Writer’s Desk: C.S. Lewis on the ‘Right’ Words

Writers of fantasy are not assumed to be sticklers for language. After all, they revel in the invented and magical. But when describing things that do not exist, choosing the right word is key.

When C.S. Lewis responded to a letter from a young American fan in 1956—not long before the publication of his final Narnia volume, The Last Battle—he first told her that there is no uniform “Good English.” Language is never a fixed thing. One has to tailor prose for time and place.

Lewis then gives her a few rules for the road:

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.

Clarity is paramount, in writing as in life.

Reader’s Corner: Richard Adams’s Book Collection

The Guardian has some news for British bibliophiles: On December 14, the literary collection of the late and very great Richard Adams will be going on sale. For anybody who wants to see where the author of Watership Down and Plague Dogs got his inspiration, here’s your chance.

According to the auction house:

The library which Richard Adams built up at Benwells, his 18th century home in Hampshire, was housed in a vast cube-shaped room. Here several thousand books lined each wall from floor to high ceiling. Valuable first editions jostled with paperbacks, piles of books were stacked next to comfy armchairs, rabbit figurines took their place on shelves next to family photographs, and the author’s desk was at the hub of it all. The overwhelming impression was of a place where books were read and enjoyed, rather than treated as mere commodities.

That collection includes “Milton’s Lycidas, a complete set of Jane Austen first editions uniformly bound, and a Bible that once belonged to Charles II.” There’s also a copy of Lord of the Flies signed by William Golding for Adams. If you’ve got about £60,000 on hand, there’s also a Second Folio of Shakespeare.

Screening Room: ‘The Final Year’

The documentary The Final Year, which tracks Barack Obama’s foreign policy team in the pell-mell last year of his presidency, opens this week in limited release for Oscar consideration.

My review is at Film Journal International:

…[Director Greg Barker] highlights three key players: chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Obama offers a few to-the-camera remarks, for the most part he remains in the background as the leader whose policies these three power players need to mesh with their own beliefs and wrestle into some coherent and actionable policy. Powers and Kerry perform their jobs with such a sense of can-do urgency that even when the frequently hubristic Rhodes says that they “felt like a pickup team…to change the world,” one’s eyes don’t even necessarily roll…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Screening Room: ‘Darkest Hour’

In May 1940, as the German army tore through Belgium and France, instead of uniting against a mortal threat, England was having a leadership crisis. Darkest Hour tells how Winston Churchill—who, popular wisdom held, was not just a drunk and a blowhard but a terrible strategist—became Prime Minister almost by accident.

Darkest Hour opens Wednesday. My review is at PopMatters:

Most tellings of this moment would have Winston Churchill stride into the chaos like some goliath. But in Wright’s recounting, the hero of the moment galumphs on stage as an embarrassing has-been, half-anxious, half-arrogant, and filled with champagne and whiskey. With Gary Oldman well visible behind the heavy makeup and camouflage scrim of cigar smoke, it’s the kind of performance that gets called a tour de force, and for good reason…

Writer’s Desk: Write for the Future or Right Now?

This week, Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) won the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. The reaction of the 80-year-old playwright, per The Guardian:

 “Winning a lifetime achievement award, one’s first thought is: ‘Surely not yet.’ And one’s second is: ‘Just in time, mate’ …

Stoppard also had a few thoughts about his legacy:

History is full of the names of writers who at one time seemed to be permanently established and who slowly disappeared from view. I’ll absolutely own up to writing for the present and for posterity – but as Lytton Strachey said: ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’”

Quote of the Day: Meryl Streep Digs Journalists

Speaking at the the annual awards for the Committee to Protect Journalists last night, Meryl Streep—who plays Katharine Graham in Spielberg’s new Pentagon Papers movie—said this:

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. You are the Fourth Estate. You are our first line of defense against tyranny and state-sanctioned news … Thank you, you intrepid, underpaid, over-extended, trolled, and un-extolled, young and old, battered and bold, bought and sold, hyper-alert crack-caffeine fiends. You’re gorgeous, ambitious, contrarian, fiery, dogged and determined bullshit detectives.

What’s to say? It’s a good time to be a detective.

Screening Room: Outrages and Miracles at DOC NYC

The eighth DOC NYC film festival continues through this Thursday, with more movies than you would ever have time to see. My coverage of the festival continues over at Film Journal International‘s Screener blog:

Picking your way among the choices at DOC NYC 2017 is a rewarding but sometimes daunting task. There are documentaries about strife in the Middle East, the cats of Istanbul, a science-fiction utopia in Minnesota, a Golden Age of Hollywood hustler, and how an animated store clerk has driven a standup comedian insane for years. Opening the schedule to a random page works too…

 

Writer’s Desk: Pull It All Apart

In his Essays in the Art of Writing, Robert Louis Stevenson—born on November 13, 1850—showed little patience with the idea that writing was some ineffable and inexplicable transmission from the Muses. But he was aware that showing people, particularly non-writers, how the sausage is made, seemed to dismay them:

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.

