Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2015

“But the details remained unclear…”

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"But the details remained unclear..."

Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 18. You can read the previous installments here.

Yesterday, I happened to pick up my paperback copy of Salem’s Lot, a novel I haven’t read in its entirety in close to twenty years. Leafing through the prologue, I was struck, first of all, by how great a natural stylist Stephen King was from the very beginning: the opening pages lure you into the story as gracefully and unobtrusively as any I know. But I was particularly taken by one early sentence: “It was September 5, 1975, and summer was enjoying her final grand fling.” What’s interesting about this statement, obviously, is its specificity. Salem’s Lot was published in October of 1975, and according to the note appended to its last page, it took close to three years to write. As best as I can imagine, then, the date we see here was a late addition, inserted once King had a sense of the timing of the book’s initial appearance. It’s clearly meant to suggest that the main action is taking place exactly when readers would have been encountering it for the first time, and if the book had happened to come out a few years earlier or later, I don’t doubt that it would have been amended accordingly. The date itself doesn’t matter; it’s here to create the impression that the story was happening just as the book went on sale.

Of course, Salem’s Lot hasn’t been out of bookstores for the four decades since, so that sentence, which stamped the story with immediacy on its first printing, ultimately turns it into a period piece. Another writer might have reasonably avoided giving the year at all, hoping to keep it in the reader’s emotional present tense—which, in theory, is exactly when a horror story should be most powerful. Really, though, it comes off as a surprisingly canny choice. Time turns all novels into period pieces anyway, and by stating the year explicitly in the text, Salem’s Lot feels somehow less dated: it isn’t trying to pretend that it’s taking place at any other time. Originally, the date served to set the story emphatically in the present, presumably to provide a contrast to a core narrative as old as Dracula; in some ways, though, setting it in the recent past is even more effective, since it forces us to revisit a period that we thought had been safely defined in our memories. And it’s a trick that King has repeated several times since: much of It expressly takes place on May 31, 1985. (If the Cary Fukunaga movie adaptation goes ahead as scheduled, and they update it for the present day, the flashbacks to the protagonists’ childhoods would presumably take place at the time when the novel first appeared, which is a fascinating development in itself.)

"Maddy had paid little attention to the news..."

My own novels have taken a similar tack, and although the reasons were somewhat different, I’d like to think that the overall effect is the same. Each book in the series is set in a clearly defined time period: The Icon Thief, which was published in March 2012, takes place between June 19 and July 6, 2008, aside from the prologue and epilogue. As I’ve said before, this was a makeshift solution to a problem that presented itself as the novel was being written. I’d conceived the plot before the financial crisis, and when the bottom fell out, I was concerned that the impact on the economy would make much of the story—which revolves around a bullish environment for art investing—obsolete or worse. The answer, I decided, was to set the whole thing in the recent past, not to a distracting degree, but enough so that an attentive reader would pick up on the timeframe. In the end, I needn’t have worried: by the time the novel came out, the art market had recovered. But I still liked the idea of tailoring events to the calendar. It provided a useful structure for plotting out the action; it allowed for a measure of historical irony; and, as King knew, it adds a touch of verisimilitude, a sense that this isn’t a story that could occur at any time, but only here. And even if the majority of readers didn’t notice, I’d prefer to believe that it contributed something to the finished result.

I followed that basic template for the next two novels, and while City of Exiles only incidentally nods to its timeframe, mostly in the scene set at a particular London Chess Classic, it became crucial to Eternal Empire. The entire novel is timed to lead up to the protests that erupted against the Putin regime in late 2011, and while these turned out to be something of a damp squib in historical terms, they functioned nicely as an internal climax within the plot. More significantly, much of the action unfolds against the backdrop of the riots that consumed London that summer. Our first real hint of what might be coming—aside from the section header that reads “July 27-August 8, 2011,” which most readers could be forgiven for overlooking—appears in Chapter 18, when Maddy skims a story about the death of Mark Duggan. The next few chapters closely track the events of that week, sometimes hour by hour. And while I tried to be as accurate here as possible, perhaps with an eye to a hypothetical reader who would analyze the chronology as carefully as the fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I’m well aware that everything I did was mostly for my own sake. Shaping the plot around actual events, like any constraint, was a rich source of ideas, and even if the effect is a subtle one, it grounds the story in ways that wouldn’t have been there if I’d left the dates unspecified. As King understood, sometimes the best way to keep a story in the moment is to set it the day before yesterday…

