Archives For Writing Advice

Free C.S. Lewis Book

October 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

bookshelvesC.S. Lewis has encouraged innumerable prominent individuals in their own faith and writing journeys. I know of no others who offer at no cost a book about his influence.

John Piper is a pleasant exception to that. In a moment I’ll provide the link where you can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis.

The volume includes a number of extended excerpts from Piper’s fifty-plus books . . . passages where Lewis’ imprint is particularly vivid. For example:

The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist”—that was the name of a small book about Lewis that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.

Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive terms: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and to compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and to hug a friend, to demand a definition and to use a metaphor.

The author is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was founded by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Piper served as pastor for several decades.

The writer’s desiringGod website actually offers free PDF copies of many of his books and articles, even though most remain in print and available for regular purchase.

As delightful as Alive to Wonder is, most students of Lewis will find the materials from the 2013 desiringGod National Conference even more welcome. This year’s theme was “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.”

Piper’s website includes ten keynote presentations plus an informative panel discussion, all of which are available for download in audio files. Best of all, the lineup of speakers is first-class, featuring a number of familiar names.

And, since we’re on the subject of “free books,” allow me to share another interesting website.

Forgotten Books offers approximately a million volumes, to which “subscribers” have unlimited access. What sets them apart from other “public domain aggregates,” is that they (unlike books.google.com) provide a searchable text, in a variety of epub formats.

For those who are not interested in purchasing a subscription, they offer a Free Book of the Day option in which you receive the link to one of their texts which is good for twenty-four hours.

I recently used it to add Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of Language to my kindle library. I find the reading of dated literary books to be:

Entertaining

Educational

and, occasionally, even

Inspiring

Here are a few sample passages from Pure English. The first sounds remarkably contemporary:

The abuse to which the English language is so generally subjected must be a source of sincere regret to all who appreciate its beauties. Ours is an age of progress and civilization, and it ought to be remembered that language, is also progressive.

In a section entitled “Objectionable and Obsolete Words” we read:

Banister is a common barbarism. The proper word is baluster, or balustrade.

— Noted. In the future I will alternate between baluster and balustrade.

“Disremember,” often employed in the sense of do not remember, although given in Webster, is condemned by the critics as a low vulgarism.

— Apparently so vulgar as to have fallen out of usage completely.

Hence, authoress and poetess are superfluous. So, also, are such words as conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, etc., all of which have recently come into current use. Perhaps the next edition of our dictionaries will, if the custom continues, be enriched by the addition of such words as writeress, officeress, carpenteress, manageress, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, etc.

— How did “waitress” survive, especially in the wake of such witty sarcasm?

It is questionable taste to call a coffin a casket. The pleasing name applicable to a case for jewels does not lessen the dread of death and burial.

— I hadn’t known before the sentiment behind the adoption of the word “casket,” since it’s become so thoroughly associated with this usage that was apparently at one time novel.

If you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned above, you You can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder here, and you can sign up for the free book of the day here.

Orwellian Advice

April 8, 2013 — 11 Comments

cls orwellThe title of this post is slightly misleading. In truth, it does contains advice from Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) whose pen name was George Orwell. However, because of the impact of his two dystopian classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, the author’s name has actually become a true English adjective . . . one that might suggest I’m alluding to futuristic or totalitarian matters.

Or·well·i·an [awr-wel-ee-uhn] means something that resembles his literary work, especially as described in the aforementioned novel and novella. (Within the Christian literary community, “Lewisian” is common shorthand for referring to C.S. Lewis . . . but that word is unlikely to ever find its way into standard dictionaries.)

Despite the enormous (and eternal) differences between Orwell and Lewis, they did have something significant in common. More about that in a moment.

As the graphic I created above reveals (from actual quotations), Lewis had a better opinion of Orwell’s work than vice versa. Orwell disliked Lewis and resented the fact that he was popular among many common people. He particularly disliked Lewis’ traditional (evangelical) Christianity. In his review of That Hideous Strength, Orwell dismissed the biblically based supernatural as a version of “magic.”

Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits, although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story . . .

Orwell was one of those “professing” Christians who is accurately labeled a hypocrite. He was a communing member of the Church of England, and advocated a Judeo-Christian moral code, but did not believe in an afterlife. The following letter, written to Eleanor Jaques in 1932, reveals his hypocrisy.

It seems rather mean to go to HC [Holy Communion] when one doesn’t believe, but I have passed myself off for pious & there is nothing for it but to keep up with the deception.

In a comment to my last post, a good friend of Mere Inkling, Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, reminded me of a thought-provoking essay on English written by Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language,” addresses a number of problems with the language. He considers dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words.

A Similarity in the Two Writers’ Advice

Orwell’s goal is “the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style.’”  [As irritating as I imagine most Europeans find Americanisms!] Writers of fiction will enjoy the way Orwell explains the challenge of “showing, not telling.”

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it.

When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

Students of Lewis will note in the final passage the parallel with advice he provided to a correspondent in 1956. Although the context is different—Orwell’s is a formal essay and Lewis’ a casual correspondence written to a child, the similarities are significant. Lewis would have been familiar with Orwell’s essay, composed a decade before his letter, but the resemblance between their words is better attributed to shared literary philosophies and the self-evident nature of the principles. Lewis identified five important considerations when writing.

1. Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure [your] sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. 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.

Whatever the two authors thought about the other, they certainly shared some similar views on the subject of effective writing. And, I think we can assume with confidence that Lewis would concur with Orwell’s final rule. Under no circumstances should we resort to barbarity! For, as Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

____

If you are interested in reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in its entirety, you can find it here.

cliche bookAvoiding clichés in one’s writing is such oft-repeated advice it’s nearly become a cliché itself.

Many do not make much sense to people approaching a language from a literal perspective. For example, those new to American English may require a bit of explanation to understand that “hit the books” refers to studying rather than literary pugilism.

Some clichés are easily deciphered, especially when read in context. As an admonition to stop obstructing a view, we can understand why someone would say, “You make a better door than a window.”

“Don’t rain on my parade” adequately warns the hearer to avoid dampening the speaker’s special plans or activities.

Folksy adages are common where clichés are concerned. Take “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We all know it references a child who shares numerous traits with a parent.

And we have interchangeable versions of the same notion, in case a lazy writer wishes to alternate your redundancies. He/she is a “chip off the old block” means essentially the same thing. And there’s always the classic “like father, like son,” and its corollary “like mother, like daughter.”

“As snug as a bug in a rug” used to be a favorite of my mother, ever applicable as she tucked little ones into their beds. Today, however, with bedbugs plaguing humanity in epidemic proportions, that cuddly image may have lost a touch of its appeal.

Some clichés have clearly outlived any usefulness they may once have possessed. “Too many chiefs, and not enough Indians,” clearly refers to a situation in which everyone is in charge and there no one is able or willing to actually carry out the project. However, few writers would tempt incurring the wrath of readers by using such a dated and rather prejudiced saying.

A cliché, of course, is a typically trite phrase that has lost its element of ingenuity due to overuse. It is something serious writers strive to avoid at all costs. But the final phrase in my previous sentence reveals how difficult it can be to purge these worn out words from our writing. Whenever used, they should be included consciously; writers might utilize them to establish, for example, a comic tone.

Even the gifted C.S. Lewis recognized the threat of clichés worming their way into one’s work. In a 1922 entry in his diary he wrote:

Tried to work at Dymer [his narrative poem] and covered some paper: but I am very dispirited about my work at present—especially as I find it impossible to invent a new opening for the Wild Hunt. The old one is full of clichés and will never do. I have learned too much on the idea of being able to write poetry and if this is a frost I shall be rather stranded . . .

The word cliché itself originated in France, where it was a printing plate or stereotype cast from an original composed of movable type. (The casting freed the movable type for new projects while maintaining the lettering for possible future printings.) The word came to be applied to ready-made phrases. However, the casting of printing plates is one thing. Recycling exhausted phrases ad nauseum is quite another.

