The Next Telephone Pole. Writing Books by Writing Sentences.

We have a tradition in our house: whenever one of our children turns fifteen, he or she has to train for and run the Music City Half-Marathon with me. It's an opportunity for regular father-juvenile time, but just as importantly it's an opportunity for my kids to experience the truth that they can do something seemingly impossible (running 13.1 miles doesn't come naturally for anybody in the Rogers family) if they start small and keep making cumulative gains.

I came to running rather late in life. I was 38 when a friend and I decided to train for the half-marathon together. We started one cold January morning by running one mile (or maybe it was a half-mile?), and it left us both gasping and wheezing by the end. But we soldiered on and managed to run the half-marathon in April. We were gasping and wheezing by the end of that, too, but still...

As it turned out, that was an important thing for me to do. I needed to try something new, to realize that I could do things I didn't think I could do. I was in the middle of a paralyzing bout of writer's block (which should probably be the subject of a future issue of The Habit), and learning that I could push through to finish a half-marathon helped convince me that I could also push through to finish a couple of books that were bedeviling me. 

Anyway, the Music City Half-Marathon is this upcoming Saturday, and I have a fifteen-year-old this year, so we'll be two of the 40,000 or so people running the streets of Nashville that morning. To commemorate the day, I am reproducing a piece I wrote for the 
Rabbit Room a few years ago after running the half-marathon with another of my sons. 

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My love is, like, a red, red rose. Concerning similes.

Simile and metaphor require just as much precision as literal language.   (I’m tempted to say they require more precision.) Figurative language isn’t a hiatus from verbal rigor. I will grant that when you put different writers’ similes next to one another, you can get the impression that anything goes. Robert Burns says “My love is like a red, red rose.” Sir Philip Sidney says “My love is like to ice and I to fire.” I might say my love is like a summer’s day. Or I might say my love is like a hurricane. So which is it? you might ask.

Well, if you have ever loved anybody for any length of time, you already know that your love is sometimes like a red, red rose, sometimes like to ice, sometimes like a summer’s day, sometimes like a hurricane, and at other times like any number of other things. (I recently saw something thing that said, “My love is like a candle: forget about me, and I will burn your house down.”) 

If I say, “My love is like a hurricane,” in one sense I am broadening the reader’s conception of what love (or, perhaps, a lover) is like. But in another, very important sense, I am focusing and narrowing the reader’s attention on one particular aspect of what it is like to love another person.

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Obfuscation, thy name is Lebezyatnikov.

Yesterday I was reading quite a good article about Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment on a perfectly respectable website with an actual editorial board, and I ran across the following astonishing sentence: 

Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan, our clerk is coldly refused with the explanation from his neighbor that “in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

In this week's episode of The Habit, I will talk about how not to write sentences like that. It is my policy, in case you are wondering, never to hold up a bad writer to ridicule. This is a bad sentence perpetrated by a good writer whose editor was asleep at the wheel. It can happen to any of us

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Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

A reader named Hannah recently asked: 

I love character development, but I'm struggling with giving my characters their own voices.  How can I give my characters their own voice? Right now they all talk or sound the way I would, but the characters need to be their own person with their own unique voice.

I have good news for Hannah. Loving character development is an important step toward writing distinct character voices. I know a few tricks that writers use to distinguish one character's speech from another's--grammar and syntax, word choice, non-standard spelling, catch-phrases, malapropism. I will address a few of those tricks toward the end of this letter. But those tricks aren't worth a whole lot unless your dialogue is informed by a key principle: 

     Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

Hannah says she loves characterization. What, exactly, is characterization? At the risk of over-simplifying, characterization is a matter of understanding (and helping the reader to understand) what a character wants, and how that character interacts with the world. Which is exactly where a character's distinctive voice comes from. Why does a character say particular things in a particular way? Because he is a unique collection of desires and he has modes of interacting with the world that are distinct from those of any other person. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. 

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"Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor"

As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said "This is my body," to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says "This is the body of Christ, broken for you?" (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).

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Tomorrow I will have eaten the cake you were talking about yesterday. On verb tenses.

Adam Callis recently asked, 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on using was vs. had been. I run into this a lot when I’m writing about a past event/memory in detail, and I feel like I often overthink it and use had been too much when I could just as well use was.

Example:

I had been walking that morning when I’d seen something that had caught my eye.

as  opposed to:

I was walking that morning when I saw something that caught my eye.


Adam is talking about the difference between simple past tense and past perfect tense. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that if you are a native speaker of English, you probably get your grammar right at least 90% of the time. But one area where even native speakers get tangled up is verb tense, and especially the perfect tenses.

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A Black Hat, A Wooden Leg, and a Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. On his first day, he was given some prison-issue clothes, some prison-issue shoes, a prison-issue toothbrush, a prison-issue comb, and a prison-issue joke book.

That first night, as he lay in his bunk after lights-out, he heard someone call out, "Forty-seven!" and the cell block rang with laughter. Someone else yelled, "Seventy-two!" and again everybody howled laughing.

The new prisoner asked his cell-mate what was going on, and the crusty old lifer said, "By now we've all memorized the prison-issue joke book, so instead of telling jokes, we just tell the numbers of the jokes as they appear in the joke book. It saves a lot of time."

Eager to make friends, the new prisoner clicked on his prison-issue flashlight and thumbed through his prison-issue joke book looking for a joke to tell. "I've got one!" he called out. "Thirteen!"

Silence. From the bunk below he heard his old cell-mate sigh. "Some people just don't know how to tell a joke," he said.

The preceding is a joke about the misuse of symbolism. I offer it here because a couple of readers of The Habit have asked me about symbols; a reader named Teresa asked how to use symbolism "without sounding preachy or cliched." 

