Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2013

“Powell stared silently through the glass…”

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"Powell stared silently through the glass..."

(Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For a certain kind of novelist, there’s an enormous temptation to base one’s characters on recognizable people, and many stories gain nearly all of their interest from the perception that they’re thinly veiled depictions of real public figures. As Dean Koontz points out in his dated but valuable book Writing Popular Fiction, works by the likes of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann are compelling largely because we think we can guess who these rich, glamorous, oversexed characters are supposed to be, and we’re more likely to take the author’s portrait at face value precisely because the names have been changed: the novel implicitly promises to tell it like it is, without fear of libel, at least for readers who are clever enough to fit names to faces. Irving Wallace went even further, spelling out his sources in the text itself—and often on the back cover copy. As I’ve mentioned before, in a novel like The Plot, Wallace isn’t simply content to create a character based on Christine Keeler, but blandly tells us that her scandal was “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair.”

While this can be an effective fictional device, a lot of novelists resist it, and for good reason. Norman Mailer, in his afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, explains that his decision to incorporate real people into the narrative using their proper names arose from a desire to avoid this kind of phony authenticity:

It was obvious, therefore, that one would have to give Jack Kennedy his honest name…One could only strip him of his fictional magic by putting a false name on him; then the reader’s perception becomes no more than, “Oh, yes, President Fennerly is Jack Kennedy—now I will get to learn what made Jack Kennedy tick.”

As a result, Mailer uses the actual names of important characters like Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, and Bill Harvey, knowing that the reader will naturally be more critical of how these men are portrayed, thinking, “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And it’s also likely that Mailer, in writing in what amounts to an epic spy novel, was encouraged by the conventions of suspense fiction, in which real names are often used to give the action an air of verisimilitude. Frederick Forsyth, for example, populates his books with such historical figures as Kim Philby and Simon Wiesenthal, many of whom were still alive when these novels were written, allowing him to blur the line between fiction and reportage—which is a large part of his work’s appeal.

"Archvadze, his arms folded across his chest..."

In The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’m operating in a similar mode, and I’ve occasionally run into the problem of whether or not to use the real names of living people. (I’m much less concerned about historical figures, whom I tend to name freely, even as I indulge in other forms of speculation or invention.) President Putin never appears directly in these books, but he’s frequently mentioned, and I decided long ago that it would be absurd to refer to him by any other name. I thought seriously about placing a real energy company at the center of the plot of City of Exiles, but I finally chickened out, reasoning that a fictional version would give me more narrative freedom in later installments. And for a long time, I considered making Garry Kasparov a major figure in the second novel. In the end, I didn’t, although there isn’t much doubt about which legendary chess grandmaster Victor Chigorin is supposed to represent. I changed the name partly to give me more flexibility in constructing the story, and also because I felt uncomfortable subjecting Kasparov to what ultimately happens to Chigorin, which isn’t pretty.

Besides, it’s usually more interesting when characters diverge from their original inspirations. I’ve mentioned before that Maddy and Ethan were loosely based on the real art world couple of Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, although I doubt that many people would have made the connection. In Chapter 49, however, when we finally learn what happened to Anzor Archvadze—who has been missing in action for much of the novel’s second half—I imagine that more than a few readers were immediately reminded of Alexander Litvinenko. The two cases are very different, of course: Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning, while Archvadze is dying of toxic epidermal necrolysis, which bears a greater resemblance to another mysterious death in Russia. Still, I hope that readers do think of Litvinenko, not so much in order to capitalize on the parallels to a real event than out of a desire to remind them of how much like a novel the truth can be. Litvinenko’s death was often compared to something out of a spy thriller, but it was horribly real. And as farfetched as Archvadze’s fate might seem, reality is far stranger…

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May 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

Quote of the Day

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Systemantics by John Gall

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

John Gall

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May 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Scrivener and the perils of efficiency

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Scrivener

Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities of a little program called Scrivener. It’s a word processer expressly designed for writers, and I’ve been hearing more and more about it on writing forums: it sometimes seems as if every aspiring novelist or screenwriter has a copy, and most of the reviews are raves. Along with such alluring toys as a virtual corkboard, an integrated outlining system, automatic backups, and a character name generator, it offers what looks like a useful way of organizing notes and research. Instead of keeping your materials in a bunch of widely scattered files, as I tend to do, Scrivener allows you to access them more easily by storing them in a virtual, searchable binder. It also lends itself to nonlinear approaches: instead of starting at the beginning and working your way through to the end, you can attack scenes individually and easily move them from place to place. To all appearances, it’s a thoughtful, intelligently conceived piece of software, and at the moment, it’s on sale at Amazon for only $40.

