- Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life
Image by Stefan-Xp.
Finally we got a spot of what the Vikings would have called “weather-luck.” It did snow last night, as described, but it lost interest after about three inches. And through the day most of it gradually liquefied and returned to the bosom of the thirsty earth. Right now the sun is shining cheerily. I took my evening walk. The forecast actually calls for 70 degrees this weekend. Maybe our long regional nightmare is over.
But I’m not putting the snowblower away just yet.
I thought about The Boy With the Red Pencil today.
That’s not what the title of the book was, I’m pretty sure. I never actually read it. I was too young. It was a book I remember lying around the house when I was very small. Somebody must have read it to me, I’m sure, but my chief memory of it is seeing it on the couch in the sun porch, picking it up, and looking at the pictures, following the story through them.
It was about a little boy who got a red pencil that had magical powers. Whenever he drew something with it, that thing would become real. Complications ensued, but I’m unclear on what they were after all the years.
All I remember is how fascinated I was with the idea of using a writing instrument to create real things.
I suppose my whole life since then has been an effort to emulate that boy with the red pencil. At first I drew pictures, like him, but eventually I moved on to writing stories, which (for me) produced results more like real things.
Tolkien called it “subcreation,” the compulsion of the created being to emulate his Creator by creating things of his own in turn. Such an impulse, like all our impulses, can be turned to good or evil. Creativity is a power, capable of corruption like any other power (the aesthetes never seem to grasp this point).
But whether you’re a computer programmer, or a tailor, or an architect, making things is essentially good. It’s part of what God put us here for.
Five books recommended by artist Makoto Fujimura. "Literature that reveals what art and beauty ought to be."
"How has your decision to write affected your health? Has it had negative effects on your personal life?” asks a survey. Kvetch for us about your life, they say, to which Neal Pollack responds, "How do I even know whether writing has had negative effects on my personal life? Maybe I would have been a jerk no matter what I did, and my being a writer at least keeps me in a room by myself so I can’t bother other people as much."
In yet another response to my Intercollegiate Review article, Speculative Faith asked me to answer a few questions over at their site. Thanks to those folks.
Visitors to the Evangelical Outpost website experienced, today, the horror of being greeted by my face. David Nilsen, who reviewed Troll Valley yesterday, followed up with an interview, which you can read here.
I don't think it would be right to say that my column on Christian Fantasy for The Intercollegiate Review, posted yesterday, has gone viral. But it seems to be approaching the communicable disease level anyway. Editor Anthony Sacramone tells me it's rapidly approaching their record for hits. There've been several links, including...
Our friend Gene Edward Veith over at Cranach calls it "beyond excellent."
David Mills at First Things speaks of "good advice" and "interesting insights."
And, most amazing of all, Jeffrey Overstreet himself devotes quite a long post to it, calling me a "formidable storyteller," which is kind of like having your singing praised by Placido Domingo. Although he's visited our blog in the past and responded to some of my comments on his works, I'm surprised that a guy with so much more important things to think about was even aware of my work. He disagrees with my use of the term "Christian fantasy," a point I appreciate, but I don't think there's much to be done about it.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who's spread the word. I did not expect a response of this kind. Frankly (as I confessed to Anthony) I was a little embarrassed to submit the thing, because it seemed to me a lot of conventional wisdom that had been dispensed just as well by better writers.
But sometimes you're in the right place at the right time, like the merchant in Hailstone Mountain who brought a cat to a country full of mice.
ScribblePreach recommends getting off your proverbial rear-end and writing with these simple steps. This hits me where I live. I often get discouraged when I sit down to write, because it takes me so long to get going. I can't just vomit words on the page or screen. I have to have something to say. Even when I do have something to say, I must fight my doubt over saying it.
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again.
[M]ainstream [fiction] hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.
Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen this short film already. Paperman is a black-and-white, almost silent production done by Disney animators using only traditional (non-computer) animation techniques. Everybody loves it, and with good reason.
I have to admit that, being me, I had a mixed reaction at first. Then I realized I was wrong. I want to explain why, because it has to do with the nature of Story.
(Spoilers below. Do not read until you’ve watched the film through.)
My initial, self-oriented response was to say, “Life isn’t like that. The Universe does not step in to make your dreams come true.”
Then I saw that I’d missed the point. The point is that when the Universe took a hand in this couple’s story, it was only after the young man had done everything he could from his own end. He’d made his boss mad, and may have sacrificed his job, for the girl. It’s a little like the merchant in Jesus’ parable, who sold all he had in order to purchase the Pearl of Great Price.
