Archive for September 2011
Every form of strength is also a form of weakness….Pretty girls tend to become insufferable because, being pretty, their faults are too much tolerated. Possessions entrap men, and wealth paralyzes them. I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communication of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.
Yesterday, exactly nine months after I began work on my second novel, I delivered the final draft of City of Exiles to my publisher. If my experience on The Icon Thief is any indication, I expect that I’ll need to do at least one more round of rewrites, along with the inevitable copyediting and proofreading, but for now, the novel is finally done. I’d love to stop and celebrate, but as it turns out, we’re also moving to our new house today. No rest for the weary, it seems, but I’m looking forward to relocating to Oak Park, as well as finding a place to put my thirty boxes of books. Hopefully I’ll be checking in tomorrow around the usual time, but if not, you’ll know why.
Years ago, the Onion ran an opinion piece, allegedly by Stephen King, with the title “I Don’t Even Remember Writing The Tommyknockers.” It was a joke, but an oddly prescient one: some time later, in his classic memoir On Writing, King confessed that he doesn’t really remember writing the novel Cujo. It’s true that King was going through some personal problems at the time, but I suspect that any reasonably prolific writer can identify with how it feels to no longer remember writing a particular story, especially once you’ve written so many. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t remember when I first realized that I was going to write a story revolving around an octopus eating itself.
Sometimes you choose your subject, sometimes it chooses you, and the second I heard about infectious autophagy, I knew that I’d found the plot point I needed. Although I no longer remember how I first heard about it, I’m guessing that it was during the first few intense days of research for “The Boneless One,” when I was reading everything I could find about octopuses. Once I knew that autophagy was going to be a major element in this story, I was able to drill down, even corresponding briefly with the outstanding expert in the field to get a copy of a scholarly article on the subject. (I’m not sure what he’d think of the dubious uses to which I’ve put his research, but I hope he’d at least be amused.) And following this one gruesome clue to its logical conclusion eventually unlocked the entire plot.
Researching the rest of the story was a blast. I love ships, or at least the idea of them, so I spent hours on YouTube looking at guided tours of yachts and other research vessels. (YouTube, along with Google Maps, has made certain kinds of location research almost embarrassingly easy.) I read The Living Sea, Jacques Coutseau’s classic account of life aboard the Calypso, and consulted articles and a television documentary about the real research voyage on which the novelette is loosely based. I can only assume that I watched The Life Aquatic again, since this is already a movie I can happily rewatch on any given night. And in the end, I had a nice little scientific horror story: a bit dark, maybe, but with characters who really came alive, at least in my own head, and a satisfyingly tight murder mystery.
When I sent it off to Analog, it was rejected. Stanley Schmidt seemed to like it okay, but thought that the original ending, which leaves the fate of the voyage somewhat unresolved, was too depressing. I then sent the story around to a couple of other magazines, and it came close to getting picked up by Intergalactic Medicine Show, but nothing came of it, although I did end up writing a new ending. Finally, two years later, I polished the entire thing, cut it by ten percent, and resubmitted a version with the revised ending to Analog, which accepted it. The fact that I’d had two more stories accepted in the meantime may have had something do with this, but more likely, the first draft wasn’t quite good enough, and the final draft was. All told, it took almost three and a half years, but “The Boneless One” finally saw print. And I don’t even entirely remember how.
My writing career has had its share of ups and downs, but one of its roughest moments came in the spring of 2008. At that point, I’d been out of a job for two years, working hard on my first, still unpublished novel, an epic adventure story set in India. A year before, I’d landed a very good agent in what struck me as record time, and we spent the next twelve months working on the book, paring it down from a quarter of a million words and transforming it from an adventure novel into more of a streamlined thriller. In the end, though, we couldn’t see eye to eye on what this novel was supposed to be, so we decided to part ways, leaving me with no agent and a novel I wasn’t sure I could sell. I was crushed, but ultimately, I did the only thing I could: I started looking for agents again. And in the meantime, I turned back to my first love, which was short science fiction.
Over the next six weeks, as I waited for responses—fruitlessly, as it turned out—from the next round of agents, I researched and wrote two novelettes. The second, “The Last Resort,” was picked up fairly quickly by Analog and published in their September 2009 issue. The first, “The Boneless One,” which was the first wholly original work of short fiction I’d written since college, wasn’t published until this past month. And although it took a long time for this story to see print, I’m relieved it finally did, because it’s probably my favorite of my own novelettes—both because of its inherent virtues and because of the role it played in my life. When I began writing “The Boneless One,” I’d hit my first serious wall as a writer, and was filled with doubt as to whether I’d make it at all. And it wasn’t until I decided to write a story for my own pleasure that I remembered why I was doing this in the first place.