Yet I’m slightly hesitant. This isn’t because I doubt that Scrivener would save me a lot of time: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it would make my process considerably more efficient. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on an idea for a new short story, and I’m finding it challenging to keep all the pieces straight. I have a hardbound notebook in which I record my initial thoughts, which I jot down as they occur to me. Once I have a sense of the plot and subject matter, I’ll start to do some research, both online and in print. Usually this means creating text files where I can type notes as I read, but for a longer article, I’ll often want to mark it up on paper. Yesterday, for example, I copied and pasted a number of useful blog posts into Word, printed it out, and read it with pen in hand—and today I plan to retranscribe most of these notes back into a text file, where they’ll be more readily available. Using a program like Scrivener would save me at least one step, probably two, and allow me to do all of this considerably faster.

Scene cards on the author's desk

But here’s the thing: I need the process to be slightly inefficient, because it’s in those moments of downtime, when I’m transcribing notes or doing basic housekeeping to make sure that everything I need is in one place, that the story starts to come together. The most beautiful description I’ve seen of this phenomenon comes from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, as he describes the editor Walter Murch at work on an old flatbed editing machine:

The few moments [Murch] had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I also suspect that Murch was the “sly and crafty guy”—identified only as “Francis Ford Coppola’s mixer”—quoted in an interview with Michael Hawley, one of the developers of SoundDroid, in Programmers at Work:

Don’t forget that five minutes of rewind time is never dead time. If you are a good mixer you are always planning out the gestures and effects you’re going to be making, you’re mentally going through the process to help put down a coherent five minutes of performance. With your machine, you have lost that thinking time.

In other words, a program like Scrivener bears an analogous relationship to more conventional forms of word processing—including the humble typewriter and pen—as Final Cut Pro does to traditional editing machines. And as useful as the new software can be, there’s always a price. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid all such changes: Murch, after all, eventually switched to computer-based editing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to start using Scrivener more seriously one of these days. But we always need to remain conscious of the potential cost, building elements of silence, consolidation, and randomness into our own routine to preserve what might otherwise be lost. If we don’t, I suspect that we’ll give up more than we gain, and if this turns out to be the cost of working more efficiently, I can only reply, to quote another famous scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”

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May 30, 2013 at 8:18 am

Quote of the Day

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William Hazlitt

Those who aim at faultless regularity will only produce mediocrity, and no one ever approaches perfection except by stealth, and unknown to themselves.

William Hazlitt

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May 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The good idea trap

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Raymond Chandler

Ideas are poison. The more you reason, the less you create.

—Raymond Chandler

As I’ve noted on this blog many times before, good ideas are cheap. Today, I’d like to make the case that they’re also dangerous, at least when it comes to bringing a story to its full realization. And I say this as someone who has a lot of good ideas. Nearly every novel or short story I’ve written hinges on a clever twist, some of them better than others. (I’m still pleased by the twist in “Kawataro,” and wish I’d done a slightly better job with the one in “The Voices.”) It’s partly for this reason that I tend to focus on suspense and science fiction, which are genres in which conceptual ingenuity is disproportionately rewarded. In some cases, as in many locked-room mysteries and the kind of hard science fiction we find in my beloved Analog, the idea or twist is all there is, and I’m probably not alone in occasionally saving time by skipping ahead to the surprise at once, without having to sit through all the bother of plot or characterization.

Which isn’t to say that a dynamite idea is always a bad thing. A story like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” for instance, turns almost entirely on the revelation in its final sentence, but that doesn’t make the rest of it any less satisfying—although it also doesn’t hurt that the story itself is relatively short. The real mistake is to assume that the creative process hinges on the idea. As I mentioned in my recent post on Shakespeare, a story’s premise is often the least interesting thing about it: nearly every idea has been done before, and the more it lends itself to being expressed in a single knockout sentence, the more likely someone else has written it already. As a result, an artist who commits himself to the cult of the idea, rather than its execution and elaboration, will eventually start to seem desperate, which goes a long way toward explaining the curious downward arc of a man like M. Night Shyamalan, a director with a sensational eye and considerable talent long since betrayed by his ideas.