If you’re writing a story, you can permit a Deus Ex Machina (I’ve written about this before), but only after you’ve let the character suffer and fail a whole lot. If the audience feels he’s tried his best, and not gotten the reward he deserves, then you can bring the Cosmic Hand in to set things right at the end. If you handle it carefully.
That’s a narrative principle only, by the way. It’s not theological, or only partly theological. Christianity does not teach that you gain God’s acceptance through trying your hardest, followed by God’s pleased intervention to finish the job for you. In Christianity it’s all grace from first to last.
Still, from the experiential point of view, the two things are hard to tell apart. The moment of grace is when the merchant falls in love with the Pearl, when the young man falls in love with the girl. All their efforts afterward are not actually their own accomplishments but entirely the work of God’s grace within, doing business as Love.
It’s a mystery.
Jean-Francois Millet, Man With a Hoe, ca. 1860
I appear to have experienced a new “going out and coming in” (to put it in biblical terms) in my life. I have gone out of the age of leisure, and come into the age of workoholism.
For the time being, anyway.
“Workoholic” is one of those terms, like “plutocrat” and “spelunker” that I never expected to apply to myself. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that one of Walker’s essential characteristics is languor. When the call goes out for hardy souls to lend a hand and see the thing through, I can usually be found somewhere in the vicinity of the donut table.
But here I am, in my sixth decade, living a life essentially divided up between work and sleep, with a few brief intervals for eating. Read the rest of this entry . . .
Aaron Armstrong passes on some writing tips from Doug Wilson, author of many books including Evangellyfish, which we linked to earlier. It's good stuff, but I need some help on the fourth one. What does this mean: "4. Stretch before your routines. If you want to write Italian sonnets, try to write some short stories. If you want to write a few essays, write a novel, or maybe a novella if you are pressed for time. If you want to write haiku, then limber up with opinion pieces for The Washington Post."
Today is the birthday of Prof. J. R. R. Tolkien, who needs no introduction here. As usual, Tolkien fans around the world are participating in a birthday toast, at 9:00 p.m. local time, wherever they happen to be. The formula is to raise your beverage of choice and say, “THE PROFESSOR!”
Tolkien did a bit of translation in his time, being one of the world’s great language scholars. I suppose it’s a stretch to try to use that as a bridge to the subject of my own ongoing translation work. I’m around ¾ of the way through the first draft now, which is a little ahead of my estimates, I think.
The New Year’s holiday gave me the unspeakable gift of two full, unscheduled days to devote to the project. I did 5,000 words each day, and was a little alarmed to realize something I’d never known before. Translating can be addictive. A Facebook friend who’s also a translator told me I wasn’t out of line to compare it to obsessive computer gaming, since he’s done both.
Translating involves its own special challenges and headaches, but it has the advantage of entirely lacking one great roadblock of ordinary writing – you never have to figure out what’s coming next. Figuring out what comes next has always been the hardest part of writing for me.
Of course it helps to be working on a project you find fascinating in its own right.
I know what you're thinking, but this is post is not a rant about the changes that (one assumes) are being made in the new The Hobbit movie. Frankly, I'm looking forward to the movie. I looked at the web site today, and checked out the photo gallery, and there was one where the dwarfs were wearing hoods. Frankly, that was my main problem with the previews I saw. Tolkien was always consistent in putting dwarfs in hoods. Gimli's lack of a hood in the trilogy troubled me. But this time they've got hoods, at least part of the time. So good.
No, I want to share with you this YouTube video, which was sent to me by Dale Nelson. It's part of a lecture by Prof. John D. Rateliff, telling what he learned about Tolkien's writing process through examining his original Hobbit manuscripts at Marquette University, where they are stored. I enjoyed it.
In the upcoming update to The Associated Press' online stylebook, the suffix "-phobia" "should not be used 'in political or social contexts,' including 'homophobia' and 'Islamophobia.'
AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn explains the move:If current argumentative trends apply here, this move will be described as homophobic.
“Homophobia especially — it’s just off the mark. It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”
“We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing,” he said.
One change owning a Kindle has made in my reading habits is that I’m now a whole lot more likely than I used to be to dump a book that fails to please me.
When I was younger, it was kind of a point of honor to finish any book I started. (This sprang in part from the fact that books were copied by hand on calfskin in those days.) But as I got older, and especially as I crystallized my political and social views, I became more willing to ashcan a book whose author (as I imagined him/her) obviously wouldn’t want a person like me for a reader.
