Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2013

Entering the Eternal Empire

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Eternal Empire

A few months ago, my editor asked if I had any thoughts on the cover art for Eternal Empire, the third and final novel in the series begun by The Icon Thief. I responded, as always, with a detailed memo on possible images and symbols, complete with attached reference photos for convenience. (For The Icon Thief, I even briefly weighed the possibility of putting together a mockup in Photoshop, before rightly discarding the idea as obnoxious even by the standards of overprotective authors.) Several weeks later, I was sent the proposed cover, and when I opened the file, I saw that the design team had essentially ignored all my suggestions—and I couldn’t have been happier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the publishing process, it’s that the players at every stage are much more qualified to do their own jobs than I would ever be, and it’s best to leave them alone. The result is probably the handsomest cover for any novel in the series, although I’d put City of Exiles at a close second, and I’m pleased to finally have the chance to unveil it here and on its official page.

This isn’t quite the final version, however. When the time came for us to go out to other authors for blurbs, one of the first writers who came to mind was Katherine Neville, the author of the classic bestseller The Eight. I owe Neville a great deal: I first read The Eight many years ago, and in terms of pure entertainment, I think it’s probably still the best of all historical conspiracy thrillers, assuming that we put Foucault’s Pendulum in a peculiar category of its own. It’s one of those books that influenced me in ways that I’ve only belatedly begun to realize: the appearance of David’s Death of Marat in the epilogue of The Icon Thief, for instance, was prompted by a discussion of the painting in James Elkins’s Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, but it was also subconsciously inspired by the role of Marat and Charlotte Corday in Neville’s novel, and my decision to set a crucial section of City of Exiles at a chess tournament in London was an undeniable homage to the single most memorable sequence in The Eight.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

For this reason, among others, Neville had long been on my dream list of potential blurbers, and we’d actually gone out to her for City of Exiles, although a miscommunication prevented her from reading the novel in time. She expressed an interest in seeing the next book in the series, however, so as soon as Eternal Empire was ready, we sent her a copy in manuscript form—and to my delight, she responded with an incredibly generous blurb that you can read on the novel’s Amazon page, and which will appear on the final version of the cover. As I’ve noted here before, going out for blurbs is a funny business, and the result depends as much on luck as on the book’s quality. But on a personal level, I find it fundamentally satisfying that Neville’s name will appear on the last book in the series. If it hadn’t been for The Eight, it’s possible that these books wouldn’t exist at all, at least not in their current form, and it makes me feel as if a circle—or an infinite loop—has closed.

And it also feels like the end of a journey. Eternal Empire won’t be released for another four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime—I just finished going over the copy edit, which was staggeringly thorough, with page proofs and advance copies still to come. At this point, however, the text is pretty much locked, and it marks the conclusion of a process that began more than five years ago, when I started doing research for The Icon Thief. The resulting novels have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably things I’d do differently if I had the chance to write them over again. Still, as they stand, these books are inseparable from my own story as a writer, as I’ve continued to figure out, sometimes in public, the best way of turning the ideas and influences I love into something individual and personal. At the moment, the next step remains excitingly unclear, although I hope to have an update here soon. And I’m grateful for the chance to have come this far.

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April 30, 2013 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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Pac Man

There was the temptation to make the Pac Mac shape less simple. While I was designing the game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a mustache. There would just be no end to it.

Toru Iwatani, in Programmers at Work

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April 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Rediscovering the dictionary

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John McPhee

I’ve never owned a dictionary. Well, that isn’t precisely true. Looking around my bookshelves now, I can see all kinds of specialized dictionaries without leaving my chair, from Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. About a year ago, moreover, I was lucky enough to acquire not just a dictionary, but the dictionary. As much as I love my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, however, it isn’t exactly made for everyday use: the volumes are bulky, the print is too small to read without a magnifying glass, and it’s easy to get lost in it for hours when you’re just trying to look up one word. And as far as a conventional desk dictionary is concerned, I haven’t used one in a long time. My vocabulary is more than adequate for the kind of fiction I’m writing, and whenever I have to check a definition just to be on the safe side, there are plenty of online resources that I can consult with ease. So although I have plenty of other reference books, I just never saw the need for Webster’s.

