Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The yellow pad

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To me, summation is the most important part of the trial for the lawyer, the climax of the case…Usually, the very first thing I think about when I get a case and begin to learn the facts is: what am I going to argue, and how can I best make the argument to obtain a favorable verdict? In other words, I work backward from my summation. Virtually all of my questions at the trial, and most of my tactics and techniques, are aimed at enabling me to make arguments I’ve already determined I want to make…

In my opinion, a summation must either be written out or set down in a comprehensive outline. The problem with even an outline is that although all the points the lawyer wants to make are there, he does not have the all-important articulations; that is, he does not have his points expressed in the most effective way. It’s simply not possible to powerfully articulate a great number of points, one immediately following another, extemporaneously. There is a best way to make a point, and to find it takes time and sweat on the yellow pad.

Vincent Bugliosi, And the Sea Will Tell

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May 27, 2017 at 7:08 am

The first assembly

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In film editing, there’s a concept known as the first assembly, which the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman—one of my favorite works on creativity of any kind—defines as “all the scenes, as shot, put together in order, as written.” In many cases, the editor starts putting it together using the available footage even as the movie is shooting, and, in a perfect world, he or she would be done with it the week after the production wrapped. It usually takes a lot longer in practice. But the key takeaway is that nobody involved expects it to be any good. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a source of insight into how long the movie will ultimately be and how long it will take to wrestle it into its final form. This information is so valuable that the editor will often make an effort to forecast it during the shoot itself. In describing the process by which Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain, Koppelman writes:

As Murch later explains, “It’s in my job description. I should be able to tell a director—Anthony [Minghella] in this case—that at this pace of shooting the assembly will be over five hours long.” The length of the assembly matters because it may determine whether the director, who is responsible for delivering a film on time and on budget, fulfills his or her contractual obligations. Other crew members and production executives can keep track of production costs and scheduling issues, but only the editor can predict with any certainty if the schedule for editing is accurate, given the amount of work and footage to come. Moreover, the amount of time it takes to edit a motion picture relates, in large part, to the length of the first assembly. The more footage an editor and his or her crew have to begin with, the longer it will take them to assemble it all, and then the longer it will take to pare it all back down to a releasable length.

Film editors are used to thinking in these terms, but it doesn’t always come naturally to writers, although maybe it should—which is one reason why I reread Behind the Seen whenever I start to revise a manuscript. I doubt that many authors think of their rough drafts as first assemblies, but it’s a useful approach. For one thing, it emphasizes the provisional nature of any draft. When you’ve finished your initial pass on an extended writing project, the result is less meaningful in itself than as a source of data about the stage to come. What finished length should you target? How long will it take to get there? These are questions that you should be asking throughout the process, but it isn’t until you have a first assembly that you can get at meaningful answers. (Like Murch, I often find myself uneasily predicting how long the draft will be while I’m still writing, based on how big each section ends up being in relation to the outline, and, like him, I usually find that I’ve underestimated it.) Just as important is the emphasis that it places on reducing the overall length. Writing is cutting, as I’ve said many times before, and thinking of your manuscript as a first assembly reminds you that your primary responsibility is to extract the core of the story out of the deadwood of the draft. As Koppelman vividly puts it:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

And even if you don’t have a contracted length, it helps to impose one on yourself, simply as a reminder to scrutinize every sentence as critically as possible.

In Murch’s hands, the notion of a first assembly leads to two related concepts that are worth bearing in mind for any kind of narrative work. One is the crush ratio, which refers to the relationship between the footage that comes out of the shoot—which can amount to hundreds of hours—to the length of the first assembly:

[Murch] refers to this volume reduction—compelling the first assembly from all the raw footage—as “the crush ratio,” a term in winemaking that measures the first pressing against the original volume of picked grapes. A second pressing will get the first assembly down to a release print. Much already looks beyond the first crush to the second pressing: getting a five-hour-plus assembly to a releasable length…

From here on out, editing is, for the most part, all about story, structure, character, and length. There were hints, clues, and portents about these big issues as the dailies flew by over the last six months. But now the material has been “crushed” (first assembly), so the process of revision and reordering can begin in earnest. In film editing, however, unlike the winemaker process, none of the raw material is ever really discarded.

In writing, particularly in nonfiction, the equivalent is the proportion between the amount of raw material that you’ve gathered, in the form of primary sources, and the wordage that ends up on the page. A sense of this ratio can be helpful in the dusty middle innings of a project, when you’re trying to figure out how long the work will be, based on the volume of the subject matter. And it can clue you into the organic length that the story wants to take, which you can embrace or resist to various degrees.

Nearly every literary work, like every movie, ought to be as short as you can make it, and Murch’s other major concept has important implications for the second pressing:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

I’ve used the thirty percent factor as a guide for everything I’ve written, along with the admonition—endorsed by Stephen King and Calvin Trillin—that every rough draft should be cut by ten percent. Ideally, the amount that I cut from first draft to the last will fall somewhere between those two extremes, although I often find myself engaging in the sort of open-heart surgery that Murch describes. The numbers are slightly arbitrary, but not entirely. They match well with my experience of practical revision. And when you’re staring at that first assembly and wondering how you’re ever going to cut it down, you’ll take all the help that you can get.

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May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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May 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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May 10, 2017 at 7:30 am

The cracking pattern

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In his beautiful book Form, Function, and Design, the French architect Paul Jacques Grillo devotes several pages to the phenomenon of cracking. He reproduces photos of the cracked surfaces of India ink on glass, a porcelain vase, and an ivory pendant, and he notes that the patterns created are an expression of potential energy—a diagram of the forces operating on the material. Then he makes a striking observation:

The cracking pattern is the expression of total structural stability. We may wonder why a pattern associated with the idea of destruction should serve as a model for stability: but a structure is actually a pattern designed to offer the maximum strength at the weakest points, and the cracking pattern, considered as a pattern of rupture, is the pattern of the weakest points of a material, or of a surface.

Its negative duplicate becomes the pattern of the strongest lines of forces of a structure. We can imagine that if we build a wire structure made exactly as a negative of the cracking pattern on the Chinese vase, we shall have the strongest possible skeleton for its surface. For this reason, the cracking pattern has been widely used, although unconsciously, in all forms of design, from Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs—to stained glass windows and paintings.

In other words, structure—whether physical or virtual—is the inverse of weakness, as manifested where the material starts to break down. Take a photograph of an object in which its weakest points are visible, and then flip it into its negative, and you get a potential blueprint for how to reinforce it. This squares nicely with what the materials scientist J.E. Gordon says in Structures:

The entire physical world is most properly regarded as a great energy system: an enormous marketplace in which one form of energy is forever being traded for another form according to set rules and values. That which is energetically advantageous is that which will sooner or later happen. In one sense a structure is a device which exists in order to delay some event which is energetically favored. It is energetically advantageous, for instance, for a weight to fall to the ground, for strain energy to be released—and so on. Sooner or later the weight will fall to the ground and the strain energy will be released; but it is the business of a structure to delay such events for a season, for a lifetime or for thousands of years. All structures will be broken or destroyed in the end—just as all people will die in the end. It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.

And sometimes the most straightforward way of postponing this kind of destruction is to reinforce the design at its weakest points, as expressed in the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which ceramics are restored with golden lacquer that draws attention to the breakage.

But it isn’t always obvious where or how to make these reinforcements. Any discussion of structure as a negative image of damage automatically evokes the work of the mathematician Abraham Wald on bomber armor in World War II, which has become something of a cliché, but is still powerful. Here’s how Jordan Ellenberg tells it:

You don’t want your planes to get shot down by enemy fighters, so you armor them. But armor makes the plane heavier, and heavier planes are less maneuverable and use more fuel. Armoring the planes too much is a problem; armoring the planes too little is a problem. Somewhere in between there’s an optimum…When American planes came back from engagements over Europe, they were covered in bullet holes. But the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines…But exactly how much more armor belonged on those parts of the plane? That was the answer they came to Wald for. It wasn’t the answer they got.

The armor, said Wald, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t: on the engines…The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back…When you go to the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover.

Wald’s insight—that the places where the surviving planes had visible damage were places of strength, not weakness—might seem opposed to Grillo’s, but they’re really variations of the same underlying principle. Both are about deriving information from the history of an object in the real world, which, depending on your point of view, either layers an extra level of data on top of the design or peels back the surface to reveal the deeper structure underneath. The tricky part is how to interpret it. (It’s also worth noting that some of the solutions that emerge from Grillo’s approach are analogous to Wald’s. When you put expansion joints in a sidewalk or bridge, instead of trying to reinforce the places where it tends to crack, you’re acknowledging that what looks like a weakness is really a strength. A vase that breaks in the wrong way doesn’t survive to be admired by us. It just shatters.) And these examples all draw upon evidence that can’t be obtained in advance. The places where a surface is worn away, like the natural paths that the footsteps of passersby leave in the snow, create a map of use that can only be generated over an extended period. We rarely have the luxury of waiting to see how things turn out, and much of the lore of engineering is intended to anticipate these stress factors at the planning stage. As Gordon says, you plug values into your formula, look at the result with “a nasty suspicious eye,” and then “worry about it like blazes.” As a guideline, we draw inspiration from other works that have endured and bear the visible traces of that experience. We don’t always get it right the first time. But we can take a crack at it.

