Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2011

Bill James on why he writes

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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.

Bill James, quoted by Michael Lewis in Moneyball

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September 30, 2011 at 7:58 am

Hello house, goodbye novel

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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.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2011 at 5:39 am

Posted in Writing

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Cannibalistic octopuses and other joys of writing

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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.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2011 at 6:37 am

How an octopus saved my life

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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.

For more on the writing of “The Boneless One,” please see here. And if you like, for a limited time, you can read the story itself for free.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2011 at 6:48 am

Moneyball and the dusty middle innings

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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.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am


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