The Kindle makes this easier because I’ve been getting a lot more free books, especially from the Free Kindle Books and Tips blog. Easy come, easy go. A lot of these books are fully worth their price of nothing, and I feel no guilt (OK, not much guilt) in showing them the virtual door.
I dumped one book yesterday, and another today, which I think is a new record.
One was a mystery/thriller, pretty competently written. The characters were mostly good, and the writing slipped only rarely. But around half way through I discovered that the evil District Attorney, whom we had been schooled to hate (the one-dimensionality of his character was one of the book’s weaknesses from the start) was a political conservative, getting money from those evil conservative political action committees.
I could have finished it. I’ve finished worse. But I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe it’s the election season.
The second book was more congenial in viewpoint, being a sort of contemporary Christian fantasy. And the writing was pretty good for Christian literature. But then the main character, a non-Christian, got into a conversation with his Christian neighbor at one point, and it all went south as far as I was concerned.
I have strong views about how conversations about matters faith in novels ought to go. I like to think I do it pretty well in my books, but maybe other people find my approach as offputting as I find so many that I see.
Here’s how I think such conversations should be handled—generally.
1. Avoid easy victories. Christians love anecdotes about how some Christian silenced an atheist through a single pithy, incisive remark. In my experience this never happens in real life. In real life the atheist has a good laugh, and the Christian trickles away humiliated (this isn’t necessarily bad. I know of instances when such conversations have resulted, eventually, in the conversion of the atheist). You gain realism points if you allow your Christian character to lose at least the initial skirmish.
2. Remember that the point of the exercise is not winning the debate, but winning the person. The action of the story is where the non-believer will have his world-view truly challenged. A story where he gets converted merely by an argument is by nature a weak story. Use the rising tension of the story’s action to make him doubt his preconceptions. This is both good storytelling and true to life.
3. Eschew Triumphalism. This really summarizes the two points above. James Bond is not a Christian. The smooth character who always makes the right choices and is always in control of the situation is not realistic, and would be a poor example in any case, since none of us live that way. The Christian conquers through bowing, through dying, through the way of humility.
And no, I’m not going to tell you the names of the books I dumped. I deleted them from my Kindle, and I don’t think I remember the titles. I’m sure I don’t remember the authors’ names.
Dave Long tells a little story for an important question: are you the right author for your book?
Your day job can be a means to an end by putting food on your table while you write, but it could be an end to your means by sucking the life out of you. This Writer's Digest blog takes the first approach, describing the benefits of interacting with people and learning non-writing job skills. How else are you going to learn the sound of man's last breath after he has been stabbed? You learn that kind of thing on the job.
Elsewhere on the web, Joss Whedon didn't need a vacation after shooting The Avengers; he needed a working vacation on a radically different movie. So his wife insisted he take up an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
“I’m a huge proponent of the no budget movie,” Whedon says. “I love working on location. It makes you a better filmmaker. You don’t have everything conveniently placed for you. People are using the environment and it spices things up. I think of myself as a classical storyteller, which is why the digital era excites me. Classical storytelling is about getting a story told. It started with cave people around a campfire saying, that wooly mammoth was enormous, you should have been there! For me, that’s all that matters. It’s why I love writing comic books and I love writing prose. I love all mediums."
"Hillside Dump," Gene Daniels, Photographer.
As you’ve probably noted, I’ve read a number of novels by obscure writers in the last year or so, when they became available free or very cheap for Kindle. I think such reading is actually beneficial for a writer, because it teaches vicariously, through others’ mistakes.
The previous paragraph, by the way, can be described as exposition. Exposition tells back story, sets up the situation, and prepares the reader for what is to come.
And what is to come is a post about exposition.
The dreaded Info Dump is one of the most common mistakes I observe among fledgling novelists. You’ve probably run across it yourself. The characters are going along, doing whatever it is they do, and then the author stops everything to
a)Tell you the back story of the characters, or the country, or the world, in his own voice, or
b)Have one of the characters do it.
In general, option b is better than option a, but either can annoy the heck out of your readers if done clumsily.
There’s a particular fantasy writer, of whose books I have read one and a half. In the second book I tackled, his main character rode into a new country about half way through the story, and everything stopped while the author delivered an extended lecture on the whole history of that country. I dropped the book and never tried another of his.
Now this author is far more successful than I am, so he probably possesses many virtues I lack. But I still say there was no warrant for that kind of info dump.
