Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 3rd, 2010

2,872,682,109 words

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No, that isn’t the word count for the Kung Fu Panda fanfic I mentioned a few days ago—it’s the number of words written by participants in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, which officially wrapped up this week.

How many of those words are actually worth reading? Given the nature of any first draft, it’s probably close to zero. But that doesn’t mean, as Brian Gresko recently argued in the Huffington Post, that National Novel Writing Month is “hooey.” The most useful qualities that any writer can possess, at least early on, are energy and productivity. And if you can write 2,000 grammatically correct words a day, every day, most other issues will eventually take care of themselves. (As Elmore Leonard reminds us, it may take a million words or more, but it will happen sooner or later.)

The main event, though, comes next March, which is National Novel Editing Month. I don’t know offhand how many participants from NaNoWriMo will stick around for NaNoEdMo, but if they’re serious about their writing, they’ll all make an effort to do so. Revision, it bears repeating, is the heart of creation. As John Gardner notes in On Writers and Writing, it’s what writers do:

Before Boccaccio’s time, as has been recently pointed out, writers used parchment. To make a Bible you had to kill three hundred cows. Books cost a lot, in money and cattle-blood….Then in Boccaccio’s time paper was introduced, so that suddenly it was possible for Boccaccio to write down a dirty joke he’d heard, fool around with it a little—change the farmer’s daughter into a nun, for instance, or introduce comically disparate high-class symbolism—and produce the Decameron. Chaucer did the same only better…For artists, writing has always meant, in effect, the art of endless revising.

So for all of you who finished your novel this month, congratulations. The real work, and the real fun, is just beginning…

What I’ve learned from Glee

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The other night, my wife asked, with genuine curiosity: “Why do you like Glee?” Which, honestly, is a really good question. I don’t watch a lot of television; I’m not, as far as I can tell, anything close to Glee‘s target demographic; I know that Glee is fundamentally flawed, and often disappointing; and yet I find it fun to watch and, more surprisingly, interesting to think about. But why?

My only answer, aside from the fact that I like musicals, that that I enjoy Glee because of its flaws, because it can be frustrating and horrifically uneven, because it regularly neglects its own characters, and because an average episode can get nearly every moment wrong—and yet still remain a compelling show. For a writer who cares about pop culture, it’s the most interesting case study around. (As opposed to, say, Mad Men, which is the best TV drama I’ve ever seen, but much less instructive in its sheer perfection.)

Here, then, are some of the lessons, positive and negative, that I’ve tried to draw from Glee:

Positive:

1. Do follow through on big moments. Howard Hawks defined a good movie as having three good scenes and no bad scenes. The average episode of Glee has maybe three good scenes and eight bad scenes, but the good stuff is usually executed with enough conviction and skill to carry the audience past the rest. The lesson? Every story has a few big moments. No matter what else you do as a writer, make sure those moments work.

2. Do invest the audience in your characters as early as possible. Glee‘s pilot, which now seems so long ago, did an impressive job of generating interest in a massive cast of characters. Since then, nearly everything the pilot established has been thrown out the window, but the viewer’s initial engagement with Will, Rachel, and the rest still gives the show a lot of goodwill, which it hasn’t entirely squandered. (Please note, though, that a cast of appealing actors goes a long way toward maintaining the audience’s sympathy. In a novel, once your characters have lost the reader’s interest, it’s very hard to win it back.)

3. Do push against yourself and your story. A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff has done a heroic job of arguing the “three authors” theory of Glee: that the show’s creators—Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—each have distinct, and conflicting, visions of what the show should be, and that this inherent tension is what makes the show so fascinating. Similarly, much of the interest of an ambitious novel comes from the writer’s struggle against the restrictions and contradictions of his or her own story. (Of course, if you don’t give yourself at least some constraints, such as those of genre, you aren’t likely to benefit from this.)

Negative:

1. Don’t neglect structure. Remember the importance of constraints? The trouble with Glee is that it doesn’t seem to have any. Early on, the show established a tone and style in which almost anything could happen, which is fine—but even the most anarchic comedy benefits from following a consistent set of rules. In Glee‘s case, a little more narrative coherence, and a lot more character consistency, would go a long way towards making it a great show, rather than a fascinating train wreck.

2. Don’t take your eye off the long game. Glee rather notoriously went through four years’ worth of plotlines in its first season, and as a result, the second season has seemed increasingly aimless. Obviously, it’s hard for most TV shows, which hover precariously between cancellation and renewal, to plan much further ahead than the next order of episodes, but a novelist has no such excuse. A writer has to maintain the reader’s interest over hundreds of pages, so as tempting as it is to put all your best ideas up front, it’s important to keep a few things in reserve, especially for the ending.

3. Don’t give the audience what it wants. Joss Whedon, as usual, put it best:

In terms of not giving people what they want, I think it’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need. What they want is for Sam and Diane to get together. [Whispers.] Don’t give it to them. Trust me. [Normal voice.] You know?

Glee, because it was so successful so early on, and with such a devoted fan base, has repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to give viewers exactly what they want, whether it’s more jukebox episodes, bigger musical numbers, or a romance between two of its leads. (And fans don’t like it if the show takes one of these things away.) This approach might work in the short term, but in the long run, it leaves the show—as is becoming increasingly clear—with nowhere else to go. Remember: once your characters, or your readers, get what they want, the story is essentially over.

Of course, none of these issues have hurt Glee‘s success, and judging from the last few episodes, the show is making an effort to dial back the worst of its excesses. And I do hope it continues to improve. As much as I enjoy it now, a show can’t work as a case study forever. Because a show like Glee is always interesting…until, alas, it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Quote of the Day

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The Paris Review: E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Vladimir Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2010 at 8:12 am

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