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.

Writer’s Desk: Be Ready to Fail

Back in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, one of the great American memoirs of the past few decades. In 2015 came Between the World and Me, a tender but hard-edged book-length essay on everything his son needed to know about growing up black in America.

As one of nation’s top public intellectuals, and one whose prose style is so frequently lauded, it’s difficult to think of Coates now in the same way that most writers think of themselves: frustrated, frightened, failing. From Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power:

[Writers] must learn to abandon appeal and expectation. Failure is the norm for writers—firings and layoffs, rejected pitches, manuscripts tossed into the wastebins, bad reviews, uninterested editors, your own woeful first drafts, they all form a chorus telling you to quit with whatever dignity you still have intact.

It’s a bracing reminder of the everyday struggle. But then Coates reminds us how to muscle past it:

If you are going to write, you must learn to work in defiance of this chorus, in defiance of the unanswered pitches, of the books that find no audience, and most of all, in defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page.

Remember that failure is not just an option, but a likelihood. If you can’t acknowledge that fact, then maybe writing is not for you. If, however, you are the person who can put their shoulder to that always-closed door and keep pushing, then maybe you have what it takes.

Writer’s Desk: The Costanza Rule

Occasionally, sitcoms can help. So you have all seen the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”? (If somehow not, go here for the gist.) In short, that’s the episode where the perennially selfish, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging George Costanza realizes that his best change for success is ignoring all of his instincts and doing exactly the opposite.

In honor of Costanza’s insight, it would behoove many writers to check out the Twitter account The Worst Muse. Its “advice” is solid gold:

It’s still not too late to add a vampire.

If a character is in New York, she’s got to be either a model or a writer, right?

If your alien culture isn’t a thinly veiled allegory for contemporary politics, what’s the point?

Follow the Costanza rule with every one of these tweets and you’ll be set.

Writer’s Desk: Do What Edgar Rice Burroughs Did

Edgar Rice Burroughs, born September 1 in 1875, is arguably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, for better or worse.

As with many bestselling writers who almost seem to fall into success, Burroughs had a varied employment record ranging from ranch hand to teacher and ad man before turning to fiction in his 30s. Once he started with the first Tarzan of the Apes stories in 1911, he never stopped.

By the time of his death in 1950, Burroughs had published nearly 70 adventure novels ranging from the Tarzan series to John Carter of Mars and other fictional universes involving dinosaurs, civilizations under the surface of the earth, and so on. His books were translated into dozens of languages and spawned innumerable movies, comic books, and TV and radio series, not to mention creating the DNA of the century’s pulp fiction aesthetic.

In 1939, when Burroughs was as big in the cultural imagination (if not bigger) than James Patterson or Stephen King today, Alva Johnson published “How to Become a Great Writer” in The Saturday Evening Post. Using Burroughs as a template, Johnson included a list of what helps make a great writer:

  1. Be a disappointed man.
  2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
  3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
  4. Hate civilization.
  5. Learn no grammar.
  6. Read little.
  7. Write nothing.
  8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.
  9. Avoid subjects that you know about.

Johnson’s tongue is planted in cheek here, but only somewhat

In other words, ignore the history and habits of bestselling writers at your own peril.

Writer’s Desk: Style and Forbearance, Young Scribe

The great dispenser of acid-laced bon mots Dorothy Parker, born on August 22 in 1893, had the occasional bit of advice for writers. To wit:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.

Hard to argue with, yes? Strunk and White’s paen to simplicity is a must-have tool for any writer of any age.

But Parker went on:

The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

While people have a low tolerance for writers whingeing about the frustrations baked in to the writing life—nobody forced us to do it, after all—it’s worth pointing out to those just embarking on that path that happiness and fulfillment don’t necessarily follow.

Just writing, and writing well (preferably with a copy of Strunk and White at your side), must often be its own reward.

Writer’s Desk: See the Future

There’s a lot of would-be science-fiction writers out there, but it’s a crowded market and not enough buyers.

For those who like imagining future scenarios but don’t always have the best publication to place them in, there’s possibilities with a firm called SciFutures. According to this New Yorker profile, the company uses a network of a hundred or so writers (including Ken Liu of the Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem) to craft customized stories for corporate clients, known as “corporate visioning”:

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged … She and [founder Ari] Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters. Phillips mentioned one story that initially featured a kangaroo running amok in a major North American city. The client, a carmaker, asked that the marsupial be removed.

More interestingly, some of their clients include the military, who is always looking for new ways to confront threats they haven’t conceived yet.

That’s where the writers come in.

Writer’s Desk: Own the Fear

Plenty of writers out there are anxious about what kind of physical and spiritual damage is going to be wrought on America and the world by the short-fingered vulgarian currently inhabiting the White House (or not).

Many (like Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, and Junot Diaz) are agitating and speaking their minds, and some are protesting. They know that civil rights, basic freedoms, and great swathes of the social safety net are already in jeopardy.

But the arts are threatened as well—what with plans already afoot to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (so apply now for those Creative Writing Fellowships, just in case).

With all that going on, the temptation is certainly there to just play ostrich and pretend the next four years isn’t going to happen. There’s plenty that one could write which doesn’t engage with the current crisis at all. In the Village Voice, Aleksandar Hemon argues for something different:

What I call for is a literature that craves the conflict and owns the destruction … Never should we assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that America cannot be a fascist state, or that the nice-guy neighbor will not be a murderer because he gives out candy at Halloween.

So recognize that ignoring what’s coming might briefly make you happier but it probably won’t make you a better writer. As Hermon says, to write about America, we must be ready “to fight in the streets and in our sentences.”

If your writing truly engages with that fear and uncertainty, it’ll be grueling and possibly frightening. But it’ll make for a hell of a story.