There are good ways to give your reader the same information, without braking to a full stop.
One of the best is simply to introduce a character who’s a stranger, and get somebody (or several people) to explain things to him. That’s why so many good books center on strangers going to new places.
(By the way, the information doesn’t have to be dispensed all at once. You can introduce it bit by bit, as the story warrants. The stranger character asks, and he gets his answers. It’s natural and true to life, and pretty painless for the reader. It’s also not necessary to satisfy the stranger’s curiosity right away. Let him be mystified for a while. The reader will share his mystification, and it will add to the intrigue of the story.)
One caveat -- For heaven's sake, have the person who is informed be someone who needs informing. Nothing destroys a story's credibility like the dreaded "As you know," speech, such as, "As you know, Fred, I am your elder brother."
If you have to do an info dump, for heaven’s sake break it up a little. In Wolf Time, my main character is a college instructor who gives a lecture on Norwegian history that provides background for the supernatural occurrences to come. But I don’t just transcribe his lecture text. I have students interrupt and argue with him. This allows us to get to know him better, to see what kind of man he is, even while information is being imparted. People tell me that worked pretty well.
You can always “show, don’t tell,” too. Instead of having somebody explain how your character’s grandfather came to possess the Mystic Snoose Tin of Wanamingo, you can add a vignette, perhaps (but not necessarily) at the beginning of the story, presenting that discovery as a self-contained story within the narrative.
Those are a couple of techniques for exposition that come to mind offhand. There are probably more, and I’ll share them if I think of any.
So that would seem to leave us with a pretty clear choice, wouldn’t it? Write, and improve; or don’t write, and don’t improve.
Why is it not that simple?
Because the forces of evil are arrayed against the desire to write. And the biggest evil of all is the need to be good. Burdened by the unrealistic expectation of all quality all the time, we often find that we just can’t write at all.
Albert Anker: Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte, 1884
A commenter was kind enough to leave his opinion on one of my reviews from a couple weeks back. (No, I won't link to it. But I won't delete it either.) He wasn't happy with my comments on a certain novel. He said the novel talked about things he knew from first hand experience, and he'd found it a great story. My criticisms of the author's writing style and use of words (if I understood his comment correctly) were out of line, in his opinion. Nobody cared about that stuff.
In a way I sympathize with him. There's a difference between good writing and good storytelling. There are a number of well-regarded wordsmiths out there who can't tell an interesting story to save their lives. And plenty of guys who'd keep you fascinated telling tales at a campfire, who couldn't write a coherent sentence. There's some injustice in the fact that the first group is considered superior to the second.
I've known a couple fellows myself, in my time, who could keep an audience mesmerized, even though they butchered the English language. They made good use of the verbal storyteller's tools—intonation, facial expression, changes in volume, dramatic pauses, gestures. Read the rest of this entry . . .
Novelist Haruki Murakami writes, "Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day." He says it's important to push yourself to create your vision and to train yourself to push.
Sunday was Danish Day at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. You may recall that I came out of that event damaged last year, with a finger broken. This year I'm OK, largely because I did no fighting at all. There were a couple young guys to carry the load, and I'm still trying to fight off this bronchitis that's draining my energy like a gestating alien in my chest cavity.
Sold a few books, and one of my buyers expressed interest in becoming an author. I tried not to encourage him too much, since only a sadist would point anyone in the direction of that pitiless muse.
“Being an author would be great,” he said. “You could travel all over the world and deduct it!”
I had to burst that little bubble, as it was burst for me long years since. “Unfortunately, that's not true,” I said. “If you travel to attend a professional conference, or do a lecture, or something like that, you can deduct it. But just going someplace to get local color for your story—the IRS considers that a vacation, and you can't deduct it.”
I could see the hope die in his eyes.
Which is, of course, a good thing.
Tonight I am prepping, in a way I shall not detail, for a medical text I shall not identify, scheduled for tomorrow morning. If I don't post anything in the evening, it'll be because I'm too mellow.
Daniel Darling talks about the writing life in this post on inconvenient truths. " For example:
4) You must fight for space to do your work. Because you will not get rich writing, it’s likely that you will have to write in the margins of your daily life. This means you’ll have to create time and space to do it, in between your job, your family obligations, and your church responsibilities. Jon Acuff, in his book Quitter, calls this “hustling at 5am.” In other words, if you really want to do this, get up early and write (or in my case, stay up late). And you’ll have to constantly discipline yourself and fight for it.
