Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The One Modern Man

I've noticed something while watching Instant Netflix a television show called Murdoch Mysteries. The story is set in the Victorian Toronto and the protagonist is a detective who employs modern forensic techniques to solve crimes. He is surrounded by barbarians who regard him as something of an oddball. We know these people are barbarians because each week some aspect of the Victorian culture we disapprove of is shoved in our face (e.g. racist, sexist, homophobic, environmentally insensitive, anti-papist or Tory).

And the One Modern ManTM happens to disapprove, too.

He has to reflect OUR biases and preferences, or we won't identify with him. I noticed this some years back when chatting with a friend who writes murder mysteries that are solved by Pliny the Younger and his faithful sidekick Tacitus. I heartily recommend his books.

If you disagree with Victorian mores, how about a society that is built upon slavery? How about a protagonist who owns slaves? A lot of slaves!

This creates a tension between the demands of the reading public and human nature. If you grow up with anything, you'll think it to be the natural state of things.

But the protagonist has to reflect OUR biases and preferences, or we won't identify with him. The hero must be the One Modern ManTM in the story. Ergo, Pliny manifests modern attitudes toward slavery.

This pattern should be kept in mind if your setting has a society with something, anything your reading audience finds revolting. In such a case, you need to make your protagonist the One Modern ManTM.

On Poetry - Writers Mantra #8 & 9

With the exception of Senryu where I aspire to not-suck, poetry is one of those things that I know I'm not any good at. Nevertheless, I've been in writers groups where poets have presented their verses. And I've noticed patterns. These patterns led me to make two observations that I added to my list of writers mantras:

    Exile “and” from your poems.

This is an application of Mantra #7 to poetry. If conjunctions weaken an utterance, a poem is the last place where you want that to happen. Besides, I always feel like a poem that uses "and" just seems more prosaic than the identical verse with "and" excised.

Of course, your mileage may vary. But I don't quite feel competent to explore the distinctions.

    Can your poem be rewritten without “I/me/my”? (Universals are not personal).

One of the things I've noticed about the poems that seemed to move me the most was the way the poet became invisible. Sure, it's all good and fine to open a vein and pour out your life-blood in a poem that speaks directly from the core of your being with all the passion in your heart.

So what. What's in that for me?

If you've got something to say that's so profound that it cannot be encoded in prose, then it has a touchstone in the heart of every man and woman. The ancients spoke of "universals" that capture the essence of what a thing is without the distraction of the particular details while encompassing all the details.

What is it to be in love? Does it matter if the lover is a Hottentot or a Hugenot? Does it matter if the beloved is an Austrian or Australian? If you're trying to engage love qua love, you can't fix upon a particular person, especially yourself. Universals are not personal. The poem that crystallizes a universal is written by an invisible wo/man to no-one in particular.

Does this mantra apply to every poem? Certainly not. Only those which attempt to capture the core nature of what it means to be a human or some aspect of life. Not every poem works with this treatment, but take a moment to go over your poems and ask if any can be written without reference to I/me/my.

Trim excess verbiage
Write minimalist prose
Words obscure story

You can find the next writers mantra here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mind The Gap

Ric Locke died and he wasn't as well known as some of the other writers I've loved, but he reminded me of all those who have gone before.

The giants upon whose shoulders we stand. The giants whose shoes were several sizes larger than life. Shoes hard to fill.

My father was not a writer. Though he introduced me to Louis L'Amour, he wasn't much of a reader, either. He  died several years ago and news of other deaths take me back to the funeral home in Sparta, Michigan where we honored Dad.

My step-sister's husband loved my dad as much as any of us, and he spoke to me of what a good man Dad was. All I could think of in response was the challenge this posed to both of us as men. Can we be good men like Dad? We must be good men like Dad, because he's gone and someone else must do what he did.

There is a gap in this world. It is created by the loss of great men and women. It challenges each of us to do and to become their replacements.

Dad's death challenged me to be a better father, neighbor, and friend. When I reflect on the deaths of the writers whose prose I've enjoyed, I'm challenged to be a writer who can fill the gap.

