still believes in the preeminence of good writing, he know believes subject is very, very, and also very important. "Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question 'What’s your book about?' in a way that interests other people, somebody else will. And that will be how the book is sold..."

He goes on to say how surprised he was that people in publishing actually want to love your book and that the slowness of the whole process is understandable.

Words at Leisure in Unanchored Intelligence

Essays are a dead form, says author David Hughes. “But today we no longer have access to the state of mind in which such useless but diverting conceptions appear in the unanchored intelligence [another nice phrase]. Our conceptions must be vast or hasty or topical; to ride the storm of the uneasy mind we are in, an idea must be sensational, it must walk on the water or fly faster than sound. A poet manqué does not write essays: he joins the staff of an advertising agency, where one word is an expensive item, or he talks about the films he is going to make.”

Patrick Kurp spells out the joys and perils of Hughes' opinion on essays in today's post. "Good essays," he says, "even the most impersonal, are suffused with the essayist’s sensibility. No one else could have written them."

Horwitz Not Thrilled with Digital Bookselling

Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, writes about the thrills and spills of being a digital bestseller.

I finished writing in late January, just as the State Department prepared to issue a much anticipated report on the Keystone XL. If I were writing for a traditional publisher, I’d have to wait months to see my work in print. This time, I’d be read within days, right on top of the news!

Exhausted but exhilarated, I headed to the liquor store for a celebratory bottle and returned to an urgent call from my editor in Sydney. “Mate, we’re [bleeped],” she said. The Global Mail’s backer had had a bad financial setback at his firm and evidently decided he could no longer afford a folly like quality journalism. He’d abruptly pulled the plug just hours before I filed my copy, making The Global Mail a dead letter.

Worse still, for me, Byliner hadn’t yet inked its deal with the Aussies. Suddenly I had no platform for a very long story on a subject that was about to be all over the news. And I’d yet to be paid anything beyond my original travel budget (which I’d overrun, in any case).

At this point I called my literary agent, whom I’d foolishly failed to involve in the project. (Another fantasy of the digital world: Writers can do it themselves and dispense with all those middlemen.)
And there's more.

Build Your Writing Career

39 Things to Remember While Struggling to Build Your Writing Career by Kimberly Grabas.

Some good thoughts here, not about incomplete sentences, but stuff like failure, personal manifestos, practice, and simply doing it. "Writing is supposed to be hard work." Yeah. It's not hard work like pulling weeds either. It's hard work like speaking the truth in love when you'd rather throw snark from the corner.

The Writer by petebritney on deviantART

The Ideal Reader, Who Doth Know?

Patrick Kurp talks about writing and discusses the diary of WWI veteran: "The 'ideal reader' is a phantom. The writer who says he writes exclusively to please himself is a solipsist, and one who writes exclusively to please others is a whore. Neither is worth reading. I won’t pander just to pack the house, nor will I resort to fashionable chatter."

J.M. Bertrand on Writing

Thus spake Mark Bertrand:

"Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature. The key to any discipline, I suppose, is figuring how to make it matter."

So if we want to be writers, we must decide writing is what we actually want to do. And whatever work that must go around the writing too must matter--the research, the market opportunities, and the spiritual nurturing that keeps us closer the Lover of our souls.

"Writers already lead uncomfortably quantified lives, measuring our worth in the number of words written today, in the number of books in print and how well they’ve sold. All of these metrics speak to one kind of quality –– my quality of life –– without addressing another, the quality of my work. The best written books aren’t always the bestselling..."

Far more than any philosophical writing, Bertrand says reading novels exposes and explores him in unexpected ways. "In novels I face up to things I never seem to in other kinds of writing."

Best Apps for Writing

Lifehacker has a list of apps it believes have the chops to help you score no matter what cliché you're throwing their way. Looking for something free of the usual on-screen distractions? Something to help you edit or write a screenplay? They've got it.

Words: They're What's For Breakfast!

