Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2012

Thoughts on finishing a novel

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In a few hours, if all goes according to plan, I’ll deliver the final draft of Eternal Empire to my publisher. (Whether or not anyone will be on the other end to receive it is another question entirely—the power situation in downtown New York is still pretty dicey, and in any case, Penguin has a lot of other things on its mind.) The funny thing, of course, is that it doesn’t really seem like I’m done. It doesn’t feel anticlimactic, exactly, but there’s never just one moment when you can look at a novel and know you’re finished. This manuscript has been more or less in its final form for about a week, and although I’ve continued to make small revisions up to the last minute, there haven’t been any major structural changes since earlier this month. I also know that I’ll do at least one more rewrite before the end of the year in response to notes from my editor, along with a second set of revisions after the copy edit, and yet another when I receive the page proofs. So even apart from Valéry’s observation that a work of art is never finished, but abandoned, I know that this isn’t really the end of anything.

All the same, it feels good, because this was a challenging novel in more ways than one. The timeline wasn’t quite as compressed as that for City of Exiles: that book was taken from initial synopsis to delivery in about nine months, and Eternal Empire benefited from an extra four weeks or so—which may not sound like a lot, but it went a long way toward preserving my sanity in what was already a very eventful year. Writing it was also tricky given its status as the conclusion of a trilogy. The story had to be accessible to readers who hadn’t read one or both of the previous books, but also had to revisit themes and characters in a way that would be satisfying to those who had followed the series from the beginning. I had a lot of unfinished business from the first two books to resolve, with numerous important players returning alongside entirely new characters. Finally, I wanted to raise the stakes, with heightened suspense and consequences, which meant writing more action, on a page by page basis, than the first two books combined. As a result, it ended up being a very crowded novel, and although I think I’ve managed to find a shape for the story that works, it wasn’t easy.

And there’s another sense in which this novel, like the others, will never really be finished. A first novel is a fluke, but two establish a pattern, and one of the most fascinating and difficult things about writing a third book is navigating the lessons and expectations that the previous ones have established. Each of my first two novels had elements that I wanted to preserve: The Icon Thief is denser and more complicated, City of Exiles faster and more streamlined, and my goal for the third installment was to combine the complexity of the first with the momentum of the second. The result was a kind of ongoing triangulation, as I found myself steering the narrative along a winding channel with the previous two books as markers. And I suspect that this is a process that will repeat itself with every book I write. I’m always going to be looking back at my old stuff, keeping what I like, discarding what I don’t, and trying to put together a body of work that makes sense when you stand back and look at it as a whole. Books talk to one another and shed light on their predecessors in surprising ways, and there’s a sense in which my first novel, for instance, will never read in quite the same way, now that it has two others lined up behind it.

As to where things go from here, I’m not entirely sure. After delivering the draft, I expect to spend the rest of the day handing out candy—we got something like two hundred trick-or-treaters last year. Certainly I’m hoping to take a couple of days off to read some good books, take care of a few projects around the house that I’ve been postponing for a while, and do my best to avoid obsessing over the polls. But I expect that I’ll get back to work on something soon—I feel nervous whenever I’m not writing, and as enticing as it sounds to do nothing, the appeal wears off pretty quickly. I have a general idea of what I’d like to do next, although for the first time in more than two years, I find myself without a book under contract. It’s a slightly precarious position, but it’s also liberating: I’ve been writing about the same ideas and characters for a long time, and as much as I’ll miss Maddy, Wolfe, Ilya, and the rest, I’m looking forward to trying something new. That’s the thing about writing: for all its constraints and pitfalls and frustrations, it really does allow for limitless possibilities. And the idea of pursuing these possibilities in a new direction, wherever they end up taking me, is very exciting.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2012 at 9:40 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Three (or more) is a crowd

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There are no rules in screenwriting, as we all know, but one of them is this: you must never ever open your first draft screenplay with a courtroom scene.

—William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?