M. Night Shyamalan

It should come as no surprise, then, that good ideas can be the most dangerous, since they’re inherently seductive. A writer with a great original idea is more likely to overlook problems of plot, structure, or language, when a merely decent idea that demands flawless execution may ultimately result in a more satisfying story. I’ve said before that a writer is best advised to start out from a position of neutrality toward his own material, and to allow his passion to flow from the process, and I still think that’s good advice. I’ve learned to be very suspicious of ideas that grab me at once, knowing that it’s going to be hard for me to remain objective. And I’ve found that sustained detachment, which allows me to evaluate each link of the chain on its own merits, is much more valuable than an early rush of excitement. Otherwise, I run the risk of turning into the producer described by David Mamet in On Directing Film, who “sees all ideas as equal and his own as first among them, for no reason other than he has thought of it.”

And the more talented the writer, the greater the risk. All writers have their moments of cleverness and ingenuity; the labor of turning a bad sentence into a good one is the sort of work that encourages the development of all kinds of tricks, and a writer who knows how to get published consistently can only get there with a lot of shrewdness. It’s worth remembering, then, that there are two sides to craft. The word evokes a set of proven tools, but it also carries a negative connotation: when we describe a person as “crafty,” that isn’t necessarily a compliment. The real point of craft is to cultivate the ability to treat all premises as fundamentally equal, and which rise or fall based only on how honestly the author follows through. It treats the best premise in the world as if it were the worst, or at least as if it required the same amount of time and effort to reach its full realization—which it does. It’s the author, not the idea, that makes the difference. And it’s frightening how often a great idea can turn a good writer into a bad one.

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May 29, 2013 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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May 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A writer’s phase change

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Samuel R. Delany

Last week, the website Brain Pickings posted some observations on the art of writing from Samuel R. Delany, the legendary author of Dhalgren and other classic works of speculative fiction. I haven’t read much Delany, but his track record is one that any writer could envy, and the article gave me a lot to think about. Delany begins by drawing a distinction between good writing and talented writing. The former might best be understood as writing grounded in the principles of Strunk and White: it’s clear, unambiguous, mindful of such matters as structure and pacing, and skilled enough to understand the virtue of simplicity. The latter is harder to define. Delany writes: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully—that good writing, that stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.” He goes on to list some of the attributes of talent, which include the ability to articulate sensations and insights that we’ve all experienced but never been able to verbalize on our own. And I was especially taken with this observation:

If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.

This struck a chord with me, because I’ve often asked myself to what extent it would be possible to redeem a bad story by simple application of the technical rules I’ve found consistently useful. Cut the first draft by at least ten percent, start the action as late in the story as possible, trim beginnings and endings of scenes, overlap moments of transition, structure the plot as a series of clear objectives: these are all tricks that can be employed more or less mechanically once the raw material is in place. (A few of these tools, especially the last one, are more useful when implemented during the planning stages, but you can also get away with it later in the process, especially if you’re willing to fake it a little.) And although I haven’t tried it myself—unless you count the hard work of turning one of my own rough drafts into a readable story—I’d like to believe that I’ve acquired enough technical proficiency to take a bad story and transform it, as Delany notes, into something clear, simple, and logical, or what Stephen Sondheim might call “a proper song.”

Phase change diagram

The question is whether this is enough. Delany goes so far as to say that good writing “produces most bad fiction,” and while it’s a little unclear what he means by this, it’s best understood as referring to bad published fiction. Bad fiction that doesn’t even rise to the level of good writing is likely to remain unseen, but we’ve all seen published fiction that hits the necessary marks while remaining otherwise forgettable. And Delany is right when he implies that this is a real risk for otherwise capable writers. When we visualize the arc of writer’s progress, most of us like to think of it as a slow, steady ascent from one level of skill to the next. In reality, though, it looks more like the phase change diagram I’ve posted above: as the writer gains heat, once he learns the basics, he’ll go through a dizzying period in which he seems to get better with every story. At a certain point, though, usually after he’s figured out the rules to his own satisfaction, he enters a kind of holding pattern, and he continues to produce fiction that bubbles along on the same level without breaking into the next.