But I was wrong. Or at least I’m strongly reconsidering my position after reading the latest in John McPhee’s wonderful series of essays on the writing life in The New Yorker. The most recent installment covers a lot of ground—it contains invaluable advice on how to write a rough draft, which McPhee says you should approach as if it were a letter to your mother, and includes a fascinating digression on the history of the magazine’s copy editors—but the real meat of the piece lies here:

With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.

The emphasis is mine, but McPhee’s case speaks for itself. He explains, for instance, that he wrote the sentence “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water” after seeing “to shoot forth light” in the dictionary definition of “sparkle.” And after struggling to find a way to describe canoeing, he looked up the definition of the word “sport” and found: “A diversion in the field.” Hence:

A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion in the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.

A page from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

As far as thesauruses go, McPhee calls them “useful things” in their proper place: “The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.” In my own case, I tend to use a thesaurus most often in the rewrite, when I’m drilling down more deeply into the meaning of each sentence, and when issues of variety and rhythm start to take greater precedence. I rely mostly on the thesaurus function in Word and on an occasional trip to the excellent free thesauruses available online, where the hyperlinks allow me to skip more easily from one possible synonym to another. And although I recently found myself tempted by a copy of Roget’s at my local thrift store, I expect that I’ll stick to my current routine. (Incidentally, I’ve found that I tend to read thesauruses most obsessively when I’m trying to figure out the title for a novel, which is an exhausting process that needs all the help it can get—I vividly remember going to Thesaurus.com repeatedly on my phone while trying to find a title for what eventually became City of Exiles.)

But McPhee has sold me on the dictionary. After briefly weighing the possibility of picking up McPhee’s own Webster’s Collegiate, I ended up buying a used copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, since I remember it fondly from my own childhood and because it’s the dictionary most warmly recommended by the Whole Earth Catalog, which has never steered me wrong. It’s coming on Tuesday, and after it arrives, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took up a permanent place on my desk, next to my reference copies of my own novels and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes. Whether or not it will change my style remains to be seen, but it’s still something I wish I’d done years earlier. Dictionaries, as all writers know, are books of magic, and we should consult them as diligently as we would any religious text, an act, like canoeing, performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself. As Jean Cocteau says: “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.”

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April 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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April 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A letter from Georges Bizet

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Georges Bizet

You may imagine that it is maddening to interrupt my cherished work for two days to write cornet solos. One must live!…I have had my revenge. I have made the orchestra supernaturally vulgar. The cornet shrieks like a band in a public-house, the ophicleide and the bass-drum mark the first beat agreeably, with the bass trombone and the violoncellos and contrabasses, while the second and third beats are assailed by the horns, the violas, the second violins, the two first trombones, and the drum—yes, the drum! If you could only see the viola part! Those are hapless men who pass their lives playing such machines. Horrible!

Georges Bizet

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April 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Thomas Merton on a poet’s logic

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Thomas Merton

There is a logic of language and a logic of mathematics. The former is supple and lifelike, it follows our experience. The latter is abstract and rigid, more ideal. The latter is perfectly necessary, perfectly reliable: the former is only sometimes reliable and hardly ever systematic. But the logic of mathematics achieves necessity at the expense of living truth, it is less real than the other, although more certain. It achieves certainty by a flight from the concrete into abstraction. Doubtless, to an idealist, this would seem to be a more perfect reality. I am not an idealist. The logic of the poet—that is, the logic of language or the experience itself—develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.

Thomas Merton

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April 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

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More news from all over

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Il ladro di reliquie

I’m very pleased to announce that Il ladro di reliquie, the Italian translation of The Icon Thief, was released yesterday by Newton Compton. Here’s how the first paragraph reads:

Andrey era quasi al confine quando si imbatté nei ladri. Erano ormai tre giorni che viaggiava. Di norma era era molto cauto al volante, ma a un certo punto nell’ultima ora la sua mente si era messa a vagare e, scendendo da un breve pendio, era quasi andato a sbattere contro due auto parcheggiate lì davanti.

Although I haven’t seen a surge in fan mail from Italy just yet, I’m still excited to see my novel in the language of Dante and Umberto Eco, and I’m looking forward to receiving my author’s copies. In the meantime, as I’ve noted before, you can check out the first three chapters on the book’s official site, and if you happen to read Italian, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

If you’re in the Chicago area, I also have a pair of upcoming author events that I hope some of you reading this will be able to attend. On Wednesday May 8, I’ll be at the Maze Branch of the Oak Park Public Library at 7pm to discuss City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire, an opportunity that I owe entirely to the generosity and support of librarian Carolyn DeCoursey, who read The Icon Thief, liked it, and was surprised to discover that the author lived only a few blocks away. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be appearing at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest on June 8 and 9, which is always a highlight of any year. My panel discussion last summer with David Heinzmann, Jan Wallentin, Manuel Muñoz, and Sean Cherover was one of the most memorable author events I’ve ever had, and I’m hopeful that this year will be even more special. (If nothing else, I expect that my newest, biggest fan will be in attendance, and I hope she’ll ask some good questions.) Stay tuned for more details.

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April 26, 2013 at 8:53 am

Quote of the Day

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April 26, 2013 at 7:30 am

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“He entered the club, leaving the door open…”

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"A shadow detached itself from the rear of the shed..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here.)

“Although there is no substitute for merit in writing,” E.B. White notes in The Elements of Style, “clarity comes closest to being one.” This is true of all aspects of fiction, from character to dialogue, and it’s especially true of action scenes. An action sequence in a novel is a kind of musical number in which all the basic notes of storytelling are hit with extraordinary focus and concentration, and there’s little room for error. It’s a war between the two central aspects of reading: the impulse to linger and the need to keep going. Most good fiction is written on the premise that the reader will occasionally pause to reflect on a complex sentence, read a paragraph over again, or even turn back a few pages for clarification or context. An action scene, by contrast, is one that begs to unfold in real time, with the act of reading coinciding as much as possible with the rhythm of the action itself. Writing a scene that satisfies these requirements while remaining stylistically consistent with the rest of the novel is a real challenge, and the key, as White points out, is clarity—although I doubt he was thinking of chase scenes or gunfights when he wrote those words.

A novel isn’t a movie, of course, and it can be dangerous to look to film for examples of how to stage action: movies have tools at their disposal, like montage and intercutting, that don’t come easily to fiction. But film still provides some useful illustrations. I’ve noted before that my favorite action scenes of recent years—the Guggenheim shootout in The International, the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, and the opening chase in Drive—were all worked out on the page, rather than in the editing room. They unfold in real time and proceed from one logical beat to the next, and there’s rarely any doubt about what the characters are thinking, although the full meaning of the scene in Drive isn’t revealed until the very end of the sequence. They’re cleanly photographed and cut together in a way that isn’t afraid to hold on a shot, and each depends intimately on spatial relationships, both in the physical geography of the set and within the frame itself. All these decisions have their common origin in a concern for clarity. The audience is grounded at every moment, and we’re never confused, as we often are by Michael Bay, about what is happening on the screen.

"He entered the club, leaving the door open..."

In short, a good action scene, either in fiction or in film, serves as an intense microcosm of the virtues of good storytelling itself. Like the story as a whole, it’s best when it’s built on a sequence of clear problems, which the protagonist succeeds or fails at solving in some logical order. Clarity is always important, but never more so than when the action needs to move at a fast pace, and the use of clean, vivid prose is the literary equivalent of the composed shot and spatially coherent editing. Each sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end: it’s no accident that the three scenes I’ve mentioned above could be taken out of their surrounding movies and enjoyed in their own right, as many of us tend to do when we’re watching them at home. And just as finding the right rhythm for an action scene in a movie can come down to the addition or removal of a few frames, the action in a novel needs to be written and revised with particular care, long after the author’s own excitement has begun to fade, until the logic is crystal clear in the moment to a reader encountering it for the first time.

When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still figuring most of this out, and although it took me a long time to formulate these rules, I managed to follow them intuitively, at least most of the time. Chapter 44, for instance, is as close to a conventional action scene as you’ll find in the book, and it’s only in retrospect that I can see how the objectives follow logically one after the other, as determined by the geography of the setting at the Club Marat. Ilya emerges from the darkness under the boardwalk behind the club, takes out the busboy, slips through the back door, makes his way up the corridor to the downstairs office, incapacitates the restaurant manager, arms himself, and places a call to Sharkovsky for a meeting, knowing that he’ll come to the office first. The only bloodshed comes a few pages later, when Ilya shoots Misha, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s only a coda to the real source of interest, as we follow Ilya’s thoughts and decisions from one point of cover to the next. There’s no question that I was inspired by the movies I loved, especially the final confrontation in Michael Mann’s Thief, and the action here unfolds in the novelistic equivalent of one continuous shot. And it isn’t over yet. As Ilya and Sharkovsky are about to discover, they aren’t alone…

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April 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

Quote of the Day

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T.E. Lawrence

Nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and that is the test of generals.