He’s right. At first, a courtroom scene might seem like a decent opening for a movie. It satisfies the crucial requirement, as laid out usefully by screenwriter Terry Rossio, that every scene in a script be built around a clearly identifiable situation—and there’s nothing more familiar than a courtroom. We know the location, the players, the rules of engagement, and as a result, it gives us a convenient vehicle for generating suspense or drama. The sticking point, the pitfall that makes it impossible to use this as an opening scene, is the huge cast it involves. As Goldman points out, starting a screenplay in court involves laying out multiple characters in quick succession, and after we’ve been introduced to “Melvin Marshall, a bulldog in the courtroom” and “the legendary Tommy ‘the Hat’ Marino” and “Judge Eric Wildenstein himself,” our eyes start to glaze over. In a movie, this kind of scene works fine—we can use the faces of the actors to tell them apart. But in a printed screenplay, or a novel, all these names just blur together. Prose fiction is good at a lot of things, but one of its weaker points, especially at the start of a story, is introducing a large cast in a short period of time without confusing or annoying the reader.

Most good authors seem to understand this, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I find in beginning fiction. When I was reading submissions for my college literary magazine, almost without exception, I’d read the first paragraph of a new story, pause, and then read it over again, because the author was introducing too much information at once. There’s the protagonist, Gerald, and his sister, Sarah, talking about a third person, Horatio, whom we haven’t met yet, and they’re in the kitchen and it’s somewhere in Delaware and maybe there’s some kind of a war, and although I’ve been given a lot of material, I don’t have a single narrative thread to follow. Readers can handle a lot of complexity, but not when it’s deployed in one big lump. And while this sort of problem is much less common in professional short stories that have gone through an editor or two, it’s surprisingly common in science fiction. A lot of the stories in Analog, for instance, begin with a page that makes my head hurt, as we’re introduced to an exotic setting and some advanced technology and a bunch of alien names, and while certain readers seem to enjoy the process of puzzling out what the story is trying to say, I’m not among them.

The best thing a writer can do is begin by focusing on a single character with a clearly defined objective, and then gradually expand the narrative from there. You can, if you like, give us two characters in conflict, but no more than that, at least not until we’ve been adequately grounded in the players we’ve seen so far. Three is definitely a crowd. While editing the sound for THX-1138, Walter Murch discovered that when two characters were walking on screen, he had to carefully sync the sound of their footsteps to the movement of their bodies, but when there were three or more, he could lay the footsteps in anywhere—it was impossible for the audience to match the sound of individual steps to what was on the screen. This made his job easier, but it also led him to conclude that audiences, in general, have trouble keeping track of more than three elements at once. And this applies to more than just sound. Metcalfe’s Law tells us that the value of a social network—like a cast of characters—is proportional to the square of the number of players, and while this complexity can be wonderful when it comes to the overall shape of a story, when presented to us all at once, our natural response is to become frustrated and bored. Presenting the characters one at a time, and giving them clear objectives, is the smartest way to avoid this.

And although movies and television are significantly better than prose fiction at presenting us with a large cast, the best of them approach the problem in the same way. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no better introduction to an enormous cast than the opening scene of The Godfather, with does precisely what I’m advocating here: it starts with an extended close-up of a minor character, Amergio Bonasera, and allows him to fully explain his situation before cutting to Don Corleone’s response. Later, at the wedding, we’re introduced to each of the major characters in turn, and each is defined by a clear problem or objective. As the movie progresses, these characters will acquire staggering complexities—but it’s that first, simple introduction that locks each of them into place. A similar process occurs in the pilot for Cheers, in which the regular characters enter one at a time until the show’s world is fully populated. By establishing the characters gradually and clarifying their relationships one by one, you’ll prepare the reader or the audience for the complications to follow. Once all the characters have been introduced, you can take full advantage of the possibilities that a large ensemble presents. But don’t do it all at once.

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Daniel Clowes on the lessons of film editing

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To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence. It’s something that I’m really interested in trying to figure out, but there are pluses and minuses to every approach. For instance, I think if you did all your panels exactly the same size and left a certain amount of “breathing room” throughout the story, you could make fairly extensive after-the-fact changes, but you’d sacrifice a lot by doing that…

It’s a very mysterious process: you put together a cut of the film and at the first viewing it always seems just terrible, then you work on it for two weeks and you can’t imagine what else you could do with it; then six months later, you’re still working on it and making significant changes every day. It’s very odd, but you kind of know when it’s there.

Daniel Clowes, quoted by Todd Hignite in In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

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