C. S. Lewis on Good Writing

Signature of CS Lewis.

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Lewis was a diligent reader of writing samples submitted to him, both from close friends and from complete strangers. He offered general evaluative remarks, but also comments on specific lines and particular word choices. Sometimes he replied by offering a quick primer on the art of writing. To a little girl from Florida he offered these five principles:

  • “Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean, and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”
  • “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t say implement promises, but keep them.”
  • Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean ‘more people died,’ don’t say ‘mortality rose.’
  • “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.” Under this heading, Lewis goes on to say that the writing should delight readers, not just label an event delightful; or it should make them feel terror, not just to learn that an event was terrifying. He says that emotional labeling is really just a way of asking readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’
  • “Don’t use words that are too big for the subject.” Lewis illustrates this point by saying if you use infinitely as an intensifier instead of the simple word very, you won’t have any word left when you need to describe something that is truly infinite. (CL, 3, 766).

Another interesting snippet of this blog post concerns Lewis’s prolific correspondence:

As he became increasingly renowned in his later years, Lewis was inundated with letters on just about every topic imaginable—from spiritual direction to Spinoza to spelling. He did his best to answer as many letters as he could, though this became an onerous task. Lewis explained to one correspondent that he had answered 35 letters that day; on a different occasion, he noted that he had spent 14 hours that day catching up on his correspondence (CL 2, 509; 3, 1152).

— David Downing, “The Sound and Savor” of Words: Lewis on the Art of Writing at the C. S. Lewis blog

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Great Nuggets of Writing Advice

Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed celebrates the one-year anniversary of her blog by sharing some great nuggets of writing wisdom collected from authors, agents, and editors.

What writing advice do you have?

“Never give up, no never means no. Keep writing. As my mentor Howard Fast (author of Spartacus and 80 other novels) used to tell me when I’d say I had writer’s block: “‘Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. A page a day is a book a year.’” -Susan Sharpiro

“In many cases, authors understand the market for their book better than the publisher and can do a better job of reaching that audience. But they first need to understand that it’s now part of their job to do that, and they need to embrace it. Marketing can be fun!” -Michael Bourret

“Be generous. Spread ideas. Give things away. Write, share and repeat.” -Seth Godin

“I love real life. I love finding and telling stories, with the deep hope that it will somehow change the reader. Fiction can do that too, of course, but I have always wanted to find real stories and draw people to them, reveal something of life to them that they might not otherwise have a chance to see.” -Susan Orlean

“If you are clever, you’ll share the information that’s important to the audience, and not necessarily the contents of your book.” -Chris Brogan

“When it’s time to think of a new book idea, sitting in front of my computer and trying to squeeze something out just doesn’t work for me. But, when I’m running or on the bus or supposed to be writing something else, that’s when the characters come to me and the plots form. I try to just let myself be open to the flow and carry a pen with me.”-Julie Kraut

“If you’re a writer, then blogging should be a no-brainer for you. Read all the available resources on how to have a successful blog, then get going. Target your blog toward the exact audience you’re writing your books for.” -Rachelle Gardner

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Using the Internet to Write a Novel

Here’s a very fine how-to from Mashable for using the Web to write your novel – or nonfiction book, article, essay, etc.  It covers organization, research, writing, connecting with other writers, and publishing.

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The 25 Best Writing Blogs of 2009

Based on votes tallied by Editor Unleashed.  Some excellent choices here, including two of my favorites, the blogs of literary agents Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner.

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A Roadmap to the Writing Process

Writing an essay, paper, report, or even a blog post can be daunting, unless you have a plan in place for organizing your work.  A good plan can act like a map that guides you along each step of the way.  Daily Writing Tips shares 5 valuable guidelines, beginning with . . .

1. Prewriting

Have you ever sat staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank document on your computer screen? You might have skipped the vital first stage of the writing process: prewriting. This covers everything you do before starting your rough draft. As a minimum, prewriting means coming up with an idea!

Ideas and Inspiration

Ideas are all around you. If you want to write but you don’t have any ideas, try:

  • Using a writing prompt to get you started.
  • Writing about incidents from your daily life, or childhood.
  • Keeping a notebook of ideas – jotting down those thoughts that occur throughout the day.
  • Creating a vivid character, and then writing about him/her.