I'm challenging you to do the same.

Friday, July 27, 2012

RIP Ric Locke

I just learned that Mr. Locke has passed away. Sadly, his excellent novel Temporary Duty will have no sequel. RIP Ric Locke: You were a better writer than this world deserved.
 Sarah Hoyt has blogged far more articulately about Mr. Locke here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Writers Mantra #6

OK, long posts are hard to write and you don't want to allocate a long time. So, I'm only going to give you one writers' mantra. Feel free to ask for a discount.

Evoke sympathy for the hero, then evoke identification with his story goals.

When we left off last week I said that you want the reader to "get on the train" with your characters. The reader must derive pleasure from the association. Even if it is the perverse pleasure of seeing a bad person get their comeuppance. But you don't want to go around confusing heroes and villains, you want the reader rooting FOR the hero and AGAINST the villain.

When I read C. S. Forester's Mr. Midshipman Hornblower the author introduced me to this nice young man upon whom every imaginable injustice was inflicted. The kid would do something good, and then get punished for it.

It was terribly unfair.

Does anybody remember how they felt about Wesley Crusher on Star Trek The Next Generation? He was never beaten within an inch of his life for doing something right. On the contrary, he went from glorious success, to glorious success. And I hated him for it. I thought him a smug little twerp and wished to put him in a red shirt and beam him onto the original Enterprise to die die die messily.

Whatever your story, and whoever your hero is, you want the reader to sympathize with him or her. The best way to do that is visit heartbreak upon him or her in the opening scene.

Why? Because you want the reader to care what happens to your characters. Until your reader is fully vested in your characters, s/he can depart at the least provocation. Once the readers care what happens to your hero, they'll bleed a little when you cut him. You want this. The reader will want to stick around long enough

Once you've introduced your hero to your readers, something had better happen. Perhaps the hero is given a quest or a task.

Suppose the French Navy is preparing an invasion of England, and someone must stop it. That's something with which most of my readers can identify.

Conversely, suppose the US Army is preparing an invasion of Canada. Well, sorry Brits and Canucks, I remember the Raisin.

Likewise, if your hero is a Nazi, most people will only identify with his story goals if he's trying to thwart Hitler or something.

You don't want your audience rooting against your hero. When you saw the movie K-19 Widow Maker you wanted the Russians to carry the day. I hope you did not feel the same way when you saw Red Dawn? I totally identify with the Brits in The Bridge On The River Kwai. Less so with the Brits in The Patriot. (Or maybe more depending on how you feel about Mel Gibson.)

Alliances shift with time and if your audience include Brits when the villains are British, you've got to frame things carefully to say that you are excusing your audience from any participation in the villainy.

If you want to jump to the next writers mantra #7, it's here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When Do Writers Groups Suck?

The answer to this question is never, if the group is full of angels.

Or always if the group has an irritant who damages the experience to a lesser or greater extent. When I first started going to a local writers' group I noticed a rather annoying fellow who took great pains in pointing out that HE had an MFA. His prose stank, but his attitude about himself was worse.

A writer never has bad things come into his life, he just gets story material...

