Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2012

For love or money

with 2 comments

Whenever I think about the relationship between writing and money, I remember an exchange in What’s New Pussycat? between Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen:

O’Toole: Did you find a job?
Allen: Yeah, I got something at the striptease. I help the girls dress and undress.
O’Toole: Nice job.
Allen: Twenty francs a week.
O’Toole: Not very much.
Allen: It’s all I can afford.

It’s a great gag, but the reason I like it so much is that it points to a universal truth: when we’re doing what we love for a living, we’ll gladly pay for the privilege. (Incidentally, this exchange, which you can watch starting at the 2:53 mark here, forms part of Allen’s movie debut, which shows how fully realized his persona was from the very beginning.)

Here’s another example. I have a friend who loves to knit, and whenever I see her, she’s always working on scarves and socks as gifts for friends. (She even hopes to raise goats for their wool one day.) When she’s asked if she’d ever consider selling her work on Etsy, however, she says no. Why? Given how much effort and energy she invests in one pair of socks, she says, she’d have to sell them for something like three hundred dollars in order to be fairly compensated for her time. Knitting by hand is a losing proposition, at least in financial terms, but she does it because she enjoys it. This is true of a lot of hobbies, even when we get paid for our work. When we bring the tomatoes from our garden to sell at the farmer’s market, we don’t expect to break even on the transaction, but it’s still gratifying to make the sale.

And this is often true of writing as well. Even setting aside the fact that I do a lot of my writing for free—I haven’t seen a cent from this blog, for one thing—the writing I do for money doesn’t always make sense from a financial point of view. When I publish a story in Analog, for instance, I get paid, at most, seven cents a word. Given the fact that it takes me two solid weeks to research, outline, and write even a relatively short story, when I do the math, I find that I’m basically working for minimum wage. And this is one of the best possible outcomes for this kind of writing. Analog, as it happens, is at the high end of what science fiction magazines can pay these days, with many of the smaller magazines, in any genre, essentially asking authors to write for free. The days in which a writer like Isaac Asimov could make a comfortable living from his short fiction alone are long gone.

So why do I do it? Mostly because I grew up loving the kinds of stories that Analog publishes, and I’m still tickled by the prospect of appearing in its pages, to the point where I’ll more or less pay for the chance, at least when you measure my work in terms of its opportunity cost. For the past couple of years, I’ve been in the enviable position of having at least one story in the pipeline at all times, but after my novelette “The Voices” comes out next month in the September issue, I won’t have anything coming up. And although my schedule this year is uncomfortably packed as it is, I’ll almost certainly take a couple of weeks off at some point to knock out another story, without any guarantee of acceptance, even though my time could be more profitably spent in other ways. And if I could, I’d do this even more often. One short story a year isn’t very much. But it’s all I can afford.

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2012 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

What would Rex Harrison do?

with 4 comments

Earlier this month, in his rather unenthusiastic review of the new musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, Hilton Als wrote of star Matthew Broderick, who, for all his other talents, is manifestly not a dancer: “His dancing should be a physical equivalent of Rex Harrison’s speaking his songs in [My Fair Lady]: self-assured and brilliant in its use of the performer’s limitations.” It’s a nice comparison, and indeed, Rex Harrison is one of the most triumphant examples in the history of entertainment of a performer turning his limitations into something uniquely his own. (If I could go back in time to see only one musical, it would be the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and the young Julie Andrews.) And while most of us rightly strive to overcome our limitations, it can also be useful to find ways of turning them into advantages, or at least to find roles for which we’re naturally suited, shortcomings and all.

Years of writing have taught me that I have at least two major limitations as a novelist (although my readers can probably think of more). The first is that my style of writing is essentially serious. I don’t think it’s solemn, necessarily, and I’d like to think that my fiction shows some wit in its construction and execution. But I’m not a naturally funny writer, and I’m in awe of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, or even Joss Whedon, whose sense of humor is inseparable from their way of regarding the world. The Icon Thief contains maybe three jokes, and I’m inordinately proud of all of them, just because they don’t come naturally. This isn’t to say that I’m a humorless or dour person, but that being funny in print is really hard, and it’s a skill set that I don’t seem to have, at least not in fiction. And while I’d like to develop this quality, if only to increase my range of available subjects and moods, I expect that it’s always going to be pretty limited.