T.E. Lawrence

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April 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The real importance of craft

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Richard Wilbur

If there’s a consistent theme on this blog, it’s the importance of detachment. This means setting aside any concerns about success, fame, or money while writing, as Richard Wilbur advises, and also maintaining a healthy objectivity toward the work itself. Writing is about making hard choices—in particular, it’s about cutting—and an author needs to be willing to stand back from the story and honestly evaluate what is and isn’t working. In the past, I’ve even said that this kind of objectivity ought to extend to the material itself: the more fascinating or emotionally resonant the author finds the subject, the harder it can be to see it with clear eyes. In science fiction, for instance, I’ve learned to warn writers that the more excited you are about your initial idea, the more cautiously you should proceed. And while I won’t go as far as to say that authors should avoid subjects that they find personally compelling or which have autobiographical meaning, I’d argue that it’s best to take an interest in idea more for its potential as the engine of a story than for its inherent significance.

Of course, there’s a danger here as well. There always comes a point halfway through any long project, especially a novel, in which the author can’t remember why the central idea seemed worth writing about in the first place. This applies as much to ideas of enormous personal importance as to anything else, and at first glance, you might also expect it to affect ideas that were chosen in a more objective frame of mind. And you wouldn’t be wrong. When you take into account all the stages of conception, research, writing, and revision, a novel can easily take up a year or more of a writer’s life, and in any extended endeavor, that early excitement tends to fade. I spend a fair amount of time interacting with aspiring authors online, and I’ll often see writers whose greatest obstacle isn’t craft or habit but boredom: after a few chapters, they lose interest in what they’re doing and stop. A month later, it happens again. And in a field where finishing a rough draft and taking it through all the following steps are indispensable requirements for growing as an artist, that kind of burnout can be deadly.

Iris Murdoch

The solution to this problem, which took me a long time to figure out myself, is that passion and engagement are essential to writing, but they’re best focused on craft. When I’m reading through the draft of a novel for the fiftieth time, which is not an exaggeration, I’m no longer surprised by the challenges the characters face, but I’m still caught up in the technical problems that the novel presents. An author’s engagement with the work serves as a kind of an invisible parallel plot to the main narrative, and unlike the story itself, its suspense only increases with time. And just as obstacles within the plot serve to raise the stakes for the protagonist, the rules of craft provide an appealingly treacherous road for a writer to navigate, which keeps things interesting long after that first rush of discovery has dissipated. Writing a novel is a lot like a marriage, and not just because, as Iris Murdoch says, you should never commit yourself until you’re amazed at your luck. A romance can begin with a moment of infatuation, but by itself, it isn’t enough: you need to fall in love with a routine of ordinary habits and interactions, some exciting, others mundane, and all based on a set of obligations that liberate as much as they confine.

Which brings me to an important point about craft. We tend to see the rules of good writing as a set of restrictions or best practices designed to help writers avoid inadvertent mistakes: “Show, don’t tell,” “Omit needless words,” “Start each story as late as possible.” At first, that’s precisely what they are. Over time, though, they start to become something more, a kind of matrix in which creativity can find its fullest expression as it cracks small, absorbing problems. Like learning to play an instrument or mastering a sport—both of which, for the sake of full disclosure, are things I know nothing about—internalizing the rules of craft is really a way of giving meaning to each step in pursuit of a larger goal. Ten thousand hours of practice or a million words can seem like a lot, but most of the time, you aren’t thinking in those terms, but about how to resolve the issue right in front of you. Without the rules of craft, the daily give and take of figuring out a story can be undeniably tedious; with them, it’s endlessly diverting. And that’s why the rules matter. They aren’t a set of assembly instructions, but a handbook for playing the greatest game in the world.

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April 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

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Quote of the Day

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Blaise Pascal

Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, “My book,” “My commentary,” “My history,” etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have “My house” on their tongue. They would do better to say, “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our history,” etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

Blaise PascalPensées

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April 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

The power of clichés

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Brian Eno

Over the last few weeks, I’ve become fascinated with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I’ve always been drawn to the creative possibilities of randomness, and this is a particularly interesting example: in its original form, it’s a deck of cards, designed to be drawn from at random, each of which contains a single short aphorism, paradox, or suggestion intended to help break creative blocks. The tone of the aphorisms ranges from practical to gnomic to cheeky—”Overtly resist change,” “Turn it upside down,” “Is the tuning appropriate?”—but their overall intention is to gently disrupt the approach you’ve been taking toward the problem at hand, which often involves inverting your assumptions. This morning, for instance, when I drew a random card from the excellent online version, the result was: “Use clichés.” At first glance, this seems like strange advice, since most of us try to follow William Safire’s advice to avoid clichés like the plague. In reality, though, it’s a useful reminder that clichés do have their place, at least for an artist who has the skill and experience to deploy them correctly.

A cliché, by definition, is a unit of language or narrative that is already familiar to the reader, often to the point of losing all meaning. At their worst, clichés shut down thought by substituting a stereotyped formula for actual engagement with the subject. Still, there are times when this kind of conceptual invisibility can be useful. Songwriters, in particular, know that they can be an invaluable way of managing complexity within a piece of music, which often incorporates lulls or repetition as a courtesy to the listener. Paul Simon says it best:

So when I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

This kind of pause is one of the subtlest of all artistic tools: it provides a moment of consolidation, allowing the listener—or reader—to process the information presented so far. When we hear or read a cliché, we don’t need to pay attention to it, and that license to relax can be crucial in a work of art that is otherwise dense and challenging.

Paul Simon

This is a simply particular case of a larger point I’ve made elsewhere, which is that not every page of a story can be pitched at the same level of complexity or intensity. With few exceptions, even the most compressed narratives need to periodically rise and fall, both to give the reader a break and to provide a contrast or baseline for more dramatic moments. As the blogger Mike Meginnis has pointed out, this is one reason that we find flat, cartoonish characters in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: any attempt to create conventionally plausible personalities when the bounds of complexity are being pushed in every other direction would quickly become unmanageable. And I’ve pointed out before that the plot of a movie like Inception needs to be simpler than it seems at first glance: the characters are mostly defined by type, without any real surprises after they’ve been introduced, and once the premise has been established, the plot unfolds in a fairly straightforward way. Christopher Nolan is particularly shrewd at using the familiar tropes of the story he’s telling—the thriller, the comic book movie, the heist film—for grounding us on one level while challenging us on others, which is one reason why I embedded a conventional procedural story at the heart of The Icon Thief.

If there’s one place where clichés don’t work, however, it’s in the creation of character. Given the arguments above, it might seem fine to use stereotypes or stock characters in the supporting cast, which allows the reader to tune them out in favor of the more important players, but in practice, this approach can easily backfire. Simple characters have their place, but it’s best to convey this through clean, uncomplicated motivations: characters who fall too easily into familiar categories often reflect a failure of craft or diligence on the author’s part, and they tend to cloud the story—by substituting a list of stock behaviors for clear objectives—rather than to clarify it. And this applies just as much to attempts to avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. In an excellent list of rules for writing science fiction and fantasy, the author Terry Bisson notes: “Racial and sexual stereotypes are (still) default SF. Avoiding them takes more than reversals.” It isn’t enough, in other words, to make your lead female character really good at archery. Which only hints at the most important point of all: as Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth, and the opposite of a cliché is, well, another cliché.

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April 23, 2013 at 8:37 am

Quote of the Day

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April 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The running man

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Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, before going on to make a persuasive argument that Grant “was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a similarly difficult realization that needs to be reached about Tom Cruise, which is that for better or worse, over the last quarter of a century, he’s been the best movie star we have, and one of the best we’ve ever had. Not the best actor, certainly, or even the one, like Clooney, who most embodies our ideas of what a star should be, but simply the one who gave us the most good reasons to go to the movies for more than twenty years. I love film deeply, and I’ve thought about it more than any sane person probably should, and I have no trouble confessing that for most of my adult life, Cruise and his movies have given me more pleasure than the work of any other actor or director.