Smarmy Notre Dame Boy

Sally Corleone drew absently in her sketchbook. A thought occurred and she suddenly stopped. A half-finished palm tree went on hold. She flipped back through her sketchbook to her notes from the week before. Three finished palm trees, two surfers, and a sunset were on the page. She flipped back to the week before that. The relative positions of the palms, surfers and beach landscape were changed, but all the elements were there. She was in a rut.
Sally wrote children's books. She had had two of them published and this was a source of the great credibility she held within the writers' group. She was also quiet and thus when she spoke it carried weight.
She drew when she daydreamed and she daydreamed when the Smarmy Notre Dame boy would pontificate. The writers' group was fairly permissive in its three-page rule, and Smarmy was always bringing things printed in single-spaced 6-point font on legal-sized paper. His writing was a horrid bore and his MFA must have been given to him out of mercy to free the Notre Dame's English Department of him. He thought the letters MFA meant that he didn't have to listen to anyone beside himself. He loved to hear his own voice and monopolized the writers' group with the consummation of that relationship as he expounded at length about what he thought about everyone else's writing.
Sally resolved to get out of her rut and daydream about something besides Hawaii.
The writers' group met in the public library of a small bedroom community of Chicago. She looked up through a window from the conference room into the library proper and something caught her eye: a poster of Al Capone. The library was doing some kind of exposition on the gangsters of the 1920s. She thought of her great-grandfather and smiled. Her daydreaming took on a different topic.
Genetics is a funny thing. The same basic temperament of a boy from Sicily born at the turn of one century was inherited by his great-granddaughter at the turn of another. The boy had started a family business that the government objected to as being more organized than itself. His son had not shared that temperament and invested the family's profits in legitimate businesses. Another generation had squandered the fortune. Sally was middle-class housewife with a latent talent and a family secret.
Robert Major, a developer by day and aspiring mystery writer, sat next to Sally bored out of his skull. He looked down at his manuscript. He looked up at the Smarmy Notre Dame boy. Back in 'Nam he learned exactly what to do with the little twerp. The game was called, "Frag the Lieutenant," and this guy looked like a 90-day wonder. He looked to the side and something caught his eye. He turned his page over and wrote on the blank side in large letters, "EXACTLY," and turned it to where Sally would see it.
Sally saw the note and giggled. She redoubled her drawing efforts. Smarmy Notre Dame boy didn't notice and continued droning on about his favorite movie, "Gone with the Wind." This pattern continued for the next month and more sketches on this new theme were added to the book.
After each meeting a few members of the writers' group would meet at the Cottage Bar. One night, Mark Jones, a SF writer changed the subject.
"Some times, I wish I could just strangle that jerk."
"Who? Your boss?" Angela Hilton, a poetess asked.
"That smarmy jerk."
"Oh, you mean Smarmy Notre Dame boy."
"You've given him a name?"
"The guy is such a loser."
"He was impossible, tonight."
"Sally, show them your drawing." Robert had begun making a point to check Sally's drawing each week. He invariably approved.
Sally blushed. "Are you sure you want to see it. It's not very nice." Everyone at the table did.
"That's excellent!" Angela exclaimed.
The sketch showed a fairly good rendering of the Smarmy Notre Dame boy lying in a pool of blood with a knife sticking out of his chest.
"Show them your other sketches."
"All right."
Everyone exclaimed at the next sketch. Smarmy Notre Dame boy was falling off a bridge into the Chicago River with his feet embedded in a block of concrete. Sally turned the page. Smarmy crushed by a safe that had fallen upon him. Another page and he was grasping his throat, an empty beer mug in front of him with a poison bottle in front of that. The last page showed his body riddled with bullets from a passing auto. Thompson sub machine guns from a number of figures were firing into him.
"That's the last one."
The table erupted in applause. Sally smiled demurely and thanked them. Everyone started suggesting pictures. This kept the writers' group occupied for the next month. But the Smarmy Notre Dame boy's capacity for irritating people exceeded that of Sally's drawings to sublimate the group's hostility.
"I wish he would just shut up about 'Gone with the Wind.'"
"I wish he was gone with the wind, or just gone."
"Why don't we just make him gone."
"What do you mean?"
"He means that we kill the Smarmy Notre Dame boy," Sally answered.
"We couldn't do that."
