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.

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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.

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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

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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…

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December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am

Quote of the Day

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Alexander Graham Bell

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; I have often been surprised at the results.

Alexander Graham Bell

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December 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The lost art of the extended take

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

For Christmas, I got my wife a copy of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, which is one of those ideal presents that the giver buys for the recipient because he secretly wants it for himself—I’ve spent at least as much time browsing through it as she has. It’s a beautiful book of interviews with a fascinating subject, and I suspect that it will provide a lot of material for this blog. Today, though, I’d like to focus on one short exchange, which occurs during a discussion of Anderson’s use of extended tracking shots. Seitz points to the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a great director subtly shooting a long scene in a single take without cuts, and shrewdly notes that our knowledge that the action is unfolding in real time subliminally increases the suspense. Anderson agrees: “You’re not only waiting to see who’s going to get knocked out with the liquor; you’re waiting to see who’s going to screw up the take.” Elsewhere, Seitz has written of how the way the scene was shot adds “a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene…our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going.”

This is a beautiful notion, because it exemplifies a quality that many of my favorite films share: the fictional story that the movie is telling shades imperceptibly into the factual story of how the movie itself was made, which unfolds in parallel to the main action, both invisibly and right in front of our eyes. It’s something like Truffaut’s statement that a movie should simultaneously express “an idea of life and an idea of cinema,” but it’s less about any specific philosophical idea than a sense that the narrative that the movie presents to us is a metaphor for its own creation. We see this in a movie like Citizen Kane, in which it’s hard not to read the youthful excitement of Kane’s early days at the Inquirer as a portrait of Orson Welles arriving on the RKO lot, and its later, disillusioned passages as a weird prefiguring of what would happen to Welles decades down the line; or even a movie like Inception, in which the roles of the participants in the mind heist correspond to those of the team behind the camera—the director, the producer, the production designer—and the star looks a little like Chris Nolan himself. (Someone, possibly me, should really make a slideshow on how directors tend to cast leading roles with their own doubles, as Anderson often does as well.)

Gravity

And the ultimate expression of the marriage between the filmed story and the story of its creation is the extended shot. It’s a moment in which the movie we’re watching fuses uncannily with its own behind-the-scenes documentary: for a minute or two, we’re on the set, watching the action at the director’s side, and the result is charged with the excitement of live performance. If every cut, as Godard says, is a lie, a continuous take brings us as close to the truth—or at least to a clever simulacrum of it—as the movies can manage. It doesn’t need to be overtly flashy, either: I’ve never seen a better use of an extended take than in the party scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in which the camera remains stationary for an entire reel. But there’s also a childlike pleasure in seeing filmmakers taking a big risk and getting away with it. You see this in the massively choreographed long takes, involving dozens or hundreds of players, in movies as different as Absolute Beginners, Boogie Nights, and Hard BoiledAnd if the hallway fight in Inception ranks among the most thrilling sequences of the decade, it’s because we’re witnessing something astonishing as it must have appeared that day on the set, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting battered by the walls of that rotating corridor.

So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that it’s not the long take itself that matters, but the fact that it puts us in the filmmaker’s shoes, which we lose when an extended take is the result of digital trickery. I’m as big a fan as any of the opening shot of Gravity, which recently made my updated list of the greatest movie openings of all time, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re seeing something that has been invisibly stitched together over many different days of filming, and nearly everything in sight has been constructed through visual effects. This doesn’t make it any less miraculous: along with Life of Pi, it marks a turning point, at least for me, in which digital effects finally live up to their promise of giving us something that can’t be distinguished from reality. But it’s a triumph of vision, planning, and conceptual audacity, without the extra frisson that arises from the sustained tightrope act of an extended shot done in the camera. As time goes by, it will become easier to create this sort of effect from multiple takes, as Cuarón himself did so brilliantly in Children of Men. But it can’t compare to the conspiratorial tension we get from a true tracking shot, done with the full possibility of a disastrous mistake, in which the movies, so often crafted from tricks and illusions, really do seem to defy gravity.

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December 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

Quote of the Day

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December 26, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

Quote of the Day

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December 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

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The best closing shots in film

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Lawrence of Arabia

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 13, 2011. Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click for the titles:

Quote of the Day

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December 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

“22 panels that always work!”

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22 Panels That Always Work!

When he was six, Wally Wood dreamt that he found a pencil that could draw anything, and he spent nearly fifty years proving that any pencil would do the trick—it just had to be held by the right artist. Wood may be the most fascinating comics illustrator I know, a journeyman whose résumé spans a dazzling variety of genres and media: EC Comics titles like Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, and of course Mad; the Mars Attacks set; covers and illustrations for Galaxy Science Fiction; pencils and inks for Daredevil; and any number of comic strips, gag panels, and adult cartoons, including the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy for Paul Krassner’s The Realist. He was the ultimate working artist, perennially on deadline and working for minimal pay, and as a result, he was obliged to become a monster of efficiency. Over his desk, he taped the note: “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut and paste up.” And while in the hands of another illustrator, this approach might have degenerated into lazy hackwork, in Wood’s case, it was simply a strategy of survival for a man who could draw literally anything.

Wood’s most famous legacy to his fellow artists is a page of sketches titled “22 Panels That Always Work,” and I’ve been looking at it with awe and affection for much of the last few days. It’s the most compelling summary of a graphic artist’s bag of tricks I’ve ever seen, and it’s all the more potent because it was designed to be utterly practical: Wood created it as a daily reference tool for himself and his assistants, and every panel crackles with the kind of artistic clarity and pragmatism that can only be achieved under the gun. The pictures themselves look like they were jotted down to capture the lightning essence of an insight or idea, and the advice is pithy and ruthlessly telegraphic: Big Head. Extreme Closeup. Reflection. One Big Object—Handgun, Lamp, Phone. There’s something about working under constant deadline pressure that causes theory and practice to merge into one, and the result ranks, to my eyes, with David Mamet’s On Directing Film and the best work of Jack Woodford as the distilled experience of a lifetime.

Detail from Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work

Looking over the page, a few things stand out at once for the lessons they offer to storytellers of all kinds. One of the panels is simply labeled Contrast, but contrast is a crucial tool throughout: light and dark, large and small, close and far away. Wood has other things to worry about than the verbal content of the scenes themselves, but there’s no question that contrast is central to the way writers plan out and execute readable narratives, even when they’re working with words instead of images. Contrast between characters, contrast between one scene and the next, contrast between the protagonist’s actions as the story unfolds: each component in the story ends up being set against every other, so they all need to stand out in ways defined by their neighbors. One of the most striking aspects of Wood’s advice here is how the entire page, which was pasted up after the fact by one of his former assistants, looks great as a whole, even though none of these panels were originally designed to sit side by side. If you take care of the contrasts within each beat, the larger elements—the page, the chapter, the book—will pop as a whole, but only if you’ve taken pains to make each constituent part work in its own right.

And the really interesting thing about Wood’s panels is the basic artistic problem that they were intended to solve. The header reads: “Some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!” And with only a few exceptions, these panels are a series of variations on the same scene: two characters talking, usually indoors, without any other action in sight. In short, they’re a means of dealing with what I’ve suggested elsewhere is the central problem of a writer’s life, which is how to gracefully handle exposition. Anyone who becomes a comic book illustrator is probably drawn to the trade by its splashiest elements: the covers, the full-page action scenes, the showpiece moments that allow an artist to demonstrate what he can really do. In practice, though, you soon find that half of your time is spent drawing someone on the phone. And that’s true of most of the other arts as well. As Wood understood, the more productive the life, the longer you’ll toil in the two-fisted trenches of those functional connective panels, so you may as well learn to love it, or at least find enough craft to tolerate it: you’ll be spending a lot of time there.

Note: Panels That Always Work is copyright Wallace Wood Properties LLC. You can order a copy of the official version here.

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December 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

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Quote of the Day

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December 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

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“So now he is ready to write it…”

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Vladimir Nabokov

When the writer settles down to his reconstructive work, creative experience tells him what to avoid at certain moments of blindness which overcome now and then even the greatest, when the warty fat goblins of convention or the slick imps called “gap-fillers” attempt to crawl up the legs of his desk…

So now he is ready to write it. He is fully equipped. His fountain pen is comfortably full, the house is quiet, the tobacco and the matches are together, the night is young…and we shall leave him in this pleasurable situation and gently steal out, and close the door, and firmly push out of the house, as we go, the monster of grim commonsense that is lumbering up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never never—And right then, just before it blurts out the word s, e, double-l, false commonsense must be shot dead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature

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December 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

“First I want to get my own ideas into shape…”

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Sigmund Freud

First I want to get my own ideas into shape, then I shall make a thorough study of the literature on the subject, and finally make such insertions or revisions as my reading will give rise to. So long as I have not finished my own work I cannot read, and it is only in writing that I can fill in all the details.

The literature which I am now reading is reducing me to idiocy. Reading is a terrible infliction imposed upon all who write. In the process everything of one’s own drains away. I often cannot remember what I have that is new, and yet it is all new. The reading stretches ahead interminably, so far as I can see at present.