Clichés are generally limited to a particular country or culture. Some are restricted to given regions. When outsiders hear or read these phrases, they often make little sense.

Some gain international esteem. More than a century ago Lord Acton described a universal truth of politics that resonates across boundaries. We have all witnessed the truth that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but those wise words are not something we should typically parrot in our own writings.

Not knowing the original source of a cliché is common. It is rather tragic, though, when it comes to texts that should be familiar to writers. For example:

“All’s well that ends well” is one of Shakespeare’s best loved maxims. If most Americans were asked whether it came from the pen of the Bard or Benjamin Franklin, we might be sadly disappointed with the results.

“The writing is on the wall” infers the outcome is already determined. But too few recognize this as a reference to a miracle recorded in the Book of Daniel. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can read the story here.)

Some clichés that relate to the art of writing would include the following [with my modest illustrations attached]:

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

     Appearances may be misleading.

Someone who appears wonderful when you first meet them may be just like an ebook with a professionally designed cover that contains a poorly scanned reprint replete with typos.

“It’s nothing to write home about.”

     Something that’s boring and not worth retelling.

While the freedom of POD technology has created democracy within the publishing industry, it’s also led to millions of meandering “books” that should “never have seen the light of day.”

A person is “an open book.”

     Someone who readily reveals their personality through word and action.

The type of character skilled authors will wish to introduce in limited quantities, especially if they are writing mysteries.

“Throw the book at him.”

     Give him the maximum possible judicial punishment.

The well-deserved fate of best-selling authors who rest on their laurels and start “phoning in” their sequels.

We turn now to a non-literary but colorful example of an American colloquialism that has spread far from its origins in the swine-breeding communities where it undoubtedly originated. It’s one of my favorite clichés, and it just may have a few good uses left in it, so feel free to include it in your next column or book . . . and no need to cite me as your source:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

     A task is impossible, given what you have to work with.

The echoing refrain of editors whose clients expect them to transform a few dusty lumps of coal into diamonds.

Possible Valid Uses for Clichés

While it’s safest for writers to avoid them altogether, there are a handful of occasions where they are not utterly inappropriate.

One suitable place for “chesnuts” like these to appear is in dialogue—especially when it’s written for a character a writer desires to portray as rather shallow-thinking.

It’s incorrect to suggest good writers never use clichés in conversation or composition. They do. The difference is that when they do include such tired phrases in their normally witty banter, they do it with a sense of irony.

C.S. Lewis, master of wordplay that he was, illustrated how we can creatively re-imagine or reword a cliché to reinvigorate it. Only the very best minds are up to this task. Yet, when it’s successfully accomplished, it can prove quite entertaining. The following comes from an informal conversation that was recorded before his retirement, preserved in the collection On Stories. Lewis refers in passing to an overly detailed passage in literature that nearly obscured the storyline.

The only trouble is that Golding writes so well. In one of his other novels, The Inheritors, the detail of every sensuous impression, the light on the leaves and so on, was so good that you couldn’t find out what was happening. I’d say it was almost too well done. All these little details you only notice in real life if you’ve got a high temperature. You couldn’t see the wood for the leaves.

Literary Words

April 9, 2012 — 13 Comments

I must confess that I like words. In fact, it’s not excessive to say that I delight in brilliantly witty “turns of phrase” and elegantly painted landscapes that allow me to clearly see what the author is painting with his or her words.

I’ve grown convinced that loving words is a handicap to becoming an excellent writer. Yes, scribblers like me can become adequate or even appreciated writers . . . but to stand in the highest ranks a writer must be willing to ruthlessly slash and slay excess words that impede their perfect vision.

Self-editing is a discipline. It’s something that can be learned and refined through practice. That it forever remains a bit painful for some of us is clear evidence we are overly attached to the words we have put to paper.

