Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2015

Five weddings and a funeral

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Richard Curtis

The best advice I got on writing a difficult scene was from Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral. When he has trouble writing a scene, and I guess he uses a typewriter, he takes out five sheets of paper, writes one through five at the top of the sheets, he rolls in the first sheet and writes one possible version of the scene. Then he rolls in the second sheet and writes another version, and so on. He makes himself write five different versions of the same scene and then he sees if any of them are any good or if they can be combined in any way. It’s another way of taking the pressure off yourself. Sometimes, if you’re having trouble, a scene may be misconceived and very frequently, you may not need the scene at all.

Nicholas Kazan

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2015 at 7:12 am

“It was nothing more than a whisper…”

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"Maddy straightened up..."

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 27. You can read the previous installments here.

One of the first rules that most aspiring writers are encouraged to follow, along with such chestnuts as “Show, don’t tell,” is that the story should be driven by the protagonist’s actions and decisions. As obvious as this all sounds, the number of unpublished novels or short stories that founder on a passive hero is large enough that it probably bears repeating. Not every good story needs to be built around a protagonist with the wit or resources of a James Bond, and some of my favorite novels, like The Magic Mountain, center on characters who are all but defined by their passivity. But it’s still a useful baseline, and if you scratch a seemingly passive protagonist, you’ll often find that he or she is more active than it might first appear. Hans Castorp withdraws from the world, but it’s still a conscious choice, and he remains active throughout the novel in small but meaningful ways, whether in his attempts to get to know Clavdia or in his efforts to survive his ill-advised excursion in the snow. And while John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom may seem utterly hapless, he’s brimming with unfulfilled needs and desires, and although he addresses them in unproductive ways, he’s still defined by his frequently self-destructive actions. It’s no accident that the first novel in the series is called Rabbit, Run.

Really, though, as with all writing “rules,” the proof rests in the outcome. Thinking in terms of an active protagonist is less important in itself then in the material it generates, and you usually find that when you structure each scene around a clearly defined action on the part of the central character, you get a more interesting story. In this blog, I come back repeatedly to David Mamet’s idea of a story as a series of concrete objectives, simply because it’s a machine for producing workable plots. Much of writer’s block is caused by the author’s inability to figure out what happens next, and choosing to make the next plot point, whatever it is, emerge from an objective and its logical pursuit is a useful sieve for deciding between possibilities—or for generating them in the first place. And it doesn’t need to be anything big: Kurt Vonnegut famously noted that a character’s initial objective can be something as simple as a glass of water. (“Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”) Like any rule, it deserves to be broken whenever the story demands it. But in general, an active protagonist is both a courtesy to the reader and a way to get the writer from first page to last. Writing is hard enough in itself that a smart author will tilt the odds wherever he or she can, and making sure that the hero is driving the action is as effective a trick as exists.

"It was nothing more than a whisper..."

And it’s especially useful in stories that seem to resist it. A thriller, for instance, would appear to lend itself naturally to active heroes, and it’s easier when your lead character is a criminal, a cop, or anyone whose life depends on a proactive engagement with the world. Yet many of the most important—and beloved—stories in the genre depend on the opposite: an ordinary man or woman thrust into circumstances beyond his or her control. We’re more likely to identify with someone whose life is initially as mundane as our own, and the transition between the everyday world and one where life and death hang in the balance is one of the most productive conventions for any writer to mine. The issue, obviously, is that an everyman character doesn’t go looking for trouble: it’s thrust upon the protagonist from the outside. This means, at least at the beginning, that the hero isn’t in control, and whatever decisions he or she makes have little bearing on whether the situation becomes better or worse. If the writer isn’t careful, this can easily turn into a victim story or an idiot plot. But it’s precisely at such moments that a skilled author needs to be especially alert, and to look for meaningful action for the protagonist even more relentlessly than in a story built around a conventional hero. It’s a challenge, yes, but a plot that requires the writer to think harder than usual is almost invariably a good thing.

