Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hemingway's Best Guide on Writing

I was reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals this evening -- a NY Times Bestseller from 1988, described as "A fascinating portrait about the minds that have shaped the modern world.... intriguing series of case studies [on], Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson..." -- and I came across this interesting bit of information. "....Hemingway had had the advantage of an excellent training on the Kansas City Star. Its successive editors had compiled a house-style book of 110 rules designed to force reporters to use plain, simple, direct and cliche-free English, and these rules were strictly enforced. Hemingway later called them 'the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing.'"  I found the rules after a short search...here's an excerpt:

  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word as "Funeral services will be at 2 o'clock Tuesday," not "Thefuneral services will be held at the hour of 2 o'clock on Tuesday." He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.
  • Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. "He, also, went" means "He, too, went." "He went also" means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word "only". "He only had $10," means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; "He had only $10," means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
  • Say "She was born in Ireland and came to Jackson County in 1874," not "but came to Jackson County." She didn't come here to make amends for being born in Ireland. This is common abuse of the conjunction.
  • Don't say "He had his leg cut off in an accident." He wouldn't have had it done for anything.
  • "He suffered a broken leg in a fall," not "he broke his leg in a fall." He didn't break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.
  • In writing of animals, use the neuter gender except when you are writing of a pet that has a name.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: "I should prefer," the speaker said, "to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible."
  • Try to preserve the atmosphere of the speech in your quotation. For instance, in quoting a child, do not let him say "Inadvertently, I picked up the stone and threw it."
  • Such words as "tots," 'urchins," "mites of humanity" are not to be used in writing of children. In such cases, where "kid" conveys the proper shading and fits the story, it is permissible.
  • He died of heart disease, not heart failure--everybody dies of "heart failure."
  • Resolutions are adopted, not passed. Bills are passed and laws are enacted. The house or senate passed a bill; congress or the legislature enacted a law.
  • Both simplicity and good taste suggest house rather than residence, and lives rather thanresides.
  • A Woman of the Name of Mary Jones--Disrespect is attached to the individual in such cases. Avoid it. Never use it even in referring to street walkers.

Here's the original style sheet, although hard to read, from the KC Star.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Writing with WIne

An interesting fact about ink that I just read over at NPR's website:
Glass of Red Wine, courtesy of Wikipedia
"For centuries, writers relied on alcohol to keep the words flowing in a far less boozy form than the Burroughs and Hemingways of literary history: the wine ink pen.

Wine, it turns out, was a key ingredient in many recipes for iron gall ink — for all you non-ink nerds, that was the writing ink used by most of the Western world from the Middle Ages all the way up to the 19th century....The chemistry involved can get pretty wonky, but basically, the wine was believed to make the coloring agents in ink more stable. Wine was also considered a purer solvent than water. And iron gall inks were prized because they were so indelible."

Link of the Week

"The Bookworm" by Carl Spitzweg
Wow.  Driving home the other day I was listening to the radio and stumbled upon "Bookworm," a radio show which hosts established and upcoming authors of fiction and poetry (scrolling through the large cache of interviews I found a few non-fiction writers as well).   All of the interviews are available for free on the web.  The inventory of interviews is huge -- going back all the way to 1990s.  For us book lovers, finding another place were books are discussed is like finding another trunk of treasure.  Truly.  So this was a pleasant discovery while flipping through the AM channels.   

Here's the description from the website:

A must for the serious reader, Bookworm showcases writers of fiction and poetry - the established, new or emerging - all interviewed with insight and precision by the show's host and guiding spirit, Michael Silverblatt.

You'll find the website with the podcasts here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Quote of the Week

The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.  -- Descartes

Monday, April 22, 2013

Best Military Reading List, Ever

I was surfing around this evening for new and inspiring reading lists on military history/biography books, and after a few queries I ended right back up at one of my favorite military blogs. Author and journalist Tom Ricks has a reading list he posted back in 2012 which he calls his "Best Military Reading List Ever: The ones he came back to read second time."  I didn't remember seeing his list, so I eagerly scrolled through the post.

Oscar Wilde once said that “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” A little strict, I believe. But Wilde hits on a significant point: the best books are the books we do want to read over and over again.  Ricks has a lot of Vietnam on there, a subject that certainly interests him. Colin Powell's memoir is on there (which I've read twice; excellent book), Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command (another excellent book), and a few others. It is not heavy in military classics -- Clausewitz is on there, but nothing else that would probably be considered a "military classic," no Sun Tzu, no Mahan, no Thucydides.  I'm not criticizing  the lack of classics, it's simply an observation.  Overall, it looks like a good list.  I haven't read many of the books that cover the Vietnam war  -- so I can't speak to those -- but some of the others are certainly worth your time. 

