Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2013

“Standing before the counter of the hardware store…”

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"Standing before the counter of the hardware store..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Writers are craftsmen. At least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves. “Poetry” originally comes from the root word meaning to do or to make—trust me, I spent years studying this stuff—and it’s not surprising that writers often talk about themselves as if they were blue-collar workers. Television writers talk about “laying pipe,” novelists spend almost as much time discussing structure as engineers do, and much of the language of revision sounds like it’s talking about wood carving: we cut, trim, and shape, even if we’re doing nothing more than moving digital representations of words around on a screen. As my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a draft was originally any kind of drawing on paper, and more specifically a design, sketch, or blueprint for a more complete work of art, and only later assumed its current meaning as something that causes writers to tear their hair out. And this is part of the reason I often turn for instruction to such varied trades as architecture, animation, and the visual arts.

This also explains why writers tend to be so fascinated by the lore of other crafts and trades. Moby-Dick is a manual of whaling. James M. Cain teaches us a lot about murder, but also insurance investigation. Foucault’s Pendulum includes an entire chapter on the workings of a modern vanity press. These digressions are partly a way of filling out the world of a novel—if a writer gets these kinds of details right, we’re implicitly more likely to trust what he says about the subtleties of human behavior—but they’re also a reflection of how writers see themselves. This is a peculiar craft we’ve chosen, and it results in something so intangible that physical books themselves are no longer necessary, but the work it requires is tedious, solitary, and painstaking. As a result, we tend to be drawn to examples of skill and artistic dexterity wherever we find them, and take pleasure in translating these trades into the only medium we know how to use, as if we’re secretly talking about ourselves all the while.

"Looking for signs of craquelure..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, this impulse can take authors to strange places. Thrillers have often been criticized for laying out the details of illegal activity in ways that seem to glamorize or encourage it: The Day of the Jackal is a miniature textbook on passport fraud, for instance, and plenty of technothrillers go on for pages about the intricacies of weaponry and improvised explosives. In The Icon Thief, we’ve already seen Ilya construct a handheld laser from a flashlight and optical drive—although this information is readily available online—and City of Exiles shows its villain constructing a workable cell phone detonator, although I kept certain details deliberately vague. Not surprisingly, some readers don’t care for this sort of thing: one very intelligent review on Goodreads says that the latter novel has “that kind of fetishism of hardware that thrillers seem to require.” But really, every novel fetishizes its subject to some extent: it’s just that suspense happens to concern itself with hardware that runs toward the lurid or criminal.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief is a nice example, to the point where it actually begins with Ilya paying for his purchases at the counter of a hardware store. In terms of plot, it’s a relatively quiet scene that lays the groundwork for a series of more kinetic chapters to come. But it also provides a quick rundown of Ilya’s preparations for a life on the run: he disguises himself with a few items from a drugstore, steals a driver’s license from a bicycle rental kiosk in the park, and takes apart a stolen painting to make it more portable. These are all details I could have skipped, but I liked writing about the process of undoing the canvas from its wooden frame—which is something I did a lot in painting classes in college—and rolling it up into a tube, “looking for signs of craquelure.” (Honestly, I suspect that I wrote this entire chapter just to use the word “craquelure.”) And it serves a useful purpose: Ilya can now carry the painting around for the rest of the book without making a point of it. Which just gives me more time to write about hardware…

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January 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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January 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A life’s work in half an hour

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A hundred words a day

Yesterday, I posted a quote from the former United States poet laureate Robert Hass: “You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” It’s a nice sentiment, and one that I desperately wanted to believe seven years ago. Back then, I was working at a job that I liked, but didn’t love, and I was doing everything I could to write novels in my spare time. I’d already begun and discarded an ambitious project that I’d spent close to a year researching, only to find myself lost after a couple of chapters, and the novel I’d chosen as its successor—an art world story that would eventually, after radical transformation, be reborn as The Icon Thief—wasn’t going anywhere. Frustrated, I resolved to force myself to write a certain number of words each day, and decided to make the the goal as achievable as I could. A hundred words, I thought, was a reasonable quota: if necessary, I could do the necessary work in five minutes, and if I kept up that pace, after two and a half years, I’d have a novel. Anything more would be gravy. Thus inspired, I wrote my target on an index card and posted it to my medicine cabinet, so it would stare me in the face each morning, in a writer’s version of the mirror scare.