In Eternal Empire, for example, it would have been easy to portray Maddy as a victim: she’s constantly being manipulated by more powerful forces, both visible and invisible, and she has few resources on which to fall back aside from her own intelligence. Chapter 27 represents a low point: she’s been kidnapped, held in the back of a car in the middle of nowhere, and she’s about to be blackmailed into becoming a pawn in a conspiracy she doesn’t fully understand. She’s more of a victim here than she’ll be anywhere else in the series. As a result, when the time came to write it, I tried hard to find ways of preserving her integrity as an actor in the story, no matter how small they might be. Even with a hood over her head, she pays attention to her surroundings, and she even tries to keep track of the route the car takes, like they do in the movies—and the fact that she fails doesn’t take anything away from the attempt. After being released, she searches the car that brought her there for clues, and she makes some smart observations about it, even if most of what she does here has already been anticipated by her antagonists. She even thinks about smashing the car’s windows with a rock, but she doesn’t. Instead, she says a few quiet words to herself. We don’t hear them, and we don’t even know if they’re addressed to her abductors, to Maddy herself, or to someone else entirely. But to me, they were a vow that she wasn’t going to be used so easily. And by the end of the novel, we’ll discover that she wasn’t nearly as passive as she seemed…

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2015 at 9:32 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The art of the impossible

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

A couple of years ago, after I saw Jack Reacher, I wrote the following about Tom Cruise, whom I still regard as the most interesting movie star we have: “He’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made.” I didn’t think much of that observation at the time, but when I look back, it seems to explain a lot about what makes Cruise both so consistent and so enigmatic. A producer credit can mean just about anything in Hollywood, from the person who willed an entire movie into existence to the financier who signed the checks to the studio executive who was in the right place at the right time. On the highest level, though, a producer is an aggregator of talent and money, a magnet to whom capable professionals and funding are drawn. By that definition, a major movie star, whose involvement can be all that takes a project out of turnaround and puts it into production, is frequently the only producer who counts. If you start to think of Cruise, then, as less a star than an industry player who can get movies to happen, he ranks among the greatest producers in history. And the Mission: Impossible franchise is the jewel in the crown, a series of sandboxes for five distinct directors to play with the idea of a studio tentpole, linked only by the master orchestrator who assembles the pieces.

This may be why it has taken so long for the series to get the recognition it deserves. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been financially successful, but it wasn’t until Ghost Protocol—and now Rogue Nation, which by all accounts is just as superb—that they began to inspire anything like affection. Most franchises thrive on our fondness for a central character, but Ethan Hunt is nothing but whatever the screenplay happens to require. Cruise is the undeniable creative force behind these films, but he’s also turned himself into a studio executive’s idea of an obedient movie star, a pro who gets to the set on time, always gives everything he has, and defers throughout to the overall operation. Each installment is less a movie in itself than a kind of object lesson, with endless variations, in what a big studio production ought to be. Hence the way Cruise, with a producer’s sure instincts, has used the franchise as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable sidekick or villain performances (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Philip Seymour Hoffman), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, Christopher McQuarrie). The result works precisely to the extent that it gives us our money’s worth, and few franchises over the years have so consistently embodied the basic reasons I go to the movies.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Yet there’s something about the impersonality of the result that can be a little alienating, and I think this has contributed more to the ambivalence many viewers feel toward Cruise than any of his public missteps—which, in any case, are far less damaging than countless transgressions for which many lesser stars have been forgiven. It’s hard to feel much love for him, any more than we feel love for, say, Brian Grazer, and Cruise himself seems increasingly reluctant to build a film around his star power alone. When you look at the trailers for his movies, you find that many of them fall back on the same gimmick: instead of opening on the star, as the ads for most movies would, they establish the story and situation for up to a minute without showing Cruise at all, and when he first appears, it’s as a slow fade into a glowering closeup of his face. (You see the same pattern in the teasers for Mission: Impossible III, Collateral, Ghost Protocol, and Jack Reacher, and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.) It sells us on the movie first, then slides in Cruise toward the middle, as if to seal the deal. It’s a neat trick, but it also has the effect of subordinating the star to the producer. He’s an important piece, even the keystone, but he derives his value solely from the machine he sets in motion. And we might like him better as a human being if he’d stuck to movies like Cocktail or Days of Thunder, in which he coasted on his considerable charm alone.

But the history of popular entertainment is richer and more intriguing thanks to Cruise’s withdrawal into the producer’s chair. At times, he reminds me a little of Napoleon, and not just in terms of stature: both are genetic freaks who were statistically bound to emerge sooner or later, and their success depended largely on being born into a time that could put them to use. Napoleon was a political and administrative genius who also had the physical endurance and luck of a soldier; Cruise was a handsome kid with a knack for acting who also had a relentlessly pragmatic sense of the possible. Which isn’t to say that his instincts are always infallible, any more than they were for Spielberg or Hitchcock. His attempt to become something like a real studio mogul at United Artists fizzled out quickly, and efforts like Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day, Oblivion, and Rock of Ages have revealed something less than a flawless understanding of what the public wants. In recent years, he has seemed content to be nothing but an action star, and he’s proven just as capable of this as might be expected—although I also feel the loss of the actor who starred in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. As always, his choices serve as a microcosm of the movie industry as a whole, which has moved away from human stories to four-quadrant blockbusters, and Cruise seems determined to demonstrate that he’s as good at this as he was at anything else. And he is. But convincing audiences to love him for it may be the most impossible mission of all.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Pohl and the pulpsters