"You've seen at least eight ways we could."
"But that was just a joke."
"Was it?"
Someone changed the subject and another month of meetings went by and Sally drew another month's worth of sketches depicting the Smarmy Notre Dame boy's demise. Mark read some of his best work. Smarmy rattled on at length about how much better his space opera would be if it had been set in the South during reconstruction, and a zillion other irrelevant complaints that had nothing to do with Mark's writing. Sally's sketch that night depicted Smarmy being run through by a Star Wars light saber wielded by Scarlet as Rett held him down.
Annoyance had distilled into hatred, and hatred now crystallized into its next logical step.
"I was wrong; Smarmy must die," Mark announced to the other writers at the bar afterwards.
Sally and Robert shared a look. They'd privately canvassed everyone else in the group. Mark had been the last holdout. Robert pulled out a map showing the library.
"He usually parks here." Robert pointed to a parking lot a few blocks away from the library. "And he usually takes this route." Robert's finger traversed the path from the library to the parking lot.
"There is a narrow alley here." Sally pointed to a spot on the map.
"But it's lit by a street light there." Angela pointed to another spot.
"I can shoot out the light with a pellet gun on my way to the meeting next week."
"I know how we can make him stop."
Plans for the murder proceeded and everything was set a week later.
Smarmy was in rare form that night. He noticed that Angela was looking at him with anticipation in her eyes. He interpreted it as desire and was even more expansive than he'd been before. Everyone seemed to be looking at him more closely, paying him more mind. He responded with prodigious paroxysms of pomposity. This seemed to confirm in everyone's mind the rightness of their decision. The writers' group broke up a little early. Very few people had anything to say and a couple members left early. Smarmy felt so good about himself that wished the night would go on forever.
He gathered his things and started to his car. Along the way he saw something on the sidewalk in front of him. It looked like a small box. He approached it, it looked like a videotape. That's strange, he thought, it's a video of "Gone with the Wind." He bent down to pick it up.
As he straightened himself a hand grabbed his collar and pulled him off balance and into the darkness of the alley. He opened his mouth to scream and found a sock stuffed into it. Duct tape secured the sock in place. He tried to struggle but couldn't. He didn't see any more than the dark shapes that held him down and rolled him onto his stomach. More duct tape secured his ankles and knees together and his arms behind his back. Everyone ducked as a police car drove past. When it was out of sight, they rolled Smarmy up in a piece of carpet and secured the roll with more duct tape.
Sally pulled her minivan up to the opening of the alley. Mark opened the side door and pushed the soccer gear aside, while Angela, Robert and the others hauled the Smarmy carpet roll out of the alley and in the open door of the minivan. They drove to the Cottage bar and celebrated loudly enough to establish alibis for that evening. Then they noisily broke up a little bit before their usual departure time. To everyone in the Cottage Bar, it looked no different than any other meeting night.
That night, Sally took an alternate route home, past a construction site. An old factory was being remodeled into an up-scale shopping center. She arrived and found Robert and the others waiting. They hauled the Smarmy carpet roll out of the van and into the basement of the old factory where a food court sat. One end of the food court held an expensive restaurant with a wine cellar. They unrolled the package whose contents for the first time got a good look at his attackers. His eyes went wide in recognition. Robert and Mark propped Smarmy up in a niche in the wine cellar and tied a rope under his arms and onto a hook behind him. Angela knelt next to Smarmy and placed a small continuous loop tape player next to him in the niche. It played a recording of one of his more verbose soliloquies over and over again.
The mortar and bricks were all set and each member of the writers' group took turns placing bricks in place until only one opening positioned in front of Smarmy's eyes remained. Angela shined a flashlight into the gap. The writers arrayed themselves around the opening and looked in as Sally readied the last block. His eyes seemed to plead for mercy. His recorded voice quashed the appeal.
"Frankly, Smarmy, we don't give a damn."
She placed the last block in place and smoothed the mortar around it. The basement was silent.
A couple months later, a new member joined the writers group. The first time he read, Sally caught Robert's eye. A palm tree was sketched on her pad. They smiled.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mantras from Writers Groups