Sigmund Freud

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December 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Oliver Wendell Holmes on dreams

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Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

We not rarely find our personality doubled in our dreams, and do battle with ourselves, unconscious that we are our own antagonists. Dr. Johnson dreamed that he had a contest of wit with an opponent, and got the worst of it; of course, he furnished the wit for both. Tartini heard the devil play a wonderful sonata, and set it down on awakening. Who was the Devil but Tartini himself? I remember, in my youth, reading verses in a dream, written, as I thought, by a rival fledgling of the Muse. They were so far beyond my powers, that I despaired of equalling them; yet I must have made them unconsciously as I read them…

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “Mechanism in Thought and Morals”

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

“His arms and legs were bound to the chair…”

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"His arms and legs were bound to the chair..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 10. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Good writers come in all ideological shapes and sizes, but if they have one quality in common, it’s that they’re less interested in politics than in honorably surviving a day’s work. As a result, they’ll sometimes use fictional devices that lend themselves to political interpretations, when in fact they ‘re nothing more than a convenient solution to the narrative problem at hand. My favorite example is smoking in movies. The fact that cigarettes appear so often in the hands of movie stars has sometimes been attributed to a sinister conspiracy between studios and the tobacco industry, but really, they’re there for a purely practical end. Actors are constantly in search of something to do with their hands, and the cigarette is the best bit of business ever devised: you can slide it out of the pack, light it, peer at another character through the smoke, thoughtfully study it, and grind it out to emphasize an emotional moment. Nothing comes close to smoking in terms of providing useful tidbits of actorly behavior—although I imagine that a pipe would be even better—and although substitutes ranging from cracking walnuts to playing with loose change have all been tried, it’s safe to say that the movies will continue to show people smoking as long as actors need to keep their hands occupied.

The same holds true, to a more troubling extent, of torture. Countless attempts have been made to link the use of torture in books, movies, and television series to the rise of the war on terror, but the political leanings of 24 creator Joel Surnow aside, it seems fairly clear that torture, too, is usually there as a convenient plot device. Which isn’t surprising—it’s the narrative shortcut of a writer’s dreams. I’ve spoken before about how half of a writer’s life seems to consist of finding new ways of delivering exposition, and a torture sequence does the job even better than an autopsy scene: it superficially grabs the viewer’s attention, allows the protagonist to take some striking action, and gives the author a convenient mouthpiece to deliver whatever information is necessary to move the story along. Best of all, it can all happen within the course of a few minutes. Critics of the cinematic portrayal of torture rightly complain about how unrealistically quick and efficient it is, but this overlooks the fact that everything in fiction moves faster than it would in real life. The tortured prisoner gives up his information immediately for the same reason that the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one and always has the exact change for a taxi: the point is to keep the story moving along to what matters the most.

"The man kept the bottle where it was..."

And yet it’s still a little disturbing. I was a fan of 24 for years, before it declined precipitously in quality in its sixth season, and I was able to overlook its use of torture as a plot device because it did so many other things so well. When torture is only there as a form of convenience—or, worse, of entertainment—in an otherwise mediocre story, I start to get uncomfortable. Early in Furious 6, for instance, there’s a scene in which The Rock’s diplomatic security officer simply beats the hell out of a suspect in custody to get a piece of largely meaningless information, and the entire sequence is played for laughs. Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions may have been, for me, it had the opposite effect: it took me out of the movie. To be fair, I might have overlooked it entirely if it had taken place at a more pivotal point in the story, as a similar scene does in The Dark Knight, or if if it hadn’t been staged as slapstick. But advancing the story through a torture scene defeats its own purpose if it simultaneously estranges us from the characters and calls the judgment of the movie’s creators into question. (And it’s quite possible that antismoking advocates would say the same thing about an actor blithely lighting up a cigarette.)

The closest thing to a torture sequence in my work occurs in Chapter 10 of City of Exiles, and like most scenes of its kind, it’s there because I couldn’t think of anything better. Its central figure is a character we’ve never seen before and won’t see again, Roman Brodsky, a London fixer and local criminal organizer who is surprised at home, tied up, and threatened with immolation via potassium permanganate until he tells his captor what he needs to know. Later, when the scene is nearly over, we find that his unseen tormenter isn’t Karvonen, as I hope we’ve assumed, but Ilya, and that he was able to extract the confession using nothing but suggestion and a handful of black rock salt. Brodsky isn’t even hurt, aside from a bump on the head. But it’s no accident that I gave the scene to Ilya, who, more than most of my characters, walks a narrow line between the moral and immoral. Giving this scene to Powell or Wolfe, even if no physical harm had been done, would have compromised those characters in ways that would have damaged the overall story, and it’s revealing that when Wolfe is placed in a similar situation toward the end of the novel, she gets the information she needs through sympathy and psychological shrewdness. Here, the shortest distance between two points happened to take us through some ethically questionable territory. But it isn’t a place I’d want to visit very often…

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

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