Reddit’s Tips for Writers

A recent thread on Reddit asked for [“simple tips that make a huge difference in other people’s writing.”][1] Some interesting things are mentioned–read your work out loud, watch use of adverbs, etc.–but these eight tips from Kurt Vonnegut also got posted:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


Peer Review

Occasionally when I am reading about coding practices, I am struck by the richness and clarity which maintains what is essentially a writing process. I think there is something more to be examined there, and, perhaps once the boat book is done and the narrative project is underway, there will be time to consider how software writing is writing and what that may mean for how we think about writing.

All of this is occasioned, by the way, by a [post on StackExchange][se], about how to deal with code review in, what other programmers argue, is an unstructured review process. In the case, of the original question, a team member has his code reviewed by the assistant lead for the team, who makes changes without talking about the changes with the writer. The writer naturally wants to own his own code and to understand what he did wrong, but he also feels like the assistant lead occasionally makes corrections before a piece of code is completed — and so there may be “working errors” in the code (what writer he can’t commiserate over a terrible sentence, or paragraph even, that’s there as a placeholder?) — and occasionally adds code that the writer doesn’t feel is very readable. (This is all incredibly rich stuff for thinking about composition and writing in general, no?)

As I note above, other programmers basically respond that the individual involved, the assistant lead, is not so much the problem as the code review system itself. It’s worth thinking about the fact that the only time we offer writing experiences as structured as this in the university environment is in courses, and usually only in courses focused on writing. Sometimes, depending on the faculty member, we may offer such an experience to students working on theses and dissertations.

Why don’t we offer more? Because our infrastructure is so poor. Using a word processor with the commenting and reviewing features turned on is a first step, but it hardly allows the writer, and the reviewer, to compare versions of a document, to track changes across multiple iterations. Jonathan Goodwin and I took our first steps in this regard this past fall when we decided to compose our essay using *LaTeX* and used a *Git* repository hosted on [*Bitbucket*][bb]. (The repository is currently private, but we do plan to make it public.) *Wouldn’t it be exciting if every student began their university career with a repository that they maintained and with which various instructors and peers interacted, contributed, or reviewed over the course of their education?*

Towards that end, there were a couple of suggestions for *peer review* platforms made in the StackExchange thread that I thought I would note here. The first package mentioned is [Atlassian’s *Crucible*][ac], which I mention here first as well because it should work well with *BitBucket*, which is also by Atlassian. (And if you haven’t signed up for BitBucket, you should. It’s free for academics. The chief advantage over *GitHub* is, as noted above, the option to have private repositories.) More importantly, just attend to the way the elaborations possible in the review process offered by something like *Crucible*:

* Crucible provides configurable options to track and complete reviews (defined workflow, moderator, one or more participants).
* *Reviews are about comments.* Crucible supports fully threaded comments so teams can discuss code at different times and locations.
* Reviewers can navigate several revisions of a file under review. If a newer revision of a file is available, Crucible will indicate that the file is outdated, and provide a shortcut to quickly add the latest revision.
* Quickly create pre-commit reviews while you’re in the flow of coding from the command line–no logging into Crucible, no context switching.
* Some source (or any text) just needs to be discussed without a formal review process. Crucible provides ways to discuss code informally.
* To help stay on top of your reviews, you can: subscribe via email or RSS to review activity, including new comments, status change, or file additions; bookmark reviews or review comments as favorites to revisit them later.
* Sometimes developers forget about code reviews that need their attention. Automatically or manually notify reviewers who have not completed your code reviews. Set up reminders for reviews with due dates or manually “nudge” them to get their attention.
* All of this can be managed, and reviewed, through a dashboard.

That is a fantastic set of options, and, again, much of it is available either at a significant discount for academic institutions or for free for open source, non-profits, and classrooms. (See the [Pricing] page for details.)

Crucible is not the only game in town, and there are straight-up open source alternatives. One is [Review Board][rb]. Like Crucible it offers a dashboard that summarizes what an individual user (writer!) usually wants to know. It also hosts a diff viewer that allows you to see at a glance if things have simply been moved — a nice feature to have in any diff viewer.

