Wise Words for Writers: C. S. Lewis

I’m into C. S. Lewis this week.  I’m not sure why, but while we are here, let me share this bit of good news.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance for writers to believe in themselves.  You have to believe in yourself because it is possible that no one else never will.

No one believed in Vincent Van Gogh while he was alive.  In fact, some thought he was crazy.  Now, of course, he is considered one of the greatest painters who ever lived.  I wish you better fortune than that, but if you don’t believe in yourself, you will fail.  Indeed, you have failed already if you don’t believe.

Lewis put that thought in perspective when he said:

We are what we believe we are.   C. S. Lewis   

This is absolutely true.  In the church we refer to it as calling.  We ask, what has God called you to do?  But even if you are a non-Christian or even an atheist, the truth of this statement does not change.  If you believe you are unworthy, that you don’t have the skill or talent, that you will fail, you will.  If you don’t believe you are called to write, you will know only frustration and likely will give up.

I am not saying you will never have doubts, but generally that it is imperative, whatever the endeavor, that you believe in your calling.  If you believe that this is what you are designed (called) to do, it is likely (by contrast) that nothing will be able to stop you.

In a way, though he was talking about Christian salvation, Lewis understood another fundamental truth:
What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.   C. S. Lewis

No.  If you are called to writing or whatever, you must take it step by step.  Yes, it will be work – perhaps hard work – but you will get there as long as your confidence in your calling remains strong.  If you flounder, neither I nor anyone else will be able to help you.  Perseverance, after belief is probably the greatest single reason some succeed and others do not.  Think about it.

As a last note, I came across one more quote:

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.   C. S. Lewis 

This is hope for many.  Believe this too.  Perhaps you were an engineer, a teacher, a lawyer, a construction worker in another day.  Perhaps you are retired and always thought you might like to write but never had time for it.  Well, you may very well be called to write.  Just don’t say “I’m too old to change.  I’m too old to start over.”  Remember, Scrooge tried to say that too…

Writerly Stuff: Beware of Word Inflation.

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. C. S. Lewis 

Are you guilty of word inflation?  It can be a serious problem at anytime, but especially when a writer wants the scene to build tension.  The temptation is to exaggerate and make the words as big as possible.  The temptation is to describe someone as “absolutely terrified”  and think this is effective.  It isn’t.  Curiously, it is most often the simple statements that carry the biggest impact.  Understating a situation can often be very powerful.  And it is simple, plain English without massive description, what some might call sparse writing which can be most effective.  You hope to show absolute terror anyway, not describe it. 

Consider the following.  By no means perfect, but: from my book Rome Too Far.  Greta goes to visit the local wise woman dressed in her red hooded robe, and her little brother Hansel tags along.  In this case, the local wolf haunting the forest happens to be a werewolf…

            “I’ll be home for supper.”  Greta said, but as she left, a sense of foreboding came over her.  That feeling increased when she got out of sight of the house.  The feeling was strong enough to make her stop and look around.  It was not something at home, or something to do with Papa, but it was something behind her, or up ahead, but behind in a way, like in the past.  She started to walk again and tried to explore the feeling of dread.

            She heard a roar behind, a growl and a scream, and she screamed.  She spun around.  She wanted to run but her legs gave out.  She screamed again before she saw Hans rolling on the ground, laughing.

            “Hans!”  She yelled and was not a happy person.  She decided some demon must have set that up.  Hans nearly gave her a heart attack.  She stomped her foot, made a fist, and let the steam out through gritted teeth.

            “But you were so funny,” Hans said.

            “Not funny!” she yelled.

            “You going to Mother Hulda’s?  Can I come?”  He was not really asking.  He would tag along regardless of what she said.  Then she thought that he had seemed very bored in the last few days.

            “Where are your friends?”  She asked, having caught her breath at last.

            “Doing stuff, I guess,” he said with a shrug.  Greta imagined it had something to do with his new position as son of the High Chief.  Either he said something or did something, or they did, or they were no longer sure about him.  Greta was certain that it was like the rain and it would blow over in time, but for the present, she returned his shrug.

            “Let’s go,” she said.  She was still feeling spooked and thought his company might help, even if he was a little creep.

            They had not gone very far up the road when Hans started off across country.  “Come on,” he hollered.  “Let’s take the shortcut.”

            “No,” Greta hollered back.  “I’m not tearing this dress on briars and bushes.”  How many dresses did he think she had?

            “I’m going,” he said and left, so it turned out she walked most of the way alone, after all.

            Hans waited for her where the road turned.  After the obligatory, “What kept you?” they crossed the last, short meadow to Mother Hulda’s house.  All the while, Greta shook her head.

            “Something’s spooky,” Hans said.  Even he felt it.  When they saw the house, the feeling intensified.  By the time they reached the porch, Greta could hardly keep from turning and running away.  She stopped at the door and told Hans to get behind her.  He did not argue. 

            She opened the door and screamed, and this time she knew what she was screaming about.  There were bits and pieces of Mother Hulda thrown all over the room.  Her head was on a corner of the bed facing the door.  One eye was missing, but she stared at them with the other.

            Greta could neither move nor stop screaming.  Hans pushed passed to see and promptly threw up behind the door.  That probably saved his life.  There was a noise in the back room.  A man hurriedly shuffled out of the dark.  His eyes were wide with madness.  He was naked and filthy, and he looked as if he had been burned everywhere.  His body was covered with sores and open wounds where there had once been blisters, and his face looked like it had melted.  

            Greta was still screaming but her legs were like rubber.  She could not abandon Hans.  She could not move… 

Word inflation can plague a work.  It can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but is most common in description.  Look at your own work.  See how you have played out the tension building moments, especially early in the story.  Sometimes, the simple suggestion that things might get worse before they get better can build things very nicely, provided you haven’t shot all your arrows in the first chapter.

Writerly Stuff: Toward Consistent, Character-Oriented Dialogue.

Dialogue, for the most part, should be no more than just normal, human conversation.  Yes, there are plenty of writers who find it hard to make dialogue sound natural and realistic.  Some suggest listening in on the conversations of others as a way of learning to write realistic dialogue.  I always found that just shy of being a peeping Tom.  The truth is we have all been in enough conversations with enough different people, we ought to know the way it works.  If we have ever talked and had a conversation, we should be able to write one.  Easy enough, but then there are two things which are worth considering in any dialogue.  Fortunately, neither requires us to become “listening Toms.”

Of first  importance is the thing I find rarely mentioned in instructions of “how-to-write-dialogue.”  That is, to make the words of a given character, throughout the work, consistent with their background and personality.  What do I mean by consistent? 

It is easiest to understand if the character speaks a particular dialect.  You might even think consistency in the dialect should go without saying.  It is a little more difficult to remember this when the character is perhaps a less developed, “typical” type person.  For example a “typical” redneck will speak a certain way, employ certain phrases in certain circumstances and so on.  The same would be true for a “typical” 1920s upper crust snob.  With such a character we might strive for some consistency.  Most people, however, never think of this when they are working with their fully fleshed-out people.  Why not?  You should.

And then also (second) it is important to consider the emotional content being conveyed in the words.  English is a blessing and a curse, but one of the blessings is there are so many ways of saying the same thing.  To really understand these two points and what I am trying to get at, consider the following idea expressed in several different ways. 

I have yet to figure this out.  I see someone intelligent, perhaps educated, and thoughtful, rubbing their chin or maybe tapping a pencil on a desk while their eyes are focused on a nebulous distance and they are thinking…thinking.  Imagine attempting to solve a puzzle, a puzzling situation or a crime or read a treasure map…or maybe just figure out a magician’s trick.  It may be something that has been hanging around for years, but “I have yet to figure this out.”

I have not yet figured this out.  This is a person trying to make a decision today and is feeling some pressure, like where do we go from here?  There is confusion, in part.  They may be a person that is normally confused.  This phrase might easily start with “Wait a minute…”  This is the kind of thing someone says before another answers, “Don’t worry about it.  We just have to go.”  “I’m not worried about it,” is the normal response; but they generally are.  Often – perhaps too often – when they person finally does figure it out it tends to make all the difference in the storyline.  This one may not be as intelligent, or at least as introspective as the first, but they are generally either bright or have some special knowledge, background or experience to deal with whatever it is.