I trained as a Mathematician and then as a Computer Scientist. So, when I finished my first novel, I figured I'd better find out how awesome it was. About that time I saw a notice of a fortnightly writers' group meeting on Wednesdays. And about a month later I learned of a second writers' group on Thursdays. And I started going to both. Then the Wednesday group started meeting every week. It was like drinking from a fire hose and I learned a ton of useful stuff about writing.

The first thing I learned was the social dynamic between writers and how some of them did things that made everyone hate them. That's when I started writing murder stories where an archetype of each annoying person in a writers' group got bumped off. It was very therapeutic.

Over time I started noticing other things. Certain exhortations about good writing kept recurring. It wasn't that people weren't listening. New people coming into the group were doing the same things.

I started writing them down and calling them "mantras" because I kept repeating them. The list is fairly long and I won't burden you with the whole thing all at once.

These mantras are general principles, not rules. Treat them as forces that you balance between one another. There are times when one principle contradicts the other and pulls you in different directions.

Imagine iron filings sitting on a table obeying the law of gravity. When you pass a magnet over the table, the iron filings are pulled in the opposite direction because of the law of magnetism. The iron filings stay on the table or fly toward the magnet based on whether magnetism overcomes gravity. In a similar manner, balance these mantras against one another.
  1. Work your opening paragraph to death.
  2. Give no excuse to dismiss your work in the opening pages.
  3. Bracketing a story often works.
  4. So does “in media res.”
  5. Make your reader want to “get on the train” with your characters. 
These are just the first five mantras. I plan to enumerate the rest at a later date. 

Work your opening paragraph to death

Unless your work has been assigned as homework, every reader looking at it will make a decision to read it or not. After people judge a book by its cover, they start reading. Most people start reading at the opening paragraph. The better that excerpt is, the more likely they'll decide to read further.

The reader you're aiming at is an agent, editor, intern at the publishing company, or the customer at a bookshop. Sadly, a lot of publishing decisions are taken without consideration of the last category of reader.

"It was a dark and stormy night" is more than just something Snoopy typed in the Peanuts cartoon. It was written by Edward Bullwer-Lytton a very popular Victorian novelist, who contemporary writing experts LOVE to hate. They even have a bad-writing contest in memory of Bullwer-Lytton.

You want to Not Be That Guy.

Give no excuse to dismiss your work in the opening pages

This is less important today than it was a few years ago. Nowadays you can self-publish and avoid the gatekeeper editor.

Editors bring to the manuscript certain expectations. Fail to live up to those expectations and your manuscript will never survive the slush-pile. Your spelling has to be correct. You'd better know your grammar well enough to get all the jokes in the Grammar Nazi video.

There are other expectations an editor will bring to your text. If you stake out any identifiable political or religious territory, remember that your editor also brings to his reading his own political and religious opinions. "Springtime For Hitler"won't fly.

I've never seen that, but I have seen someone bring in a writing project that was a mix of Religion and Letters to Penthouse. I figure that anybody who reads Penthouse would be offended by the religion and anybody who's religious would be offended by the sexuality. Offend one group or the other group, but not both.

Bracketing a story often works

One reason why I like The Princess Bride is the exchange between the narrator, Peter Falk, and the grandson, Fred Savage. They serve to contextualize the work for the viewer. This device is one of the places where the sly writer can slip in some editorial comment.

In ancient times, the Greek Chorus served this role. You seldom go wrong following a literary trope of the classics. Freaking Shakespeare used this technique.

In addition to providing editorial comment, your story might need a bit of explanation that would be untidy to include within the narrative proper. OK, have the grandson interrupt the story and voice an objection so that the narrator can explain it.

If you're really good, you can intertwine two narratives in such a way that one narrative provides answers that are not elaborated in the other narrative and vice versa. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon followed WW2 and contemporary narratives to good effect. But there's a risk in doing this. Few authors can take this on without leaving some threads dangling or (almost as bad) tied up in a mad rush at the end.

So does “in media res” 

Captain Nathan Sanderson keyed the mike and laughed, "Your butt is mine, sucker." He didn't wait for a response but pulled the trigger unleashing a stream of simulated rail-gun projectiles at the Blue Force fighter. The scoring computers on the Blue fighter and Sanderson's Opfor fighter negotiated an equitable degree of damage and degraded the Blue fighter's capabilities accordingly....

In media res is Latin for start with something going on.

Did the paragraph above interest you? Maybe not if you picked up a romance novel.

