Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2014

Francis Ford Coppola on keeping good notes

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Francis Ford Coppola

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

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November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

Arnold Hauser on Shakespeare’s pragmatism

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[Shakespeare] deliberately and systematically takes over some of the methods which he finds ready to hand, but more often than not quite uncritically and thoughtlessly. The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

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November 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

The magical life of Henning Nelms

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Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on June 22, 2012.

“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.

I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.

The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.

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November 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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John Barth

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

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November 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

How I discovered my feminine side

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 18, 2012.

In some ways, this post shouldn’t be necessary. Honestly, there’s no good reason why a realistic novel with a large cast of characters shouldn’t include a roughly equal number of men and women, at least once we’ve accounted for issues of setting and plot. Yet it’s unquestionably the case that interesting female characters can be hard to find, especially in works by male authors. There’s still no better proof of this than the classic Bechdel Test, in which a movie or other narrative work has to meet three simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It includes at least two women…
  2. Who have at least one conversation…
  3. About something other than a man or men.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but surprisingly few works of art pass the test. And while this isn’t meant to be taken as a measure of a story’s merit—there aren’t any women in Lawrence of Arabia for a reason—it’s still worth asking why narratives that fulfill all three requirements remain the exception, not the rule.

This is especially true in suspense, in which otherwise great authors, like Frederick Forsyth, either ignore women entirely or prove utterly incapable of writing convincing female characters. As far as my own work is concerned, The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both squeak by, but largely on a technicality: both have women in the lead, but only a couple of female supporting characters with whom my protagonists can have a qualifying conversation. Yet something unexpected happened with my third novel. Eternal Empire is the concluding book of a series that has introduced a number of important female characters over time, and two of the three leads are women from the previous novels, along with many smaller but crucial roles. As a result, I’ve found myself writing numerous chapters in which only women appear. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply the way the narrative evolved. And although it might seem odd to comment on it, it’s a measure of the relative lack of female characters in this kind of story that it struck me, after the fact, as surprising.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

So how did I end up writing three novels with female protagonists? Part of the answer is that I’ve been enormously influenced by works of art in which unforgettable women appear. I don’t think I’d be writing this kind of book at all if it weren’t for Dana Scully, my favorite character on television, who, in turn, was clearly modeled on the great Clarice Starling. (It’s fitting, then, that Gillian Anderson has played such a prominent role on the Hannibal television series, thus bringing the wheel full circle.) It was also a test for myself as a writer. On some levels, men and women aren’t so different, at least not in a story like this: James Cameron has said that his preferred way of creating a compelling female character is to write for a man and simply change the name—which is how we got Ripley in Alien—and one of William Goldman’s favorite methods for brainstorming his way through a difficult story is to ask, “What if all the characters were women?” All the same, writing for a character whose experience is distinct from my own in certain fundamental ways forces me to think through even the smallest moments, testing them for plausibility, tone, and emotional truth.

Which is something I should be doing anyway, of course, but when I’m writing for a male lead, I’m more likely to overlook such problems, because I’m not subjecting the character to the same kind of scrutiny. When I recently went back to read my first, unpublished novel, for instance, I found that the lead character, a young man not unlike myself at the time, was serviceable, but a little colorless, probably because he was so easily assembled in my imagination that a lot of it failed to make it to the page. A character like Rachel Wolfe, by contrast, seems more real to me than most of my male protagonists, just because I’ve had to work on her more rigorously. In some ways, that’s the greatest possible benefit in writing characters of a different gender. It can’t be an accident that many of our finest novels, from Madame Bovary to Atonement, have been written by male novelists assuming a female point of view. Anything that requires a writer to look twice at things he, or she, might otherwise take for granted can only be a good thing. And in my fiction, as well as in my own life, I have some strong women to thank.

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November 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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November 27, 2014 at 7:30 am

A few tips on faking it

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Citizen Kane

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 28, 2012.

It’s always satisfying when a story comes full circle, or when a moment near the end of the narrative reveals a pattern of symbols or themes that was only dimly visible before. This kind of structure requires both careful planning and some degree of luck: a story that is too obviously structured can seem artificial or contrived, while the best kind of deep structure can take even the author by surprise. More often, however, a writer will reach the end of a project only to find that its structure is shapeless or absent, with a story that seems like nothing but a series of loosely connected events. The smart thing to do at this point would be to throw out the whole thing and start again—something that few of us have the courage to attempt. The alternative is, well, to fake it: to look for a few quick fixes that will make the story look more structured than it really is, in hopes of fooling the casual reader or critic. Is it cheating? Sure. But it’s a form of cheating of which nearly every artist has been guilty at one time or another, and once you’re aware of it, you start to see it everywhere you look. With just a few simple tricks, soon you, too, will be faking it with the best:

1. If you can’t find a theme, pretend it’s there anyway. Ideally, theme ought to arise organically from the events of the story itself, rather than being conceived beforehand or imposed after the fact. Sometimes, though, you wind up a theme that seems thin or nonexistent. The answer, if you’re determined to fake it, is to pick a theme that seems appropriate and mention it on the slightest pretext. The great recent example is Pixar’s Brave, which repeats the word “fate” so insistently that it clearly hopes that nobody notices that it doesn’t have much to do with fate at all, or at least has little of interest to say on the subject. I’m not above this kind of thing myself: when the title of my second novel was changed at the last minute to City of Exiles, which I selected more or less because it sounded good, I went back and tweaked the draft in places to tease out the theme of exile wherever possible. Hopefully, this kind of retouching should be invisible, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a real theme lurking there after all. In storytelling, as in jazz, sometimes you just need to fake it till you make it.

Concept art for Brave

2. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. History, as Mark Twain says, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, too, does a good novel: elements that occur early in the story can, and should, come back to play a larger role. As before, we’d like to believe that this is the result of serendipity or good planning, but I’ve found that it doesn’t hurt to go back, when you’re nearing the end of a writing project, to see if there are elements that could be profitably reintroduced. A character who appears only once and never returns, or a detail introduced in the book’s early pages that doesn’t play a part later on, is an annoying loose end; bring them back again at an unexpected time, and you start to look pretty smart. In City of Exiles, for instance, an unscrupulous solicitor named Owen Dancy appears early in the book, only to never be mentioned again. This struck me as an oversight, so not only did I bring him back, but I had him play a crucial part in the epilogue. As soon as something occurs twice, it starts to look like structure, and three times is even better. This kind of systematic mining of one’s work for meaningful repetitions is something that every writer should do. Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.

3. When in doubt, go back to where you started. When we see the NO TRESPASSING sign at Xanadu for the last time at the end of Citizen Kane, it feels like a circle has closed; the same is true of the picket fence and red roses in the opening and closing shots of Blue Velvet. At its best, this kind of bookending reflects a ring or circular structure that has been part of the work from the beginning, but sometimes only the illusion of symmetry is required. You see this in movies, like the original Spider-Man, that repeat the opening narration again at the end: it feels like a recurrence of deeper themes, when it may just be a simple editing trick. (At a higher level, you have a movie like Raging Bull, which reportedly didn’t work at all in test screenings until a snippet of the closing scene was appended to the beginning.) A true ring composition demands detailed planning, while mechanically opening and closing on the same phrase or image requires no skill at all—but if you aren’t sure how to end a story, even the fake version will often get you ninety percent of the way there. Because it’s always satisfying when a story, or a blog post, comes full circle. Isn’t it?

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November 26, 2014 at 9:00 am

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