  • Previous edited stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald are being released without the content edits. "Before these stories were bowdlerised, they contained antisemitic slurs, sexual innuendo, instances of drug use and drunkenness. They also contained profanity and mild blasphemy. The texts were scrubbed clean at the Post," James West, general editor of the Cambridge edition of Fitzgerald's work, said. He believes the stories make more sense without the tempered language. "One of the commonplaces of Fitzgerald criticism, for decades, has been that he avoided unpleasant topics and realistic language in his magazine fiction. We can see now that this was not altogether his choice."
  • If Eskimos have 50 words for snow and 70 words for ice, do they experience these things more richly than the rest of us? Do their words shape their world? John H. McWhorter says not quite. We can think about concepts for which we have no words, and our world isn't really shaped by our use of language. "...language has only a minor effect on cognition and no effect on a person’s view of the world—that is, in this case, how humans understand time, causality, color, space, and so forth." Reports about studies that supposedly show the opposing view are exaggerated.
  • Crossway Books is throwing a sale in celebration of Crazy Busy winning Book of the Year.
  • The only measure of a writer is that you want to remember his words.

Do Literary Writers Succeed in Digital Publishing?

Do literary writers find readers and make money in digital publishing? Not yet. Porter Anderson writes:

Literary fiction, by contrast, has no content guidelines, makes no promise of one topic or another, varies vastly in style and form. Not surprisingly, then, it’s perennially difficult to define without a fight. Claims of serious intent and/or artistic achievement may be asserted by fans of literary fiction. Its detractors love to charge that it focuses on language over plot; “navel gazing” poetics over entertainment; precious reflection over storytelling.
But Jane Friedman says you can see some successful writing if you look beyond the book length form. She says, "Thoughtful, intelligent 'literary' work is doing quite well digitally if you step away from book-length or novel publishing and into journalism-driven or nonfiction-driven publishing. Most of the following outlets and platforms include some fiction, too, just not a lot." These platforms include: Byliner, Atavist, Medium/Matter, Symbolia, The Magazine, Storybird, and Hi.

In general, she says, people don't want to read short stories or poems on no-name sites like Brandywine Books. Big name sites, like The Poetry Foundation, get readers, but not others. I think the field may still be in flux as more readers read everything onscreen. I also think literary writers should reflect on the poverty of our recent literary traditions and develop a new perspective based more on Shakespeare and Milton than on Freud and Beckett.

Two Authors To Write 30 Days Live On Podcast

Indie Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant have obtained funding for a live writing exposition through their podcast. "'Fiction Unboxed' is a publishing experiment. Platt and Truant are full-time authors, determined to prove with their Kickstarter project that well-told stories can bloom from excitement and inspiration, rather than from a 'true artist's' tortured soul."

They are doing this, naturally, by torturing themselves for a month.

Apropos of nothing, here's an audio skit.

Two Authors To Write 30 Days Live On Podcast

Indie Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant have obtained funding for a live writing exposition. "'Fiction Unboxed' is a publishing experiment. Platt and Truant are full-time authors, determined to prove with their Kickstarter project that well-told stories can bloom from excitement and inspiration, rather than from a "true artist's" tortured soul."

Just Stop It, Writers

Barnabas Piper tells us to stop writing about writing, because we don't really have anything to say.

"When Stephen King writes a book about writing I read it cover to cover and then start over. And it is marvelous. When a thirty-something, barely published, Internet composer of public journal entries does so, it’s uppity."

Yeah. Sorry about that.

Pixar's Ed Catmull on Creativity

In his new book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, talks about how to keep a creative team running. He says he noticed many creative companies, even Disney, dying off a bit at some point. They couldn't keep their creativity going. Catmull wanted to know the reason and whether it could be avoided. Now, with co-writer Amy Wallace, he has given us his conclusions.

"If you're doing something new, you will make mistakes," he says. "In fact, if you're not making mistakes, you're probably just copying other things. The way you avoid mistakes is to be super safe. Well, we can't be safe. That means somebody will make mistakes, and we have to say let's learn from it."

He says he learned from Disney the technique of putting your storyboard on video to see it works the way you think it will. And it never does at first. In fact, the original storyboarded video isn't good at all, but artists and writers lose their objectivity at that point and fail to see the problems. Catmull tries to work through the problems with an atmosphere that builds everyone up and allows them to take risks in pursuit of a stronger story.

You can read an excerpt from Catmull and Wallace's book through NoiseTrade and your eReader before you buy.

I Am Pursuing Freelancing Writing, Editing

Let me write about myself for a minute. For the past several months, I've been pursuing a new line of work and I spent part of that time wondering what that line should be. I'm still looking for work in various ways, but my main thrust this year will be freelance writing and editing.

