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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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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Lewis on the Joy of Receiving Books in the Mail

How many of us can relate to this?  In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, C. S. Lewis wrote,

I quite agree with what you say about buying books, and love the planning and scheming beforehand, and if they come by post, finding the neat little parcel waiting for you on the hall table and rushing upstairs to open it in the privacy of your own room. (Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited by W. H. Lewis, p. 27)

(Via Addenda & Errata)

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Finding Free Books for Your Amazon Kindle

I was surprised to learn today that many free books, such as those found on Project Gutenberg, can be read on the Amazon Kindle.  Open Culture gives a nice step-by-step list of instructions for transferring these e-book files to your Kindle.

Step 1:

Go to http://www.gutenberg.org and search for a book you would like to read.

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Step 2:


Once you’ve found a book that you want to download, download it in MOBI format if possible. If no MOBI format exists, then using plain text works as well.

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Step 3:

After your download is complete, plug in your Kindle to your computer’s USB port. The Kindle will show up as a USB Drive.

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(Continue)

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A Guided Tour of the Publishing Process

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner is re-running a series of posts describing the publishing process from start to finish.  It’s a great crash course in how the system works.

She starts at the beginning with the book proposal.

  • Either you or your agent submits your proposal to an editor at a publishing house.
  • It goes into the editor’s stack. At some point (could be the same week or it could be six months down the road) the editor takes a first glance. Is there a spark of interest?
  • If so, they’ll give it a careful read, and they may discuss it with another editor or two.
  • If it doesn’t capture the editor’s interest, a pass letter will be forthcoming. But if the response is positive, your proposal will go to the entire editorial team.
  • At the editorial meeting, all the editors will discuss it. Every aspect will be looked at: idea, execution, author’s platform.
  • Three possibilities can come from the editorial meeting:
    1) Pass
    2) Go back to the author for suggested revisions
    3) Accept
  • If the proposal is accepted, it then goes to the Pub Committee. This is a team of executives usually consisting of the publisher, editorial director, marketing director, sales director, sometimes even the CFO. The question is no longer “Is this a good book?” but “Can we sell this?” Other questions being considered include: Will the author’s platform help sell this book? Does it fit with our vision as a company? Does it fit with our publishing plan? Does it overlap too heavily with anything else we’ve already contracted? (continue)

Part Two is the contract stage.

Part Three is the writing and/or editing stage

See her blog for the last two stages.

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Dr. Douglas Sweeney’s Top 5 Books on Jonathan Edwards

From ChristianHistory.net (for everyone who says “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.”)

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Jonathan Edwards: A Life
George M. Marsden

This is the definitive biography, quite comprehensive (600 pages) and enjoyable to read.

The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards
Sang Hyun Lee, editor

A wonderful compilation of expert chapters on key aspects of Edwards’s doctrinal theology. Make sure you’re ready for meaty theology before you purchase this book.

(Continue the list)

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Why We Read

summer reading
Image by ruminatrix via Flickr

The L.A. Times has an interesting collection of quotes by authors and journalists on why we read.  I still resonate with the proposal from the movie Shadowlands:  We read to know we’re not alone.

A sampling:

There’s a book I don’t remember well, though I can remember precisely where I found it in my elementary school library — three yards to the right of the door, in the middle of the third shelf from the floor.

I was, and remain, a compulsive reader. Back then, I read on the school bus, at the bus stop in the cold, at the dinner table, beneath the sheets and for hours sometimes in the only room with a door that locked, the bathroom, despite my sister’s pounding. This book was about a solitary little boy who, as I did, had a nervous habit of tapping everything he touched, and counting the combinations of taps. One day, he tapped a wall of stone. A door appeared. Behind it was a different world, not better really, but brighter and less dull. I read for the same reason that he tapped: to look for doors, to push through walls.

— Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel “The Suitors.”

Confession: I am an abuser of books. I break their spines; I underline passages with felt-tip pen. Once, on vacation, I actually dropped Joyce Maynard’s delectable “Where Love Goes” — a beach-book “Anna Karenina” that I like to re-read every three years — into the Jacuzzi. For my books, it’s spring break at Ft. Lauderdale and they’re scared. This is all to the horror of a fusty male friend who keeps his British first editions in a humidity-controlled room, as though they were wine. I see now, though, that my 7- and 8-year-old daughters have caught their mother’s bad habit. Across the back seat of our filthy wagon are capsized or spread-eagled “Goosebumps,” Jenny B. Joneses, “Beastmasters.” They are smeared in juice and Cheetos, and, to my horror recently, I saw this terrifying pink thing called “The Puppies of Princess Place” covered in ants. But, as my girls pointed out, ants like a good read too. Indeed.

— Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of “Mother on Fire.”

When I was a kid, the greatest thing about reading was that it made the world so much more sympathetic. The bully around the corner, the mouthy girl in class, the recluse nobody talked to — I understood them all as composites of characters who lived in the stories of Louisa May Alcott, Beverly Cleary, Charles Dickens, Norman Juster, Aesop, the brothers Grimm. Every two weeks, my mother took me to a library to stock up on a new set of books, and I looked forward to those visits the way I looked forward to parties or social engagements. The library was where I made my best friends.

There’s a genuine community of reading out there that transcends a lot of differences. Even if you’re into James Baldwin and somebody else is into William F. Buckley, you can always argue ideas. Curiosity and critical thinking put you in the same house, if not always the same room.

Much is made about the cultural relevance of books, about whether they speak to a child’s background or view of the world. I understand the concern. But books are ultimately about stimulating imagination and broadening a worldview. In my South-Central neighborhood, Dickens more than did the job.

— Erin Aubry Kaplan is a Los Angeles journalist.

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