Okay, there is a lot of terminology above that is going to be foreign to most humanists, and even a lot of scientists. E.g., repository (repo), commit(s), diff (short for difference). And the overviews for each of these packages, Crucible and Review Board, reveals that everything is in this weirdly unformatted form known as plain text, an equally strange term (and concept, unfortunately) for most non-coders.

My underlying argument is all this could, and should, change. I recognize that the kind of writing we do as scholars, and scientists, is different than the kind of writing done by software developers, but that shouldn’t stop us from adapting useful technologies when they present themselves. The argument for this is pretty straightforward: the computer was not invented as a writing tool, and yet almost everyone I know uses it as such. (And, in fact, we complain when our students don’t use it as a writing tool but as a distraction device.)

This is, obviously, a tentative first step in a much longer, I hope, argument. I can’t give it the attention I would like right now because I am in the middle of writing myself. While my next research project is focused on the intersections of narrative and ideology, I would like to take some time out to think about how “writing is writing.” For now, I am tagging this as such, *writingiswriting*. We’ll see what accrues to this tag over time.


Scrivener Tips

A number of my graduate students have taken the [Scrivener][] challenge and are finding their writing lives made much easier. Since I feel like there is a whole lot more to this application yet for me to learn, too, I am creating this post as a place to list various tips and usage scenarios that look interesting.

* The first thing that many writers find themselves doing, after perhaps re-arranging the deck furniture (sizing windows, setting the text zoom) is to set up their preferred typographic schema: type face (font), type size, line spacing, paragraph indentation, block quote citation, etc. If that’s the case, then Gwen Hernandez has a nice [run-down][] of how to make that scheme standard for all your new documents as well as how to convert existing documents to your scheme.
* The next thing most researchers in need of citation management want to do is to figure out how to use their preferred citation manager. Scrivener supports BookEnds and Sente out of the box, and it appears that Papers is quite workable. (I am currently testing Papers, having skipped Sente because it requires syncing through its own servers, at an additional cost and because Bookends seems to have developed so slowly. I have tried and tried to love Zotero, but it does not love me back, and so I am going to spend the money to see how well Papers works for me. And let’s not discuss EndNote, which is just too expensive for my regional-public-university-salary-frozen-for-the-past-eight-year’s budget.)
* **CMD + SHIFT + T** is your friend. It allows you to check your progress for a given session, day, or other period you specific. I write Monday through Friday, and my goal is 500 words a day. I have set the pop-up to calculate from midnight to midnight, so if I quite Scrivener, for whatever reason, during the say, then my count for the day is not lost. (It also means that if I leave it open overnight, I don’t get credit for the previous day’s work.) When things are going well, I can get more work done than that — sometimes averaging 1000 words a day at a stretch — but I regard 500 words as a reasonable average. For my own records, I’ll write down the day’s word count at the end of the day in the margins of my calendar.



I have more to say about the ideas found in this video as well as the ideas found in [a recent post by Scott Weingart][] — I especially want to think about his opening line where he deplores the dark corners of the humanities — but for now I’ll post this recent whiteboard animation by [the RSA][] (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce):

And while I’m thinking about it: I am really keen to find an application that will allow one to create presentations that would, in essence, be based on a complete illustration, say an 11 x 17 tabloid-sized poster, but that would allow you to “navigate” it or pan and zoom to display small pieces at a time. I know [Prezi][] does this, but Prezi is very web-centric and access to their desktop application is an annual subscription. For those who are Mac users, you may know that [OmniGraffle Pro][] has a presentation mode, but it’s still built around the traditional presentation model of multiple slides, or in OG’s terminology, canvases. Apple’s [Keynote][] application will animate differences between slides, but you don’t end up with one common graphic as your output. (Speaking of which, Keynote’s print output options are abominably limited: PowerPoint is years ahead in this regard.)

