Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2012

The importance of overdesigning

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At the outset of the design process, make your spaces about 10 percent larger than they need to be to meet the assigned program. During the design process, additional spatial requirements will arise—for mechanical rooms, structural columns, storage, circulation space, wall thicknesses, and a hundred other things not anticipated when the building program was created.

The point of overdesigning is not to design a larger building than is necessary but to design one that is ultimately the right size. In the unlikely event the extra space turns out to be unnecessary, you will find it easier to shrink an overlarge building than to create more space where it doesn’t already exist.

Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
(Note: This applies to novels as well.)

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Lessons from Great TV: An Introduction

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As the triumphant conclusion to the fifth season of Mad Men recently made clear, we’re living in an age of great television, at least for those willing to seek it out. It’s also a time in which the role of the television writer has achieved greater prominence in popular culture than ever before. This is partly because of the shows themselves, which are increasingly eager to engage in layered, serialized storytelling; because writers have a much wider range of platforms to discuss their work, whether in the media, at conferences, or on commentary tracks; and because of the emergence of highly articulate fandoms that have made cult heroes out of showrunners like Joss Whedon and Dan Harmon. In my own case, television has inevitably played a large role in my life—everything I’ve ever gotten paid for writing owes something to The X-Files—but it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to think about the specific lessons that television has for writers in any medium.

Over the next two weeks, then, I’m going to be talking about ten episodes of television, in chronological order, that have shaped the way I think about writing. This isn’t meant to be a list of the greatest TV series of all time—unless my plans change, I won’t have a chance to discuss such recent high points as The Wire or Breaking Bad. Rather, these are episodes that illustrate what television has taught me about such important matters as telling complex stories over time; dealing with constraints; managing a large cast of characters; and, crucially, finding a way to end it all. The shows I’ve chosen reflect the haphazard nature of my television education, which was first informed by Nick at Nite and resumed in real time in the early nineties, right around the time Twin Peaks and The Simpsons premiered only four months apart. In short, it’s inseparable from the rhythms of my own life. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to do my best to explain what the effects have been.

On Monday: Why I wanted Rob Petrie’s job.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2012 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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“As Maddy entered the storeroom…”

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(Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 9. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A novel can’t build momentum all the time. It’s tempting to try and write a story that consists of nothing but action, but the net effect will only exhaust the reader: a properly structured novel needs occasional breaks, moments where the narrative slows down to consolidate what it’s done so far and look forward to what lies ahead. This is especially important when you’re on the verge of something big. At this point in the story, The Icon Thief is about to begin its headlong plunge into plot—the next fifteen chapters are the busiest in the entire novel—so it’s now, appropriately, that it pauses to take stock of where it stands. Chapter 9 is arguably the quietest chapter in the book, but it also provides a necessary contrast to the developments around the corner, which will hopefully seem all the more intense compared to this moment of relative calm. Or, as Henning Nelms says in Magic and Showmanship, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite nonwriting books on writing: “A shift is stronger than an increase.”

Which is why it seems all the more strange to me, looking back, that this chapter wasn’t even a part of the first draft. As I’ve mentioned before, after I’d finished the novel, I had to go back and radically restructure it to put the emphasis on Maddy, my central character, whose story provides a necessary thread for the reader to follow. This involved cutting back some of Powell and Ilya’s material, and it also meant adding new scenes for Maddy herself. I knew from the structure of the story that I needed a scene with Maddy here—otherwise she’d be offstage for several chapters—but I didn’t know what it would be. I’d left her at a rough moment: she’s just been upstaged at a crucial meeting by Ethan, her rival at the art fund, and fears that she’s being left behind, or even at the wrong job altogether. In just a few chapters, she’s going to jump headlong into the novel’s obstacle race. What I needed, I realized, was a chapter that would tell us more about where Maddy is coming from, and to establish the motivation behind the choices she’s about to make.

Doing this involved filling out some of Maddy’s personal history, which is something I’d originally been reluctant to do. I’ve talked a lot about how I don’t like backstory, and how I feel that characters should be defined primarily by their actions in the present. In this case, however, it seemed necessary. Maddy is a very complex character, and she’s about to make some striking decisions. To keep her actions explicable, I decided to focus on one particular piece of her past: the fact that she’d opened an art gallery several years ago, saw it go bankrupt for reasons that were out of her control, and still hasn’t come to terms with the failure, which symbolizes, in her mind, the fact that there are aspects of the art world that she still doesn’t understand. This, along with her ambivalence towards her current situation, is what leads her to take the actions that will drive the rest of Part I. And I couldn’t think of a better way to dramatize this than to show her by herself, among the works of art that the fund has acquired and kept out of sight. (Among these works, incidentally, is a painting by Greuze, which I can’t help but wonder might be the same picture once owned by Professor Moriarty.)

