- Harold Ockenga
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.
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.”)'
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.
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."
Nick Harrison offers these wonderful quotes and testimonies to discourage the writer in your family. Rejection. Loneliness. Struggle.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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 ___.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."
#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.
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."
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.
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 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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
"Revision is the only writing instructor worth the investment required." Mark Bertrand offers the best writing advice available, despite the plethora of ideas which can make enjoyable reading. This is the reason I don't want to pursue a graduate degree in writing.
Apologies for not posting yesterday. The day went in a direction I hadn’t planned.
This week I’ve been taking what’s now known as a stay-cation, loafing some and pottering with things I’ve been putting off handling. Yesterday I’d planned on going to dinner with a friend I see periodically, and somehow that restaurant date turned into a reunion with other old friends, and then an evening at the home of one of those old friend’s relatives, up in the trackless wastes of the far northern suburbs. We spent the hours talking about old times, some of which I’d shared in, and it was pretty late by the time I got home.
Today I went to the post office to get my picture taken so I could send in my passport renewal form. I wanted to do it at mid-morning so I wouldn’t be slowing down a long line of customers. The clerk who helped me was the nice-looking lady there I’ve long admired, which may explain a certain wistful look in my eyes in the picture (I think I’m the only person in the world who generally likes his passport photos).
Then I found out the renewal fee. When in the name of all that’s wholly unreasonable did the price of renewing a passport get to be $110.00? Plus the cost of the photo and certification of the letter? I’d write to my congressman if he weren’t Keith Ellison.
Then in the afternoon I gave blood. This was at my favorite hemorrhaging venue, the VFW in Golden Valley, where they serve you sloppy joes as a reward for your suffering. I got the pretty technician, which should have put me on alert from the start. Pretty women almost always end up hurting me, and this one didn't break form. She finally had to get another tech to find the right place to puncture my vein. In fairness to them, I’ve given a lot of blood and there’s a great deal of scar tissue inside my left elbow. Nobody’s ever been able to get anything out of the right arm.
And then home. Some reading, and then I worked a little more on revising the last completed novel I’ve got in storage, which may or may not come out as an e-book after a while, depending on how diligent I am. I’m worried about one character – someone I don’t like, and who was intended as a caricature of a kind of person we all know. I don’t like plain caricature in other people’s novels, and I need to get past it in my own. I’ve got to find something admirable or sympathetic in this person. I’m working on it.
I have been asked to mention a web site called Grammarly on this blog. It advertises itself as "an automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach. Correct up to 10 times more mistakes than popular word processors."
I have not personally used Grammarly, but from looking at the site and doing some web searching, it seems to me this sort of thing might be useful to a fair number of people. I'd compare it to "coarse" sandpaper, in contrast to fine sandpaper. If you're one of those people (and in my experience in recent reading, I think there are many) who just can't figure out these grammar rules, Grammarly might be worth the price to you.
Full disclosure: I was offered a substantial remuneration for posting about Grammarly.
Does my doing this trouble you? Give me your feedback.
Andrew Klavan posted a thoughtful article today called “Eyes Wide Shut: Christians Against Art” which ought to spark some discussion. Klavan is rare among Christian fiction writers in that he learned his craft first, and then embraced the Faith. That places him in what must be at times an awkward position – he knows what makes for a good story, and sometimes that’s something that his fellow believers don’t like.
An artist’s job — even if he’s a Christian artist — is not to sell Jesus, it’s to depict life truly. A Christian’s faith is that Christ lives in real life, not only in pastel greeting cards with Easter bunnies on them. Thus any honest and good work of art should be capable of strengthening a believer in his belief — even if it strengthens him by challenging him, by making him doubt and then address those doubts.
Art only goes wrong when it lies. Pornography is so deadening (and so addictive to some!) because it depicts human intercourse without humanity — something that never occurs in real life, not ever. Most bad art does something similar — and some good art includes dishonest moments that need to be confronted and rebuked.
But good art can be about absolutely anything and still lift us heavenward….
I can’t, frankly, share his approval of the Game of Thrones series, but I do so with fear and trembling, fully aware that Klavan understands stories at a much deeper level than I do. Still, after reading the first four GOT books, I grew wholly disillusioned with George R. R. Martin’s (to me) cynical and nihilistic approach. If I were to watch the Game of Thrones series (I haven’t), my only motivation would have to be seeing the female nudity, because I can’t work up any other.
Klavan might be comforted somewhat – though the example is an old one – to read the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America’s current Bulletin, which includes what may be the last “Resnick & Malzberg Dialogue.” (See my Wednesday post.) Barry Malzberg reminisces, in view of recent attempts to muzzle the two of them: Read the rest of this entry . . .
There’s a Great War going on currently in the SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; don’t ask where the second “F” went; it’s a secret). Although I’ve been a member for years, I wasn’t aware of the controversy until Vox Day started discussing it (in pretty strong terms) over at Vox Popoli, because I don’t follow the SFWA Forum. I just read the members’ Bulletin, which is what sparked the fist fight.
One of the magazine features I’ve enjoyed for the last few years has been “The Resnick-Malzberg Dialogues.” In this series, old pros Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg talk back and forth about the history – and sometimes the future – of the Science Fiction genre from the perspective of two guys who’ve been through the wars and met the people most of us never had the chance to. I’ve never been a fan of either guy, but I’ve learned a lot from picking their minds at one remove. Even when they disagreed with each other, which was fairly often.
Anyway, in a recent issue they dealt with the almost mandatory subject of women in science fiction. In the course of the discussion (which I personally judged a bit obsequious and politically correct), they mentioned that a couple of the women under discussion were quite attractive, and one of them spoke admiringly of how one looked in a bikini. Also they used the word "lady."
And the heavens parted, and the Furies were unleashed.
Sarah Hoyt, in an excellent blog post today, speaks with more authority than I can:
So how [expletive deleted] did these columns – innocuous and reminiscent – become the latest fire storm in the long-drawn civil war in science fiction. And who is fighting this war, anyway?
Ah, sit around my children, and make long ears. Aunt Sarah will tell all. Well, actually not, but I always wanted to say that. I have guesses and ideas at what is causing this series of conflagrations starting with Orson Scott Card’s non-calling-for-the-death-of-all-gays but opposing their belonging to his church (this my atheist, Budhist and various other flavors of Christian gay friends find a non event, btw.) and continuing to what can only be called the wilding hunt for Malzberg and Resnick.
This hunt has gotten out of control….
I expect I won’t renew my SFWA membership when it next comes up. The organization is growing increasingly irrelevant, especially for self-publishers like me. I’ve kept with it mostly to have credentials of some kind, because credentials are pathetically important to those of us with low self-esteem.
In any case, it looks like SFWA is going ideological, and if I want to belong to an ideological writer’s organization I ought to join a Christian one.
Mason Curry talks about the habits of artists in a three week series on the work routines of famous creatives. Frank Lloyd Wright started getting up at 4:00 a.m. and working until 7:00. Curry writes:
Indeed, many artists are early risers because they have little other choice; working early in the morning is a tried and true method of fitting creative work into busy schedules. The 19th-century novelist Frances Trollope is a good example. She did not begin writing until the age of 53, and then only because she desperately needed money to support her six children and ailing husband. In order to squeeze the necessary writing time out of the day while still acting as the primary caregiver to her family, Trollope sat down at her desk each day at 4 a.m. and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast. Her son Anthony Trollope later adopted a similar schedule, getting up at 5:30 a.m. and writing for two hours before going to his job at the post office. (Later in this series, I’ll be looking closely at artists who also held down full-time day jobs.)Curry has just released a book on this topic: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
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.