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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