As a result, the memory of working on “The Boneless One” is one of my happiest memories as a writer. I began, as usual, by leafing through magazines, looking for an idea or two that might result in the germ of a plot. In this case, a few years earlier, I’d bought a trove of back issues of Discover and Scientific American, and while browsing through my collection, I came across two promising articles: one about luminescent ocean creatures, another about a global research voyage designed to catalog the previously undocumented genetic diversity of microscopic life in the sea. I’ve always been fascinated by oceanography, and love The Life Aquatic so much that I almost called this novelette The Knife Aquatic. And almost immediately, I saw the outlines of a story, about a research yacht that drifts into a ghostly school of glowing octopuses, and what happens in the aftermath.
Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I conceived the story itself, which turned, rather unexpectedly, into a fair play murder mystery of exceptional gruesomeness. But today, I just want to reflect on the writing process, which was close to my ideal of how a writer’s life should be. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, so one afternoon, I took the train down to the New York Aquarium one with hopes of checking out an octopus or two. I didn’t see one—I think the octopus was hiding that day—but I still remember taking in the exhibits and a sea lion show, listening on my headphones to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes, and trying to figure out the plot of this rather dark story. For the first time in over a year, after a grueling rewrite process, I remembered how it really felt to be a writer—to invent stories and characters just because I could. And for that, I have an octopus to thank.
A publisher of today would as soon see a burglar in his office as a poet.
Moneyball is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and the second great film in four months starring Brad Pitt. (A few more like this, and I’ll even forgive him for Benjamin Button.) It’s the first film in a while in which Pitt’s star power has been on full, dazzling display, and it’s especially welcome in a sports movie that is designed to frustrate, or at least challenge, our expectations. This is an absorbing, often exhilarating film, but not for the usual reasons: despite Billy Beane’s shrewdness and vision, and the lasting impact he’s had on baseball, he’s never won a championship, and probably never will, now that his insights have spread far and wide. Moneyball, contrary to the subtitle of its source material, isn’t about winning an unfair game, but about surviving it—which makes it much more poignant than Michael Lewis’s book, which was unable to witness the aftermath of its own revolution.
And one of the film’s great virtues is that it treats survival on one’s own terms as something noble. Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Angell’s praise of Bull Durham, which the A.V. Club quoted a few months ago:
It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls.
At its best, Moneyball—which loves a base on balls—is an unsentimental look at those dusty middle innings, and what it really takes to say in the game. The A’s may never win another title against a big-market team, but they played competitively long after being dismissed. And one of the film’s unspoken messages is that Beane was happier scheming and cobbling together a team in Oakland than he would have been as part of the Red Sox machine, even if it cost him a World Series. As Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball, recently said to the New York Times: “He would have died in Boston. It wouldn’t have been his show. He likes to be the guerrilla in the mountains in combat fatigues.”
One of the reasons why the book and movie of Moneyball have such wide appeal—even to those, like me, who have close to no interest in sports—is that it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to one’s own life. In my own case, it reminds me, inevitably, of being a writer. Deciding to become a novelist is something like entering professional sports: you start with dreams of a multimillion-dollar contract, but in the end, you feel lucky just to get picked in the draft. And while you may get occasional bursts of attention and praise, for the most part, it’s about playing in every game, practicing in solitude, and making small, crucial choices that nobody will notice. If writing a great novel can be compared to a baseball feat, it isn’t DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but Ted Williams’s .406 year, in which every swing counted, day after unglamorous day.
And the first, necessary duty is simply to survive. A writer doesn’t have the benefit of sabermetrics, but he or she inevitably develops a comparable suite of tricks, both practical and artistic, to keep playing. These tricks often boil down to boring formulas or rules of thumb: structure stories in three acts, get into scenes late and out of them early, cut every draft by at least 10%. And the process of internalizing these tricks—and I’m stretching the metaphor here, but whatever—is something like increasing one’s on-base percentage: it’s nothing fancy, but over time, it adds up to runs, which allow players and teams to endure. In the end, no matter what the other rewards might be, a writer, like a baseball player, is incredibly lucky to be in the show. But if you want to keep playing a grown man’s game, as Moneyball understands, luck by itself isn’t enough.
What is the answer? There is no easy answer, no complete answer. I have only clues, shells from the sea. The bare beauty of the channelled whelk tells me that one answer, and perhaps a first step, is in simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions. But how? Total retirement is not possible. I cannot shed my responsibilities. I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island. I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be. The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.