See also How to Generate Hundreds of Writing Ideas.

Tip: Once you have an idea, you need to expand on it. Don’t make the mistake of jumping straight into your writing – you’ll end up with a badly structured piece.

Building on Your Idea

These are a couple of popular methods you can use to add flesh to the bones of your idea:

  • Free writing: Open a new document or start a new page, and write everything that comes into your head about your chosen topic. Don’t stop to edit, even if you make mistakes.
  • Brainstorming: Write the idea or topic in the center of your page. Jot down ideas that arise from it – sub-topics or directions you could take with the article.

Once you’ve done one or both of these, you need to select what’s going into your first draft.

Planning and Structure

Some pieces of writing will require more planning than others. Typically, longer pieces and academic papers need a lot of thought at this stage.

First, decide which ideas you’ll use. During your free writing and brainstorming, you’ll have come up with lots of thoughts. Some belong in this piece of writing: others can be kept for another time.

Then, decide how to order those ideas. Try to have a logical progression. Sometimes, your topic will make this easy: in this article, for instance, it made sense to take each step of the writing process in order. For a short story, try the eight-point story arc.

(Continue to Steps 2 through 5)

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Five Questions to Ask about Your Fiction

Great advice here from novelist Charles Baxter on what you should ask yourself about your story.

There are about five questions you can ask yourself about stories, and they’re not foolproof, but they’re useful. One is, what do these characters want? Second is, what are they afraid of? Third is, what’s at stake in this story? Fourth is, what are the consequences of these scenes or these actions? And the last one is, how does the language of this story reflect the world of the story itself?

Now, if a writer is writing a story and looks at you and says, “I don’t know what my characters want; I don’t think they want much of anything,” then the story is in trouble. If you don’t know what’s at stake in the story, it means that nothing stands to be gained or lost in the course of it. Something has to be risked. The characters have to want something or to wish for something. They have to be allowed to stay up past eleven o’clock and to make mistakes. If there’s a flaw that many beginning writers have, it is that their characters don’t risk enough. They are just sitting in chairs having ideas. I had a student a few months ago, when I was in residency at a university, who said, I don’t want my characters to do anything, I just want them to think through the problem of nature vs. culture.

That’s not exactly a story, is it?

That’s what I tried to tell her. But she was determined to write a story about issues. I mean, this is an old thing to say, but if you want to write something about issues, write an essay. That’s what essays are for. If you want to see the consequences of ideas, write a story. If you want to see the consequences of belief, write a story in which somebody is acting on the ideas or beliefs that she has. But that’s why it’s important to have a sense of what your characters want.

(Via Jane Friedman)

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Kurt Vonnegut on Disaster, Drama, and Real Life

I was at a Kurt Vonnegut talk in New York a few years ago.  Talking about writing, life, and everything.

He explained why people have such a need for drama in their life.

He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.”

He drew an empty grid on the board, like this:

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Time moves from left to right.  Happiness from bottom to top.

He said, “Let’s look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella.”

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It starts with her awful life with evil stepsisters, scrubbing the fireplace. Then she get an invitation to the ball! Things look up. Then the fairy godmother makes her a dress and a coach. Even better! Then she goes to the ball, and dances with the prince! This is great!  But then it’s midnight. She has to go. Oh no. Sadness. Back to her humdrum life scrubbing the fireplace. But it’s not as bad as before, because she’s had this encouraging experience.  Then, the prince finds her, and the happiness factor is off the chart!  Happily ever after.

“People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.”

(Continue) (HT First Thoughts)

Vonnegut goes on to describe a common disaster story and comments similarly:

“People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.”

Since we grow up with these larger-than-life stories,

we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”

That’s why people invent fights. That’s why we’re drawn to sports. That’s why we act like everything that happens to us is such a big deal.

We’re trying to make our life into a fairy tale.

In my view, we’re all part of a much bigger drama than any of those he mentions – the cosmic drama of redemption, and the Kingdom of God against the powers of darkness.  Perhaps it’s no mistake that we think and imagine on a grand scale.  Maybe that’s an aspect of having eternity set in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11).

What do you think?

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