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April 30, 2015 at 9:05 am

Quote of the Day

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Carl Sagan

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

Carl Sagan

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April 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The poster problem

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Three years ago, while reviewing The Avengers soon after its opening weekend, I made the following remarks, which seem to have held up fairly well:

This is a movie that comes across as a triumph more of assemblage and marketing than of storytelling: you want to cheer, not for the director or the heroes, but for the executives at Marvel who brought it all off. Joss Whedon does a nice, resourceful job of putting the pieces together, but we’re left with the sense of a director gamely doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt, which is an odd thing to say for a movie that someone paid $200 million to make. Whedon has been saddled with at least two heroes too many…so that a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.

If the early reactions to Age of Ultron are any indication, I could copy and paste this text and make it the centerpiece of a review of any Avengers movie, past or future. This isn’t to say that the latest installment—which I haven’t seen—might not be fine in its way. But even the franchise’s fans, of which I’m not really one, seem to admit that much of it consists of Whedon dealing with all those moving parts, and the extent of your enjoyment depends largely on how well you feel he pulls it off.

Whedon himself has indicated that he has less control over the process than he’d like. In a recent interview with Mental Floss, he says:

But it’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant. And now I find myself with a huge crew of people and, although I’m not as bloodthirsty as some people like to pretend, I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss. So my feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.

Which, when you think about it, is a startling statement to hear from one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. But it accurately describes the situation. Any Avengers movie will always feel less like a story in itself than like a kind of anomalous weather pattern formed at the meeting point of several huge fronts: the plot, such as it is, emerges in the transition zone, and it’s dwarfed by the masses of air behind it. Marvel has made a specialty of exceeding audience expectations just ever so slightly, and given the gigantic marketing pressures involved, it’s a marvel that it works as well as it does.

Inception

It’s fair to ask, in fact, whether any movie with that poster—with no fewer than eight names above the title, most belonging to current or potential franchise bearers—could ever be more than an exercise in crowd control. In fact, there’s a telling counterexample, and it looks, as I’ve said elsewhere, increasingly impressive with time: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. As the years pass, Inception remains a model movie in many respects, but particularly when it comes to the problem of managing narrative complexity. Nolan picks his battles in fascinating ways: he’s telling a nested story with five or more levels of reality, and like Thomas Pynchon, he selectively simplifies the material wherever he can. There’s the fact, for instance, that once the logic of the plot has been explained, it unfolds more or less as we expect, without the twist or third-act betrayal that we’ve been trained to anticipate in most heist movies. The characters, with the exception of Cobb, are defined largely by their surfaces, with a specified role and a few identifying traits. Yet they don’t come off as thin or underdeveloped, and although the poster for Inception is even more packed than that for Age of Ultron, with nine names above the title, we don’t feel that the movie is scrambling to find room for everyone.

And a glance at the cast lists of these movies goes a long way toward explaining why. The Avengers has about fifty speaking parts; Age of Ultron has sixty; and Inception, incredibly, has only fifteen or so. Inception is, in fact, a remarkably underpopulated movie: aside from its leading actors, only a handful of other faces ever appear. Yet we don’t particularly notice this while watching. In all likelihood, there’s a threshold number of characters necessary for a movie to seem fully peopled—and to provide for enough interesting pairings—and any further increase doesn’t change our perception of the whole. If that’s the case, then it’s another shrewd simplification by Nolan, who gives us exactly the number of characters we need and no more. The Avengers movies operate on a different scale, of course: a movie full of superheroes needs some ordinary people for contrast, and there’s a greater need for extras when the stage is as big as the universe. (On paper, anyway. In practice, the stakes in a movie like this are always going to remain something of an abstraction, since we have eight more installments waiting in the wings.) But if Whedon had been more ruthless at paring down his cast at the margins, we might have ended up with a series of films that seemed, paradoxically, larger: each hero could have expanded to fill the space he or she deserved, rather than occupying one corner of a masterpiece of Photoshop.