I should give fair warning, at this point, that this isn’t a post about how I wrote my first novel a hundred words at a sitting. In the end, I didn’t keep up the routine for very long—maybe a month at the most. Ultimately, as readers of this blog know, I quit my job to write full time, and although it took me years before I could begin to make a living at it, I think this was the best solution, at least for where I was at that point in my life. I’m aware, of course, that this isn’t an option that most of us have: even in my own case, the ability to do so was the result of a confluence of several unrelated factors, as well as some degree of blind luck. Moreover, I don’t think word count was my problem. I have a hunch that I would have been more than capable of writing a novel while still working during the day, provided that I managed to develop the planning and outlining skills I later developed. I didn’t lack time or energy; what I lacked was a plan. And although in my own case, I had to commit completely to writing before acquiring these habits, there’s no reason why they can’t be put to work under other circumstances. (Part of the reason I write this blog is out of the hope I can convince a few readers to avoid the mistakes I made.)

Robert Hass

But Hass’s advice is still valuable, even if, at first glance, it seems to apply to poets more than novelists. Just it’s easier to start saving money by easing into it gradually, then increasing the amounts over time, the habit of writing every day—which nearly all professional writers share—is best achieved in small steps. There’s nothing wrong with the math of writing a hundred words a day, as long as you can keep it up over the long term, which is where all those outlining and creativity tricks come into play. And the nice thing about writing is that once those hundred words are written, barring some kind of unforeseen disaster on your hard drive, they’ll stay there, and the resulting paragraph has the same ultimate value as those written on days of extraordinary productivity. The only real benefit of spending the entire day writing, aside from the chance it affords to disappear more deeply into the fictional dream, is that it allows you to cover the necessary ground a little faster. Minute by minute, however, the ground looks much the same. To slightly misquote David Mamet, you write a novel in the same way you eat a whole turkey: one bite at a time.

And the best part of writing each day, even in small amounts, is that the half hour you spend at the computer turns out to be only a fraction of the effort you’ve invested in the project elsewhere. As I’ve noted many times before, much of a writer’s best work is done while he’s apparently engaged in something else entirely: taking a walk, doing the dishes, shaving, in the bus, bath, or bed. That half hour of work isn’t just important for its own sake, but as a means of organizing and channeling the otherwise aimless work of one’s daydreams, which tend to inevitably return, at the most unexpected moments, to the problems of the story you’re writing. And the only way to enter that continuous state of receptivity is to write every day, even if the word count remains a modest one. A writer is like an athlete: most track and field events are over in a few seconds, but they represent the result of endless hours of solitary devotion, which only attain their full meaning in the arena. For us, the arena is the page, and every word we write is, or ought to be, the visible crystallization of an unseen and ongoing process. It’s possible, as Hass notes, to do your life’s work in half an hour a day. But only if you’ve structured the rest of your life around it.

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

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Maybe backstory isn’t so bad after all

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally lost it. For most of the last two years, I’ve used this blog to rail against the use of excessive backstory, advising writers to kill it whenever it occurs, preferably with fire. I’ve pointed out that characters in a novel are interesting because of their words, deeds, and decisions over the course of the narrative, not because of whatever they might have been doing or thinking before the story began. I’ve argued that backstory violates the principle that a good story should consist of a series of objectives, and that character is best revealed through action. I’ve pointed out, stealing an observation from the great William Goldman, that heroes must have mystery, and that to explain away a character through digressions into his past or psychology—at least in most forms of popular fiction—only serves to diminish him. And I’ve often referred to examples of characters who become more interesting the less we know about them, like Forsyth’s Jackal, and those who have been progressively ruined by excessive backstory, like Hannibal Lecter.

I still believe all these things. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing reams of backstory for two different projects. One, Eternal Empire, is the concluding novel of a series that can’t be entirely understood without additional information about the earlier installments, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until reading over the most recent draft. The other is a long, self-contained novel I’ve been working on for years, and whose protagonist’s actions make somewhat more sense with a slightly more detailed backstory. In both cases, I added backstory after both novels were finished, in an attempt to address specific narrative problems, namely a lack of clarity that was preventing readers from getting lost in the story. And although I’ve begun to tactically incorporate backstory where it seems advisable, my earlier convictions haven’t changed. For most writers, I’m convinced that less backstory is preferable to the alternative, and that implication and suggestion are more powerful tools than extended passages of introspection. But there are times, looking back at a story that is otherwise complete, when I’ve found that a few scraps of backstory have their place.

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs

If this seems inconsistent, it’s only because the rules of writing, like most laws, operate under an informal hierarchy, and it’s often worth stretching a minor rule so as to preserve a major one. (Or, as the rabbis say, it’s better to break one sabbath in order to keep many sabbaths.) You can debate which rules are more important than others, but it’s hard to argue with John Gardner’s observation that for most writers, the primary objective is to preserve the fictional dream: the illusion, in the reader’s mind, that these events are actually happening. Anything that tears the reader out of the dream without good reason needs to be examined and, usually, corrected. And one issue that can break the illusion is unintended ambiguity. If the reader puts down the book to wonder about a detail in a character’s past that the author didn’t mean to leave unresolved, it’s probably worth introducing this information, solely for the sake of maintaining momentum. And my reluctance to spell things out has occasionally confused readers in ways I didn’t intend. This led to some trouble with my recent Analog story “The Voices,” and also seems to be an issue in The Icon Thief. (Given the chance, I think I’d insert a few more paragraphs about Duchamp and his place in art history to avoid sending readers to Wikipedia.)