I have not figured this out yet.  I see someone beginning to feel the pressure to find a solution.  They may be working on some technology or some code or message.  It says I understand part of this, but not all, not yet, “Just give me a little more time.”  I see here a person who grabs hold of life like a dog that bites and doesn’t want to let go.  Where the first person may sleep on it in the hope of starting with a clear mind in the morning, and the second might fret about it, this is the one who will stay up all night working on the problem, non-stop until they collapse or get an answer.

I haven’t figured it out yet.  This person is angry.  This says, “I’m not ready.”   Usually, there isn’t any more time.  Sometimes this might be yelled or shouted, especially if lives are at stake.  It is a plea for more time, or a demand.  The phrase is contracted.  Someone who lives life in speed time, for whom short and pithy conversation is the norm might say this regardless of any pressure.  It may be spoken out of desperation or simply because this is an angry person.

Yes, nearly any character can use the above phrases in the right time and place, but generally I hope you can see how these same phrases might be drawn out of a consistent personality.  Speedy, who likes things short and sweet might always use the final form, even if it is spoken in calm and kind tones.  One of the beauties of the English language is there are so many ways to say the same thing.

Consider this: Bob might be a pull-no-punches, say-it-like-it-is kind of guy.  If he made the comment necessary to move the story forward, he would say it short and to the point, feelings be damned.  Betty, on the other hand, might say the exact same thing but phrase it in a way entirely different so as to protect the feelings of the hearer.  Who knows?  You know.  They are your characters. 

All I am suggesting when you read through your story/book/novel, you take a look at the dialogue you have written.  Don’t just look to see if it sounds realistic.  Ask:  1.  Is it consistent to the character in the way they phrase things?  (Don’t let the doofus start philosophizing, unless it is a comedy).  2.  Is it consistent to the character in who they are?  (Don’t have your wall-flower suddenly start shouting and try to take center stage, unless…).  And 3.   is this sentence or speech in line with what that character is feeling at the moment, and does the phrasing convey those feelings?  You see?  Dialogue is far more than the mere exchange of information.

Wise Words for Writers: Believe in Yourself

If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.–Vincent Van Gogh

It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.–Author Unknown

Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right.–Henry Ford

You have to believe in yourself.– Sun Tzu

Different thoughts from different contexts, different cultures, different centuries, but all so true.  And notice: none of these quotes comes from the cult of self-esteem.

Did you ever wonder where all of those terrible voices on American Idol come from?  They come from the cult of self-esteem.  They are people who were told they could sing.  Mom, dad, teacher, pastor – no one wanted to “injure” their self-esteem.  That is not what I am talking about, and not what the above people were talking about.

Writers have doubts.  Any artist, musician, actor will.  But the ones who succeed – the ones who will succeed are those who say, I can, I will, I shall.  It will take learning, effort, practice, work and rework but you will never sustain the effort or survive the process if you don’t believe in yourself. 

I think it is lovely that mom, dad, teacher and pastor all say you write so well.  That may do wonders for your self-confidence, but that is not exactly what I am talking about either.  Do you have something to say?  Can you say it well?  Can you say it better?  Ask these things, and then:

Ask Vincent.  It may well be you will never attain fame in your lifetime. .  I might say it is likely.  You might also be among the less fortunate where no one ever believes in you.  But it can be worth it, if you truly believe.  Allow me to add my words to the above.  Remember, you are the only one who has to live with you.  Believing in yourself makes for better living.

Tons of people want to write and dream wistfully about being famous.  But real writers (and just about anything else) practice the way of: I can, I will, I shall.

Wise Words for Writers:

Easy reading is damn hard writing.

That is the quote.  It sounds like Hemingway or Fitzgerald on a bad day, or maybe Vonnegut on a good day.  It sounds like someone current who has made a name for himself or herself and is now giving back – like words from some writer’s conference.  But setting that aside for a minute, let’s look at what was said.