His entire list is here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Do You Organize A Home Library?

I've recently finished Jacques Bonnet's small but excellent book, Phantoms On The Bookshelves.  Absolutely no question, Bonnet is a bibliophile.  He owns a library of some 40,000 titles.  That is a lot of books.  Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a short book, coming in at just over 100 pages.  It's full of anecdotes, aphorisms, and is really a long love letter to all book lovers.  He also has managed to drop fantastic quotes among his stories and reflections; every few pages you read such greats as:

"With few books, but learned/I live in conversation with the dead/ And I listen to the deceased with my eyes" - Francisco de Quevedo.

"[Writing is] great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances  of time and space." - Abraham Lincoln

"Some people are fond of horses, others of wild animals; in my case, I have been possessed since childhood by a prodigious desire to buy and own books." - Julian The Apostate

"Libraries, like museums, are a refuge from old age, sickness and death." - Jean Grenier....and many more.

One of my favorite parts of this slim volume, are the pages detailing the challenge of organizing 40,000 volumes.  He starts by describing Georges Perec's attempt at categorizing books, which Perec said could be done by:

by continent or country
by colour
by date of acquisition
by date of publication
by size
by genre
by literary period
by language
by frequency of consultation
by binding
by series

Bonnet categorizes his massive library by literature, non-fiction, and then the arts.  And within each genre he has it broken down into sub-genres (e.g., literature is then subdivided by language; art is divided into music, cinema, photography, etc).  But he spends many pages ruminating over the challenges categorizing so many books and the myriad of ways one may go about doing so.  Each to their own is his essential message, but best of luck if you have thousands of volumes to get in order.

Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a great read.  If you own lots of books, or someday wish to build your own impressive library, Bonnet will certainly leave your mouth watering.  Bonnet is a Frenchman, and many of the works he mentions are foreign works, most of which I've never heard of.  Not that they may not be excellent reads, but I suggest you bring a pencil and paper to write down the many titles he names and look them up later and see if any interest you.

A portion of my library on the living room floor in 2008
My library is still somewhere around 800 titles -- maybe more, maybe less.  But I'd say that's a good guess.  In 2008 I tried to organize my books but space has always been limited.  My wife's books always make their way among my books and I still spend too much time trying to find a particular title.  I envy Bonnet, who says that even among 40,000 titles he still knows where to find a particular book.  Someday I'll have a house large enough to hold my library of 800?  2,000?  10,000? titles.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

- Gene Fowler

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Learning from Others

April's edition of The Harvard Business Review has a great article about how best to learn from others. The title of the article is "Make Yourself an Expert: How to pull knowledge from the smartest people around you." In it, the authors, Dorothy Leonard, Gavin Barton, and Michelle Barton, describe the process which you can learn from others.  Roughly, it goes something like this:

1. Observation
2. Practice
3. Partners and Problem Solve

4. Take Responsibility

And during the entire process "codify the new knowledge in notes." 

Every organization has at least a few people which are the "go to" people, the best at what they do.  The authors stress it is these people that are the best mentors and teachers, and we have to help ourselves if we want to become better.  And they go on to say, "You can't count on companies or mentors to equip you with the skills and experience you need. You must learn how to "pull" deep smarts from others."

Finally, these questions will probably start you off in the right direction:

"After observing your expert, ask, what did he do and why?  What did I do?  What worked?  What didn't?"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quote of the Week

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

-- Francis Bacon

Thursday, April 11, 2013

He Wrote Poetry?

I'm embarrassed to say that I was not aware Mark Twain wrote poetry (and apparently Twain said he detested poetry).  I've read much of his "sketches," essays, A Tramp Abroad, Roughing It, and of course, I think we all had to read about Huck's adventures during high school.  So I was pleasantly surprised to catch some of his verse in "Brain Pickings," another great site for all things bookish/reading.  This one -- a short poem about the death of his dog, titled "My Dog Burns" -- is moving.
A young Mark Twain


No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.

She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.

No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.

You can read more here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Do You Want To Read More?

Occasionally I'm asked how I'm able to read so much.  Speed-reading -- no.   Skimming -- sometimes.  Like many things, we accomplish what we make a priority.  Reading just happens to be one of my priorities. A few things, however, will probably help you make more time for reading.

1.  The internet can be a time suck.  Seriously.  Ask yourself how often you've got online, only to click on a link, then click on another, then suddenly you are following crumbs down a hallway, link to link and now you've been "surfing" for an hour, maybe more.  Try -- yes it is hard -- to focus your online reading (e.g., click only through your favorites or your news feed) so you can leave time for a good ol' book.

2.  Always have a book handy.  How many times have you been in a line or sitting in a traffic jam -- absolutely still -- but you didn't have anything to do?  I've read a book in the DMV line (California has LONG lines), in a 20min traffic jam, and more.  Just have a book handy.

3. The bathroom.  Duh.

4. For my military peers:  I don't think it is unreasonable to carve out some time to read during the workday.  Something on naval history?  Military biography?  Absolutely.   

5. Finally, books on CD.  If your commute is a beast -- like it is for many folks in major cities, then books on CD are fantastic.  Give it a try.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Live First, Then Write...Not the Other Way Around

Today I read a nice, short article on the Atlantic by Jon Reiner titled, "Live First, Write Later: The Case for Less Creative-Writing Schooling."  In it he discusses his initial shock, then envy, and finally, understanding of how a young writer whose work he edited, while still rough was selected for publication for The New Yorker online.  Reiner realizes how much experience matters:

''After I was talked down from the ledge by a patient friend, however, I realized that the student's scenario represented something I believe about the essence of good writing: experience matters. And, unintentionally, his success illuminated how the process of teaching writing to aspirants is often misguided or flat-out wrong.''

It was another reminder, for me at least, that you have to get your writing out there -- let others decide if they like it or not.   Listen to feedback, edit and rewrite -- and then rewrite some more.  

You'll be able to read it in 5-8 minutes; it is short and worth your time, particularly if you've ever thought about taking a writing course.  You'll find it here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

An Early Christmas

A few weeks ago I sent a "return care package" to my favorite author, Mr. Michael Dirda.  In a past blog post I described how I shipped some of my favorite copies of his works to him for inscription.  And I closed the post saying I would tell you how it all turned out.  Well, Mr. Dirda, a busy but generous man indeed, inscribed my copies and returned them using my self-addressed envelopes.  I do say it felt like Christmas morning when I saw the package on the front porch this afternoon.  In the picture above, in my copy of On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, you might be able just to make out his inscription: "To Christopher, The Game is Always Afoot."  For the none Sherlockian fan, it is a quote from Sherlock Holmes, first seen in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," when Holmes tells Watson, "Come. Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"  Leading us into another fantastic story.  

I know I'll enjoy and treasure these inscribed editions for many, many years.  Although, I guess it bears repeating: write an author whose work you respect, admire, or simply enjoy.  You really never know how your favorite author may respond.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Robot Reading List

The FBI has a reading list for all things robots and unmanned vehicles.  PW Singer's book Wired for War, which I purchased a few weeks ago, is on the list.  It is sitting on the shelf waiting to be read.  I think we are at the cusp of what we'll look back and call a robotic revolution.   But whatever you want to call it, I believe we'll see amazing advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics in the next 5-10 years.  Should be interesting.  And definitely, if anything, a great place to start working in and learning more about.

Here's the list.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Do You Use Letterhead?

Letterhead of the late Theodore Geisel, known to the world as Dr. Seuss.  More great letterheads here at letterheady.com

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Man of the Corps

Imagine if you can, watching a naval battle while sitting in a small boat, furiously sketching and recording everything you see with pencil and paper.  Simply an observer, nothing more.  Your observation of one country's amphibious landing craft, with later modifications and effort, will become a Higgins boat, a small landing craft that Ike said helped win the war for the allies during WWII.  Or imagine you developed new tactics, never before used, for what was in the 1950s a new weapon in war -- the helicopter.  And finally, imagine defending and saving not only your livelihood, but a cultural institution -- the United States Marine Corps -- against hostile historic heavyweights -- army officers that helped shape the course of US history yet didn't believe the Corps should still exist.  Lieutenant General Victor Krulak did all that and more in his long and amazing life.  

DaVinci's Helicopter (from notebooks)
I finished Robert Coram's outstanding biography on Victor Krulak about a week ago.  I put the book down and I intended to do a blog post immediately following the last page.  But I had to think about the man before I wrote anything.  I even considered making a short pilgremage to his grave site, located here in San Diego.  Soon after finishing the book I wrote a retired senior naval officer, whom I regularly correspond with, and said that Krulak was, if I recall, "an amazing Marine -- but a questionable father."  Something to that effect.  I say that only to tell you reader, of my immediate opinion of the man, in so few words.  And after a week of thinking about the man my opinion hasn't changed.  

I could spend paragraphs retelling his story.  Telling you how much Robert Coram fairly captured Krulak's success and shortcomings.  I'd say read it for yourself.  If you want to know anything about the Marine Corps, particularly one of the more interesting personalities in its history, read this book.  Besides Chesty Puller, I can't think of another single Marine that has changed or influenced the Marine Corps as much in its entire history.  

What I did think about while reading it, was how Krulak rose to such heights.  And how, if at all, his story might apply to officers today. 

Two things stand out about him after reading the book:

1.  He saw opportunities and aggressively pursued them.  In many instances arguing or demonstrating his case/opinion in front of officers many years senior to him in age and rank.  

2. And second,  closely tied with my first point, he found mentors in very senior officers (most notably General Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith) that pushed him and help endorse his ideas and career.
Higgins Boat

Could he have risen to historic heights without -- what Coram quotes -- a "Sea Daddy"?  Can any officer do so today?  Namely, does pure merit and no mentor make you invisible?  It stands to reason that if you show promise, someone senior will see it and (hopefully) cultivate your talent.  A good survey would be to ask flag/general officers today if/how senior officers changed their lives or possibly enhanced their career.  I'm not saying military officers should not have mentors, or even that mentors of senior (general officer/flag officer) rank should not influence subordinates' careers.  What I am saying, or rather asking, is that if we live and work in a military organization that honors and rewards these types of relationships, what does that mean -- and what needs to be said to junior officers?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert RIP

Film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70.  

I never read any of his movie reviews or his books.  I've always stayed away from music and movie reviews.  Not because I didn't think the writing wasn't any good.  No, no.  I'd just rather not be influenced either way before listening to a CD or seeing a film.  But that's hypocritical of me, because I do read book reviews before reading a book.   

What's sad, I think, is sometimes it takes an authors/writers death and the following media attention to draw attention to their work.  Not to devalue his writing (he won a Pulitzer), because he did have a strong following, especially after his cancer diagnosis and losing his ability to speak.  His perseverance is inspiring.  But I'd bet his books are going to sell well the next week or two.  As people who didn't read him before will want to know why this man's death was covered by so many media outlets.   They'll want to know what made him a great movie critic.   

UPDATE: A lot is being written about Ebert and his writing.  Here are some great excerpts from the Atlantic on what "Roger Ebert knew about writing."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I Spy A Reading List

A CIA Reading List?  Yep, there is one.   You'll find it here.  I have read one or two of these books.  Time to look at the others.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Working the Wood

Earlier this week during a recent outing, I convinced my wife to let me stop at our local Barnes and Noble Bookstore.  However, I no longer purchase books at Barnes and Noble.  They are simply too expensive.  You can purchase the same book from Amazon, in some cases, for 35-40% less than you can at the bookstore.   There is something that I do enjoy about the bookstore: browsing. Electronic browsing is not the same as walking the aisles and looking at book covers, picking the book up, flipping through the pages and reading a paragraph or two to see if the writing strikes you.  Amazon can't offer that.  So during a short browsing session (the wife sets time limits) I made my way over to the "new releases" and saw a small book with an interesting title, called, The Lost Carving: A Journey To The Heart Of Making by David Esterly.  I picked it up, read a few sentences, and knew I had to order it.  It arrived two days later in the mail.  

I admit, I do enjoy books that I would classify as the artist's memoir.  Books that discuss an artist's process of work -- the challenges, trials, and small joys when working on their art.  Recent reads that I would fit into this category, but well worth your time, would be Robert Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and Martin Gayford's Man With the Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud.  In a world described full of "knowledge work," it is refreshing to see artisans creating physical things -- creating things with their hands -- wether it is painting portraits, fixing motorcycles, or in Mr. Esterly's case, carving beautiful designs out of limewood.  

Grinling Gibbons
Mr. Esterly was warned early on that "carving is starving," but after seeing a magnificent carving by the famed 17th century carver Grinling Gibbons (sounds like a Dickens character) many years ago, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.  He wanted to be a carver.  

The book largely deals with his time working on replacing a burned Gibbons carving in the Hampton Court Palace in England.  Woven between this story is his meditations on working the wood, the joy he's had carving wood through the years, the challenges of learning and imitating the great work of a 17th century master, and also the politics and personalities involved with recreating a piece of art for an English historical landmark.

I enjoyed the book.  However, Mr. Esterly sometimes does what I believe many artists do when trying to tell you how much their art has shaped their life.  He overuses simile or metaphor to describe every feeling or impression he has; or in some cases his descriptions simply don't ring true to the ear.  In two places, if I remember correctly, he uses the word "marinate" to describe a thought process.  I stopped at that sentence wishing I had a pencil in hand to scribble "????" next to it in the margins.  But these, and a few other sentences and phrases are small complaints in an otherwise excellent rumination on working with wood and creating exquisite art in the process.
Grinling Gibbon's Stoning of St Stephen

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Books

"Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital."

-- Thomas Jefferson