I left gaps in between the facts that I presented in that paragraph to capture attention like Velcro loops grab lint. You probably realize some kind of mock aerial battle is going on and I hope you'll want to know how Sanderson gets splashed by the girl four paragraphs later.

The war-game serves to introduce a larger story. Don't mistake this for a framing device of a story told in flashback. The story builds on this bit of action, but because the action came without explanation, it raises questions in the reader's mind that I had better answer in the next scene introducing the girl and the navy of the Sirian Confederacy.

Make your reader want to “get on the train” with your characters
A story is an investment of time. The reader's most valuable possession is her time and reading is a bit like getting onto a train with the characters of the story. Are the characters in the story jerks? Are they people you can relate to? Sure, sometimes you will want to hang around some unpleasant person to see them get their comeuppance.

Just think for a second of your reader's experience, his response to your prose. Do you want fear and loathing of the despicable Snidely Whiplash? Or fear that sweet Polly Purebred will suffer a fate worse than death? Your reader engages with the characters. Even if you're in the distant reaches of outer space, you want someone the reader relates to and cares about. I recall a rather disagreeable TV show that had plenty of action that I liked, but it was all happening to and with characters I could care less about. If the ship exploded killing everyone in the series, it would have been an improvement.

Recently I started a novel that had plenty of interesting back-story. Although the novel was extremely exposition-heavy, the universe the writer constructed had a lot going for it. But then I found out that everyone on the space ship was just an AI made to seem like some dead person. Oh. They're just robots. Nobody's human? Nope. Oh. And after the protagonist died and became a robot, she also became a lesbian. I can relate to alternate lifestyles, even gorgeous fembots with a penchant for evil, but seriously?

It really wasn't the robot lesbian angle that put me off so much as that it was the last straw. There wasn't a single character I could relate to within light years of anywhere the story was going. And the exposition-heavy opening didn't help. I didn't toss the novel across the room because I was reading it on my Kindle, but I found something else to read in short order.

Update: This is the first of a series of writers mantras. The next one is here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Makers versus Takers

Depending upon how you look at it, this fat cat represents either a corporate tycoon--one of the 1% who gets his GOP buddies to vote subsidies to his business and swing sweet-heart deals his way.

Or if you swing the Democrat way this fat cat represents a welfare queen who's never worked a lick in her life and is just riding the gravy train nursing at the public teat.

A pox on both your houses. I'm for the Whigs.

This morning an email arrived at my inbox from Sarah Hoyt who is most definitely NOT a poopy-head. Her ire was raised by some concern troll on another blog and this moved her to utter some inescapable truths. It is not safe to utter inescapable truths.

When she said "The 'government' is not some disinterested entity run by angels," I was reminded of a debate between Milton Friedman and Phil Donohue about greed wherein Friedman points out that government officials are not angels.

At this writing, publishing is in transition. Certain fat cat publishing companies have enjoyed joint monopoly powers that they have wielded to their own advantage and not necessarily to the advantage of the reading public or those who write books.

When cats get too fat they cannot catch mice and find alternate sustenance. Like using the government to hobble the thinner, faster cats.
Independent publishers and writers have the means to circumvent fat cat publishing companies who will use any means necessary to save their phoney-baloney jobs.

Sarah Hoyt is has written down inescapable truths that are most definitely worthy of your time. I most strongly suggest you read them. She believes the future hangs in the balance.

Friday, July 6, 2012

More Stolen Commandments

A while back I wrote about Robert Heinlein's 5 Commandments for writing.  Those are good commandments and you should do your best to incorporate them into your writing.

Besides writing commandments I don't think C. S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein had much in common.

Ferinstance, I don't see Lewis ever really grokking Stranger In A Strange Land. Nor do I think Heinlein would get much out of Perelandra. Yet in these differences, we see commonalities: both fellows wrote well and knew how good writing works.

And here are C. S. Lewis' 5 Commandments for writing for the reader's edification.
  1. 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.
  2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Lewis' commandments are not as concise as Heinlein's. They reflect the fact that Lewis was an academic and like all academics that write, prone to say too much.