“Given what we’re trying to do now, what is the simplest thing that could possibly work?” In other words, let’s focus on the goal. The goal right now is to make this routine do this thing. Let’s not worry about what somebody reading the code tomorrow is going to think. Let’s not worry about whether it’s efficient. Let’s not even worry about whether it will work. Let’s just write the simplest thing that could possibly work.
Once we had written it, we could look at it. And we’d say, “Oh yeah, now we know what’s going on,” because the mere act of writing it organized our thoughts. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe we had to code some more. But we had been blocked from making progress, and now we weren’t. We had been thinking about too much at once, trying to achieve too complicated a goal, trying to code it too well. Maybe we had been trying to impress our friends with our knowledge of computer science, whatever. But we decided to try whatever is most simple…We would just write it and see it work. We knew that once it worked, we’d be in a better position to think of what we really wanted.
Nine months after I started work on the sequel to The Icon Thief, City of Exiles is finally done. It isn’t quite official yet: I still have another proofreading and polishing session early next week, and I’m scheduled to get comments from a valued reader later today. But at this point, the novel is essentially locked, and not a moment too soon: after delivering it on Wednesday, we’re moving to our new house on Thursday, which will probably knock me out of the game for a while. At the moment, though, I’m very happy with this novel, and hope you’ll enjoy it, too, after it appears sometime in December 2012. (For what it’s worth, this publication date is close to final, at least as far as I can tell.)
In other fun news, Analog has picked up my novelette “The Voices”—sort of an homage to John Crowley’s Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft—which means that this will be the second year in a row when they’ve published at least two of my stories. (The other one, “Ernesto,” is still stuck somewhere in the pipeline.) In the meantime, my story “The Boneless One” is still available on newsstands, with a free audio version scheduled to be released next month by StarShipSofa. If you haven’t picked up a copy, you might want to grab it soon, because I’m hoping to spend a couple of days next week talking about how the novelette was written, as I did for “Kawataro.” Meanwhile, it’s back to packing. Only thirty boxes of books to go…
If finding a title is often the most excruciating moment in a novelist’s life, writing a synopsis can’t be far behind. Everything in a writer’s body rebels against the idea: after all, if it were possible to sum up your book in five pages, you’d have written a short story, not a novel, right? (Which is exactly what Borges so shrewdly does.) The thought of writing a synopsis brings back unpleasant memories of high school essay assignments (“Please write five double-spaced pages on the plot of Heart of Darkness“) that you thought you’d left behind forever. And there’s also the unfortunate fact that even the greatest novel of all time sounds insipid when reduced to summary form. Yet a synopsis remains a valuable tool, and it’s one that every writer should know how to use, although not for the reasons you might suspect.
First, a dirty little secret: I’ve never used a synopsis to sell a novel I’ve already written. Years ago, when I was going out to agents, I dutifully put together a detailed synopsis of The Icon Thief, and nobody asked for it. These days, a short query letter with a single paragraph of plot summary, along with a few lines about your own background, is all most agents need to decide whether or not request the full manuscript. And much later, when the novel went out to publishers, nobody asked for a synopsis, either. To this day, I don’t think anyone has seen that summary except for me. So is a synopsis a waste of effort? Not necessarily, as long as you write it at the right time—which is before you’ve written the underlying novel. This may sound like a huge pain in the ass, and it is, but there are still good reasons for doing it first.
I discovered this while working on the novel that eventually became City of Exiles. The Icon Thief had been picked up as part of a two-book deal, which was great, except for the fact that I had conceived the first book as a complete story in itself, and didn’t have any ideas for a sequel. To get my advance for the second book, which was money I needed, I had to write up a detailed proposal, much against my will. Among other things, knowing how much a story can evolve during the writing process, I was afraid of getting locked into a plot I wouldn’t want to write six months from now. But as I grudgingly began to write the synopsis, working from a rough outline I had prepared earlier, I realized a number of things:
- A synopsis only needs to be really detailed when it comes to a novel’s first act, when the premise, setting, and conflict are introduced. The second and third acts can be described in fairly general terms, which leaves you with some flexibility in case your plans change, as they almost always do.
- When you’re writing a synopsis, you get new ideas. The simple process of turning an outline into clear sentences for another person to read, as well as the physical act of typing, has the effect of clarifying your own thoughts and taking the story in unexpected directions. In other words…
- A synopsis helps you see what the novel is really about.
In short, a synopsis is just another creative tool, as useful, in its own way, as an outline or a mind map, which means that a working writer at least needs to consider it. And as annoying as it may be, from now on, I intend to prepare a synopsis during the planning stages of every novel I write, both as a selling tool to publishers and as a way of organizing my thoughts. Once its purpose has been served, of course, the synopsis can go into a drawer, its important points internalized. And it can be a startling experience to go back and reread the synopsis after the novel has been written and say to yourself: “Wow. Is that what I thought I was writing?”