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

Quote of the Day

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April 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The oblique angle

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

On Friday, I’ll be reading at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, titled “A Celebration of Asian-American Writers in Chicago,” with authors Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and Wailin Wong. (If that third name sounds a little familiar, it’s because Wailin and I are married, which marks the first and only time I’ve felt like part of a literary power couple.) The reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and while I’m pleased to be included, I’ve also found myself reflecting on the role that my background has played, if any, in my work. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m multiracial—half Chinese, the rest Finnish and Estonian—and my track record of tackling Asian themes in my own writing is a mixed one. Two of my short stories, “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” address such issues directly, the former in Japan, the latter in Vietnam, but my novels prefer to engage the subject from an angle, using Russia as a canvas for exploring the conflict between eastern and western cultures. In a way, the figure of the Scythian or Khazar is simply a translation of my life story into geographical terms: I’m not from the steppes, but I’m fascinated by places in which that collision has shaped entire civilizations, rather than individual lives.

Really, though, when you look at my writing as a whole, a very small percentage is devoted to themes that can be traced back to issues of identity. And I’ve spent a long time wondering why. Part of it has to do with the nature of being multiracial: you’re left to figure out a lot of important things for yourself, and it’s hard to commit yourself entirely to one side or another. Another element is purely personal: as a writer, I’ve always placed a premium on detachment, and I continue to feel that I do my best work when I can regard it with some objectivity. Autobiographical writing has never held much appeal for me; you end up so close to the material—a danger for any kind of writing whatsoever—that you’re unable to judge it with the coldness that good writing demands. And the rest may just be an accident. What catches your interest as a writer, not to mention what gets published, is largely a matter of chance, and quirks of timing and process yield patterns that may or may not be meaningful. Whenever I end up writing about Asian themes, it’s because the story demands it, not because I set out with such intentions in mind. “Kawataro” was a scientific puzzle I had to solve, and the answer turned out to be in Japan; “The Whale God” took place in Vietnam for similar reasons, although I briefly pursued the idea of setting it in Greenland.

Mind maps for the story "Kawataro"

Yet none of these explanations get at the crucial point, which I can only describe as an intuition—which is visible throughout my work—that the best way to approach any subject of great personal importance is through an indirect route. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer makes a similar point, although in a very different context, in talking about writers who lived through September 11:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations and derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

And while the problem of dealing with one’s background may seem to have little in common with a single day of indescribable trauma, the underlying point is the same. If a writer is a machine for making choices, the most interesting decisions tend to emerge from a transmutation of the underlying material, until the original source becomes unrecognizable. I don’t always identify as an Asian-American writer, or even as a Eurasian one, but the themes that I revisit repeatedly—the idea of the world as a puzzle to be solved, the search for patterns in a mass of data, the extent to which we’re able to be free creators of ourselves—certainly arise from the problems I’ve mulled over in my own life. Most authors tend to define themselves in terms of their own otherness, and if nothing else, the choice to become a writer at all provides enough otherness for a lifetime of stories. The trick, I’ve come to believe, is to treat that sense of difference as an excuse to seek out the untold, the unknown, and the unrepresented wherever we find it, even if it wears a face nothing like our own. On the surface, it may seem that we’re exploring lives that have nothing to do with us. But it’s that oblique angle, or the approach from the unexpected direction, that guarantees that we’ll have been talking about ourselves all along.

