Writing a novel is like becoming a parent. Before you start, you’ve got high hopes, leavened only slightly by terror at the scale of the effort involved. Maybe you read a few books on the subject, and even if you don’t actively solicit advice, you’re still exposed to plenty of opinions—many of them forceful—about the right or wrong way to do things. And you end up with some big plans. In practice, however, you find that it’s an endless series of compromises, and you find yourself living in a constant state of barely controlled chaos. At times, just getting from one day to the next starts to feel like an achievement in itself, which it is. Because what parenthood and writing have in common is the education they offer on the gap between our ideals and the pragmatic decisions required to sustain them. Both require flexibility, patience, and more energy than any one human seems likely to possess. And like most worthwhile things in life, it isn’t until you’ve tried it for yourself that you have any idea of what it entails.
You also start to realize the range of valid approaches. In writing and parenting, you do whatever works, as long as the process is founded on love. With love in place, you can get away with just about anything; without it, all the craft and cleverness in the world won’t take you very far. Beyond that, it’s a matter of trying one thing, then another, until you end up with a repertoire of tricks that work, at least until they don’t. Every child, like every novel, is different—and they often change from minute to minute—so you wind up relying on a few general rules and a constantly shifting arsenal of tactics, whether they’re designed to carry you to the end of a chapter or to get your daughter to eat a few bites of breakfast. When I look at Beatrix, I sometimes feel that I’ve been thrust into an ongoing science experiment that I’ll only get to perform once. With a novel, at least, there’s always the possibility of revision, or even of throwing out the entire first draft and starting again, but raising a child is like publishing a serial, where you’re stuck with what you wrote in the earlier installments.
In the end, you raise a child in the same way you write a novel—one day at a time. As Stanislavski says in An Actor Prepares, you don’t eat the entire turkey at once. In both cases, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how much work lies ahead: my daughter isn’t even two yet, but I’ll occasionally find myself brooding over the homework assignments, teacher conferences, school plays, band practices, and college visits that will occupy the next two decades of my life. A novel can seem like an equally huge undertaking. Really, though, each day’s work comes down to a small set of particular tasks, and the learning curve in both cases is surprisingly gentle. When you bring a baby home from the hospital, there are just a handful of things you need to know right away: her needs are well-defined and easily satisfied, and although it gets more involved from there, the complications tend to introduce themselves one at a time. (That’s the theory, anyway. When you’re dealing with a fussy baby at three in the morning, it doesn’t seem quite so simple.)
A novel gets written in a similar fashion. I’ve found that if you keep a few principles in mind—have an outline, write every day, and don’t go back to read it until you’re finished—you’ll end up with something, even if a lot of work still remains to be done. There are countless subtler aspects to writing a good story, of course, but as with raising kids, you’ll find that they’ll come up naturally on their own. Even if you don’t have any idea how to deal with them the first time around, if you can muddle through, you’ll get another chance tomorrow. And you’ll often need to bend your own rules to keep the whole enterprise on course. Maybe you don’t want your daughter to start watching television until she’s two, but if you find yourself showing her a video on your phone so she’ll sit still long enough to eat dinner, you tell yourself that it’s worth the tiny amount of sanity it purchases, just as you’re sometimes willing to let a bad sentence stand for the sake of moving on to the next. You don’t want to do it too often, of course, since you know that’s how bad habits begin. But you’ve made it to the next day. And you’ve won.
The old saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” expresses the opposite idea to that which animates the painter before his canvas. It is precisely what he does not know which may destroy him.
Over the weekend, my wife attended the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, which was held this year in Washington D.C. Between panels, dinners, and breaks for dim sum and karaoke, she found time for a session on longform journalism moderated by the veteran reporter Tom Huang, currently an editor at the Dallas Morning News and the faculty member overseeing the writing program at The Poynter Institute. At the end of the discussion, Huang shared an assortment of his favorite writing tips, including the following: “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph, and see what happens.” (You can find the full list on his Twitter feed, including another really good one: “Start in the middle of the action, then rewind the clock and show us how we got there.”) When my wife got home, she shared this tidbit with me, and asked, “That’s one of your own writing rules, isn’t it?” I agreed. And after a moment of reflection, I added: “You know, I think that might be my favorite writing rule of all time.”
It’s true. Which made me think, in turn, about what the writing rules I’ve found genuinely useful all have in common. I can start by describing the kind of writing rule I don’t like. We’ve heard them all before: “Show, don’t tell.” “Plot comes from character.” “Write what you know.” Such rules aren’t wrong, exactly, but they’re so general and bland that they’re close to worthless, except as motivational slogans. Most books on writing are so full of such platitudes that it’s a wonder anyone gets anything out of them at all, and whenever I skim through a writing guide to find page after page of advice like this, I get a little depressed. Writing is like getting into shape: it’s easy to say “Eat less, exercise more,” but daily discipline is founded on specifics, whether we figure them out on our own or take them from a trusted source. And in a field where vagueness rules the day—which is especially disheartening in a craft founded on concrete particulars—a rule like “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph” feels like a breath of fresh air. (Or, as David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film, “The invigorating infusion of fresh air that this direct and blunt beat brings into this discussion.”)
So what makes a good writing rule? Based on the above, I’d say that it includes at least three major qualities:
- It describes a concrete, almost mechanical action. Cutting the first and last paragraphs of a chapter or scene is about as mechanical as it gets. So is the ten percent rule that Stephen King shares in On Writing: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” A robot could do it, and luckily, we’re more than robots.
- It’s easily implemented and easily reversed. Not every rule holds true for every situation, and your best option is often to try it out, read the result, and decide whether or not to keep the change. I’ve taken to automatically cutting the first and last paragraphs of everything I write, even if I don’t think it’ll make a difference, taking comfort in the fact that the physical action itself might show me something new and that undoing it is only a click away.
- It’s applicable to a wide range of situations. I first encountered this rule in the work of novelist David Morrell, who wrote First Blood, and he cites the screenwriter William Goldman as his own source. Tom Huang, as mentioned above, is a journalist. A novel, a screenplay, and a newspaper article all pose different challenges, but the fact that we see the same rule invoked in all three forms implies that it’s something uniquely powerful.
In short, my collection of ideal writing rules is something like the daliluw, the traditional lore of the Mande blacksmiths that I mentioned here the other week. As Patrick R. McNaughton writes in his book on the subject, the daliluw are “units of highly focused, very practical information…which themselves are grounded in smaller units, the bits and pieces of organic matter and other materials that derive from ‘the science of the trees.'” Just because these units are small and practical doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely valuable, and after twenty years of working seriously at writing, the good ones I’ve found can be counted on one hand. The proof, as always, is in the finished work: Morrell’s rule helped me crack the structure of The Icon Thief, and I only need to compare drafts to see how much was gained. Such rules won’t save a faulty conception or a story that is fundamentally misconceived, but they’ll often make the difference between a shapeless lump of material and something that other people will actually want to read. Writing is an utterly impractical pursuit on its highest level, which means that writers need to be ruthlessly practical on the smallest scale. And while I’d normally try to end this post with a sentence of expansive conclusion, as it turns out, I’ve already cut it.
Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution.
A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)
After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.
And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:
Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.
Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.
That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.
Curiosa felicitas…means the “careful luck” of him who tries many words and has the wit to know when memory, or the necessity of meter or rhyme, has supplied him unexpectedly with those which are perhaps even better than he knew how to desire.
The entire physical world is most properly regarded as a great energy system: an enormous marketplace in which one form of energy is forever being traded for another form according to set rules and values. That which is energetically advantageous is that which will sooner or later happen. In one sense a structure is a device which exists in order to delay some event which is energetically favored. It is energetically advantageous, for instance, for a weight to fall to the ground, for strain energy to be released—and so on. Sooner or later the weight will fall to the ground and the strain energy will be released; but it is the business of a structure to delay such events for a season, for a lifetime or for thousands of years. All structures will be broken or destroyed in the end—just as all people will die in the end. It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.