I am bidding on projects through Elance.com and Writer.ly (some interesting stuff on these site). I haven't gotten to other freelance venues yet, and I like the testing options available through Elance. They verify your skills to a degree. If you have work that could be hired out, you can post a job with Elance and invite me to bid on it. Naturally, I would do my best writing ever, and the project would be more profitable than your wildest dreams, and we would sing each other's praises for months. The regulars at the pub would love us for at least a day. Maybe two! Feel free to look at my Writer.ly profile too. It's still in beta mode, but some people are finding work there.

I am happy to have made new connections with a couple editing services. There are two other organizations who have me on their writing roster also. Of course, there's LinkedIn for general networking. With all of these connections, I am not at all busy. I'd like to try being busy, for a change of pace.

I started this blog in 2004. Lars joined me several months later. Since we're an established lit-blog, we are asked to review various independent books. Every time I agree to receive a book for review, I hope to love it. I usually don't, and I wish I could reply with an offer to edit this already published book. It would be rude to make such an offer, but the need bleeds upon the page. Through these new services, perhaps I can field editing requests from authors who have a good story and need help making it great.

Writing Rules and Mistakes

Aaron Armstrong talks about the word heresy and how a popular author is probably misusing it. Heresy is a serious matter. To use the word to mean rebel, outsider, or maverick doesn't help when we have to talk about actual heresy.

Several days ago, Nick Harrison listed five points of writing advice he labeled heresy. Ok, he didn't, but he did not like them. Now he offers five things he likes. For example, he says, "If you write fiction, please remember that you’re not just telling a story or passing along information. Your goal is to emotionally move your reader."

For more writing fun, Chip Macgregor describes several things editors love (by which I mean hate) when they read a manuscript. Multiple fonts? Excess commas? Great stuff. Also this: 'For some reason, Number-Impaired People will make an outline that reads, “First,” followed by “Two,” then “C,” and then “4.” (Or, occasionally, “13.”)'

Five Writing Rules You Can't Live Without Breaking

Editor Nick Harrison talks about the writing advice he dislikes, such as writing what you know and never using passive voice.

“Write even if you know you’ll never be published.” Apparently the idea is that a writer writes because he has to (which I agree with) and that writing is somehow its own reward (which I disagree with). I don’t know about you, but I’m writing to be published. I’m glad I don’t know whether or not I will have more books published in the future because if I knew my writing would never see the light of day, I’d probably be tempted to quit.

Anthony Carter on Writing

Pastor Anthony Carter, who has written a very good book on Christ's work on the cross called Blood Work, talks about pastors wanting to write. He says it's natural, because they already write for their churches, but a book a little different.

"If you write for national attention," he says "you are writing for the wrong reasons. I would encourage any pastor to remember and take to heart this sobering reality: Most people won't even know that you have published a book, and the rest won't care."

Discouragement for Writers

Nick Harrison offers these wonderful quotes and testimonies to discourage the writer in your family. Rejection. Loneliness. Struggle.

Merry Christmas.

I'd know him anywhere

My favorite Christmas gift this year may have come from a total stranger. Digital artist Jeremiah Humphries produced the above drawing of Erling Skjalgsson, apparently, on a whim.

I like the use of light to suggest the hearth fire in the hall.

These are the moments that suggest to a writer that he hasn't entirely wasted his time.

For more information on Mr. Humphries' art, check out his blog.

Doug Wilson on Celebrity and Plagiarism

Author and pastor Doug Wilson has a lengthy post big-named Christians, ghostwriting, and plagiarism. He's had to deal with plagiarism accusations in the past and he describes some of them:

One of my first books was one called Persuasions. In that book I have a character compare monogamy to buying a musical instrument and learning to play it, which is not like buying a record album and being stuck with listening to just one album over and over again. Years later I had a friend tell me he was disappointed that I had used C.S. Lewis’s analogy when he thought I was fully capable of coming up with my own. But I had no idea I was borrowing from Lewis. I am sure I got it from Lewis, and had used it in many witnessing conversations, and then when I wrote a book of witnessing encounters, in it went.

Other times I use something consciously. I conclude my weekly homily at the Lord’s Table with a phrase I got from John Bunyan — “come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.” Should I feel bad about not saying, every week, “as Bunyan once said . . .”? But I don’t feel bad.
This reminds me of some devotional emails I used to write. One man praised my writing highly twice, both times after I had simply forwarded a portion of a Puritan prayer printed in The Valley of Vision. I thanked him, but wondered if he thought what I had just sent out was mine. I'm still not sure.