That said, backstory needs to be introduced judiciously, and at the proper point. In particular, it’s often best to save it for a moment when the story can afford to slow down. Such flat moments, which serve as a breather between points of high action, provide a convenient place for filling in the background, as long as it makes sense within the structure of the novel as a whole. The two projects I’m writing now both happen to have a convenient opening in the exact same spot: at the beginning of the second section, which currently picks up immediately from a cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. Inserting a flashback here, with the tension of the previous scene unresolved, both extends the suspense and allows me to fill in necessary background in reasonable security that the reader will read on to see what happens next. This sort of thing can be taken too far, of course: I keep such departures as short as possible, afraid that I might conclude what T.E. Lawrence did after rereading a chapter intended as a “flat” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “On reflection I agreed…that it was perhaps too successful.” So most of my earlier points still stand—even, or especially, when I’m forced to break them.

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The seductions of structure

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Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Learning about a writer’s outlining methods may not be as interesting as reading about his or her sex life, but it exercises a peculiar fascination of its own—at least for other writers. Everyone else probably feels a little like I did while reading Shawn McGrath’s recent appreciation of the beautiful source code behind Doom 3: I understood what he was getting at, but the article itself read like a dispatch from a parallel universe of lexical analyzers and rigid parameters. Still, the rules of good structure are surprisingly constant across disciplines. You don’t want more parts than you need; the parts you do have should be arranged in a logical form; and endless tinkering is usually required before the result has the necessary balance and beauty. And for the most part, the underlying work ought to remain invisible. The structure of a good piece of fiction is something like the structure of a comfortable chair. You don’t necessarily want to think about it while you’re in it, but if the structure has been properly conceived, your brain, or your rear end, will thank you.

In recent weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to read two enjoyable pieces of structure porn. The first is John McPhee’s New Yorker essay on the structure of narrative nonfiction; the second is Aaron Hamburger’s piece in the New York Times on outlining in reverse. McPhee’s article goes into his methods in great, sometimes laborious detail, and there’s something delightful in hearing him sing the praises of his outlining and text editing software. His tools may be computerized, but they only allow him to streamline what he’d always done with a typewriter and scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size…One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood.

Regular readers will know that this is the kind of thing I love. Accounts of how a book is written tend to dwell on personal gossip or poetic inspiration, and while such stories can be inspiring or encouraging, as a working writer, I’d much rather hear more about those slivers of paper.

Scene cards on the author's desk

And the reason I love them so much is that they get close to the heart of writing as a profession, which has surprising affinities with more technical or mechanical trades. Writing a novel, in particular, hinges partially on a few eureka moments, but it also presents daunting organizational and logistical challenges. A huge amount of material needs to be kept under control, and a writer’s brain just isn’t large or flexible enough to handle it all at once. Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas, and for most of us, it boils down to taking good notes, which I’ve compared elsewhere to messages that I’ve left, a la Memento, for my future self to rediscover. By putting our thoughts on paper—or, like McPhee does, in a computerized database—we make them easier to sort and retrieve. It looks like little more than bookkeeping, but it liberates us. McPhee says it better than I ever could: “If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse…The procedure eliminated all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.”

This kind of organization can also take place closer to the end of the project, as Hamburger notes in his Times piece. Hamburger says that he dislikes using outlines to plan a writing project, and prefers to work more organically, but also observes that it can be useful to view the resulting material with a more objective, even mathematical eye. What he describes is similar to what I’ve called writing by numbers: you break the story down to individual scenes, count the pages or paragraphs, and see how each piece fits in with the shape of the story as a whole. Such an analysis often reveals hidden weaknesses or asymmetries, and the solution can often be as simple as the ten percent rule:

In [some] stories, I found that most of the scenes were roughly equal in length, and so cutting became as easy as an across-the-board budget cut. I dared myself to try to cut ten percent from each scene, and then assessed what was left. Happily, I didn’t always achieve my goal—because let’s face it, writing is not math and never should be. Yet what I learned about my story along the way proved invaluable.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, with one caveat: I believe that writing often is math, although not exclusively, and only as a necessary prop for emotion and intuition. Getting good ideas, as every writer knows, is the easy part. It’s the structure that makes them dance.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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