Selecting the right word for the right place is a monstrous task, but we need to be careful.  I know a preacher who had a doctorate in theology and never spoke a word less than three syllables.  The church loved him because he never challenged them or made them feel uncomfortable in their faith whatsoever.  The truth was they did not understand him.  He felt he was being precise in his terminology, but the result was no communication at all and a sad commentary that the people in the pews liked it that way.

I’ve read several books lately which I can only describe as being written by thesaurus.  True, selecting the right word for the right place is monstrously important, but pointless if you sacrifice readability.  We have all picked up books that we have raced through, cover to cover.  To that, much has been written about how to build and maintain tension, how to write a page turner, and so on.  What is generally missing from these wise treatments is the subject of readability.  If you go back and look at that last book you raced through you will find it filled mostly with simple words in simple sentences.  It may not be what some literary critics or college professors would call great writing.  It may be rather pedestrian writing, but boy, does it grab and it doesn’t let go.

Tight writing helps.  Small paragraphs, too.  Keep to the point, especially in dialogue.  Make everything move the story forward.  All this helps, but readability is imperative.  Unfortunately, to keep it easy reading, that is damn hard to do, especially if you are a reader, or an educator, or have a doctorate in theology.

So, who said the above?  Here is another thing he said: 

The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Writerly Stuff: Newbies, Forums and on-line Groups.

Forums can be helpful to a writer – full of sage advice about the craft and how to handle some of the common problems that crop up in every writer’s life.  That is, of course, if you can find one that is not dominated by “the few” and keeps some people’s caustic attitudes in check. 

At the same time, the internet does not discriminate.  Not every peson on line is a well honed writer.  People with no particular experience or basis for their words can be equally quick to give advice.  Sometimes, that advice is sensible stuff, but sometimes it is way off base or perpetuates the kind of thinking about writing that must honestly be called “bad advice.”

So how can we know, especially if we are newbies?  Clearly if the internet does not discriminate, we must

There is a forum where I pop in from time to time.  A question was asked about the most common mistakes new writers make.  I feared, so before the line could fill up with tons of advice, I offered this top ten:

1.         Not writing (for whatever reason).

2.         Waiting for the muse or inspiration (or whatever) to strike.

3.         Dreaming about selling a million copies and winning the Nobel.

4.         Too much emphasis on characters at the expense of plot

5.         Too much emphasis on plot at the expense of voice and style

6.         Too much emphasis on voice and style at the expense of characters.

7.         Trying too hard to make a point (preachy)

8.         Wandering down every rabbit trail thinking it is a reflection of genius (pointless/boring)

9.         Giving up.

10.       Paying too much attention to what other people say, including this top ten list. 

You may or may not agree with the above, but I particularly want to point out number 10.  You see, any information gleaned on a forum or advice received from an on-line group or any writing blog, including this one, must be taken with a proverbial pound of salt.  Ultimately, you are the one who is writing your vision and you must decide how best to do that.  This is not to say the advice of other will never resonate with your soul.  But you must ultimately be your own writer and discover on your own terms if it works…or not.

My Universe: Alternate Worlds: The Second Heavens

The Apostle Paul was once taken up to the third heaven wherein was the Throne of God.  The first heaven, of course includes our sun and moon, the solar system and the innumerable stars beyond.  Somewhere in between, there must be something.  There must be a dividing line and it must be made up of what?

The second heavens is stated in the plural because various traditions have divided it into numerous levels or sections.  Sometimes, for example, the Throne of God is said to be in the seventh heaven, which would leave the second heavens divided into  five areas.  Sometimes Hell is said to be in the second heavens, like a prison area separated from the rest by a limitless, bottomless gulf.  (Sometimes Hell is itself divided into levels and said to be in a sub-heaven of its own beneath the earth).  In any case, that the second heavens inhabit the dividing line between Heaven and Earth is sufficient for now.

I imagine the second heavens to be naturally in a state of chaos, where time and space fold in and back on themselves and where the so-called “laws” of physics mean nothing.  Where God’s Heaven is infinite and eternal, our Earth is finite and bound by laws both in time and dimension.  The second heavens must be neither clearly one nor the other, but that does not mean it is uninhabitable.