And yet it wasn’t until I realized that I loved his movies that I really started to take notice of him in his own right. We’re usually drawn to stars because of the qualities they embody, but in Cruise’s case, I became a fan—and remain a huge one—because I belatedly noticed that whenever I bought a ticket to a movie with his name above the title, I generally had a hell of a good time. That hasn’t always been true in recent years, and while some might say that his movies have taken a hit because Cruise’s own public image has been tarnished, I’d argue that the causal arrow runs the other way. Cruise has always functioned less as a traditional movie star than as a sort of seal of quality: a guarantee that we’ll be treated to a film that provides everything that the money, talent, and resources of a major studio can deliver. As a result, whenever the movies in which he appears become less interesting, Cruise himself grows less attractive. Left to his own devices, he can’t rescue Lions for Lambs or Knight and Day, but if he gives us a big, impersonal toy like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, all is forgiven.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

It’s worth emphasizing how strange this is. We tend to think of movie stars as supernatural beings who can elevate mediocre material by their mere presence, but Cruise is more of a handsome, professional void, a running man around whom good to great movies have assembled themselves with remarkable consistency. In fact, he’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made. Hollywood consists of many ascending circles of power, in which each level has more of it than the one below, but when judged by its only real measure—the ability to give a film a green light—true power has traditionally resided with a handful of major stars. What sets Cruise apart from the rest is that he’s used his stardom to work with many of the great filmmakers of his time (Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Mann, Stone, De Palma, Anderson) and a host of inspired journeymen, and he’s been largely responsible for the ascent of such talents as J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. If this sort of thing were easy, we’d see it more often. And the fact that he did it for more than two decades speaks volumes about his intelligence, shrewdness, and ambition.

Recently, he’s faltered a bit, but his choices, good or bad, are still fascinating, especially as his aura continues to enrich his material with memories of his earlier roles, a process that goes at least as far back as Eyes Wide Shut. I haven’t seen Oblivion, but over the weekend, I caught Jack Reacher, a nifty but profoundly odd and implausible genre movie that runs off Cruise like a battery. (It’s actually much more of a star vehicle than Ghost Protocol, in which Cruise himself tended to get lost among all the wonders on display.) While most leading men strive to make it all seem easy, much of the appeal of watching Cruise lies in how hard this boy wonder of fifty seems to push himself in every frame, as if he still has everything to prove. Other stars may embody wit, cool, elegance, or masculinity, but Cruise is the emblem of the man who wills himself into existence, both on and off the screen, and sustains the world around him through sheer focus and energy. Real or not, it’s a seductive vision, or illusion, for those of us blessed with less certainty. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner says this week in The New York Times Magazine: “Who has ever worked so hard for our pleasure?”

Quote of the Day

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April 22, 2013 at 7:30 am

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I.A. Richards on rhythm and surprise

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I.A. Richards

Rhythm and its specialized form, metre, depend upon repetition, and expectancy. Equally where what is expected recurs and where it fails, all rhythmical and metrical effects spring from anticipation. As a rule this anticipation is unconscious…Just as the eye reading print unconsciously expects the spelling to be as usual, and the fount of type to remain the same, so the mind after reading a line or two of verse, or half a sentence of prose, prepares itself ahead for any one of a number of possible sequences, at the same time negatively incapacitating itself for others. The effect produced by what actually follows depends very closely upon this unconscious preparation and consists largely of the further twist which it gives to expectancy…

This texture of expectations, satisfactions, disappointments, surprisals, which the sequence of syllables brings about, is rhythm. And the sound of word comes to its full power only through rhythm. Evidently there can be no surprise and no disappointments unless there is expectation and most rhythms perhaps are made up as much of disappointments and postponements and surprises and betrayals as of simple, straightforward satisfactions. Hence the rapidity with which too simple rhythms, those which are too easily “seen through,” grow cloying or insipid unless hypnoidal states intervene, as with much primitive music and dancing and often with metre.

I.A. Richards, Rhythm and Metre for Literary Criticism

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April 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

How is writing like golf?

