Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2012

The cloth napkin rule

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My cloth napkins

A few years ago, my wife and I bought two large packs of cloth napkins from Crate and Barrel. (This may not seem like the most promising beginning for a post on a writing blog, but bear with me.) I was inspired by a passage from The Ecotopian Encyclopedia, also known as Living Cheaply With Style, by the legendary Berkeley author and simple living guru Ernest Callenbach, who writes:

You probably use paper napkins, like most Americans these days, and you have probably never thought about it much. If you have, you’ve probably felt that your grandparents’ system (cloth napkins that have to be washed and ironed all the time) is far too much trouble and probably more expensive anyway. You may say that even though you really like cloth napkins.

After crunching the numbers, however, Callenbach concludes that cloth napkins are actually cheaper, over time, than their paper equivalents, even if you assume that they wear out after a year or so—which, in my experience, is wildly conservative, especially if you only use each one for a day or two per week. He concludes with the more general point that it’s important, when making consumer decisions, to consider real costs over time. And his analysis was compelling enough that I decided to try it out for myself.

In the years since, these humble napkins have turned out to be one of those seemingly minor purchases that have improved my quality of life in small but profound ways. They’re environmentally friendly, of course, and after almost four years, they show no signs of wear, so they’ve already saved us a decent amount of money. Cleaning them is a cinch—we have enough so that we can pull a new pair out of the sideboard every couple of days, and we just throw them in the laundry each week with the rest of our clothes. Best of all, they’re a pleasure to use, and they often get compliments from guests, who seem impressed that my wife and I use them with every meal. The more I think about it, though, the more surprised I am that not everyone does the same thing. Life rarely offers us choices that are all upside and no downside, so we should grab them whenever we can, even if we’re talking about something very simple. (That said, I’d recommend buying napkins with a polyester/cotton blend, like these, which require minimal care. Pure cotton or linen napkins wrinkle easily, and if you feel obliged to iron them before every use, you’re missing the point.)

Ernest Callenbach

And these napkins embody a larger lesson that I’ve tried to honor in most other aspects of my life. I’ve spoken before about the attractions of simplicity, and although I can’t call myself a true adherent of simple living, I’ve tried to incorporate its principles into my routine whenever possible. I do this for reasons of the purest self-interest. It became very clear, early on, that the odds of my becoming a writer, and of surviving on the proceeds, were much higher if I could make my life as simple in its external details as possible. And what I’ve repeatedly learned is that the virtues of simplicity, frugality, environmental soundness, and quality of life are all bound together. A solution that works along one parameter is likely to work along the others as well, and if it doesn’t, there’s probably another that does. Living within your means, spending your money on experiences and access to ideas, seeking a lifestyle that will leave you with time to do the things you care about—these were the most pragmatic goals I could imagine. I don’t idealize the simple life for its own sake; I’m not an ascetic or a particularly committed environmentalist. I’m just trying, selfishly, to write all day. But the end result, oddly enough, has turned out to have emergent virtues that I couldn’t have anticipated when I began.

The same is true of my writing. In case it isn’t obvious, I like telling complicated stories, but I’ve also felt compelled to enforce simplicity elsewhere in my work: I strive to write clean prose, I place a premium on clarity and economy, and I cut every story as much as possible. And I’ve found that these qualities, which are desirable in their own sake, also have unexpected benefits. A story that reads cleanly from one sentence to the next is capable of sustaining greater complexity on the levels of plot and structure, which is what I enjoy the most; concision, and a fixed word count, forces me to drill down to what matters and make sure that each paragraph pulls its weight. The test, as always, is a practical one. Cloth napkins wouldn’t be worth buying if they weren’t nice to use, and none of the writing skills I’ve spent so much time developing would be meaningful if readers didn’t enjoy the result. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be a tradeoff, here or anywhere else. Simplicity in writing is a lot like simplicity in other parts of life, including the dinner table: simplicity, economy, and responsibility to others are really just different words for the same thing, and the true test is whether it makes you happy. If it does, the rest will usually follow.