In my universe, order can be imposed (to some extent) on the chaos by will and word.  I imagine this realm as the place where the homes of the various gods were located, like Mount Olympus and Aesgard and the top of the rainbow bridge.   I imagine this realm also contained the lands where the spirits of the dead were kept before they were taken up.  Thus you would find Hades, the Elysian Fields as well as the pit of Tartarus here. 

Some say the New Jerusalem is already waiting to descend out of the second heavens.  Others suggest that the endless sea found in the second heavens is the place from which came the water that once flooded the Earth.  Some claim that when we sleep, our spirits travel in the night and carve out little places in the second heavens to give temporary life to our dreams.  And of course, purgatory would fit there very well.  In some traditions, this would be the place of the astral universes.

In my universe, I have placed Avalon and the innumerable isles in the second heavens.  Avalon, the island by that name, the one found in Arthurian lore, the Isle of the apples is there.  Indeed, Gulliver never explored so many a variety of islands.  Imagine dragon isle or centaur or mermaid isle or the isle of the beautiful women as found in Celtic lore.  Some of the islands are mentioned in myths and legends from all over the earth.  Some have been altered in print to protect the innocent.  Imagine the isle of the lost luggage which collects everything we lose – like one sock or one earring, and the luggage, to be sure.

Avalon itself (and the castle) was designed as a safe haven and a place where the little spirits of the earth could rest from their labors.  Those spirits would include the sprites of fire, air, and water as well as the more familiar sprites of the earth such as light elves (including fairies), dark elves (including goblins and trolls) and the dwarfs in between. 

At the sub-place where this dividing line between Heaven and Earth touches the earth, there is hyperspace or sub-space where people can enter a place just outside of the limits of this bound universe and travel faster than the speed of light.  Of course, if one could travel from up there, further up and further in as C. S. Lewis once described it, there is no telling what might be found amidst the natural chaos.  Thus the stories…

Reader Quest: My Universe: Alternate Worlds, type III

Somewhere in the course of my writing, it occurred to me that I was drawing on a lot of archetypes, a large number of Platonic Ideals: dragons, fairies, deities in all shapes and sizes, and whole kingdoms like El Dorado and Nirvana and fountains of youth, and more.    I imagined they ought to fit somewhere in creation but I could not quite place them. 

It was too much of a stretch to place them in some deep and mythical past like Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) or J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) might have imagined because there was simply no evidence for that.  Besides, these “things” were too otherworldly for such a concept to hold up on close examination.

It did not make sense to place them in what I am calling “Spatial” universes such as conceived by current scientific theory.  These universes are not imagined to contain variable life forms, but rather to stretch, even negate the so-called laws of physics to the point of absurdity.  One would not have to travel far into the spatial dimensions to find a universe completely inhospitable to any form of life.  I have already stretched that concept to include the “Other Earth” as a place filled with the variable and creative energy (magic) missing in our dimension.  Going further out decreased rather than increased the odds of finding unicorns.

Then also, it did not make sense to place them in what I call the “Temporal” universes.  These are the universes imagined in most science fiction, where something of significance is altered in the past and the whole subsequent course of history plays out differently.  My principal characters in the novel Guardian Angel that explore this concept refer to these universes as the worlds, though they have also been called parallel earths or alternate realities.  Still, it is far too difficult to imagine a real history so altered as to produce goblins and a Benu Bird (Phoenix) able to be reborn from its own ashes.

So here I was stuck with all of these archetypes – things universally understood throughout the history of human consciousness, and nowhere to put them.  The thing that always seemed remarkable to me was how consistently so much of this was known across time and even across cultures.  Surely, there must be some reality behind these things…

So I have imagined a third set of alternate realities, not spatial nor temporal, but spiritual (mythological or folkloric if you prefer).  These are the universes of our dreams and the place of our imaginations.  These are the universes that gave rise to the very universal concepts we all know.  I find it comforting in a way to feel instead of the entire human race suffering from some form of mass psychosis, there is a reality we can touch in our dreams, our visions, our hearts, and certainly also in our fears though I would rather not go to the last.  But the Caller, my protagonist in the novel Killers in Eden might.