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Jonathan Lethem

Writing is a private discipline, in a field of companions. You’re not fighting the other writers—that Mailer boxing stuff seems silly to me. It’s more like golf. You’re not playing against the other people on the course. You’re playing against yourself. The question is, What’s in you that you can free up? How to say everything you know? Then there’s nothing to envy. The reason Tiger Woods has that eerie calm, the reason he drives everyone insane, is his implacable sense that his game has nothing to do with the others on the course. The others all talk about what Tiger is up to. Tiger only says, I had a pretty good day, I did what I wanted to do. Or, I could have a better day tomorrow. He never misunderstands. The game is against yourself. That same thousand-yard Tiger Woods stare is what makes someone like Murakami or Roth or DeLillo or Thomas Berger so eerie and inspiring. They’ve grasped that there’s nothing to one side of you. Just you and the course.

Jonathan Lethem, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

“When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club…”

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"When Powell and Wolfe arrived at the club..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In some ways, the novel is an unwieldy, slightly unnatural form of storytelling. A poem, short story, or play arises directly from the oral tradition: it can be told aloud in a few minutes or an hour, and listeners can easily remember most of the important plot points. Even epic poetry, which goes on for much longer, usually boils down to episodes that can be condensed or expanded according to the needs of the audience, strung together like beads on a string. (We can still see this structure of our surviving text of the Iliad, which preserves the full version of certain episodes while reducing others to only a few lines.) The average novel, by contrast, presents a story that is too complex to be held in the mind all at once, even by the author. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a structure that evolved from the physical characteristics of printed books themselves, which allow readers to turn pages both ways, so that elements introduced in the first chapter can return to play an important role near the end—a form of setup and payoff that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition. And although the novel seems natural now, it’s really a recent development in the history of how we tell stories.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge its limitations as well as its strengths. On the one hand, a novel rarely achieves the kind of crystalline perfection that we see in poetry or short fiction, and when it does, it may seem artificial or unreal, as John Gardner observes of Madame Bovary. A novel, as Henry James said of Tolstoy, often ends up being a loose, baggy monster, and in order for it to feel like an accurate representation of life—as well as a pleasurable experience for the reader—it can’t pitch every page at the same level of intensity. Instead, it’s a series of convergences and divergences, of rising and falling action, and it requires time and patience for its full impact to be felt. On the other hand, its size and relative complexity allow it to achieve effects that aren’t possible in shorter forms. It can methodically establish themes, motifs, and story elements that will pay dividends at a later time, and when it works, the effect can be almost symphonic, as threads that have been independently established come together at last.

"He wants a meeting..."

This may seem like a roundabout way of getting to The Icon Thief, which even I’m willing to admit is a very modest example of the novel form. But like most first novels, it stands both as a story in itself and as a kind of laboratory in which a writer is figuring out his craft for the first time. When I wrote the first draft, I was in my late twenties, and although I’d written one unpublished novel already, I still had a lot to learn. As a result, the book sometimes feels like a sandbox in which I was testing out various approaches to telling this kind of extended story. Although the result is clearly a product of its genre, it also allowed me to think about narrative in a way that paid off when it came to my second and third books, as well as the ones I hope to write in the future. Suspense, in particular, seemed like a way to explore these tools in their purest state, as action foreshadowed, promised, and delivered. And one thing that fascinated me from the very beginning was how a novel can use its own intricacy of construction, which allows for more building blocks than other forms, so that the events of the plot are inextricable from the structure of the book itself.

As Chapter 43 begins, for instance, we’re entering a point in the novel where the structure of the story serves almost a character in itself. Three distinct groups of characters—Powell and his partners in law enforcement, Sharkovsky and his men, and Ilya himself—are converging on a common location, the club in Brighton Beach, that has already been established in detail, both within the narrative itself and in what amounted to a direct briefing to the reader. The next few chapters will narrate the ensuing developments from multiple perspectives, often moving back and forth slightly in time. This was both a technical solution to the problem of treating simultaneous action and a way of binding the scenes more closely together, and none of it would mean as much if the foundations hadn’t been laid much earlier. By now, if I’ve done my work properly, the reader knows something about Powell, Wolfe, Ilya, and all the others, and has some idea of how each character will react to the violent events that the structure itself implies. My one regret, which is also inherent to the novel form, is that the reader can tell that we aren’t quite at the real climax yet: we have well over one hundred pages to go. And there’s a lot still left to come…

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2013 at 7:30 am

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