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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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.”

Written by nevalalee

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

Written by nevalalee

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.

Written by nevalalee

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.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

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