It was sometime after settling my mind on this idea that I wondered what the second heavens might be like…but that will have to wait for a future post.

Writerly Stuff: How to write a series.

That depends on the kind of series you are writing. 

1.  For over a hundred years, mystery writers in particular have written series based on what some call the continuing character.  Sherlock Holmes remained the same as he went from separate adventure to separate adventure.  Doctor Moriarty showed up in several adventures along the way, so there was a continuing antagonist in the series as well.

Television picked up on this kind of continuing character idea.  Other genres like SF & F have also, particularly recently in the vampire/demon slayer type stories.

2.  Although there are earlier examples (E E “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series for example), it was really Tolkien’s publisher who coined the phrase “Trilogy.”  That is a different kind of series, where each story/book has some independence and resolution, but where the larger “trouble” remains unresolved until the last book.  Think Star Wars…but now with the likes of Harry Potter, we have gone beyond the mere “Trilogy” concept. 

The bottom line is you need to end your story/book in whatever way you are most comfortable and satisfied, and don’t let anyone tell you it must be this way or that (except maybe your publisher).  Still, I would urge you to consider your readers.  Will they be satisfied with the story while at the same time wanting to read the next one? 

It is a fine line we all have to guess at.  If you see a massive sales drop between book one and book two, my guess is the reader did not get a good read for their money but found book one only a set-up to force them to buy book two, and that can tick people off…  Not a good idea. 

My recommendation, for what it is worth is to foreshadow all you want and leave unresolved whatever grand story might need to continue, but let each book be a book – a story with a beginning, middle and end all unto itself.

Now, how much of book one needs to go into book two – what my grandfather used to call (re: television) “exciting scenes from last week?”  This is also a fine line each writer needs to walk.  It is an art form.  Too much intro., and people wonder why they bothered to read the first book.  Too little, and you will lose any new readers you might otherwise interest. 

At some point, Conan-Doyle had to assume people knew the Holmes character well enough for him to jump right into the story.  Imagine if Spiderman had to review his origin every episode.  On the other hand, imagine reading The Two Towers (Lord of the Rings) with all mention of Sauron, the essence of the ring, Mordor and the impending doom of Middle Earth removed.  There is a lesson there, I think.  It doesn’t have to be all bunched up at the beginning of book two like some 50-100 page prologue…  You can save it for a need to know basis – and then backtrack to find the best place to insert the information…  Just some thoughts.

In fact, next time I may blog on prologues…

Wise Words for Writers: Jonathan Swift:

1667-1745, a true Irishman who once said, “better belly burst than good liquor be lost.”

Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels not as an epic fantasy – though it is that in many minds – but as social and political commentary.  With that understood, it is clear that  he was a serious man.  He espoused ideas like  “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.

Given the Irish struggle back then against the English I have no doubt Swift knew fear.  That he went forward and published his work is to his credit.  He published, heedless of who he insulted in the process.  By comparison, I know many writers who are holding on to works and books written and stuck in drawers out of fear of what, hanging?  No, rejection.

Swift’s take on books was instructive.  He called “books, the children of the brain.”  But I am quite sure he did not mean “children” the way we understand the word these days.  So many look at their work and stories like they are their children.  They have a hard time letting them out of the nest.  They have a hard time letting go.  They fear the world will be cruel to them – but hey, at least you are not risking prison time…

Look, you and I both know there is a lot of mediocre work in print.  I have been known to send young writers to the book store to compare their work with what is on the shelf.  Hopefully, they will come away with a better sense of sentence, paragraph and chapter construction; but at the same time I hope they find works in print which are frankly no better than their own work.

You may think your own work makes the sun rise.  That is probably not a good attitude.  Swift again would have an answer.  “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

Then again, you may think your work would best be put at the bottom of a landfill.  Remember Swift again.  “Every dog must have his day.” 

So, whether you see yourself as a giant or a Lilliputian, put it out there.  So what if they say, “no thank you.”  Send it to someone else.  Write the next one.  Unless your name is Rushdie, you at least don’t have to worry about threats to your life…