This is where merely good writing runs the risk of becoming a trap. Delany isn’t that far here from Norman Mailer, who compared craft to the cask of brandy under the neck of a St. Bernard that rescues the writer when he wanders too far into the wilderness. I’ve noted before that craft, with its purely technical solutions to problems, can prevent a writer from fully engaging with the implications of his own material, when he might have been forced to deal with it more honestly without the safety net that good writing provides. And as essential as they are, it’s all too easy to settle for the virtues of clarity and logic, which are challenging enough for most aspiring writers. The real question is what causes the jump from good writing to talented writing, and unfortunately, the point at which each phase ascends to the next level isn’t nearly as clear as it is in physics. But if the analogy I’ve used here works at all, there are two big lessons: 1. Most of us need to pass through one phase to get to the next. 2. You can’t turn down the heat, even, or especially, when you think you’re bubbling along quite nicely.

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May 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

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May 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

My Lady Caffeine

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Buzz Cafe in Oak Park, Illinois

I love coffee. Over the past decade or two, I’ve alternated between seeing it as an occasional treat and regarding it as essential to survival, and at the moment, I’d rank it among one of life’s basic necessities. I’m drinking a cup of it right now, seated a few feet away from the proximate cause of my recent decision to fully embrace caffeine. Every morning, usually between five and six, I’m awakened by a series of coos and squeals from the next room, signaling that my daughter—now five months old—has decided to start her day. If it’s the weekend, I pick her up, change her, and bring her downstairs to the kitchen, which, like the rest of the house, is silent and peaceful in the predawn light coming through the windows facing the yard. After I set her down in her little chair, the first thing I do is boil a kettle of water. Green tea, which for a long time was my beverage of choice, just won’t do. I need something stronger, preferably with cream and sugar, as I set up my laptop on the dining room table and start to contemplate the morning’s work. With my first cup in hand, my head clears and I start to write. And I’m happy.

It’s possible that much of what we think of as modern civilization we owe to coffee, which arrived on the European scene just when it was needed the most. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives us nice a sense of the mystique of coffee at the beginning of the seventeenth century:

The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine) so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bitter…which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend so much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale-houses or taverns; and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience that kind of drink so used helpeth digestion, and procureth alacrity.

This description, which Burton based on the travel notes of the poet Sir George Sandys, remains as true as ever: the primary reason we drink coffee is still to “procure alacrity.” The introduction of coffee into European society created a third place, a social gathering point for ideas to be traded, and it kept us sober during the day for long enough to transact business. Later, it provided necessary fuel for the Industrial Revolution: as Mark Pendergrast observes in his book Uncommon Grounds, early factory workers quickly learned to subsist on coffee and bread, which only shows us how little has changed over the ensuing three centuries.

The author's desk

And it’s possible that coffee also affected the creativity of the culture in more profound ways. J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote a curious little book called My Lady Nicotine, in which he notes that the flowering of culture in the age of Shakespeare coincided with the introduction of tobacco:

The Elizabethan age might be better named the beginning of the smoking era. No unprejudiced person who has given thought to the subject can question the propriety of dividing our history into two periods—the pre-smoking and the smoking…I know, I feel, that with the introduction of tobacco England woke up from a long sleep. Suddenly a new zest had been given to life. The glory of existence became a thing to speak of. Men who had hitherto only concerned themselves with the narrow things of home put a pipe into their mouths and became philosophers.

You could say much the same thing about coffee, which turned people into what the pharmacologist Louis Lewin, quoted by Pendergrast, calls “coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup…and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom.” Lewin calls the symptoms of caffeine usage “a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas,” which sounds about right to me. (It’s also true that the effects of caffeine in such settings are hard to separate from those of nicotine. Pendergrast quotes a contemporary observer of the London coffeehouse: “The whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.”)