C.S. Lewis addressed this general subject in a 1932 letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves. While he was not a slave to the number of words required, he aimed for simplicity and clarity. Lewis wrote:

I think I see, from your criticisms, that you like a much more correct, classical, and elaborate manner than I. I aim chiefly at being idiomatic and racy, basing myself on Malory, Bunyan, and Morris, tho’ without archaisms: and would usually prefer to use ten words, provided they are honest native words and idiomatically ordered, than one “literary word.” To put the thing in a nutshell you want “The man of whom I told you,” and I want “The man I told you of.”

I smiled as I typed Lewis’ remark about “ten words.” He used that to illustrate his willingness to use excessive verbiage to communicate clearly. Brevity was, however, an admirable goal. And brevity is a virtue I’ve seldom been accused of possessing.

In the military, comrades and associates are frequently presenting plaques and remembrances to those who are “rotating” to new assignments. Having served in a dozen different “permanent” assignments, I have boxes full of such memorabilia.

Two of the few I display are genuinely precious. The first is an icon of Saint Athanasius, presented to me by the best “boss” I ever had, an Orthodox priest by the name of John Stefero. The reasons for the personal gift were theological and I accepted it with genuine appreciation and humility.

The second prized gift is a gracefully curved etched glass keepsake featuring the seal of the United States Air Force Chaplain School where I served for three wonderful years. The commandant was speechless as he presented the plaque to me, reading for the first time the inscription that my closest companions had composed for me.

He says in a book what others say in a sentence.

The commandant (later our Chief of Chaplains) was stunned. I was delighted. I led the gathering’s laughter and bellowed, “Yes, and it’s a book well worth reading!”

Jack Lewis may have chided me a bit for the underlying reason for the accolade, but I am confident he would have delighted in the affectionate friendship and esprit de corps with which it was presented.

So much for my shortcomings. For all other writers (including, perhaps, you?) . . . I would recommend following the master’s example, rather than my own.

UAVs and Manuscripts

December 11, 2011 — 2 Comments

Iran’s capture of an extremely sophisticated (and classified) drone is a huge disaster. Now the enemies of democracy will be able to duplicate our technology without having to spend a penny on research. As too often happens (usually through espionage), our fascist enemies have stolen advances that make them much greater threats. (I use the plural here, because there’s no doubt Iran will share/sell much of what they learn with mainland China, North Korea and various other dangerous regimes.)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are particularly cutting edge. Some voices in the Department of Defense already advocate creating an entirely unmanned Air Force. What used to be science fiction sometimes becomes science fact.

Nearly a decade ago, on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I found myself serving as a chaplain in one of the “-stans” on the other side of the globe. It was during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, and there was an intense commitment to the mission. A price was being paid in Coalition lives, but virtually everyone there believed the steep cost would be worth it, as the world became a safer place.

One of the major activities at our air base involved supporting the Predator mission. It was novel. It was exciting. One can only imagine how advanced these platforms have become during the intervening decade. Well, you don’t need to merely “imagine;” many of the innovations are public knowledge. And yet, wisdom suggests that the most amazing advancements are not publicly acknowledged. Most civilians can’t understand just how serious a setback it is for this surveillance and/or weapon system to be captured by extremists.

Turning from the world of current affairs to a subject far less threatening . . . how might this relate to writing? We’re told to “write about what you know,” so our past experiences provide a rich resource for both our factual and fictional efforts. Unless we are simply allowing our thoughts to flow as they may, we find that research remains an essential part of writing even about that which we know.

Case in point. I have served with Predator drones. Watched them being launched and then gracefully land. I’ve touched them. Even though I’m retired from active duty, I belong to several military professional organizations and I subscribe to a variety of military publications. I’ve read a lot about UAVs over the years—but before I would ever attempt to compose a story featuring one, I’d plan to do a significant amount of research.

And that may be one of the few things I have in common with truly good writers. They pay attention to the details, and they get them right. It’s dangerous to assume that we are ever familiar enough with a subject to write off the proverbial “cuff.” Nothing destroys a story’s (or author’s) credibility than surely than getting facts wrong. And that’s certainly one fact worth being reminded of.