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The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

Along with the sixteen volumes of the Richard Francis Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, my other great find at this year’s Newberry Library Book Fair is the memoir The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. While he never achieved the same degree of mainstream recognition as many of his contemporaries, Pohl arguably embodied more aspects of science fiction than any other figure of the golden age: he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary agent to the likes of Isaac Asimov, and acclaimed editor of magazines like Galaxy and If. He made his first professional sale in 1937 and continued writing up to his death two years ago, in a career that spanned eight decades, which reminds me of Bernstein’s sad, wonderful line from Citizen Kane: “I was there before the beginning, and now it’s after the end.” Pohl’s memoir is chatty, loaded with memorable gossip, and full of valuable advice—I’ve already posted the words of wisdom that he gleaned from the editor John W. Campbell. And it’s an essential read for anyone trying to make a mark in science fiction, or indeed any kind of writing, with its chronicle of the ups and downs of a freelance author’s career. (As both writer and editor, Pohl knew how the system worked from both sides, and he’s especially eloquent on the challenges of running a magazine on a limited budget.)

The meat of the book focuses on the height of the pulp era, which saw new magazines popping up seemingly every day for fans of westerns, mysteries, adventure, true confessions, and science fiction and fantasy itself. Pohl, who became a professional editor at the age of nineteen, estimates that there were five hundred titles in all, with annual sales of about a hundred million copies—a number that seems inconceivable today, when the number of widely circulated fiction magazines, literary or otherwise, can be counted on two hands. The pulps represented one extreme of a culture that simply read more for entertainment than we do now, with the high end occupied by the likes of The Saturday Evening Post, which paid writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald thousands of dollars for a single story. (Annualized for inflation, that’s more than most mainstream publishers pay on average for an entire novel.) Readership was especially high in the sticks, where movie houses were harder to find and demand was high for a cheap, disposable diversion. They all flourished for a decade or two, and then, abruptly, they were gone, finished off first by the paper shortages of the Second World War and then by television and paperbacks. And the fact that they vanished so utterly is less surprising than the fact that a handful of titles, like Analog, have stuck around at all.

Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

As with the heyday of paperback porn, it’s easy to romanticize the lost world of the pulps: as Theodore Sturgeon would later note, ninety percent of everything is crud, and the percentage for pulp fiction was probably higher. (Pohl says drily: “It was not all trash. But trash was the way to bet it.”) Given the pathetic rates on the low end of the scale—a penny a word at best—it’s not surprising that the good writers either got out of the pulps as soon as they could or avoided them entirely. Still, for those of us who see writing as a job like any other, it’s hard not to be enticed by the life that Pohl describes:

If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach. Stacked just past his typewriter are white sheets, carbons, and second sheets. Stacked to his left are finished pages, complete with carbon copies. he has taught himself to type reasonably neatly because he can’t afford a stenographer, and above all he has taught himself to type fast. A prolific pulpster could keep up a steady forty or fifty words a minute for long periods; there were a few writers who wrote ten thousand words a day and kept it up for years on end.

And for those who survived, the pulps were a remarkable training ground. Pohl believes that all it takes to be published are “luck, determination, and a few monkey tricks of style and plot,” and writers who made it out alive emerged with a bag of monkey tricks that no other school could offer. Pair those tricks with a good idea and a little curiosity about human life, and they were unstoppable. And although self-publishing, particularly in digital form, has revived certain aspects of that lifestyle, we’re still missing the structure that turned aspiring pulpsters into real writers, as embodied by editors like Campbell and Pohl. Editors, as Pohl notes, often took an active hand in shaping a story, either by nurturing problematic work into a publishable form or pitching ideas to authors, and even when they only served as gatekeepers, it was that sieve—or refinery—that forced their writers to grow. Pohl quotes James Blish’s observation that more than half of the major science-fiction writers of the last century were born within a year or two of 1920, which implies that it was tied to a particular event. Blish doesn’t know what this event was, and Pohl hypothesizes that it had something to do with the “social confusion and experimentation” of the thirties, but I suspect that the real answer is closer to home. The pulps were the pressure cooker that produced the popular fiction that dominated the next eighty years, and if we want to reproduce those conditions, it isn’t hard to see the limiting factor. The world already has plenty of writers; what it needs is a few hundred more paying magazines, and the editors who made them run.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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