I can add viewing new episodes of House, M.D. to my list of things I can't look forward to anymore. The last episode of the quirky, critically acclaimed FOX series aired last night. And all in all I thought the fat lady sang pretty well.
For eight seasons, the House series has been, if not always a pleasure, at least a thing to look forward to. Many fans say the series slumped after the first couple seasons, and they may be right. Personally, I didn't notice. I didn't mind when the cop (offended that House was rude to him and used an anal thermometer on him) threatened him with prison. I didn't mind when House had to go to an institution to be weaned from his pain killer habit. I was fascinated by House, but I never liked him much, and I rather enjoyed watching him forced to confront his personal irresponsibility.
The final episode, “Everybody Dies,” (a word play on House's motto, “Everybody lies”) had him facing the prospect of being sent back to prison for six months, for violating the terms of his parole (in typical irresponsible fashion, he calls his crime “just a prank”) just when his friend Wilson has cancer and only about five months to live. In between trying to get his friends to take the fall for him, he tries to treat a drug addict who appears to be dying. All this is in flashback. In the “present,” he's lying in a burning building next to a dead man's body, arguing with various ghosts from his past whether his life is worth living or not. Read the rest of this entry . . .
Maxine talks about book reviews after getting some criticism that her review was a plot summary, not a review. She says, "I find it hard to judge whether to read a book if 'random reviewer' states a view on the writing quality, the plot, etc, rather than giving the reader some degree of objective information (which I do not think is found in the official “blurb” of the book, as in crime fiction these blurbs tend to summarise key, late plot points and so remove suspense and even in some cases any point in reading the book)."
So, plot summary or review?
Writer Eugene Cross talks about doubting his writing ability and that being a good sign. "As the amazing Richard Bausch puts it, doubt is an indicator that you have an ear for the way the work should sound and that you realize it's not yet there." (via Jane Friedman)
Gave blood at work today. It went pretty easily for me, as it generally does. I told the technician that bleeding well is one of my gifts.
But one of the students, across the aisle in the Bloodmobile, apparently had a harder time. From what I could gather, they failed to get a good puncture, tried more than once, and eventually gave up rather than turn his inner arm into hamburger. I heard his technician tell mine, after the student had left, that it was the second one he’d messed up that day.
I didn’t like the sound of that.
Last night, I went back to my fiction writing. I’ve been busy getting my taxes ready recently, plus the desultory promotion I’ve been doing for Troll Valley. But I have the feeling Troll Valley's surge (such as it was) has passed. Haven’t seen reviews from several of the bloggers who got free copies, but I have to assume they’re doing what I do when I get a freebie that disappoints me—exercising merciful silence.
So I’ve taken up revising the next manuscript I’ll send to Ori for e-publication. This one’s called Hailstone Mountain. It’s another Erling Skjalgsson book, but this time in the H. Rider Haggard vein, with a lost world and horrible eldritch mysteries. I think it’ll be a fun story, though it has tragic elements. Read the rest of this entry . . .
I posted about this last night on Facebook, and I think it's worth sharing here. It's about writing. I'm not sure when it came to me, but I was looking at various pieces of writing, amateur, professional, and thinks-its-professional, and this thought came to me.
Amateur writers generally think that their thoughts are too simple, that they need to be dressed up for publication. Professional writers know that their thoughts are too complicated, and need to be simplified for publication.
Much of the problem, I think, for the amateur is insecurity. He contemplates the thoughts in his head, the thing he wants to say, and thinks, "I have to dress this baby up in his Sunday best, or people will laugh at him."
But that Sunday best is likely to be stilted language, plus the biggest words the amateur knows (or thinks he knows).
The professional sets his ideas down, muddy and unkempt as they may be, and then takes a knife to them. He cuts away the unnecessary stuff, until all that is left are words that convey precisely the thoughts (or feelinsg) he intends to communicate.
Clarity. Focus. Economy. Those are the marks of the professional. Knowing what to take away is what separates the pros from the ams.
Jeffrey Overstreet writes about his distaste for talk of integrating one's faith with one's art. "If you are a Christian, and your art does not reflect that, the problem is not primarily with your art but with your faith — because true faith transforms what we are and do."
I heard Mark Noll say something like this in an interview. He didn't like the word "integration" because it lightly assumed the things being integrated were essentially different, but if the Bible is right, if it describes real life, then work, art, and play are naturally Christian for the one who follows Christ Jesus. We don't add our faith to these things in an effort to Christianize them.