But how should a synopsis look? At some point, I may post the synopses for my own novels, but since they aren’t scheduled to be published at all until March and December of next year, that probably isn’t a great idea yet. In the meantime, you can find plenty of boring examples of the synopsis form online, but for my money, you’re better off looking at the masters: Borges, whose short stories, like “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” are often brilliant synopses of imaginary novels, and Tolkien, whose synopsis of the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, included at the beginning of The Return of the King, is a model of how a conventional synopsis should read. I’ll be reading them endlessly over the next few days, as I prepare to write a synopsis for my third novel. You’ll be hearing more about this soon…
“Ten thousand hours,” writes Malcom Gladwell in Outliers, “is the magic number of greatness.” That is, ten thousand hours of hard practice, at minimum, is a necessary prerequisite for success in any field, whether it’s chess, the violin, or even, dare I say it, writing. There’s also the variously attributed but widely accepted rule that a writer needs to crank out a million words, over roughly ten years, before achieving a basic level of technical competence. Both of these numbers are, obviously, sort of bogus—many people will require more time, a few much less. But they’re also useful. Ultimately, the underlying message in both cases is the same: mastery in any field takes years of commitment. And if you need some kind of number to guide you on your way, like Dumbo’s magic feather, that’s fine.
Because the only real path to mastery is staying in the game. Terry Rossio, on his very useful Wordplay site, makes a similar point, noting that when he was just starting out as a writer, he realized that anyone who spent ten years at a job—”grocery clerk, college professor, machinist, airline pilot”—had no choice but to become an expert at it. He concludes:
This insight freed me from the fear of picking a so-called “impossible” job. I could pick any field I wanted, free of intimidation, because it was guaranteed I would become an expert…if I was willing to stick to it for ten years. So I picked the job I really wanted deep in my heart: writing for movies.
The concept of a necessary amount of time to achieve expertise is what inspired the old master/apprentice relationship, in which, for instance, a focus puller would spend ten years observing what a cinematographer did, and at the end, be ready to shoot a movie himself. Writing doesn’t offer such neat arrangements, but it still requires the same investment of time, along with an occasional push in the right direction.
In fact, the best argument for writing full-time is that it allows you to accelerate this process. In the nearly four years I spent at my first job in New York, I wrote perhaps 30,000 words of fiction, only a fraction of which was published. After quitting my job, in the five years since, I’ve written about 600,000 words, not to mention another 100,000 words for this blog—a number that gives even me pause. While not all these words were great, they’re getting better, and close to half are going to end up in print. The number of hours is harder to quantify, but it’s probably something like 7,500, which, combined with the untold hours I spent writing bad fiction earlier in my life, has brought me close to Gladwell’s number. And if I hadn’t spent the past five years doing little else, I wouldn’t even be a third of the way there.
Of course, time by itself isn’t enough. The road to mastery is paved with well-intentioned grinders who work diligently on the same story or comic for years without showing any sign of improving. (The cartoonist Missy Pena memorably described this type to Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club at this year’s Comic-Con. VanDerWerff writes: “Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.”) But even if time isn’t a sufficient condition, it’s at least a necessary one. Every great writer has served an apprenticeship, even if he or she doesn’t like to admit it, and if you haven’t rushed into print, you can always deny it when the time comes. As Hemingway said, when a suitcase filled with his old unpublished stories was lost: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
It took me a long time to love Citizen Kane. When I first saw this most famous of all movies, which was finally released last week on a gorgeous Blu-ray, I was maybe ten years old, and already steeped, believe it or not, in the culture of such movie lists as the Sight & Sound poll. (I got an early start at being an obsessive film snob.) And my first viewing of Kane, which I knew had been universally acclaimed as the best film of all time, came as something of a shock. Looking back, I think my biggest issue was with the film’s insistent humor, since I had assumed that all great art had to be deadly serious. Xanadu and its brooding shadows were fine, but when we got to the moment when the stagehand holds his nose at Susan Alexander’s operatic debut, I didn’t know what to think. What kind of masterpiece was this, anyway?