Once I knew what the chapter was about, the rest was fairly easy. I’d written a scene for a previous draft in which Maddy and Reynard visited the fund’s art storage facility, but I cut it for reasons of pacing. Going back to this earlier version, I found that the basic material was still sound, and that it could easily be repurposed for this scene—another reason why it’s wise to never throw anything away. Finally, I can’t help pointing out that this scene contains perhaps my favorite inside joke, and clue, in the entire novel. (A big spoiler follows.) When Maddy goes back to the office, Ethan tells her that he’s been looking into the art tastes of Natalia Onegina, the girlfriend of the oligarch who bought Study for Étant Donnés. “From what I’ve been able to find,” Ethan says, “her taste runs more to the Wilson twins.” And who are the Wilson twins? Well, they’re a pair of British artists. They’re sisters. And they’re known for their hallucinatory videos, often featuring themselves, including one in which a murder takes place…

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a “following.” As soon as you stop wanting something you get it.

Andy Warhol

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Listening to “The Voices”

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The September 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is on newsstands now, featuring my novelette “The Voices,” which is sort of an homage to Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Analog calls it “psychological fiction in the most literal, yet engaging, sense,” and since it may be my last story there for a while—I sadly haven’t had time to write anything new this year—I’m very glad to see it in print. As usual, I’ll be talking about the story’s origins in some detail later this month, so if you have a chance, please pick up a copy, which you can buy at Barnes & Noble or online here.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Using the rule of three

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Comedy, as we all know intuitively, is largely built on threes. It often shows the same thing three times with slight variations, followed by a kicker at the end, which is why so many jokes are built around three different nationalities, religions, or professions, like those about the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. There’s the famous comedy triple, in which two items set up a pattern, followed by a third that serves as a punchline. (There are countless examples, but I’ve always liked this one from The Simpsons: “Well, little girl, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day: whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network…”)  A similar rule applies to magic, which depends on the basic pattern of setup, development, and surprise climax. In Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms describes a trick in which a color-changing fan is used to magically dye handkerchiefs different colors, and then says:

Commercial color-changing fans can display four different hues. But this is bad showmanship. Dyeing one is trivial. Dyeing two arouses interest. Dyeing three provides your climax. There is no reason to add an anticlimax simply because you are prepared to do so.

So why is the number three so powerful? For the same reason that one point is just a point, two points is a line, and three points, suddenly, is structure. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and it takes three items to confirm or deny that a pattern exists—and it can be very satisfying either to be given the payoff we’ve been expecting or to be shown how cleverly we’ve been misled. Writing about The Godfather, David Thomson speaks of “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” as when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCloskey. “It is a killing in which we are his accomplices,” Thomson says, and three is the minimum number of story points required for the reader to actively conspire in the narrative. This is why most of our stories, from jokes to fairy tales to novels, still consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”)

This also applies to a story’s constituent parts. Narratives tend to have a sort of fractal structure: an individual chapter or scene will often have the same three-act structure as the story as a whole. This often applies to the movie scenes we tend to remember most vividly, which are structured as miniature plays—think of Holly’s first meeting with Harry in The Third Man. My own novels and stories are usually structured in three acts, to the point where I use numbered sections even in short novelettes, and that applies to individual chapters as well. When I’m outlining a chapter, I’m generally thinking in threes, even before I know what will happen: I’ve learned from experience that three story beats is a strong foundation on which to build a chapter, for the same reason that a tripod needs three legs to stand, so I always make sure that the chapter falls into three roughly similar parts, at least in the first draft.

And yet here’s the funny thing: when it comes to the final draft of a chapter, the first and third parts often don’t need to be there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of writing the middle—that is, of cutting the opening and closing sections of a chapter and jumping from the middle of one scene to the next—and I’ve often noticed that rough drafts spend too much time moving toward and away from the real center of interest. In short, the rule of three is invaluable for structuring a first draft, but in the final version, much of it can be thrown away. In my experience, it’s best to reserve the full three-act treatment for big, climactic scenes, while for transitional chapters or sequences, usually only the middle is necessary. The reader can fill in the first and last parts on his or her own—but only if they’ve been written and cut in the first place. They’re still there, but they’re invisible. And that’s how you use the rule of three.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

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