[a recent post by Scott Weingart]:
[the RSA]:
[OmniGraffle Pro]:

Macbeth V.5

The complete quotation:

> She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

[Check out this example of Paul Graham composing “Startups in 13 Sentences.”]( You can pause, fast forward, rewind. Stypi was built for real-time editing with multiple users but it also lets you play back your typing and editing later so that you can “see” the nature of the composition. It’s like the iOS Brushes app for Words. On your computer.

Plague Doctors

I am reading Jeffrey Carver’s Eternity’s End, which features a version of The Flying Dutchman legend in it. (A bit too obviously — really, the allusion would have sufficed without constantly being told, “Hey, it’s a Flying Dutchman … in space!) A recent experiment in using a writing prompt had me re-writing Sherlock Holmes with the narrator, Watson, being an AI. I find myself fascinated by these kinds of revisions, and so I can’t help but wonder what one could do with the image and idea of plague doctors:

A Plague Doctor, by Faul Furst

Henry Miller on Writing

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Thanks, [Brain Pickings](

Better Blogging

Every once in a while the blogosphere likes to [talk to itself about blogging][1]. To my mind, it really comes down to this: **write what you want to read** and **don’t assume your reader, which isn’t you, knows what you are talking about**.


On Progress and the Occasion of Its Lack Thereof

I have over the past few years increasingly encouraged students to keep a journal of some kind as they begin work on projects. Blogs are acceptable, since they give one the chance to publish something — or at least create an atmosphere in which one is reminded that you hope to find, or create, a public interested in your work. Whether a journal or a blog, the most important thing is to write. Words don’t just flow; they don’t just happen. They have to be strung together into sentences and those sentences grouped into paragraphs and those paragraphs diligently blocked into sections called sections or chapters.

But the key is to write.

My friend Rodger Kamenetz once said, “You have to be there to get it.” And by that, I have always thought he meant that you have to write. Writing is like any other activity, any other skill: it requires practice. The great thing about writing is that sometimes the practice can turn out to be a really useful, and usable, piece of prose that one can use in a “non-practice” venue. The truly useful thing about a journal, or blog, whether it be handwritten or electronic is that one is free to copy from it to another work.

I am writing all this here as a way of practicing quite literally what I preach. After a really nice start to the summer with something like 12,000 words written in the manuscript, the past two weeks have seen the mighty wheels of the book grinding, if not quite to a halt, then grinding much more slowly. So much so that I decided to take a momentary break to revise an essay for the _Journal of American Folklore_ that is very much past due.

I will have a bit more to say about the revision of the essay in the next day or so, as I complete that work, but I did want to spend some time here noting the slow-down in writing and encouraging myself, and my students (should they read this), to try this: chronicle even the moments when the writing is not going so well.

I’ll even go so far as to offer up a bit of a chronicle…

As some of you know, I am trying to write this book less like a scholarly monograph and more like trade nonfiction. This has been harder than I could have imagined. A lot of the practice I had been getting in by writing various commissioned essays for the Louisiana Crossroads performance series were really more belletristic than I imagined this book being. Like some of my scholarly work, those belletristic essays are very tightly-bound pieces, the binding made up of very careful turns of language that, I hope, convey an idea with a fair amount of precision. I want this manuscript to be “looser,” with the ideas being conveyed not in highly-tuned sentences and paragraphs but in paragraphs and sections that feel like packets of information casually, but purposefully, put together.

The structure of these sections looks something like this:

1. **Making Land**
* *Something Amphibious This Way Comes* – description of a crawfish boat at work
* *The Olinger Repair Shop* – introduction to the book’s multi-threaded argument
* *Hills and Holes* – the geology and topography of south Louisiana
* *We’re Not That* – a very brief history of the Cajuns
* *(no working title)* – a very brief history of the Germans
* *Ein bateau* – a survey of the area’s folklore
2. **Making History**
* Survey of Louisiana folk boats, especially with an eye to amphibious forms
* The Rise of the Crawfish Boat
* The First Field Day
* … Profiles of the various makers
3. **Making Minds**

Each section is designed to be 2000 to 5000 words long, which gives me a lot of flexibility, which is the goal of having no chapter structure. So what I have are parts and sections, each of which can grow or shrink according to demand and desire.

Within that scheme, the first and third sections of the first part are done as are the second, third, and fourth sections of the second part, as well as various sections in the third part of the book (whose structure is not yet clear to me).

The last week of June just sort of got frittered away, but I spend last week working on the second section of the first part, the crucial laying out of the thesis section. I am 3000 words in, make no mistake I got some writing done!, but I am not entirely convinced that any of the plans I have cooked up for that section have been or will be successful.

And so I jumped out of that section and into the Cajun history section, §4 of Part I, where I got hung up on how to construct the frame for the section.

Two things to note here:

* First, each section of the book possesses a narrative frame. The book simply doesn’t tell you about the crawfish boat: it puts you in a boat with someone — in this case, Randy Gossen. The book doesn’t talk about shops … okay, enough about what the book does … I don’t talk about the shops and what happens there, I want to put you in a shop so that you can “see” some things while I talk about them. In the case of the section that follows on geology, I narrate a fair amount of material while Dwayne Gossen in his tractor water levels a field.

* Second, I want to narrate the history of Cajuns while traveling with the Mermentau Mardi Gras … and, I just figured out how to do that while writing this entry.

And so, I made my point.

And So It Begins

Note: Work on Genius Loci has begun. I can’t promise to publish everything of the book here — I don’t think my publisher would be too keen on that — but I would like to share with folks what the book is looking like. As always, comments are welcome. (Send them to me by e-mail or post them on Reddit or Digg or even Facebook.) I’ll have more news about other parts of the book, and, I hope, quite a few more glimpses.

How It Begins

The wind that blew lightly over the freshly plowed rice fields was just cold enough to chill exposed fingers and cheeks and just strong enough to rustle nearby trees. Perched somewhere unseen in the trees, a few birds whistled their wakefulness. Moving across a narrow blacktop road, the wind picks at the surface of a flooded field, transforming its smooth surface into thousands of fractals, each reflecting the sun, still low in the sky, differently.

It was, for all the world, a quiet country morning until a small engine clattered to life. Its owner ran it up for a moment, and then let it settle down to an idle that will let it warm itself to the day’s work. The sound of the motor was high, almost nasally when compared to the throatier roar of the big diesel engines that typically make their way across these fields powering tractors. This sound was more like something you would hear on a suburban lawn than an agricultural field. And that was about right, since this motor could only offer up twenty-five horsepower.

The motor continued its fierce vibrato, while Randy Gossen finished loading his boat with bait for the morning’s run. The plastic tubs were full of frozen fish chopped, depending upon their original size, in halves and thirds. The fish were chub, trash fish to most fishermen and a bycatch of the menhaden fishery. The tubs were the same ones seen in any retail store when shelves are being restocked. The chopped chub were packed tightly in the tub, but they still managed to shift a bit as Gossen slid them off the lowered tail gate of his truck and onto the floor of the boat. He countered the shift using his tall frame to his advantage, and the chopped fish settled back into place with a low squelch.

The boat’s engine rumbled low and steady, while Gossen continued to prepare for the morning’s work. The gas tank was already filled, the oil already checked, the boat already given a good once-over before anything else got done. Everything done, he glanced over the water sparkling in the morning sun, as he prepared to climb into the boat. It was another great morning.

An investigator the rest of the year, Randy Gossen lives for crawfish season. It is his time. A time to be outside. A time to think. A time to watch the slow turn and change of the world. Two nearby television antennas that tower over him went up as he watched from the seat in his boat. The land from which they rise is not being farmed now, but somewhere in Gossen’s eyes there was a long view of things that saw a tractor, or some other machine not yet imagined, one day turning the soil in order to coax rice or soybeans from the land. If that future machine does, perhaps there will be a chance to coax crawfish out of the land, too.

Randy Gossen himself does not farm. He works in collaboration with his cousin Dwayne Gossen. Dwayne farms over a thousand acres each year. Some of it is family land; some of it belongs to others, who have placed in him their trust to bring it the best crop possible. Some fields he will plant with rice, and others soybeans. Some of those fields will rotate between those two crops in years to come, but others he will rotate between rice and crawfish, and in those fields he places his trust in his cousin.

Crawfish are not a crop like rice or soybeans, and they have largely, as we will see later, resisted easy understanding. Wresting them from the ground successfully comes from years of patient observation as well as individual trial and error. Anyone who crawfishes can tell you that even then, getting the crawfish reliably out of a field and into a sack is nothing to be taken for granted.

Randy Gossen stooped under the boat’s canopy and stepped in. He slid the tubs into place, his tall frame into the driver’s seat, and the sorting table back on its rails so that it was within easy reach. With everything in place, he throttled up the engine, and slid the boat backwards off the land and into the water. With a practiced sense of timing, he flipped the lever that switched the boat into forward motion and began his first run of the day. Ahead of him lay a string of crawfish traps, spaced approximately forty feet apart.

With the boat itself setting a slow deliberate pace, Gossen began his day by picking up an empty trap he had left near the beginning of his run and baiting it. The trap is made out of nylon-coated steel mesh and looks like a three-sided pyramid, a tetrahedron, with a large, cylindrical chimney coming out of its top. At each bottom corner of the pyramid, the mesh has been pushed back in on itself, forming a funnel which opens into the body of the trap.

Properly placed, usually anchored with a steel rod but sometimes only carefully set down, a trap sits on the bottom with the funnels offering an easy entrance to its interior. The bait is the welcome sign to the crawfish, who, having made their way in, cannot get back out. Their exit comes as Randy plucks a trap from the water, empties it from the top, re-baits it, and then places the trap not where it was but where the next trap is, as it itself is plucked from the water to be emptied, re-baited, and then replaced. The boat never stops. Its engine’s roar changes rarely.

Gossen proceeded along his first line of traps, his body quickly remembering the rhythm and tempo of the work. The light breeze occasionally pushed at the boat, sliding sideways over the water, and he responded with a deft tap of his feet to the steering pedals that lay beneath the sorting tray. At the end of the first line, a steady push of his left foot on its pedal turned the boat leftwards, where more traps lay waiting. This morning, Randy began by working the line of traps at the perimeter of the cut — as the small, leveed off sections of rice fields are usually known. As he approached his starting point, he turned in and started working the next line of traps in the forty acre cut, following what amounted to a large, oblong spiral.

Trap upon trap, the work is steady. At each trap, Gossen leans a bit out of the boat and reaches down with his right hand to snare the rim of the trap. He switches the rim to his left hand as he picks the trap up and uses his right hand to dump its contents into the sorting table in front of him. He switches hands again and digs for a piece of slowly thawing, and increasingly smelling, fish and drops it into the trap before placing the trap back into the water. That done, he has time to regard the contents of his catch, surveying the crawfish — Are they getting bigger? Have they molted recently? What price will this lot fetch? — to determine what changes he needs to make, if any, to his operation and to pluck out weeds and any other detritus that have come up in the trap. Today, the catch was reasonable and Gossen was enjoying the steady, if also a little slow, accumulation of crawfish on the table. Every few traps he opened the doors to the chutes that guide the crawfish into the waiting sacks hanging off the table and then he cleans the table of any remaining bits with a deft swirling motion of his hand that catches everything in it.

After about a half hour or so of steady work, Gossen had a sack of crawfish already tied up and lying on the bow deck of the boat, and he had two more sacks that were close to full hanging off the sorting table. This part of the field was done and it was time to move onto the next.

Gossen continued on this way, adding thirty acres to forty acres to twenty-five acres and slowly working his way across the entire field. The work is always the same, but the views change as the boat moves about and as the sun rises. With luck, the cool breeze and the warm sun combine to make for a pleasant day. On other days, the wind blows cold and hard and picks up an impressive bite as it crosses the water and slams into the boat’s slab hull, pushing it about. Towards the end of the season, the breezes die away and there is only the heat growing heavier as the day wears on. And then there’s the rain.

But today was a perfect day. Trap after trap. Line after line. Cut after cut. Each rhythm combined to make the time pass quickly until the moment came to move from one field to another, and that was when something amazing happened. Not so amazing for Randy Gossen who does it many times a morning when crawfishing, but amazing for anyone else who might happen to be standing nearby and watching: Gossen pointed the boat at a corner of the field which led to the road where his truck sat. The boat dutifully took his directions and quickly ran its bow up onto the dirt at the field’s edge, pushing water in front of it, slicking the dirt into mud. Most boats would have stopped there and awaited the pull of an arm or a winch to beach it thoroughly, but Gossen drove the boat further and further onto land, with only a slight pause to give the engine a bit more gas and to operate a hydraulic ram.

And the boat, the boat heaved itself onto the land, exposing for the first time the wheels just behind its bow and demonstrating quite forcefully the power of its drive unit, which was not a propeller, but a large, cleated steel wheel that rolled the boat down the field road, where Gossen turned and dropped into the next field.

Of Notebooks

There’s a lovely post by Whitney Carpenter up at The Bygone Bureau, wherein she describes her own misfortunate investment in “just the right” notebook and other writing paraphernalia as a way to imagine herself as a writer. It’s both a kind of perfectionism and a kind of procrastination. (And I think it’s currently the consensus that the two are often intertwined.)

Carpenter does a marvelous job of chronicling the various notebooks she bought as she builds toward a nice realization — understood here both as visualization and as epiphany — that the notebooks are just weighing her down. (An idea she reinforces by, quite literally, toting an antique typewriter in the trunk of her car.)

I confess I have been down the path myself. For me, it ended when I realized that the larger Moleskine notebooks were good enough for me. In short, they worked. Writing instruments? I almost entirely rely upon a handful of mechanical pencils. My preference for them is simple:

* I make mistakes and I like being able to erase those mistakes instead of lining through them. (I like to be neat when I can.)
* Graphite does not run when wet. I am around a lot of open water in my field research, and I have been known to drop things. Even if there is no water in the ground, it’s also the case that I am often in extremely hot environments and, well, I sweat.

When I am working at a desk, I use a stiff-backed yellow notepad. I tear out pages as I fill them and they can easily get filed where they need to go. (This also makes it easy to find notes, since the yellow pages contrast easily with the various sheets of white paper that are photocopies or printouts.)

My entire writing life is nothing more complicated than that. *Oh, you didn’t imagine that note-taking at meetings would be part of my writing life?* That particular decision was not one I made but one that got made for me once I realized the difficulty of keeping the various notes from various parts of my life in diverse notebooks. It’s just easier, I finally realized, if everything goes into one notebook. Some people call this approach by naming the item a “day book” or an “everyday book.” I just call the thing my notebook. The only thing not in it is my fieldwork. (Well, that an truly personal information which I keep elsewhere.)

Having everything in one place requires that I perform some regular checking back over the past few pages/days to see what needs to get carried forward, but that’s a fairly pleasant task and that kind of review is built into various organization strategies, like GTD, anyway. I get it for free. (How nice is that?)

Re-reading Alistair MacLean

Shortly after moving into our old house, my wife and I stepped into the wonderful maze of the remaining independent bookseller in Lafayette that also happened to be in our neighborhood. Inside, in one of those lovely moments of finding something from your past, I came across a copy of Alistair MacLean’s South by Java Head. As an adolescent reader, I had rapidly run through my father’s collection of MacLean novels. They were, in a way, my next step after the Hardy Boys.

I had read the Navarone books, and I remembered reading a whole lot of others, but I had never read South by Java Head, which was MacLean’s third published novel. Strangely enough, it was a lot like one of my favorites of MacLean, The Golden Rendezvous, which I had carried with me as a battered paper back through many years of graduate school. Reading South by Java Head scratched an itch and it didn’t spur me to read more of MacLean for a while. A few years went by and I found myself purchasing a few more here and there, but I wasn’t drawn to read them. Not until this past summer when something about being in the new house returned me to MacLean and I read The Golden Rendezvous (again), Ice Station Zebra, and Night Without End.

