Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What I need to do better

leave a comment »

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I’m a pretty good writer. At least, I’d like to think so. There are certainly things I’d change about my career if I could, and I’ve taken plenty of wrong turns, but I’ve still managed to sell a couple of novels, a fair amount of short fiction, and occasional freelance work, not to mention my daily grind on this blog. I’ve also thought a great deal about the process of writing itself, and I’d like to believe that I know a good piece of work when I see one, even if I don’t always live up to my own standards. Yet there are always ways in which I could do better. Writers are inevitably plagued by doubt—to the point where the phrase “frustrated novelist” strikes me as redundant—and we tend to question ourselves, and our choice of vocation, on a daily basis. But it’s also important to stand back every now and then and ask ourselves how we could take our fiction to the next level, even as we’re tempted to stick with what works. My own list of resolutions is lengthy and constantly evolving, but as of today, at a time when I’m taking a break between projects, these are my top three goals for my own writing:

1. Learn to be simple. This is the big one. As I’ve said many times before, I love complexity, and part of the fun of writing a novel is seeing how far I can push the envelope in terms of density and intricacy of plot. All the same, I also see this as a limitation, which is one point on which my occasional critics and I can agree. There’s a sense in which complexity can be a form of timidity, a flight from the sort of exposure that simplicity brings, when there aren’t any tricks or gimmicks to cover up a writer’s real shortcomings. As much as I’m drawn to complicated plots and structures in the books I read, many of my favorite novels—the works of James M. Cain, for instance—are marked by rigorous focus and economy, even as they open into ever greater depths. That’s the mark of a truly gifted writer, and it often takes far more effort to achieve than a plot in which the wheels are constantly turning. A few of my short stories, like “Ernesto,” have something of this straightforward quality, but it’s something I haven’t yet had the courage to explore at greater length. And I’m not sure when I will.

Cloud Atlas

2. Get more quickly out of the gate. Here, again, Cain is my great example: Tom Wolfe has justly praised his famous momentum, the sense that the action begins at the first line and never relents, which is something I don’t always see in my own stories. I do my best to hook the reader, of course, and each of my published novels opens with a pretty good opening scene, but I still can’t shake the sense that they take longer to ramp up than they should. To my eyes, both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are at least interesting from the start, and I hope that their opening chapters at least encourage the reader to keep going, but in both books, things don’t really get cooking until after the first hundred pages. Part of this is due to the structural complexity I mentioned above: both novels have a lot of moving parts and parallel plot threads that need to be set in motion before they can interlock in a satisfying way, and if nothing else, I’d like to believe that they ultimately reward a reader’s patience. But I’d love to write a book that moved so quickly that this wasn’t an issue at all.

3. Focus more on voice. I’ve spoken a lot about how I value clean, transparent prose, which I still think is the right call. If nothing else, it means that I can read the stories I wrote in my late twenties without wanting to go back in time and intercept them on the way to the post office. Yet voice is one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, even if it’s been abused and made suspect by authors who don’t seem to care about anything else. In some ways, this is the trickiest resolution of all: I still believe that clarity and lucidity are the obvious choice for the kinds of stories I write, and any attempt to experiment with voice could easily backfire. Still, I envy writers, like David Mitchell, who take clear pleasure in their acts of narrative ventriloquism, and it would be interesting, if nothing else, to try to write an extended narrative in a voice that wasn’t my own. This sort of experimentation is best done in private, and it’s likely, even probable, that the results would never see the light of day. I wouldn’t do it without a good narrative reason. But it’s still something to keep in mind.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: