Archives for March 2013

Mark Shea on a certain tall story

We sometimes hear it said that Jesus was just a teacher full of punchy aphorisms and turns of phrase: a mystic who wandered around saying nice things about the niceness of being Nice.  But his stupid disciples, being 2000 years stupider than Extremely Clever Us, managed to completely misunderstand him and construct an elaborate religion around him that he absolutely never intended.  It’s a narrative in which our culture places an extraordinary amount of faith — far more faith, in fact, than the Christian story requires, since the Christian story does not require us to believe in absolutely ridiculous claims about human psychology that nobody would ever advance for one second were it not for the special need to debunk Christianity.

—Mark Shea, ‘Palm Sunday’

Mill on censorship of ideas

Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Creative discomfort and Star Wars

The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.

—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)

They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.

—George Lucas

It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers.

Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:

Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.

And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’

That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. [Read more…]

WRITING DOWN THE DRAGON: Now available at Smashwords

After long delays, Writing Down the Dragon and Other Essays is now available at Smashwords for the absurdly reasonable price of $2.99. It will be appearing shortly at other ebook retailers, as the files propagate through the distribution system.




‘This book is not for the Wise, but for my fellow beginners in the craft of Fantasy, who are trying to learn some of the master’s techniques and want to compare notes.’ — From the introduction

There are shelves full of books about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, most written from the perspective of academics and literary critics. Here is one from the point of view of the working fantasy writer. How did Tolkien produce his effects, and what can we learn from his methods? In this collection, Tom Simon investigates topics from the uses of archaic language to the moral philosophy of Orcs.

The book contains eleven essays on Tolkien:

The Riddles of the Wise
The Tolkien Method
The Rhetoric of Middle-earth
Frodo’s Vaunt
The Method and the Morgoth
What Is Elf?
The Terminal Orc
Writing Down the Dragon
Moorcock, Saruman, and the Dragon’s Tail
The Abyss and the Critics
Lost Tales, Unattained Vistas

Some of these pieces have previously appeared on the author’s website in slightly different forms.

Hysterical raisins: The ISBN

In the United States, ISBNs are issued exclusively by R. R. Bowker, a private company that used to be best known for publishing Books in Print. Their prices are heavily skewed in favour of large publishers: a single ISBN costs $125, a block of 10 $250, but if you are buying thousands, you can get them for as little as $1 each. (By way of contrast, in Canada ISBNs are issued by a government agency, and you can get them for free — if you can navigate the website, which is bureaucratic beyond the dreams of Byzantines.)

A certain Mark inquires, in a comment at The Passive Voice, why this private-sector monopoly is allowed to continue:

What’s wrong with letting a governmental agency register these numbers for free? They don’t charge for Social Security Numbers. Why ISBNs?

My response:

Why ISBNs?

Because, my dear fellow, it’s 1970. Computers are massively expensive beasts, mostly owned by government agencies, universities, and big businesses. There is no way for a member of the general public to get direct access to a computer — thank goodness! Imagine the damage they might do.

So if we set up a Federal agency to hand out ISBNs, we would need to spend millions on yet another IBM mainframe to handle the data, and then we’d need to hire dozens of technicians to run the mainframe, and scores of clerks to handle paper applications from publishers, and a battalion of bureaucrats to manage the technicians and the clerks. And you know there’s no money for that in the budget — not in this economy, or in this political climate — not to benefit a parcel of big New York publishers who can easily pay the cost themselves.

Instead, it will be far better to let the private sector handle it, and charge the cost to the publishers by selling them the ISBNs. And since this is Washington, and 1970, we’ll make the arrangement permanent. Because after all, everything has already been invented. Hasn’t it?

THE END OF EARTH AND SKY: Free at Amazon, March 12–16

Starting Tuesday, March 12, The End of Earth and Sky will be available for free at Amazon stores worldwide. Please do check it out if you haven’t yet — and spread the word! Blog about it, review it, let your friends know it’s free.

The promotion ends at midnight Pacific time, Saturday, March 16.

Paul Johnson on Auguste Comte’s prose style

Comte . . . has some claims to be considered the worst writer who ever lived, and his works read just as badly, if not more so, in French as in translation. In 1824, in reply to criticism, he insisted that style was of no importance. He said he wrote ‘scientifically’. Later, however, he laid down rules of style: no sentence longer than five lines of print; each paragraph to have no more than seven sentences; all books to have seven chapters; each chapter to have three parts and each part seven sections; each section must have a lead paragraph of seven sentences, followed by three paragraphs of five sentences each.

—Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern

Here, over a century before the New Criticism was ever thought of, we see the ultimate and sterile issue of the ‘sentence cult’. Once you consider a book merely as a ‘text’ made up of syntactic units, rather than a story or discourse made up of incidents and ideas, the idea will irresistibly suggest itself that literature consists solely of the manipulation of syntax, and has nothing to do with content.

A perfect book, according to Comte’s rules, contains exactly seven chapters, 21 ‘parts’, 147 ‘sections’, 588 paragraphs, 3,234 sentences, and therefore, not more than 16,170 lines of print. It need not be about anything at all. Indeed, it will help if it is not: for if you actually had something to say, you might be tempted to use an incorrect number of sentences to say it.

Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics

My own essai on managing the length of epic fantasy, ‘Zeno’s mountains’, appears to have incited Marie Brennan to write a piece of her own: ‘How to write a long fantasy series’. This, in turn, inspired Patricia C. Wrede to write a two-part essay on ‘preventing epic bloat’: ‘Epics, part 1’ and ‘Epics, part 2’. If you are interested in epic fantasy and the writing techniques that pertain to it, I can recommend them all.

(Mary Catelli has also been good enough to leave a comment to the second part of Ms. Wrede’s essay, pointing the way back to ‘Zeno’s mountains’. I thank her for her thoughtfulness, and hope that some of Ms. Wrede’s readers may enjoy my little screed, in the brief time that remains to us. You see, closing a chain of links so early, by pointing back to the first URL in the chain, could cause the entire space-time continuum to collapse on itself. Or at least the Internet. You have been warned. By the time I get to say ‘I told you so’, it will be too late.)

Reading too damned much—

—or at least, too many bits and pieces of books in an unfocused way.

At the moment, I want to quote a bit from Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, never you mind why, and I’m not sure where my copy is. It is not in my bookcases, at any rate. I went looking for it in my bedroom, and put away seventeen of the random books lying on the floor. There are still books on the bedroom floor, and I have not found the one I am looking for yet.

Sometimes I really annoy me.