And now I am reading The Secret Ways, and my initial response is that I like South by Java Head and The Golden Rendezvous better. Unlike the other books, at least those I have re-read so far, SbJH and TGR do not feature professional spies as protagonists but rather capable men simply caught up in larger events. It may be no accident that both men are executive officers of merchant ships. MacLean was himself a sailor: his first book H.M.S. Ulysses was, I believe, based fairly closely on his naval experience. Perhaps he is at his best when imagining himself caught up in larger events.

Another response is that MacLean’s prose, when he is at his best, is quite good. Better than Clive Cussler. I am listening to Cussler’s The Chase right now as an Audible book, and I have listened to two of the books from the Oregon Files series. Cussler’s prose really can’t be even described as workman-like, for at times it is so — clumsy? awkward? — that it actually gets in the way of itself. (Please note that I am quite sure Cussler doesn’t care one whit about evaluations of his prose style: the man has produced a remarkable oeuvre not only in his “only-author” books but also in the franchises he has set up with other authors. He is able to do so because readers have come to expect a certain kind of book from him and his name is a trustworthy brand to deliver that content. I should be so industrious and smart as Cussler … I just wish I could edit him here and there. That’s all.)

I read both MacLean and Cussler less as an English professor and more as a writer: Could I do this? Could I pull off this plot line? How would I do it different? What story can I tell? What do they do well that I could imitate/use in my own work, no matter whether it is nonfiction or fiction?

I have no idea if there is any scholarly treatments of either author. Ian Fleming has certainly achieved a certain status now. Perhaps it is time to give MacLean his due. I wonder where he fits within the larger chronology of the development of the spy thriller or whatever one calls this genre that also includes the work of Cussler and Robert Ludlum — remember his three word titles? — and later folks like Tom Clancy and I suppose now Dan Brown(?).

O’Brian’s Historical Fiction

A long, long time ago I noted — in a post so ancient that I think it actually exists in a database long ago archived — that Patrick O’Brian’s fiction was something for contemporary historians and ethnographers to emulate, to take as an example of fiction that was both enormously popular and capable of delivering vast amounts of historical/ethnographic data to a readership that simply wanted more. Indeed, as Jo Walton points out in her terrific re-reading of the entire series on O’Brian himself realized his readers loved the technology and the characters so much that he gave up history in order to keep the machine going. I suppose it is the boon of the science fiction writer and the bane of the historical fiction writer that time is not as bounded in the former as it is in the latter — though Walton’s playful picking at the boundaries, and her promise of writing a novel realizing her play, is to be admired.

Coppola on Short Fiction

In the middle of her interview with Coppola, Ariston Anderson asks him, “What is the one thing to keep in mind when making a film?” Coppola replies:

When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality.

It’s great advice for writing short stories, too. And perhaps essays. And sections of books. I am going to try it out as I revise the first few sections of the boat book, now that I think I know what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

I’d also like to try that advice in writing a short story: I should note that I was very inspired by my viewing of the Walker Percy film yesterday. What Percy did again and again was to observe life around him and try to capture it accurately. He didn’t reach for far away places and he didn’t reach into the past. The New Orleans of his novels was the New Orleans he knew.

In his wake I find I want to challenge myself to do much the same: to document as best I can the reality around me. Right now I am working on a book that’s about boats, but it’s also about the prairies, a place much mythified even by folklorists. (I just saw a film today that was about the country Mardi Gras, one day out of a year filled otherwise with trying to wrestle rice out of the ground.) After the countryside, it would be nice to turn to this small city in which I life, Lafayette, and capture it as it is, try to understand it as it is. It is much like other places, and it is also different from other places, but we can only those similarities and differences if we actually document them. Otherwise we are only working from a collection of so many personal anecdotes, which is poor stuff compared to a more organized study.