My other big limitation is that I only seem capable of writing stories in which something is always happening. The Icon Thief and its sequels are stuffed with plot and incident, largely because I’m not sure what I’d do if the action slowed down. In this, I’m probably influenced by the movies I love. In his essay on Yasujiro Ozu, David Thomson writes:

[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, whenever I write a page in which nothing happens, I get nervous. This isn’t the worst problem for a mainstream novelist to have, but like my essential seriousness, it limits my ability to tell certain kinds of stories. (This may be why I’m so impressed by the work of, say, Nicholson Baker, who writes brilliantly funny novels in which almost nothing takes place.)

So what do I do? I do what Rex Harrison did: I look for material where my limitations can be mistaken for strengths. In short, I write suspense fiction, which tends to be forgiving of essential seriousness—it’s hard to find a funny line in any of Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth, for example—and for restless, compulsive action, all executed within a fairly narrow range of tone. When I write in other genres, like science fiction, I basically approach the story if I were still writing suspense, which, luckily, happens to be a fairly adaptable mode. And while I’ll always continue to push myself as a writer, and hope to eventually expand my tonal and emotional range, I’m glad that I’ve found at least one place where my limitations feel at home, and where they can occasionally flower forth into full song. For everything else, I’m content just to speak to the music.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2012 at 7:50 am

“We aren’t trying to beat the market…”

leave a comment »

(Note: This post is the sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 5. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most writers, it’s safe to say, know what it means to work at an unrewarding job during the day while pursuing their literary ambitions at night. It isn’t surprising, then, that many of them vent their frustrations over work in their fiction. Sometimes this depiction is thinly veiled, as in The Devil Wears Prada, or not veiled at all, as in William Styron’s savagely funny takedown of his first job at McGraw Hill in Sophie’s Choice. And whenever a writer uses elements of his own professional background in his work, it’s easy to wonder how much is actually true. In my own case, the art fund depicted in The Icon Thief isn’t exactly a portrait of my own experience, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t be writing about this world at all if I hadn’t spent several years working at a hedge fund that, like my fictional Reynard Art Fund, took great pride in being “smart money”—that is, in gathering and analyzing public information in ways that gave it an advantage, real or imagined, over other players in the market.

When I began researching the novel that became The Icon Thief, I was an associate in my company’s corporate development group, looking into potential new businesses for the firm. (None of my painstakingly researched reports ever led to anything close to a real business, but the work itself wasn’t bad.) At the time, art funds were starting to get some press, but if I ever thought about proposing that we enter the art game, I don’t think it got very far, if only because it was so obviously a bad idea. All the same, it struck me that it might make an interesting basis for a novel. In particular, I wondered what it might be like to approach art investing with the same quantitative tools that my firm had applied to other asset classes. And while much of what I subsequently wrote was pure invention, the recent unveiling of the Arnet Indices—which attempt to track price movements for both individual artists and the art market as a whole, although their claims have been justly criticized—imply that I was simply ahead of my time.

Chapter 5 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy arrives for her morning’s work at the Reynard Art Fund, was my way of introducing this world to the reader. I put the firm’s offices in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street and Madison Avenue, home to many art dealers and galleries, and modeled its sleek, somewhat sterile interior after that of my old company. The presentation that Maddy attends is a thinly disguised version of the client meetings in which I frequently participated, and the result, I hope, is a fairly painless way of conveying a lot of information to the reader about the fund’s investment strategy. (Like just about everything else in this novel, the original version of this scene was much longer.) The chapter concludes with Reynard challenging Ethan and Maddy to find the name of the mystery buyer from the auction at Sotheby’s, coupled with a considerable financial reward. This also allows me to introduce the theme of Maddy’s money troubles, a late addition to the plot that I’ll be talking about more later on.

In hindsight, if there’s one thing I don’t like about this scene, it’s that we don’t meet any of the fund’s other employees. Maddy smiles at the receptionist as she walks in, but otherwise, Maddy, Ethan, and Reynard seem to be the only people working here throughout the entire novel, when the fund probably employed quite a few other traders, analysts, and back office personnel. At the time, I reasoned that because the plot was already so complicated, I should keep the number of supporting characters to a minimum. These days, however, after Mad Men and other works of art have taught me so much about the power of ensembles, I’ve come to value the moments of serendipity you get from a large supporting cast. In both City of Exiles and The Scythian, I’ve increased the number of characters glimpsed in passing, in hopes that one or two of them will strike an unexpected spark—as they have, in both novels, with surprising consequences. And part of me wishes I’d done this in The Icon Thief as well.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Ronald Knox’s ten commandments of mystery fiction

with 2 comments

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Ronald Knox, Essays in Satire

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2012 at 9:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: