Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2013

What kind of year has it been?

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The author's daughter

Years from now, when I look back at the last twelve months, I suspect that I’ll think of them as two entirely different periods in my life. On a personal level, this may have been the most rewarding year I’ve ever had. I’ve watched my daughter grow from a tiny, demanding lump—she was less than two weeks old last New Year’s Eve—into a miniature person with her own tastes, opinions, and personality. She’s as smart as they come, and more important, she’s healthy and happy, and every day is a source of new discoveries and delights. My wife ended the year on a professional high note: after six years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, she landed an extraordinary new journalism job that I hope to talk about more here soon. Her new gig also allows her to work at home more often, which means that we’re spending more time together now than we have since we were married, and if you’ve met her, you know how lucky I am. The year was also peppered with many small personal satisfactions: I traveled a bit, learned a smidgen of coding, picked up the ukulele again, and experienced some great books, shows, music, and movies, a few of which I hope to discuss in a later post.

On the writing side, the verdict was more mixed, although I’m proud of what I accomplished. I started the year with the rewrite and copy edit of Eternal Empire, my third novel, which appeared in stores in September, a fact that still seems a little surreal—it’s by far the fastest that anything I’ve written has gone from delivery to publication. I also saw the appearance in Italy of Il ladro di relique, the first foreign translation of The Icon Thief, although I haven’t lived up to my resolution to use it to teach myself Italian. It all marked the end of a series of books that I’ve been writing and thinking about for most of the last five years, which stands, in itself, as the conclusion of an important chapter in my life. As far as freelance writing went, it was a quiet year, mostly because I haven’t tried to pitch as many stories as before, although I really liked my Salon piece on the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files. But my proudest moment as a writer was undoubtedly receiving the September issue of Analog and seeing “The Whale God” on the cover. (I’m also lucky enough to have a chance to repeat myself soon: my novelette “Cryptids” will be the cover story of their May 2014 issue, apparently with original art by the great Vincent Di Fate. I can’t wait to see it.)

A year's work

Elsewhere, however, there were small disappointments, or postponements, of the kind that inevitably go along with the good. I spent about six months on a major project, actually a revision of a much earlier novel, that doesn’t look like it’s going to get off the ground, at least not in its current form. The rest of the year was spent working up other ideas that, for various reasons, are still in different stages of incompletion: proposals, outlines, pieces written without a clear market in mind. I’m hoping to have some news to report about one or more of them soon, but for now, for the first time in a long while, I’m closing out the year without anything definite on the horizon. Not that I lack for work—I’m currently researching and outlining a hundred-page sample of a new novel that I’m hoping to shop around in the spring—but it comes without the certainty of a contract, which can be emotionally and artistically draining. In some ways, I was slightly spoiled by working on two books in a row that already had a publisher attached. Going back to writing on spec has required a considerable mental readjustment, and I’m still not all the way there, although when I’m deep in the trenches of a day’s writing, nothing else seems to matter.

And this is pretty much how life as an author tends to look. There are periods of greater and lesser certainty, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spend long stretches in which your greatest problem is delivering a contracted manuscript on deadline. In general, though, you’ll find that much of your career is spent in those dusty middle innings: you’re keeping busy, looking for opportunities as they arise, waiting for the next big project that will snap your life back into focus. When you’re in one phase or the other, it’s hard to imagine life looking any other way, and you begin to forget that reality is messier and less predictable. No matter what else you’ve accomplished, every project requires starting over from scratch: there’s no guarantee that the next book or story or article will get the same reception as the last, which is exciting, but also daunting. That’s the nature of the writing life, which resembles a series of incursions into unexplored territory, some of which leave you standing more or less where you began. What remains, in the end, is the craft itself, the routines and rituals you’ve established to plunge back onto the page every morning, and these become the closest thing you have to a permanent possession. I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But that was always part of the point.

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2013 at 9:31 am

Quote of the Day

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Jonas Salk

When things get bad enough, then something happens to correct the course. And it’s for that reason that I speak about evolution as an error-making and an error-correcting process. And if we can be ever so much better—ever so much slightly better—at error correcting than at error making, then we’ll make it.

Jonas Salk

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December 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The road goes ever on

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Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

For the last few days, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through the commentary tracks for the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sometimes feels like as long of a journey as any of the characters undertake. So far, we’re sticking to the primary commentaries for each movie, featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, which barely scratches the surface of the material available: each film has three other commentaries for members of the cast and crew, adding up to something like twelve hours of additional listening, not to mention the countless documentaries, featurettes, and galleries on the three bonus discs. (It’s a borrowed box set—my brother-in-law lent it to us over Christmas—and I doubt we’ll get through even half of it before it’s time to give it back.) It also makes me feel as if I’m a decade late to the party. The commentaries for each movie were recorded and released shortly before the following installments appeared in theaters, which serves as a reminder of how more than ten years can seem to slip by in a flash, as well as a fascinating glimpse into how Jackson and his collaborators felt about each picture at the time.

It’s obvious, for instance, that they regard The Two Towers as the weakest movie in the trilogy. Part of this is due to the fact, as Jackson notes, that it’s arguably the least interesting of the original three volumes, with quintessential second-act problems blown up to a massive scale, but it also appears to have suffered during the production process. Shooting began using a relatively early version of the script, and the filmmakers admit that if they had been given more time, they might have reworked certain elements, particularly Frodo and Sam’s interminable sojourn with Faramir. Postproduction and promotional duties for Fellowship also left them with a tighter working schedule than before. As a result, there’s a mildly defensive, even apologetic tone to many of their comments, which explicitly respond to criticisms that the movie received after its release. We’re repeatedly invited to let certain scenes “play out” in our heads with certain controversial elements removed, so we can see why, for instance, it was the right call to give Aragorn a fakeout death scene at the end of the warg attack, or why Faramir’s character needs to be rewritten to make him more tempted by the Ring.

Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

These are all valid points, but they also point to a weakness in The Two Towers that, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining why the two parts we’ve seen thus far of The Hobbit are so much less satisfying than their predecessors: it’s written from the head, not the heart. The Two Towers plays less like a story that demanded to be told in its own right than as an ingenious solution to a series of narrative conundrums. On paper, the calls that Jackson and the others made are absolutely right: the big climaxes of Shelob and the confrontation with Saruman were best postponed to the next movie—or, in Saruman’s case, cut out of the theatrical trilogy altogether—and other stories had to be pumped up to take up the dramatic slack. The result, though, is a movie where we can sense the pieces being assembled into a passably coherent whole, rather than one that unfolds under its own momentum. That’s true of The Hobbit as well, except that the seams are even more visible. Jackson and his collaborators deserve a lot of credit for pulling off these movies at all, but it’s a bad sign when we’re equally aware of the logic taking place behind the scenes as of the events unfolding on the screen itself.

And this makes me strangely hopeful about The Hobbit‘s final installment. The two movies released so far have been watchable but underwhelming, and that’s largely because they’ve been thought through rather than felt: a lot of their energy is devoted to inventing satisfying climaxes where none existed before, figuring out an approach to transitional material, and giving characters enough to do while keeping important parts in reserve. In theory, There and Back Again shouldn’t suffer from the same issues—its climaxes are already there, and most of the heavy lifting has been done by the earlier chapters. It’s even possible that the first two movies will seem stronger in retrospect. (I’m also looking forward to the inevitable fan edit that cuts the trilogy together into a single three-hour movie, which I suspect will become the version of choice for a lot of casual viewers.) That’s the funny thing about these films: because we have so much other material to draw upon, from the original books to the extended cuts to the vast amount of conceptual art, they still feel like works in progress. More than any other movies I know, they’re capable of being endlessly revised in our heads, or of allowing us, as Philippa Boyens says in her commentary, to dream of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2013 at 9:48 am

Quote of the Day

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December 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Charles Hoy Fort on magic

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Charles Hoy Fort

My general expression is that all human beings who can do anything; and dogs that track unseen quarry, and homing pigeons, and bird-charming snakes, and caterpillars who transform into butterflies, are magicians. In the lower—or quite as truly higher, considering them the more aristocratic and established—forms of being, the miracles are standardized and limited: but human affairs are still developing, and “sports,” as the biologists call them, are of far more frequent occurrence among humans. But their development depends very much upon a sense of sureness of reward for the pains, travail, and discouragements of the long, little-paid period of apprenticeship, which makes questionable whether it is ever worthwhile to learn anything. Reward depends upon harmonization with the dominant spirit of an era…

Considering modern data, it is likely that many of the fakirs of the past, who are now known as saints, did, or to some degree did, perform the miracles that have been attributed to them. Miracles, or stunts, that were in accord with the dominant power of the period were fostered, and miracles that conflicted with [it]…were discouraged, or were savagely suppressed…And that, in the succeeding age of Materialism—or call it the Industrial Era—there is the same state of subservience to a dominant, so that young men are trained to the glory of the job, and dream and invent in fields that are likely to interest stockholders, and are schooled into thinking that all magics, except their own industrial magics, are fakes, superstitions, or newspaper yarns.

Charles Hoy Fort, Wild Talents

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December 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Practicing the scales

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Katherine Anne Porter

There is a technique, there is a craft, and you have to learn it. Well, I did as well as I could with that, but now all in the world I am interested in is telling a story…But I had spent fifteen years at least learning to write. I practiced writing in every possible way that I could. I wrote a pastiche of other people, imitating Dr. Johnson and Laurence Sterne, and Petrarch and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then I tried writing my own way. I spent fifteen years learning to trust myself: that’s what it comes to. Just as a pianist runs his scales for ten years before he gives his concert: because when he gives that concert, he can’t be thinking of his fingering or his hands; he has to be thinking of his interpretation, of the music he’s playing. He’s thinking of what he’s trying to communicate. And if he hasn’t got his technique perfected by then, he needn’t give the concert at all.

Katherine Anne Porter

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

“When Renata awoke that morning…”

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"When Renata awoke that morning..."

Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A writer makes a lot of decisions before he starts to put words on the page, but the most important choice is easily that of point of view. Determining whether a narrative should be written in the first person, third person, or some other variant not only shapes the concrete choices you make from one sentence to the next, but it fundamentally influences the kinds of stories you can tell. A writer’s preferences are a reflection of his tastes and personality, and I’m no exception. I won’t go as far as Henry James, who believed that the first person was “barbaric” for anything but short works of fiction, but it’s no accident that of all my published stories, only one, “Ernesto,” makes use of the first-person point of view, and it’s also the shortest story I’ve ever written. (I decided to write it in the first person partially as a personal experiment, but also for sound narrative reasons. It’s a scientific detective story featuring a thinly disguised version of the young Hemingway, and by telling it from the perspective of another character, I was able to avoid the temptation to write it in a bad version of Hemingway’s style. It was also an homage to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: if your lead character is a genius, it’s often best to narrate it from Watson’s point of view, or else your hero will spend half the story commenting on his own brilliance.)

For the vast majority of my stories, I use a third-person omniscient point of view, in which I can dip at will into the thoughts and perspectives of any character, although I do what I can to keep it under control. Most of my scenes and chapters are effectively written in third-person limited, which means that I stick to one character’s perceptions until the chapter is over, switching to another only when the next scene begins. I prefer this to the approach, which you see in such authors as James Clavell, in which every character’s thoughts are fair game at any point: it can often feel as if you’re switching between perspectives at random, and it makes it hard to keep any secrets without actively cheating the reader. When I do switch between perspectives in a scene, as is sometimes necessary to intercut the action, I try to do it only once, at a pivotal moment, and I do what I can to make the transition clear. The result has served me well through three novels and multiple short stories—most of which are written in pure third-person limited—and I’ve come to think of it much as Paul Graham thinks of the Lisp programming language:

If you’re not sure yet what kind of program you’re writing, it’s a safe bet to write it in Lisp. Whatever kind of program yours turns out to be, Lisp will, during the writing of it, have evolved into a language for writing that kind of program.

"Renata ignored her..."

Yet the third-person omniscient point of view also has its pitfalls. It offers the constant temptation to switch between more perspectives than you really need, and more than two or three can be hard for a reader to follow. We’re naturally inclined to focus our emotional energies onto a single character, which is why most movies have a clearly defined star part, and it can be hard to know where to fix our attention if multiple characters are competing for time. This is particularly troublesome when long gaps go between appearances. Some readers find the shifting perspectives in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire difficult to manage, and I vividly remember losing patience with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an otherwise excellent novel, when it became clear that each section was going to be told from the point of view of a different character, and that we’d never return to that perspective again once the section was over—which made it very hard to invest in any one person. I’ve learned from hard experience to provide a narrative home base for the reader, which is why each of my novels start by emphasizing one thread slightly over another. In The Icon Thief, it’s Maddy’s story; in City of Exiles, it’s Wolfe’s. So I always begin each novel by cutting back repeatedly to this main thread, usually in every other chapter, until the core of the narrative has been established.

As a result, there’s a point in each of my books, usually around Chapter 10, in which the story branches out into a more expansive structure. If you map it out on paper, the moment when this happens is clear at a glance: it’s when I drop the alternating structure of the opening section, having established the protagonist, and start to move more freely between different characters. In City of Exiles, this occurs in Chapter 11, which is told from the point of view of the photographer Renata Russell, who has appeared until now only in a supporting capacity. Giving this chapter to a tertiary character serves a structural as well as a narrative function: it’s a signal to the reader that from this point onward, the scope of the novel will widen. It also allows me to incorporate information that couldn’t easily be provided from the point of view of any of the characters who have taken center stage thus far. Here, Renata pays a visit to James Morley, a fund manager who has agreed to have his portrait taken, and at first, its significance to the larger plot isn’t entirely clear. Hopefully, though, the reader will take it on faith that this scene will pay off later on—which is why it lives most comfortably here, and not earlier in the novel, when the rules of the game were still being established. As it stands, it’s a nice, short scene that also gives me a chance to explore the headspace of an interesting supporting character, and as it turns out, it could only happen now. Renata, alas, won’t be around for much longer…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am

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