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December 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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December 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

The Disney way of storytelling

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Sketch by Ollie Johnston

Our best advice, at this point, is to develop and strengthen what is good; edit out and shift emphasis on what is not coming off; stay away from the commonplace and the hackneyed; constantly search for new things the audience has never seen before—but tell it all with the same old values and fundamentals of communication…

Every picture will have scenes that are difficult to draw and scenes that call for experience and talent, but the bulk of the film should be made up of scenes that are easy to do, should be effective and good-looking on the screen, and should make the best possible use of the animation potential.

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, The Illusion of Life

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December 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Ballet and the art of memory

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Ballet, then, is an art of memory, not history. No wonder dancers obsessively memorize everything: steps, gestures, combinations, variations, whole ballets. It is difficult to overstate this. Memory is central to the art, and dancers are trained, as the ballerina Natalia Makarova once put it, to “eat” dances—to ingest them and make them part of who they are. These are physical memories; when dancers know a dance, they know it in their muscles and bones. Recall is sensual, like Proust’s madelines, and brings back not just the steps but also the gestures and feel of the movement, the “perfume,” as Danilova said, of the dance—and the older dancer. Thus ballet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries: it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.

Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels

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December 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

A few tips on faking it

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Citizen Kane

It’s always satisfying when a story comes full circle, or when a moment near the end of the narrative reveals a pattern of symbols or themes that was only dimly visible before. This kind of structure requires both careful planning and some degree of luck: a story that is too obviously structured can seem artificial or contrived, while the best kind of deep structure can take even the author by surprise. More often, however, a writer will reach the end of a project only to find that its structure is shapeless or absent, with a story that seems like nothing but a series of loosely connected events. The smart thing to do at this point would be to throw out the whole thing and start again—something that few of us have the courage to attempt. The alternative is, well, to fake it: to look for a few quick fixes that will make the story look more structured than it really is, in hopes of fooling the casual reader or critic. Is it cheating? Sure. But it’s a form of cheating of which nearly every artist has been guilty at one time or another, and once you’re aware of it, you start to see it everywhere you look. With just a few simple tricks, soon you, too, will be faking it with the best:

1. If you can’t find a theme, pretend it’s there anyway. Ideally, theme ought to arise organically from the events of the story itself, rather than being conceived beforehand or imposed after the fact. Sometimes, though, you wind up a theme that seems thin or nonexistent. The answer, if you’re determined to fake it, is to pick a theme that seems appropriate and mention it on the slightest pretext. The great recent example is Pixar’s Brave, which repeats the word “fate” so insistently that it clearly hopes that nobody notices that it doesn’t have much to do with fate at all, or at least has little of interest to say on the subject. I’m not above this kind of thing myself: when the title of my second novel was changed at the last minute to City of Exiles, which I selected more or less because it sounded good, I went back and tweaked the draft in places to tease out the theme of exile wherever possible. Hopefully, this kind of retouching should be invisible, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a real theme lurking there after all. In storytelling, as in jazz, sometimes you just need to fake it till you make it.

Concept art for Brave

2. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. History, as Mark Twain says, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, too, does a good novel: elements that occur early in the story can, and should, come back to play a larger role. As before, we’d like to believe that this is the result of serendipity or good planning, but I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to go back, when you’re nearing the end of a writing project, to see if there are elements that could be profitably reintroduced. A character who appears only once and never returns, or a detail introduced in the book’s early pages that doesn’t play a part later on, is an annoying loose end; bring them back again at an unexpected time, and you start to look pretty smart. In City of Exiles, for instance, an unscrupulous solicitor named Owen Dancy appears early in the book, only to never be mentioned again. This struck me as an oversight, so not only did I bring him back, but I had him play a crucial part in the epilogue. As soon as something occurs twice, it starts to look like structure, and three times is even better. This kind of systematic mining of one’s work for meaningful repetitions is something that every writer should do. Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.

3. When in doubt, go back to where you started. When we see the NO TRESPASSING sign at Xanadu for the last time at the end of Citizen Kane, it feels like a circle has closed; the same is true of the picket fence and red roses in the opening and closing shots of Blue Velvet. At its best, this kind of bookending reflects a ring or circular structure that has been part of the work from the beginning, but sometimes only the illusion of symmetry is required. You see this in movies, like the original Spider-Man, that repeat the opening narration again at the end: it feels like a recurrence of deeper themes, when it may just be a simple editing trick. (At a higher level, you have a movie like Raging Bull, which reportedly didn’t work at all in test screenings until a snippet of the closing scene was appended to the beginning.) A true ring composition demands detailed planning, while mechanically opening and closing on the same phrase or image requires no skill at all—but if you aren’t sure how to end a story, even the fake version will often get you ninety percent of the way there. Because it’s always satisfying when a story, or a blog post, comes full circle. Isn’t it?

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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“When the door of the guest room opened…”

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"When the door of the guest room opened..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Stories are about convergence. At least, they are these days. The very oldest stories we know—fairy tales, folklore, biblical narratives—tend to follow a single protagonist from one event to another, as do the earliest stories we write as children. It didn’t take long, however, for storytellers to discover the power of converging action. We see this kind of structure as early as The Odyssey, which opens with Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors at Ithaca before cutting away to our hero, with the implicit promise that the two threads of the narrative will converge before the poem is done. Ever since, writers have understood that two or more stories, properly arranged, can add up to more than the sum of their parts: given a pair of characters in initially separate storylines, the reader naturally wonders what the two parts of the plot have to do with each other, and looks ahead to their ultimate collision. This kind of anticipation is central to suspense, which is really just another word for any narrative in which we’re curious about what happens next, and the techniques of intercutting, parallel action, and intersection are among the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

And the true potential of convergence wasn’t fully realized until the coming of film. Every cut in a movie is a form of narrative juxtaposition, with edits that marry segments of footage that might have been filmed days or weeks apart, and filmmakers quickly realized how useful a tool this could be. We see this at the climax of a movie like Argo, for instance, which manipulates the audience beautifully as it cuts between pursuer and pursued, and also at higher, more sophisticated narrative levels. I’ve spoken many times about how deeply influenced I’ve been by the structure of L.A. Confidential, which follows its three very different cops on separate investigations that converge ever more insidiously as the plot unfolds. Even more lovely is the structure of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, which follows Julian and Vicky as they enter the world of ballet, allowing them to cross paths occasionally, only to reveal, deliciously, that they’ve fallen in love while our attention has been elsewhere. And it’s for reasons like this that all of my published novels have been conceived with such a tripartite structure in mind.

"I don't want to go back to the share house..."

That said, the trouble with this sort of plot is that a lot of moving parts need to be set in motion, and given room to develop, before their convergence can have any meaning. This is one reason why The Icon Thief and City of Exiles can seem, at least to some readers, to take their sweet time in revealing what they’re really about: unlike a novel that follows a single character all the way through, these books need to establish three distinct storylines, with their attendant backstory and exposition, before finally bringing them together. Extend the process too long, and the reader becomes tired and confused; cover the ground too quickly, and you lose some of the frisson that comes when the pieces finally entwine. Finding a balance that will allow these storylines to gather the necessary momentum, while also giving the reader a satisfying experience in the meantime, has been one of the most challenging aspects of writing these books, and I’m not always sure I pull it off. There are times, for instance, when I wish that The Icon Thief were a little bit faster out of the gate. But when the threads do converge, I’d like to think that the effect is worth the wait, as in Chapter 27, when Maddy and Powell properly meet at last.

Although I haven’t checked in a while, I’m pretty sure that this is one of the longest chapters in the novel, and for good reason. I’ve spent close to half of the book establishing these two characters, and now, after the heist that Maddy witnessed and which Powell failed to prevent, they have a lot to talk about. Ilya, my third protagonist, isn’t present, but he’s certainly there in spirit—and it’s here, as Powell questions Maddy about what she saw, that all the pieces of the narrative finally become one. In some ways, this is the hinge moment of the entire novel, and the rest of the book will be devoted to working out the implications of the components I’ve laid out so far. Of course, it isn’t enough to simply bring the pieces together without some additional complication. In this case, it comes after Powell is gone, when Maddy and Ethan leave the mansion and, somewhat to their surprise, end up spending the night together. This is the second big convergence in this chapter, and one that will have significant consequences for the rest of the story, as it starts to subtly shift in tone from intrigue to paranoia. In some ways, this is where the story really begins. But the pieces have been waiting to come together for a long time…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

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