And writers and artists of all kinds—who quickly turned coffee into an essential component of the bohemian life—have long been aware of how deeply coffee affects us, both creatively and in smaller, more human ways. As one of them writes:

Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop…Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

Another notes:

I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee’s a little help with everything—social, energy, don’t know what to do next, don’t know how to start my day, don’t know how to get through this afternoon, don’t know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we’re not in great shape. We didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We’re a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.

The former quote is from Balzac; the latter, from Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s my lady caffeine who joins them—and all of us—together, as we enjoy one of the most profound pleasures that life has to offer.

Quote of the Day

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May 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

L.P. Jacks on work and play

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L.P. Jacks

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

L.P. Jacks

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May 26, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Eugène Ionesco on the art of dreaming

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Eugene Ionesco

I work in the morning. I sit comfortably in an armchair, opposite my secretary. Luckily, although she’s intelligent, she knows nothing about literature and can’t judge whether what I write is good or worthless. I speak slowly, as I’m talking to you, and she takes it down. I let characters and symbols emerge from me, as if I were dreaming. I always use what remains of my dreams of the night before. Dreams are reality at its most profound, and what you invent is truth because invention, by its nature, can’t be a lie. Writers who try to prove something are unattractive to me, because there is nothing to prove and everything to imagine. So I let words and images emerge from within. If you do that, you might prove something in the process.

Eugène Ionesco, to The Paris Review

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May 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

“When Maddy went to see Reynard…”

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"When Maddy went to see Reynard..."

(Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 48. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For every published page of a novel, there’s usually a page or more of deletions, dead ends, and wrong turns. This makes sense: even when you work from a fairly detailed plan, as I generally do, you’re always figuring out important elements of the story as you go along, and it often isn’t until after you’re finished that you even know what the book is about. What’s more surprising is how quickly the old material vanishes down the memory hole. I’ve since gotten better about not overwriting my rough drafts, but when I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still cutting close to half of the total word count from first version to last. This meant losing scenes, digressions, subplots, and a lot of lovingly researched background. Needless to say, these were all good cuts, to the point where I don’t even remember what’s missing when I read the novel again. And whenever I think about a scene that was cut or radically revised—as was the case with Ethan’s death—it’s a very strange feeling, as if these events had taken place in some alternate but monetarily plausible universe that now seems hard to imagine.

Chapter 50 of The Icon Thief is one of the few sections where I vividly remember cutting something, mostly because it was a detail that I enjoyed but removed after overwhelming opposition from my early readers. It’s a quiet but important scene of the sort that takes place at least once in every conspiracy novel: the moment when the protagonist takes her concerns to a sympathetic outside party, only to be told that it’s all in her mind. (As usual, Foucault’s Pendulum has the best version of this scene I’ve ever read.) In this case, Maddy, shaken by her last argument with Ethan, goes to Reynard, her boss, to tell him about the plot they think they’ve discovered. Reynard listens, concerned, and then reasonably takes down her argument point by point. There’s no evidence that Lenin ever crossed paths with the Dadaists; Aleister Crowley was nothing but a fabulist; John Quinn, who knew both Crowley and Duchamp and was rumored to be the spymaster for the former, may have been precisely what he appeared to be, a patron of the arts with interesting friends.

"Reynard glanced at the clock..."

And so on. The reader, of course, knows better than to take this sort of rational explanation at face value. But here’s the funny thing: Reynard is absolutely correct. All the points he makes are valid ones—they’re actually very close to my own feelings about the conspiracy theory my novel invents—and when he says that Maddy and Ethan may simply have been imposing a false pattern onto history, he’s right, although the reasons behind their paranoia are a little more complicated. At the time, though, this is far from clear, at least if I’ve done my work correctly. And any reader with a sense of the genre knows that it’s often the man who calmly suggests that you lie down and think things over who later shoves you into an unmarked van. Reynard isn’t quite on that level, but he’s certainly not telling the whole truth, and the challenge in writing this scene was to allow him to serve as a voice of reason without the reader suspecting that he’s in on the plot. After a bit of fiddling, I came up with this moment, which occurs as Maddy is about to leave his office:

“It’s all right.” Reynard walked her to the office door, laying a hand on her shoulder. “If you see Ethan, tell him that after all is said and done, I still want him here. And I still want you.”

Maddy looked into Reynard’s eyes. He did not remove his hand. For an inexplicable instant, she felt something pass between them, and knew with sudden certainty that he was going to take her in his arms.

In the end, the moment passed, leaving her unsure of what had happened, if anything had happened at all…

Now, I liked this a lot. I’d conceived it as a form of sleight of hand, a way to deflect readers from the possibility of Reynard’s guilt by distracting them with this awkward moment. The trouble is that it worked too well. Nearly every reader who read the novel in manuscript objected to this passage, saying that it made Maddy seem like the kind of woman who gets romantically involved with every man in her professional life. If only one reader had raised the issue, I might have ignored the note, but in this case, the consensus was strong enough that I finally cut these paragraphs just before we went out to publishers. And I still regret it a little, although I have no doubt that it was the right call. As it stands, I have a feeling that many readers will suspect that Reynard is up to no good, but I’m okay with it. We may have a hunch that Reynard is involved, but we don’t know why. And there are still a few big surprises in store…

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May 24, 2013 at 8:09 am

Quote of the Day

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Beth Anderson

My own mystic bent leads me to believe that musical variations, collage, reiteration and process, or evolution, are beautiful. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making.

Beth Anderson

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May 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

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What’s a minimalist book lover to do?

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Zen Hoarder by Mark Thompson

Every few months, I’ll get the urge to radically simplify. The house where I live is comfortable but modest, and I don’t feel as if my possessions are taking over my life, but I often wonder if I could take it even further. Thoreau’s example is the most famous, of course, but I also find myself thinking of the poet Chomei, who at the age of sixty built a house on Mt. Hino that was ten feet by ten, with no furniture except a small shrine, a desk, a bed of straw, some musical instruments, and a few volumes of poetry and music. As Chomei writes:

In such a place there is no need to keep the commandments, for there is no temptation to break them.

I feel a similar sort of longing whenever I see pictures of someone’s tiny house, or when I browse the photo galleries at the Minimalism forum on Reddit, in which the striving to reduce one’s life to its bare essence—which often seems to consist of a bike, a laptop, and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—turns into a perverse kind of competition to show off the least number of belongings. (Reading many of the posts there, I’m reminded of the good sense of E.B. White, who pointed out that a life like Thoreau’s is much easier when you’re “male, unmarried, and well-connected.”)

Like most people, I use travel as an excuse to temporarily pretend that I’m the person I’d like to be all the time. I’ve always been a homebody at heart, but I did a fair amount of traveling in my twenties, and I took a lot of pride in packing light. A few days after I quit my job in New York to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, I was on a plane to India with nothing but a daypack, which was enough to see me through three weeks of train and bus travel from Mumbai to Karnataka to Goa. A few years later, I did the same on a three-week trip to Europe, which led to some suspicious questions from customs on the way home—apparently a single male going from Ireland to Italy to London with an Eagle Creek backpack and a shoulder bag has to be up to no good. These days, with a baby in tow, I can’t even get on the subway without a Sherpa load of equipment. But I still daydream about lighting out for the territory with little more than I can carry in the smallest backpack I own.

Walden Pond

But it isn’t going to happen, either at home or abroad, and it’s all because of the books. Since I don’t much care for the Kindle, for my trip to India, I took no fewer than five books—Shantaram, A Son of the Circus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the nonfiction book Evidence of Harm, and a travel guide—and found myself obliged to lighten my load along the way: I deliberately abandoned Shantaram on the airplane, which was no great loss, and left A Son of the Circus on the end table of my tiny hotel room in Bangalore. For my trip to Europe, I brought a volume of the essays of Montaigne, cut into two pieces for easier handling, along with Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon and some paperback novels. I also tend to acquire additional books on the road. During my trip to London to do location work for City of Exiles, I scavenged stores for local true crime books, which I thought would come in handy for research, and came home with a bag that was bursting at the seams. If, as Colin Fletcher says, a pack is a house on your back, then mine seems fated to end up looking a lot like my library at home.

In short, I’ll never be as minimal as I should be, as much as I like to dream about the books I’d own if, like Chomei, I only had a single shelf. And that’s probably for the best. As much as I like looking at tiny houses, they always strike me as a little sad and incomplete without books, and I know that if I built myself a cottage, it would soon be packed with thrift store paperbacks. My life seems fated to be as cluttered as my brain, and even as I try to pare things down in other ways, I’ll never be able to give up my book addiction. It’s possible that these impulses are two sides of the same coin: the more books I read, the more I learn to value those few works of lasting value, even as my eye strays to the newest enticing discovery. And if the whole point of simple living is to allow for a complicated inner life, in my case, it’s inseparable from a bookshelf that’s the opposite of minimal. The result is a life that oscillates back and forth between simplicity and clutter. I may never be a true minimalist, but simplifying my life in the few ways I can lets me spend more time with the books I love.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2013 at 9:52 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day, Writing

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How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

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May 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

Quote of the Day

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May 22, 2013 at 7:30 am

Mad Men and the man behind the curtain

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Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner on the set of Mad Men

As I’ve said here perhaps more often than necessary, television is a very strange medium, and the fact that it occupies such a familiar place in our lives can blind us to how weird it really is. It creates characters and stories that can feel as vivid as our own friends or memories, and it’s like real life in another way: sooner or later, it ends, and nobody—including the creators—ever really knows how. Even the best narrative plans have a way of going sideways, and much of the fascination of a great television show comes from how it deals with the unexpected, whether in the form of a cast change, a creative departure, or an unexpected extension or cancellation. Television can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as life itself, except that we know, or think we know, who really pulls the strings. While it’s true that many viewers probably don’t care much about where television comes from, in recent years, there’s been a greater degree of engagement than ever before between the audience and the men and women behind the curtain. And it inevitably changes the way we experience it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since watching “The Crash,” the latest episode of Mad Men, and reading Todd VanDerWerff’s thoughtful—if somewhat bewildered—review on The A.V. Club. (Its opening sentence: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) VanDerWerff is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve been reading his articles and criticism with pleasure for years, but I was particularly struck by one observation:

A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next.

I think VanDerWerff goes a little too far when he says that the episode seems like Weiner’s “dare to the weekly review culture,” but otherwise, his analysis is right on the mark. Weiner is the secret hero of his own show, which more than any other series in history is about the process of writing itself: Don Draper writes ads, but he’s also the author of his own life, and it’s fascinating to see how the show continues to exercise the same chilly emotional control even as Don’s story spins apart.

The Man Men episode "The Crash"

Every week, after watching the latest episode of Mad Men, my wife and I will play the short featurette that accompanies it on iTunes, in which Weiner and members of the cast share their thoughts on the latest installment. These videos presumably began as an easy promotional extra, but they’ve evolved, at least to me, into a weirdly exegetical part of the show itself: as soon as the closing credits roll, I just want to know what the hell Weiner was thinking. Weiner seems aware of this, too, and there’s a teasing quality to many of his comments, which are lucid and reasonable, but which also seem to explain a lot more than they actually do.  They’re a little like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, which are less a way of clarifying the poem than an integral part of the text. Sophisticated readers and viewers know that you should never take a writer’s statements about his own work at face value, and although Weiner comes across as a smart, ordinary, entirely earnest guy when he explains himself to the camera, there’s something Nabokovian in the way he elucidates a few select points while leaving the rest of it shrouded in mystery.

And it’s made me reflect about the ways in which television is an ongoing dialogue, imaginary or not, between a creator and his audience. This isn’t true of every show, of course, and it’s never more clear than when it’s no longer there. It’s fair to say that Community‘s new showrunners are highly conscious about how the series is perceived, and they’ve been good—almost to fault—about honoring the show’s history and giving fans what they think they want. Yet that old sense of interchange or possibility is missing: you never catch the show in a moment, as you often did in the old days, in which you could almost hear Dan Harmon thinking out his next move. The result feels a lot like the second season of Twin Peaks, after the departure of David Lynch and Mark Frost: it was still weird, but in a calculated way, as if strangeness were simply a part of the premise, rather than something that the show’s creators found themselves doing while trying to tell a story in the only way they could. Mad Men is both the best and the strangest show on television, and it’s dazzling in the way Weiner lays out the pieces and dares us to put them together. He even gives us a few helpful hints. But I’m not sure if I entirely trust him.

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May 21, 2013 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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May 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

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