Tim Keller on Pastors Who Write

Author and pastor Tim Keller talks about writing as a pastor, recommending young pastors to give all of their time to their ministry and plan to write later. They can write short pieces now, if they feel compelled to write, but he suggests they wait for greater maturity before they tackle whole books. He also recommends reading:

That is far and away the most important discipline. You must read widely in general for years before you become capable of recognizing good writing. And then before you write a book on a subject, you should read 20 or 30 good books on the subject carefully and skim another 20 or 30. If you just read three or four (and refer to another three or four), your book will be largely a rehash and will offer few fresh insights.

Storytelling Tips

Emma Coats, formerly a storyboard artist with Pixar, has taught storytelling for a few years, I gather. Her 22 principles of storytelling have been on the Interwebs for a while, but I don't believe I've linked to them here. They are very good.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
For a different perspective, award-winning author Paul Harding has a few ideas of what makes fiction work. "Fiction is about immanence. We are beings who experience our selves in time and space, through our senses. Fiction persuades its readers that they are reading something artful by immersing them as fully as possible in the senses and perceptions, the thoughts and actions of fictional lives."

Author Barnabas Piper also chips in his two sense, saying it's the boring parts that make the whole story work. "World-class novels are not composed of email responses and traffic jams and grocery shopping. But without such things the characters would never get where they needed to go and be who they need to be."


"Writing for others is a privilege."

Kevin DeYoung talks about a pastor's responsibilities and possible conflicts with writing books and articles. Among other good thoughts, he says, "I’m glad I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones before I ever wrote a book because I can hear the Doctor in the back of my head saying, 'The pastor is first of all a preacher and not a writer.' There is nothing wrong with being a writer first, but that’s simply not the calling of a pastor."

He notes what a wonderful privilege it is for people to read anything you've written, which is a good reason for a writer to get over himself.

On a related note, Miles Mullin writes about contemporary tribalism among evangelicals. "This is the troubling reality of the personality-based leadership that encompasses much of American evangelicalism. Often, charisma and dynamic communication skills trump character and integrity as popular appeal wins the day," he observes. Like fans of sports teams who argue over purely subjective judgements, fans of preachers and writers defend their leaders against any accusation, sometimes even against obvious sins.

Do We Need Another C.S. Lewis?

People have often suggested a popular Christian fantasy author is the next C.S. Lewis. I don't think that's an appropriate question. Few people strikes us as the same as another person only better, so why should we look for a living author to replace a dead one? That would make the dead one mostly obsolete, wouldn't it?

Steve Harrell doesn't think so. He says we need a new Lewis. "When we try to insert Lewis' cultural observations into our culture today," he writes, "we become like Indiana Jones—still fighting the Nazis through the 1980s. The Modernist war between reason and theology is over.... We live in a postmodern, post-secular age that doesn’t respond well to the intellectual arm-twisting and large-scale historical criticism that Lewis excelled at."

Joel Miller argues Harrell is missing the point. "A vibrant intellectual life includes thoughts that span millennia. They’re not so foreign as some insist, and their differences might just keep us from going off the rails."

Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, notes Lewis's blessing to us is "in what you might call pastoral theology: as an interpreter of people's moral and spiritual crises; as somebody who is a brilliant diagnostician of self-deception; and somebody who, in his own book on bereavement after his wife's death, really pushes the envelope – giving permission, I suppose, to people to articulate their anger and resentment about a God who apparently takes your loved ones away from you."

In related a post, Jeremy Lott notes the angst many have had over Susan's absence from The Last Battle. Many readers think Lewis condemns her life choices by appearing to keep her out of Narnia when everything comes falling down, but Lott quotes from Lewis' letters to show that the author simply believed Susan's story was longer and more adult than the one he wanted to tell. "Why not try it yourself?" Lewis asked a reader, to which Lott replies, "Who has tried to tell Susan's story?" He hopes someone will attempt to pick up the life of Susan Pevensie and finish at least part of her story.

Image: C.S. Lewis by ~free-slave on deviantART


Read many good reasons for keeping a journal in this post by Ivan Mesa. One reason is to help us remember God's blessings. Mesa writes, "D. A. Carson is right: 'Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.'" (via Challies)

Gay Talese on Writing "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

Frank SinatraGay Talese didn't want to write about so public a figure as Frank Sinatra when his editors at Esquire assigned it to him, but he took it on with creative persistence and produced a masterful profile. Elon Green talked to him about it for Nieman Storyboard, so we now have the feature story with writerly annotations throughout.

Greens says at one point every story he has ever heard about Sinatra appears to have come from Talese's profile, which is enormously detailed. Here's an appealing bit:

I had seen something of this Sicilian side of Sinatra last summer at Jilly’s saloon in New York, which was the only other time I’d gotten a close view of him prior to this night in this California club.... That night dozens of people, some of them casual friends of Sinatra’s, some mere acquaintances, some neither, appeared outside of Jilly’s saloon. They approached it like a shrine. They had come to pay respect.... Read the rest of this entry . . .

Ira Glass: Work Through the Gap

Take your colon out to lunch

Today, according to this web site, is National Punctuation Day.

I think I'm pretty good at punctuation, generally. The problem comes with differing styles. For years I eschewed the Oxford Comma, because somebody back in elementary school told me you should never add a comma before the conjunction, as in "I had lunch with Gary, Eric and Denny." It was only fairly recently that I learned there was any controversy. I learned this while acting as editor of the Journal of the Georg Sverdrup Society. I found out that we follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which mandates the Oxford Comma ("I had lunch with Gary, Eric, and Denny"). The Associated Press is against us, but we don't follow them. So I learned to love it. Now I can't imagine doing without it. And that's good, because we use the APA Manual in graduate school, and they're Oxfordian as well.

I keep wondering how the American Psychological Association's style book came to dominate graduate school documentation.

The only other punctuation problem I can think of that I personally struggle with is the way Microsoft Word automatically clumps the three periods in an ellipsis together, turning them into a single, compact idiogram. Which we then have to unclump over at the Sverdrup Journal, because we want our periods separate but equal. I don't know why. I just do it.

Happy Punctuation Day. Period.

No coincidence

Our friend Greybeard sent me a link to a comic today, and I thought it was pretty funny. I’d post it here, but I’m not certain about copyright fair use, so I’ll just link to it and you can look for yourself.

It’s about “contrived coincidences” in story plots.

This, friends, is a very bad thing.

You read a story, and you’re following along with it, and suddenly something happens out of the blue, completely out of left field, purely so that the author can make the plot go in a direction he wants.

C. S. Lewis wrote about a similar issue, somewhere (I forget where, and I don’t have time to riffle through my library). In writing about miracles, he notes that it’s entirely against the rules for a novelist to include a miracle in a story, just to get his hero out of a tight place.

But, he notes, there is at least one legitimate use for a miracle in a story. You can start the story with a miracle. The occurrence of a miracle, followed by an examination of the way it affects the people who observe it, is a perfectly legitimate premise for a story.

In other words, a miracle can pose a problem in a story. But it can’t solve one.

Otherwise, you’ve wasted your reader’s time. You’ve dragged him through all the sturm und drang of plot development, rising action, rising tension, repeated frustrated attempts at resolution, and then you resolve the whole mess with a deus ex machina (a Latin term referring to a dramatist's trick of sending an actor, dressed like a god, down by block and tackle to save somebody from a bad situation). The whole purpose of a story is to teach the main character something through suffering, and to teach the reader by proxy. The miraculous/coincidental resolution renders the whole exercise meaningless. The story itself becomes a redundant appendage to the climax. You might as well have written the climax on its own, and saved the reader the time.

I note that I have confused coincidence with deus ex machina in this post, but they’re closely related and undeserving of individual attention.

What's the Point of Christian Fiction?

Readers IV: sleeper, reader, reader, sleeper

E. Stephen Burnett picks up on the discussion over comments made regarding the stories told by J. Mark Bertrand ("Russell" to his friends), asking an insightful question: "According to the Bible, what is the 'chief end' of story? Is it evangelism? Gritty realism? Entertainment? Or a higher goal?"

I chafe at the idea of everything we do in the world being evangelism or pre-evangelism, though perhaps it's true. I like to think of life being more multifaceted than that. We delight in God our Father. We make disciples of his people. We fight for justice and work in mercy. What are the themes Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount? Who are the blessed of God, being a life witness, the place of the law, the nature of sin (anger, lust, divorce, promises, retribution), loving one's enemies and neighbors, mercy, prayer and more. Is all of this meant to be seen in the colors of evangelism?

No. A story may witness the glory of God to an unbeliever without having evangelism as its goal, and perhaps that's the answer. Glory. I want to write to magnify God's glory, to color myself and everything I see with it.

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