There’s nothing wrong with dealing with the mechanics, of course. Without the strings and pulleys, a character can never get from Point A to B without losing the reader’s interest.

Stevenson went on:

I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

That’s what writers have to do: Pull the cart to pieces. How else can you be sure that it will run?

Reader’s Corner: These Cops Carry Books

The Minneapolis police department is starting something new with its community police efforts. According to the Star-Tribune:

In a partnership with Little Free Library, the department will turn a pair of its police cruisers into bookmobiles with the hope of teaching the importance of reading.

Community policing officers will carry books while they are making their rounds on the city’s North and South sides. They’ll still respond to certain emergencies, but won’t be dispatched to calls for help, freeing them up to visit neighborhoods without libraries and give away books to anyone who wants them.

But, discerning readers will ask, what kind of books will these officers be offering? A variety, it appears:

For now, available titles to be given away range from children’s books like “Camp Wildhog” and “The Box Car Children: The Yellow House Mystery” to more adult fare, including a well-thumbed unauthorized biography of Martha Stewart.

Screening Room: DOC NYC 2017

The eighth edition of the DOC NYC film festival starts tomorrow. Among the 250-odd movies screening over about a week and a half are movies about Dutch nationalists, the Russian athletic doping conspiracy, high school dance teams, a cult leader named Father Divine, and CIA experiments with LSD (the last is Errol Morris’ killer four-hour epic Wormwood, image at bottom).

Tomorrow’s opening night movie is The Final Year, a behind-the-scenes look at the last year in office of President Obama’s foreign policy team (that’s them, above) which plays out with unexpected drama against the darkening shroud of Trump’s rocketing rise to the presidency. It’s getting released either later this year or in January and will show up eventually on HBO.

My preview of the goodies on show at DOC NYC is at Film Journal‘s Screener blog:

Today there seems to be a film festival for almost every taste and locality. In addition to the grand dames of the festival circuit like Toronto, Venice, Cannes and Telluride, with their red-carpet premieres and B-list stars getting A-list attention, there are more tightly focused cinematic gatherings, from Los Angeles’ Screamfest to the Ottawa International Animation Festival (both just what they sound like). So it can be refreshing to find a festival that simply wants to show as many amazing movies as possible…

More to follow next week.

Writer’s Desk: Always Be Working

Writers write. That we know. But there’s a lot they have to do before writing. There’s research, for one, not to mention all those little procrastinations that they tell themselves are actually helping the creative process.

No less an authority than the great Lawrence Block said, “Writers work all the time.” But often that work doesn’t look like work.

Let Block explain:

Take the other day, for example. What did I do with myself? How did the busy little bee improve each hour? Just what action did I take to put words on the page and bring money into the house?

Well, let’s see. I read a couple of books and a magazine or two. I watched a ball game on television. I got wet in the Gulf and dried off in the sun.

What’s that? You say it doesn’t sound like work?

A lot you know.

Take the reading, for example. Now, a lot of reading is research. Sometimes it’s specific research, when I want to learn something that I need to know in order to write something I’m working on, or planning to work on. Sometimes it’s general research, like reading a book on precious and semiprecious gemstones because I frequently write books about people who steal such things. And sometimes it’s not exactly research, but it’s a matter of keeping up with what other people in my field are doing.

Mr. Block has published in excess of 100 books, so whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

Go on, keep up the “research.” You never know what will come in handy.

Screening Room: ’11/8/16′

Remember Election Day last year? Feel like living through it all again? If you have the constitution for it, check out the new documentary 11/8/16, opening this week in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The disputatious and fractured omnibus documentary 11/8/16 nibbles at too many stories in too short a time to make the one great American tale it seems to be aiming for. There are glimmers of larger import here, various signifiers of this or that impulse from a certain slice of the electorate. But much like the news media in its breathless coverage of the 2016 presidential election, its onslaught of 16 points of view creates more of a cacophony than anything else…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

So there’s another Thor movie out, and this one’s a blast.

Thor: Ragnarok opens tonight. My review is at PopMatters:

It says something when one of a movie’s main attractions is Cate Blanchett slinking around in a slinky black unitard and a halo of horns saying things such as “Kneel before me!” and it doesn’t quite capture your attention. That’s just the kind of ride that Thor: Ragnarok is. This is a “Damn the torpedoes!” operation. One imagines Marvel turning the keys of the studio over to director Taika Waititi, and saying to him, “There’s a couple hundred million on the kitchen counter, have fun. Oh, and make it seem like it’s the last movie we’re ever going to make”…

Here’s the trailer: