Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“She did not think that she had been seen…”

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"The binder she had selected..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 10. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.

And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.

"She did not think that she had been seen..."

Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.

That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

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