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May 5, 2017 at 9:28 am

The book of laughter and forgetting

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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie makes a confession that might strike those of us who haven’t written more than sixty novels as rather strange:

Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when, or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.

Christie says the same thing about a novel that followed two years later: “Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on me that I cannot even remember writing it.” In On Writing, Stephen King makes a similar admission: “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.” To be fair, Christie and King were monstrously prolific, and in both cases, there may have been other factors involved—Christie had suffered from a “fugue state” several years earlier in which she disappeared for ten days without explanation, while King was drinking heavily and using drugs. But even novelists with more mundane lifestyles have reported a similar kind of amnesia. On rereading her novel The Autograph Man, which she bought on an impulse at an airport, Zadie Smith recounts: “The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognize, didn’t remember writing.”

I find these testimonials oddly reassuring, because they tell me that I’m not alone. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I came up with one of the most important characters in the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief. If I tried, I could probably reconstruct it, and I’ve even written a whole author’s commentary devoted to preserving this kind of information. But it’s still troubling. I’ve published only three novels, the most recent of which appeared less than four years ago, but I don’t think I could tell you much about them today. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t like reading my old work: in the essay that I quoted above, Smith refers to the “nausea” that overcomes her when she looks back at her books, as well as “a feeling of fraudulence,” and I think most authors can relate to that revulsion. Yet it doesn’t entirely account for how little I remember. In the moment, writing a novel feels unbelievably hard, and it consists of so many discrete choices that I’ve even used it as an argument in favor of the existence of free will—but afterward, it seems to evaporate completely. Which just means that it’s like everything else in life, except that it leaves a more tangible trace of itself behind. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike writes:

That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world—it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives.

Not only can’t I recall much about writing The Icon Thief, but when I look at pictures of my daughter as a baby, from just two or three years ago, I can barely seem to remember that, either. I’d laugh about it, but it also makes me very sad.

And I suspect that a lot of parents would report the same phenomenon. Part of this is because we tend to have children at an age when time already seems to pass more quickly, but there’s also something else involved. It’s generally agreed that forgetting plays an important role in memory. In a paper first published in 1970, the psychologist Robert A. Bjork argued that forgetting is a way of minimizing interference between old and new experiences:

When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information. In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting. If one views the human cognitive apparatus as an ongoing information-handling system, it is clear that some mechanism to update the system, to keep the system current, is crucial…The positive function of any such forgetting mechanism is to prevent information no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information.

Bjork went on to provide an example that seems more resonant the more I think about it:

Consider the information processing task faced by the typical short-order cook. He must process one by one…a series of orders that have high interorder similarity. Once he is through with “scramble two, crisp bacon, and an English,” his later processing of similar but not identical orders can only suffer to the degree that he has not, in effect, discarded “scrambled two, crisp bacon, and an English.”

The crucial phrase here, I think, is “interorder similarity.” It’s the everyday things that we tend to forget first. I have trouble reconstructing my daily routine from earlier periods in my life, like what I ate for breakfast in my twenties, but exceptional events, like travel to foreign countries, remain relatively vivid. There’s nothing odd about the idea that unusual or striking memories would persist more strongly, but you could also turn that argument on its head: the days that were more or less the same as the ones that followed are more likely to be discarded because they interfere with surrounding information. This allows us to focus on the problems of each day without distraction, but over time, it can turn entire years into a blur. That’s certainly true of writing novels, in which the sameness of each day’s work allows for those rare moments in which inspiration takes place. (It’s noteworthy that both Christie and King were genre novelists who reworked the same conventions over the course of many books. You could also say the same thing about many “literary” authors like Updike, whose novels tend to blend together. And I’d be curious to know if a writer whose style and themes change radically between novels, like David Mitchell or Mark Helprin, would have a different perspective.) Writing a novel, like raising a baby, can also be unpleasant, and perhaps this selective amnesia is what fools us into trying it again. Smith writes of The Autograph Man: “Between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.” Sometimes you have to make a similar kind of truce with the past to go on living, and forgetfulness is where it begins. As Hercule Poirot would say, it’s a matter of little grey cells, and we can’t expect to hold onto them forever.

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May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

Quote of the Day

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No honest writer of history is obscure, as a rule, except through carelessness or ignorance—ignorance, it may be, of the art of writing, or of the subject he is writing about, or of the persons he is addressing, or of the words he is using, but, in any case, ignorance of something. But an honest writer of poetry or prophecy may be consciously obscure because a message, so to speak, has come into his mind in a certain form, and he feels this likely to prove the best form—ultimately, when his readers have thought about it.

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Johannine Grammar

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May 4, 2017 at 7:30 am

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