Needless to say, in the years since, this sense of fun has become one of my favorite things about Kane, as it was for Pauline Kael and so many others. Like Hamlet, with its ghosts and swordfights, Kane is both popular and sublime, and it’s one of the first movies to directly communicate to the audience the director’s joy in his craft—the sense that a movie studio was “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” As Kael points out in “Raising Kane,” the movie is almost a series of blackout sketches, full of tricks and gags, and that underlying pleasure still comes through, especially in the earlier newspaper scenes, which feel like a glimpse of the RKO set itself: the Inquirer, with its exhausted but grateful staff, becomes a dream of all creative collaboration, the warmest memory in a movie that ends with the line “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”
And yet, as I’ve grown older, I’m also struck by the undercurrent of sadness and loss, which prompted David Thomson to say, in Rosebud: “This is the most moving picture ever made…Or ever will be.” More than any other film, Kane grows with time, both in the context of film history and in its viewers’ own lives. For one thing, it’s hard to watch it now without seeing it as a prophetic version of what would happen to Orson Welles himself, still only twenty-five and a little more than a baby in the few times he appears in his own face. Welles was a greater man than Kane, but he was already preparing his own warehouse of memories, that incredible mass of stories, myths, and unfinished projects that he carried with him like an invisible Xanadu. Of all great directors, only Coppola—with the ghosts of Zoetrope and the Corleones lingering at the Rubicon estate—can claim to be so haunted.
But Kane isn’t really about Welles himself, but all of us. There’s a reason why such disparate figures as Charles Schulz and Ted Turner have seen themselves in this story: among other things, it’s our best movie about youth and aging. Now that I’ve long since passed the age at which Welles made this film, I’m convinced that there’s no way I could fully appreciate it until now: when you’re twenty-five, the movie seems like a goad, or an exemplar, and it’s only when you’re a little older that you notice its preemptive nostalgia for the promise of youth already lost. I expect that the movie will continue to evolve and show different aspects as I get older, a hall of mirrors, like the one Kane walks through in his very last appearance. It’s an inspiration and a warning, a labyrinth without a center, as Borges writes. And yet running that newspaper still seems like so much fun.
If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.
Well, that was good timing. Only a few days after I posted my manifesto on backstory, we’ve been given a movie that makes my argument better than I ever could: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While not a perfect film, it’s close to a great one, and it reactivates pleasure receptors in my moviegoing brain that have remained dormant for years. Starting with its wonderfully clever opening chase scene and neon-tinged, electronically pulsating main titles, this is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: Thief, American Gigolo, To Live and Die in L.A., and any number of great ’80s crime movies fueled by the sounds of Tangerine Dream. (Note to my dad: If you’re reading this post and haven’t seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for? It even has your favorite actor.)
And much of the film’s fascination comes from how little we know about the protagonist. He’s simply called Driver. A few years ago, we’re told, he wandered into a Los Angeles garage, looking for work, and proceeded to become a brilliant stunt driver, mechanic, and wheelman. His blank gaze and difficulty in connecting with others, aside from his neighbor and her young son, hints at some kind of past trauma, but we aren’t told what this was—and we certainly aren’t told how he learned how to drive and, finally, kill so effectively, although stabbing a man in the throat with a curtain rod isn’t the sort of thing that comes without practice. He has fewer lines than any other important character in the film, and the screenplay around him, by Hossein Amini, is so spare as to seem nonexistent, in a good way. (According to the director, the shooting script was only 81 pages long.)
Much of our interest in Driver, of course, comes from the fact that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, and rarely have the gods of casting been on better behavior. Alfred Hitchcock knew that by casting a star, you can throw out the first reel, because a star brings his own aura and history to the part. For a role like this, Gosling is ideal: he’s undoubtedly a star, but also something of an unknown quantity, with a selective filmography and an air of detached reserve. His affect, as my smitten wife likes to point out, is that of a man smiling quietly at a private joke. He isn’t an actor you’d think of as an action star—apparently the role was originally intended for Hugh Jackman—but he embodies the character completely, and leaves you wanting more. Which, of course, the movie is too smart to give you. Any hint of backstory would have ruined the part: the embroidered scorpion on the back of his jacket, with its nod to Mr. Arkadin, tells us all we need to know.
Drive, then, is close to a textbook example of how to make a classic thriller, and I hope future directors and screenwriters study it intently. In the end, though, it falters a bit: what it needs is a closing aria of revenge like the one Michael Mann gave us in Thief, and what Drive provides is a little too schematic and unsatisfying. (For an example of how to do it right, please, please see here.) And yet there’s so much great stuff on display here that it transcends the weakness of its last twenty minutes. My wife will tell you that for most of the first hour, I was alternately grinning and shaking, or both, at watching something like mastery on the screen. Drive will be picked apart and admired by movie lovers for years to come, and its central lesson is clear for us all: you don’t need backstory to be a real hero. Or even, as the song over the closing credits reminds us, a real human being.