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You Know More Grammar Than You Think

If you are a native speaker of English, you get English grammar right about 95% of the time. I fabricated that statistic, but I suspect I'm correct nevertheless. You know when a noun needs an article, and you know whether to use the definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an). You can form the passive voice or a nominative absolute all day long, with your eyes closed. You know that an adjective goes before the noun it modifies (you always say the blue truck and never the truck blue), and you also know that an adjectival clause goes after the noun it modifies (you always say the truck that belongs to my dad and never the that belongs to my dad truck).

I realize that you may not know what a nominative absolute is or an adjectival clause or a definite or indefinite article, but you've been able to handle all of them since you were in about junior high. Sure, grammar mistakes happen, usually when one grammar rule comes into conflict with another, or when the grammar itself is an exception to a logical pattern. When a toddler says, "I eated my breakfast," she isn't being illogical, but overly logical. She is depending on good logic--the application of a pattern--when she needs to depend instead on something like rote memory. What surprises me is not the prevalence of grammar errors, but their relative scarcity. 

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Love Thy Reader (Part 1)

Last week we talked about ways to move beyond the style of a "sophisticated fifth-grader." A reader named Stacey asked another question about writing like a grown-up, but I think it gets even closer to the heart of the matter.

Essays.  Academic writing.  Is there a difference between an essay for school and an essay for readers (not writing for a teacher).  Do all essays need a thesis statement?

Most of us learn to write in an academic setting. Teachers give us assignments. We complete those assignments. They correct us. They congratulate us. We learn to give them what they're looking for so that they give us what we're looking for: good grades, approval, permission to advance to the next grade, perhaps a letter of recommendation. If you stay in the academic world, you write articles and books that get you jobs and promotions and tenure and, hopefully, the respect and awe of your peers.

The problem with academic writing is not that it's overly formulaic or that it stifles creativity. Forms and formulas provide frameworks in which creativity can grow; the sonnet is a formula, but it doesn't appear to have stifled William Shakespeare's creativity one bit. For the less confident or "creative" student-writer, the formulas of academic writing are a godsend. We should probably erect a monument to the person who invented the five-paragraph essay.

No, the problem with academic writing goes much deeper than the formulas and rules and thesis statements, which are as easily put aside as a set of training wheels. The problem with academic writing is that it conditions us to write for what we can get rather than to write for what we can give.

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Let Nouns and Verbs Carry the Freight

[Letter-writer's note: It's important to me that I write about topics that are important to you. Would you take a minute to let me know what writing-related topics you'd like me to address in future issues of The Habit? I would appreciate it very much. Click here to send me a note.]

Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a "sophisticated fifth-grader." The very fact that she used the phrase "sophisticated fifth-grader" demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated). 

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"Look in thy heart, and write." Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine's Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven't finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably "Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show." After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     "Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."

I appreciate Sidney's reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you've got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I've got some things to say about that advice, "Look in thy heart, and write." 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don't have much to say to you on this Valentine's Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don't know what's going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I'm able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

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Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week's letter about "strong" verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution--those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

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Sidney towers five feet tall. Some thoughts on strong verbs.

"Use strong verbs" is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won't do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification--or, one is tempted to say, a debasement--of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don't worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

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Mistakes Were Made: Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice is a favorite of academics ("A study was conducted..."), politicians ("Mistakes were made..."), business memo writers ("The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced...") and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.

“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.
 

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Conveying Information, Building a Scene

This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn't afford. The story started with a great image: "The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills--a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, 'FINAL NOTICE.'"

Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself. 

By "inviting a reader into a scene" I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs.

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On Finding Your Voice

Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.
 
"Finding your voice" feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can't imagine saying out loud with a straight face. 

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On a Wedding

A few years back, some friends–Boris and Martha–asked me to give the charge at their wedding. To commemorate my own wedding (21 years ago today), here’s part of what I said… 

The old wedding ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “adorned and beautified” marriage “with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” You know that story. The wine had given out, so Jesus turned six big stone pots full of water into wine. A hundred gallons of wine.

When they served it out, the guests were astonished—not because Jesus had turned water into wine (they didn’t know that), but because it was better than the wine the host had served first. The steward marveled, “But thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

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The Man Who Planted Trees

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren't altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn't planted in pines and swampy where it wasn't scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia--indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto's path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf's native majesty. Much of South Georgia's wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity--well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

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The Next-to-Last Supper

When my father was growing up, he knew a fellow called Deafy (pronounced "Deefy"). They called him this because he was deaf. When Deafy wanted to get somewhere, he walked right down the middle of the road. When the occasional car chuggered up behind him, he swerved nary an inch. When the driver honked his horn, he never startled. When the driver cussed him, Deafy never heard that either. The practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities seems to be on the wane. I get the impression that there used to be more Deafys and Stumpys and Shortys than there are now.

Jesus'  last supper before the Last Supper was hosted by a man known as Simon the Leper. As insensitive nicknames go, Simon the Leper has Deafy and Stumpy beat all to flinders. But there Jesus sat, eating in the home of a man whose very name was his shame. Simon the Leper. Simon the Unclean. Simon the Outcast. To the very end, Jesus was pouring his life into misfits and losers, refusing to leverage the influence of the powerful and well-connected but insisting on doing things his way--a perfectly backwards way, by the world's lights. This was the Savior from Nazareth, after all. The village wasn't just podunk, but so mean that one of the disciples asked, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" When Jesus came home for a visit, the locals tried to throw him off a cliff. I picture Nazareth as a place with more than its share of three-legged dogs. Whatever was the first-century equivalent of a speed-trap, I suspect Nazareth had one. And a Deafy and a Gimpy and a Shorty. Jesus, no doubt, felt right at home at the house of Simon the Leper.

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