Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 28th, 2010

Nails and houses

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David Mamet

Since, for better or worse, this is mostly going to be a blog about writing, I thought I’d start off by quoting the most useful piece of advice I’ve ever seen on telling a story:

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.

This quote comes from David Mamet’s slim volume On Directing Film, which, despite its title, is one of the most valuable books available on storytelling of any kind. The point of Mamet’s advice? The role of the writer—whether he’s writing a novel, a script, or a play—is to ensure that the smallest units of the story do the work for which they have been intended—and no more. In most novels, the smallest useful unit is probably the paragraph; in film, it’s the individual shot. And while it’s tempting to try and make each moment “contribute” to the meaning of the story as a whole, the writer is much better off defining each moment’s fictional purpose as narrowly as possible, and concentrating on fulfilling that purpose as cleanly and concisely as he or she can.

John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, makes a similar point:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps)…and when the description is perfect—and not too long or too short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to the story’s next unit.

When the writer neglects this rule, and tries to make a unit carry more than it can bear, the result can be, as Mamet puts it, “sit down because I’m the king of France.” Conversely, if the writer has chosen his units carefully, defined them properly (and narrowly), and arranged them in the proper sequence, the meaning and impact of the overall story will hopefully take care of itself.

I don’t claim that every paragraph I’ve ever written, or will write, follows this rule; in fact, most of them probably break it. But as a general guide for approaching the solution of the thousand fictional problems that make up any story, it’s the best starting point I know.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Introductory remarks

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Alec Nevala-Lee

Welcome! For a quick look at who I am, please see here. The short version is that I’m a novelist and freelance writer whose debut novel, Kamera, is scheduled to be published by Penguin Books in the fall of 2011. On this blog, I intend to take you through the publication process, tell you a bit about the novel itself, and share some of my thoughts—as it says there on the masthead—on art, culture, and especially the writing life.

Because Kamera takes place primarily in the New York art world, and centers on the enigmatic final masterpiece of the artist Marcel Duchamp, I expect to be writing occasionally on art in general and Duchamp in particular. Other topics treated in the novel, in no particular order, include art investing, Russian organized crime, Rosicrucianism, information overload, and the Black Dahlia murder, so I may have something to say about these things as well. Mostly, though, I’ll be writing about writing, which is the subject I know best.

Ideally, the result should be an ongoing discussion about what it means to be a writer, and specifically a writer of suspense fiction, at this particular moment in publishing history. Hopefully the things I’ll have to say here will be of interest to other writers, to readers, and to observers of popular culture, especially books. I’ll be updating this blog on a regular basis, so please check back soon for more.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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