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2015 at 9:26 am

Quote of the Day

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Oliver Sacks

Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Oliver Sacks

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April 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The paradox of choice

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McDonald's Menu

If there’s one argument that this blog has made from the very beginning, it’s the importance of constraints in the creative process. An artist who doesn’t impose any limitations on his work usually finds himself paralyzed by the range of freedoms at his disposal: when you can write about anything, you often end up writing about nothing. Every project begins with an arbitrary choice—of premise, of theme, of style—that might be no better or worse than any number of other alternatives, and equally arbitrary decisions are made at every stage of the game. Constraints are a way of controlling our universe of choices, and if this facilitates the creative process, it isn’t hard to understand why. They force us to find ingenious ways of circumventing the rules; they turn an undefined problem into a particular puzzle to solve; they give us a path to follow, rather than a blank map that could take us in any direction and winds up leading nowhere. It’s possible, even inevitable, that there are better answers than the ones we’ve chosen in our first random stabs at making a pattern. But we’re unlikely to find them unless we lay down that initial, haphazard set of conditions.

This is all common sense—at least after you’ve tackled a creative problem for any amount of time. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play. When psychologists talk about the paradox of choice, they begin with the perfectly accurate premise that a variety of choices is a good thing. To take an example from the work of Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, if a store offers fifty styles of jeans rather than two, it increases the odds that shoppers will find a pair they like. Similarly, if you multiply your range of choices as a writer, you’re objectively more likely to find a solution that works. In theory, anyway. What really matters, though, isn’t the richness of options at your disposal, but your comfort with the process of making choices itself. As Schwartz writes:

More [choice] requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.

Without a doubt, having more options enables us, most of the time, to achieve better objective outcomes. Again, having fifty styles of jeans as opposed to two increases the likelihood that customers will find a pair that fits. But the subjective outcome may be that shoppers will feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.

Women's jeans

Similarly, restaurant menu engineers have found that more than seven options per category leave customers feeling overwhelmed and confused. And while writing a novel might not seem to have much in common with ordering lunch or trying on a pair of jeans, the same principle applies. When you have two or three creative options, the outcome may not be any better than when you have fifty alternatives: indeed, we should expect that it will be objectively worse. But that matters less, in the long run, than how we feel about the choice we’ve made. If we’re happy with it—even if it’s the wrong one—we’re more likely to move on to the next decision; if we’re dissatisfied—even if it was relatively strong—we’ll worry and fret about it, which consumes energy that would be better used in pushing forward. And you see this in writing all the time. When an author refuses to continue to the next paragraph until the one he’s writing is “perfect,” what he’s really saying is that he wants to go through all the options at hand until he arrives at the best of the lot. The result may well be a glittering string of sentences. But for most writers, it’s exhausting, and it’s an attitude that can lead to a year of work with only a handful of fragments to show for it. A writer who prudently restricts his choices will at least have a finished manuscript. It may not be perfect, but it exists.

In that light, constraints look less like a way of enabling creativity than like a strategy for managing the author’s emotions, allowing him to see the project through to the end. And we shouldn’t minimize how important this is. Taken in the aggregate, the choices that a writer makes are absolutely critical—a work of art is nothing more than the sum of the artist’s decisions—but any particular choice probably isn’t. A writer soon learns that any given decision he makes, whether on the level of the word, the paragraph, or the scene, isn’t likely to remain in its original form for long: it’s revised, rethought, or cut as the overall draft evolves. The number of sentences that survive unchanged from first pass to last is minimal or nonexistent. This reduces the significance of any single choice, while drastically raising the importance of the process of making choices in general. What counts, in the end, is that the writer continues to make choices, including ones that affect the ones he’s made before, until the work as a whole has been adequately shaped. Maintaining that level of focus and commitment over the period of time required by any meaningful project demands a considerable amount of psychological self-care. A few judicious constraints may or may not result in better work. But they’re likely to keep you happy.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

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