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11 Tips H.P. Lovecraft Had for Novice Writers

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H.P. Lovecraft, science fiction writer and creator of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, often contributed to The United Amateur, the "Official Organ of the United Amateur Press Association." In a January 1920 article titled “Literary Composition,” Lovecraft laid out guidelines for beginning writers to keep in mind. Here are 11 of them.

1. Know Your Grammar.

“It is necessary … to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech,” Lovecraft writes. “The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbor a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.”

Lovecraft then lists 20 mistakes that young writers often make and should be avoided, since “almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, [and] the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.” Here are a few:

(2) Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
(5) Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
(8) Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
(18) Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
(19) Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.

Also, don’t confuse “its” with “it’s.” Lovecraft hated that.

2. Read This …

Mastering technical rules is not enough for the beginning writer. He must also read as much as he can. “All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost,” Lovecraft writes. “A page of Addison or Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”

3. … Not That.

“Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style,” Lovecraft says. “If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible.” (We can’t help but disagree with you on this point, H.P.)

4. Look to the Bible for Help.

Analyzing the King James Bible, as Dunsany and Boyd did, is “an excellent habit to cultivate,” Lovecraft says. “For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.”

5. Grow Your Vocabulary …

“The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony,” Lovecraft says. The way around this, then, is to note how good authors express themselves and to be aware of that while writing. Also, look things up. “Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.”

6. … But Be Careful How You Use it!

“[I]n enlarging our vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions,” Lovecraft writes. “We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.” (This seems like advice E.L. James could have used.)

7. Be Descriptive …

“Description, in order to be effective, calls upon two mental qualities; observation and discrimination,” Lovecraft says. “One cannot be too careful in the selection of adjectives for descriptions. Words or compounds which describe precisely, and which convey exactly the right suggestions to the mind of the reader, are essential.”

Lovecraft goes into detail about how to describe nature (“how beheld—at dawn, noon … Sounds—of water; forest; leaves…”), objects (“history and traditional associations”), and animals (“species and size … parts”), with eight to 10 suggested descriptors for each.

Descriptions of people, he says, “can be infinitely varied … Suggestion is very powerful in this field, especially when mental qualities are to be delineated. Treatment should vary with the author’s object.” Fodder for a writer are a person’s appearance, stature, complexion, and most conspicuous feature; expression; grace or ugliness; attire; habits; and character, among other things.

8. … But Not Too Descriptive.

Again, this section on description comes with a caveat: “The reader must remember that they are only suggestions, and not for literal use. The extent of any description is to be determined by its place in the composition; by taste and fitness. … [I]n fiction, description must not be carried to excess. A plethora of it leads to dullness, so that it must ever be balanced by a brisk flow of narration.”

9. On Narration.

For narration to be successful, "it demands an intelligent exercise of taste and discrimination; salient points must be selected, and the order of time and of circumstances must be well maintained," Lovecraft says. "It is deemed wisest in most cases to give narratives a climactic form; leading from lesser to greater events, and culminating in that chief incident upon which the story is primarily founded, or which makes the other parts important through its own importance.”

10. On Plot.

“Plots may be simple or complex; but suspense, and climactic progress from one incident to another, are essential,” Lovecraft writes. “Every incident in a fictional work should have some bearing on the climax or denouement, and any denouement which is not the inevitable result of the preceding incidents is awkward and unliterary.” Better than taking a formal course in fiction writing, according to Lovecraft, is reading Poe—“ an absolute master of the mechanics of his craft”—and Ambrose Bierce, who “can attain the most stirring denouements from a few simple happenings; denouements which develop purely from these preceding circumstances.”

Furthermore, though odd events happen in the course of real life, they are out of place in a fictional story. “In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential,” he says. “A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation.”

The novice writer can avoid a “weak, trickling conclusion” by writing “the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be,” Lovecraft says.

Avoid following a grand thought with a tame one; this is anticlimax, which “exposes the writer to much ridicule.”

11. Experiment With Form.

Few writers are equally proficient in all forms of literature, but for the novice writer, experimentation is key. “It is well, in the interests of breadth and discipline, for the beginner to exercise himself to some degree in every form of literary art,” Lovecraft says. “He may thus discover that which best fits his mind, and develop hitherto unsuspected potentialities.”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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