When Shakespeare wanted to show someone to be an ass he never did so as effectively as with his character Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. This character was prone to malapropisms. Don't be this guy. You want to be the anti-Dogberry.

I write poorly when I don't have a clear idea in my head of what I want to convey. This clear idea needs to get out of my noggin and into yours. Since you're not telepathic, I have to use words to express my ideas in a way that your thinking matches my clear idea.

1. Words can be slippy things. It's easy to write something that can be construed differently from what you intend. You can't just get each word's denotation correct, but you must string all the words together in a manner that straightforwardly conveys your intent. You can't just shrug when a sentence is unclear. Dammit. Rewrite it until it is clear. Or yank it out until you have not only clarity of thought and intent, but clarity of expression.

2. Words are pills. Dogberry is the ass because he doesn't know one pill from another. Shakespeare's genius is that he is able to give the theater-goer contextual clues to discern what Dogberry intended to say so that when he actually says something wildly inappropriate you get the joke. You discern from context that Dogberry wants to take the larger-pill, but instead he takes the small-pill and incongruity results in a hearty laugh at Dogberry's expense.

A plain, direct word as Lewis recommends in this case is a pill with minimal side-effects. It makes you big or small without making hair grow out of your ears. The long, vague words that Lewis warns us about invariably have side effects built into them. Sometimes you do need to grow ten foot tall with hair growing out of your ears, but those times are not as common as you might think. And instead of seeming smart and stylish, the unintended consequences of the long, vague word end up making you look foolish.

I don't think Lewis is saying never use the long, vague word. Just know all the baggage and side-effects it carries with it and gauge that against your intent. And prefer the simpler generic when it works as well.

3. Lewis advises that when choosing between two nouns, prefer the concrete to the abstract. This is a bigger problem for the academic who writes than for the rest of us. Experts tend to work in the abstract because they can bounce ideas around, manipulate them, and then apply the abstract to a broad spectrum of circumstances. Working in the abstract can be like swimming to the fish. Or it can be like being tossed into the deep end of the pool when you can't swim.

Writing and reading is communication. Whereas some can't work in the abstract, many more folks (if not everyone) can work in the concrete. People tend to remember concrete details better. In urban legend the details provide the touch points that lend internal consistency and believability. These are critical success criteria in writing.

4. Encompasses the old writer's proverb: Show, but don't tell. When I say that the girl is beautiful an event terrible or a song delightful it's a summary. There's nothing for the reader to interpret. The writer has to leave something for the reader to interpret. Otherwise, the prose is as appealing as pre-chewed food.

The writer has to think deeper about concept of beauty when writing about the girl who's as cute as a basket of kittens. OK, what made her so cute? What was the exact shade of hair? Orange highlights you say? How was it cut? Neat or messy? How about the shape of her face? Cheekbones? Large brown eyes? Anything distinctive about her breasts? Dancer's legs? Shy or aggressive?

The writer has to figure out what exactly the POV character will experience that creates in him the impression of beauty. Then select the best details to convey. Then string together the best words the reader will interpret as a depiction of beauty.

This is why Lewis characterizes this cheat as, "Please do my job for me."

5. When Lewis says, "Don’t use words too big for the subject," I hope he had in mind something like, "Superlatives are for children." When I was younger, I read Perry Rhodan novels. They were ripping yarns, but over time I noticed some inflation going on. Instead of two spaceships fighting a battle, there were two hundred ships engaging the enemy. The numbers got bigger and bigger. And if the numbers of dreadnaughts remained fixed, the size of the super-dreadnaughts they were going against were bigger and bigger. This cycle would go on for a few novels, and then they'd have to do something else.

I think Lewis' commandments are harder to keep than Heinlein's commandments. I understand them, but I find that I don't remember them. They're more tactical and mechanical, so it's harder for me to dredge up concrete examples in my own writing. They're safer because you won't get an argument like you might about Heinlein's 3rd commandment. Nevertheless, this writing process isn't something that's ever finished. We take whatever we can to improve from wherever we can.

Those more worthy than I: