Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2011

The pleasures and perils of research

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When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

—Jonathan Franzen, to The Guardian

Recently, I’ve had research on the brain. Over the past month, which I’ve designated as a kind of free sandbox time for Midrash, I’ve read all or part of something like twenty books, along with many articles and old notes. On Sunday, I’m going on a very short trip to London, which means cramming a month’s worth of location research into less than a week. For the next few days, then, I’m going to be talking a bit about research—how a novelist does it, where it fits into the different stages of the writing process, and how to balance it with the other elements of storytelling. Today, though, I’ll be addressing a more general issue, which is whether deep research has any place in a novelist’s life at all.

As I see it, there are two main objections to research in fiction, only one of which can be easily dismissed. The first objection is that research is somehow alien to the true novelist’s art, either because fiction based on research is inherently less valuable than fiction drawn primarily from the author’s own experience, or because information itself is becoming increasingly worthless. The former argument is very old, but the latter has gained new resonance in the information age, as Franzen implies above. Information is everywhere. It’s a mouse click away. So it isn’t hard to conclude that the novelist’s traditional role as an investigator of reality is no longer relevant, or useful.

Franzen is right about one thing: voluminous research, in itself, is no longer enough to make a novel. But was it ever? The role of the novelist has never been simply to acquire facts and details: it’s to arrange those details into a previously unsuspected artistic pattern. If anything, this role is even more valuable these days, when our diet of information tends to consist of specific units of disposable data. The art of the novelist is to uncover order in apparent chaos, even if the ultimate goal is to undermine it. With so many facts at our disposal, but so little knowledge, we need that ordering function more than ever—especially because a novelist is one of the few remaining artists with no choice but to haunt libraries and read the books that nobody else reads.

As for whether research has a place in serious fiction, it’s only necessary to point out that research has served as an indispensable foundation of many great novels—including Franzen’s. Flaubert, the quintessential novelist, deeply researched all of his books. So did Tolstoy. More recently, works as distinct as Atonement and Gravity’s Rainbow have been masterpieces of research and structured imagination. It’s still true that, as Willa Cather said, the basic emotional material of a novelist is acquired by the age of fifteen. But if the novelist is looking for meaning outside his or her own range of experience—to explain “how the world works,” as Zadie Smith puts it—research is the necessary first step. The ordering, the pattern-making, will come later, but not without the raw material that creative research provides.

Which brings us to the second, more relevant objection to research, which is that it can be an excuse to put off the real work of writing. Research is a seductive pastime in itself, and because there’s always another book to read or location to visit, it can be all too easy for a writer to never actually begin the novel. Unlike the previous objection, this danger is very real. Later this week, I’ll be talking more about how to keep research in line with the rest of the writing process. For now, though, I’ll say this: research is not primarily about factual accuracy. It’s about acquiring material for dreams. Ultimately, it’s about freeing your mind to play the most serious game in the world. It’s true, from a factual perspective, that you can never have enough information. But before long, perhaps before you realize it, you’ll have more than enough material to play the game.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2011 at 10:15 am

Quote of the Day

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I suppose that a novelist’s life is not more full of embarrassments than anybody else’s. There is no art or profession, except possibly higher mathematics, which one can practise without exposing oneself to amateur criticism and interference.

A novelist’s trade, however, is the only one in which his acquaintances insist on coming right into the workshop and playing with the tools.

Evelyn Waugh, “People Who Want to Sue Me”

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January 31, 2011 at 8:09 am

Some useful advice from Proust

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There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. I know that there are young fellows, the sons and grandsons of famous men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement in their schooldays. They have, perhaps, when they look back upon their past lives, nothing to retract; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

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January 30, 2011 at 1:29 am

John Irving on plot

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Titles are important; I have them before I have books that belong to them. I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin.

John Irving, to The Paris Review

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January 29, 2011 at 1:19 am

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My ten favorite screenplays

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Any list of favorite movies—much less one of favorite screenplays, where the writer’s contribution can be so hard to separate from that of the director and editor—ends up being more about the compiler than anything else. My own list betrays a personal fondness for dense, complicated stories over quiet simplicity, which is arguably the harder of the two to pull off. All in all, though, I’ll stand by these choices—though I’m somewhat surprised to see that one of my top films stars Kevin Spacey, another stars Gabriel Byrne, and another, perhaps inevitably, stars both:

1. Seven Samurai. As far as I’m concerned, this the greatest screen story of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.

2. L.A. Confidential. A script so good that it forever fooled me into thinking that there was a place in Hollywood for layered, complicated stories, saturated with ideas and atmosphere, with three central characters but no obvious hero. Well, there isn’t. But watching this movie makes you almost believe otherwise. Writers: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy.

3. The Red Shoes. All of Powell and Pressburger’s screenplays are amazing, but this is the one that fills me with the most awe. Like L.A. Confidential, it effortlessly establishes three major characters—and many minor ones—while ushering us into a world that seems both strange and familiar, with a range of tones that spans realism, surrealism, melodrama, and, in the end, merciless tragedy. Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

4. The Usual Suspects. The closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect clockwork screenplay, layered with small visual and verbal delights in every scene, all leading up to that famous closing surprise (which makes increasingly less sense to me as time goes on). To quote theater critic Walter Kerr, The Usual Suspects is a watch that laughs—and there’s a hell of a cuckoo inside. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (though many of the best moments, including the closing montage of dialogue, were created in the editing room).

5. Casablanca. The first forty minutes, in particular, are the best I’ve seen in any movie, in terms of serenely establishing character, location, and conflict in a way that seems as natural as wandering into Rick’s Place out of the hot desert night. The second act has a few narrative lumps—I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general, even when they feature Bogart and Bergman in Paris—but as for the finale, well, nothing more needs to be said. Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

6. Miller’s Crossing. It took me years to warm up to this movie, but now that I know it inside and out, I can only marvel at how beautifully all the pieces fit, even if the writers evidently made it up as they went along. (They wrote Barton Fink, on a break, while trying to figure out how to resolve the plot.) It’s still the last of the great color noirs. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen.

7. The Last Temptation of Christ. I was going to put Taxi Driver here, but this is really Schrader’s—and Scorsese’s—masterpiece: marvelously structured, moving, and more intelligent than so deeply religious a movie has any right to be. The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears, though never at the same place twice. Writer: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

8. The Third Man. The perfect blend of plot, location, and atmosphere, sinister yet romantic, with grotesque supporting characters lurking in the ruins like gargoyles. It all builds to that heartbreaking final image—the greatest closing shot in the history of movies—which wasn’t in the original script at all. Writer: Graham Greene (though Orson Welles wrote his own speech about the cuckoo clocks).

9. Psycho. Yes, yes, the closing psychiatrist’s speech is terrible. But up until that final moment, it’s perfectly structured and paced, with the greatest narrative fake-out of all time—one that works so well that I’m still faintly shocked, whenever I first see the Bates Motel sign, at remembering which movie I’m really watching. Writer: Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.

10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Pauline Kael called it “endlessly inventive,” and it is, cobbling together a plot, as I’ve described elsewhere, from six different screenplay drafts and a random handful of science fiction elements, and having it all seem relaxed, witty, and inevitable. Writers: Credited to Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, but really Nicholas Meyer.

Honorable mention: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Velvet, A Hard Day’s Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others on the definitive Writer’s Guild list.

Quote of the Day

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Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.

Ben Hecht, in a telegram to Herman J. Mankiewicz

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2011 at 12:00 am

Putting down stakes

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So you’ve decided to outline your novel. What next? Chances are that you’ll want to build it around some kind of narrative structure. A shapeless succession of scenes in which no visible progress is made will rarely result in a satisfying book. (Even shapelessness itself, when pursued as a conscious narrative strategy, has its own kind of structure and logic.) All novels begin in one place and end up somewhere else, if only because we have no choice but to experience them one page at a time. But what should it look like in the middle?

Fortunately, or not, a writer has a bewildering number of structural options at his or her disposal. There’s the plot pyramid, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and even those slightly insane screenwriting manuals that put the central dramatic question on page 3, the inciting incident on page 10, and so on. All these methods have their merits—although I’m skeptical of that last one—and they’ve all served various writers well. Personally, I tend to favor the three-act structure, which is why even my short stories tend to fall naturally into three parts. But the structure you choose is far less important than the fact that you have a structure in the first place.

The reason for choosing and sticking with a structure, like most of my advice on writing, is less aesthetic than functional. As I said yesterday, you’re more likely to finish a novel if you have an outline, and your outline is more likely to be useful if it follows some kind of established pattern, at least at first. In the process of writing, of course, that structure is bound to be revised beyond all recognition. The transitions will be gradual, even invisible, but the overall shape will be there. More importantly, the story will flow naturally from the point of view of a reader experiencing it one sentence at a time. After all, we don’t experience a house by studying its blueprints; we move from room to room. But without a good plan, the house will often seem uncomfortable or crazy.

One of my heroes, the architect Christopher Alexander, describes the process of designing a house in ways that I think are relevant here. Instead of starting with a standard blueprint, he recommends going to the site and laying out a plan on the ground itself, using stakes and string. Then, as he writes in The Timeless Way of Building:

It is very likely—almost certain—that you will modify the building as you have so far conceived it. The stakes are so vivid that you will almost certainly begin to see all kinds of subtlety, which you could not imagine before, now that the stakes and rooms are actual, right out there on the ground.

Modify the position of the stakes, a foot here, a foot there, until they are as perfectly placed as you can imagine; and until the layout of the rooms seems just exactly right.

The outline of a novel is pretty much like those stakes in the ground. Are they a house? No. But they’re an indispensable first step. And while you could theoretically lay out a house any way you liked, in practice, certain patterns are going to be more useful than others. In his masterpiece, A Pattern Language, Alexander describes over a thousand different patterns for architects—some as large as a city, others as small as a window seat. Writers, too, have their patterns, which have slowly emerged from thousands of years of storytelling. And if you follow a pattern that makes sense for you, you’re more likely to build a novel that can stand by itself.

(It’s important to remember, by the way, that the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey, and most of the other plot structures I’ve mentioned here were originally descriptive, not prescriptive. When Aristotle wrote the Poetics, he wasn’t necessarily trying to teach anyone how to write: he was describing a structure that he had empirically observed by watching successful tragedies. Most of the novelists whose books we still read didn’t think consciously in terms of exposition, rising action, and climax: they wrote a story, revised it until it read well, and usually ended up with a structure that looked more or less like that of other successful novels. That said, now that these structures have been defined and quantified, it’s much easier to write a novel, especially the first time around, with these patterns showing the way.)

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2011 at 5:51 am


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