Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Hamburger

The minimum effective dose for writers

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Timothy Ferriss

Writers, for the most part, work very hard at what they do, but there are times when you just want to fix a story without a lot of trouble. Let’s say you’ve written something that has the core of a good idea and some interesting scenes, but it still lies dead on the page, and rather than try a full rewrite, you’d like to make a handful of focused, straightforward changes that will help it get past an editor’s desk. What you’re looking for, basically, is the minimum effective dose, as memorably articulated by the self-help guru Tim Ferriss, who rightly annoys a lot of people, but who displays a sort of genius for marketing such solutions to certain kinds of Type A personalities. (I admit that I’ve bought a couple of his books.) For writers, the minimum effective dose for a story usually means cutting it, both because cutting is a good thing, and because paring a story down to its workable core is easier, and often more productive, than adding new material. And what I’ve found from my own experience is that a story that took months to research and write can be improved dramatically over the course of a weekend by following a few simple rules:

1. Cut at least ten percent. Yes, I’ve spoken about this many times before, but only because it’s the single most useful piece of writing advice I know. There’s rarely a story that couldn’t be improved with some judicious cutting, and the ten percent rule offers a useful target, although the magic number is often even higher. My novelette “The Boneless One,” which was turned down by every magazine that saw it before going on to a fair amount of success, would never have seen print if I hadn’t cut it down substantially, and that goes double for my novels. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that originally included close to a quarter of a million words of material, and after multiple revisions, it’s now more like 95,000 words long, and I miss surprisingly little of what I’ve excised. Usually, it takes some time away from a project—let’s say four weeks or so—before you have the detachment you need to cut it down properly, but with practice, you can will yourself into the necessary state of objectivity after taking a day or two to cool down. Stephen King, who could probably stand to cut more these days, says of learning this rule: “Good things started to happen for me shortly thereafter.” And they can happen for you, too.

A page from my rough draft

2. Trim anything that seems longer than average. Here “anything” can refer to a chapter, a scene, or even a single paragraph. Every story consists of a certain number of units distributed around some average length, and in general, the ones that exceed the mean are the ones you should target first. This isn’t an absolute rule, of course: some scenes are longer than others for a reason. But it never hurts to go through a story, page by page, to see if any segment stands out as unusually wordy. You can take a visual approach by flipping through the manuscript with an eye peeled for overlong paragraphs or passages of description, or, if you’re really obsessive about it, you can work out exactly how many words your average chapter runs and focus on pruning the outliers. This is the method I’ve called writing by numbers, and which Aaron Hamburger recommended recently in the New York Times. If it sounds mechanical, it is—but it’s surprising how often a mechanical approach results in a smoother draft, or at least one that allows the reader to fall into the rhythm of the story without being distracted by bumps along the way. Later, if you must, you can restore the bumps you like best, which give a story its texture and variety. But until you’ve made the cuts first, you’ll never know if you’ll miss them.

3. Throw out beginnings and endings. I’ve spoken before about how useful it can be to cut the first and last paragraphs of scenes that aren’t working, or, even better, to jump from middle to middle in the first place. Most scenes start with a few lines that the author writes to ease himself into the day’s work, and these can almost always be cut with profit. At this point, I’ve started cutting the first and last paragraphs of each chapter as a matter of course, just to see how it looks, in full knowledge that I can always put them back later. And it doesn’t just work with individual scenes. Storytellers from Frank Capra to David Mamet have spoken about the importance of burning the first reel, and it’s surprising how often a story can be improved by throwing out what seemed like an indispensable opening page. As long as you’re good about saving your drafts, there’s no harm in trying it. Similarly, with endings, you usually want to get out fast, which means you need to cut more brutally here than anywhere else. To my eye, as published, the last two chapters of City of Exiles run a little long, and although they seemed fine at the time, I’ve since learned to cut my closing scenes to the point of discomfort, knowing I’ll be glad I did a year from now. And since there’s no point in prolonging a post about cutting, I may as well end this one here.

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

The seductions of structure

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Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Learning about a writer’s outlining methods may not be as interesting as reading about his or her sex life, but it exercises a peculiar fascination of its own—at least for other writers. Everyone else probably feels a little like I did while reading Shawn McGrath’s recent appreciation of the beautiful source code behind Doom 3: I understood what he was getting at, but the article itself read like a dispatch from a parallel universe of lexical analyzers and rigid parameters. Still, the rules of good structure are surprisingly constant across disciplines. You don’t want more parts than you need; the parts you do have should be arranged in a logical form; and endless tinkering is usually required before the result has the necessary balance and beauty. And for the most part, the underlying work ought to remain invisible. The structure of a good piece of fiction is something like the structure of a comfortable chair. You don’t necessarily want to think about it while you’re in it, but if the structure has been properly conceived, your brain, or your rear end, will thank you.

In recent weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to read two enjoyable pieces of structure porn. The first is John McPhee’s New Yorker essay on the structure of narrative nonfiction; the second is Aaron Hamburger’s piece in the New York Times on outlining in reverse. McPhee’s article goes into his methods in great, sometimes laborious detail, and there’s something delightful in hearing him sing the praises of his outlining and text editing software. His tools may be computerized, but they only allow him to streamline what he’d always done with a typewriter and scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size…One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood.

Regular readers will know that this is the kind of thing I love. Accounts of how a book is written tend to dwell on personal gossip or poetic inspiration, and while such stories can be inspiring or encouraging, as a working writer, I’d much rather hear more about those slivers of paper.

Scene cards on the author's desk

And the reason I love them so much is that they get close to the heart of writing as a profession, which has surprising affinities with more technical or mechanical trades. Writing a novel, in particular, hinges partially on a few eureka moments, but it also presents daunting organizational and logistical challenges. A huge amount of material needs to be kept under control, and a writer’s brain just isn’t large or flexible enough to handle it all at once. Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas, and for most of us, it boils down to taking good notes, which I’ve compared elsewhere to messages that I’ve left, a la Memento, for my future self to rediscover. By putting our thoughts on paper—or, like McPhee does, in a computerized database—we make them easier to sort and retrieve. It looks like little more than bookkeeping, but it liberates us. McPhee says it better than I ever could: “If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse…The procedure eliminated all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.”

This kind of organization can also take place closer to the end of the project, as Hamburger notes in his Times piece. Hamburger says that he dislikes using outlines to plan a writing project, and prefers to work more organically, but also observes that it can be useful to view the resulting material with a more objective, even mathematical eye. What he describes is similar to what I’ve called writing by numbers: you break the story down to individual scenes, count the pages or paragraphs, and see how each piece fits in with the shape of the story as a whole. Such an analysis often reveals hidden weaknesses or asymmetries, and the solution can often be as simple as the ten percent rule:

In [some] stories, I found that most of the scenes were roughly equal in length, and so cutting became as easy as an across-the-board budget cut. I dared myself to try to cut ten percent from each scene, and then assessed what was left. Happily, I didn’t always achieve my goal—because let’s face it, writing is not math and never should be. Yet what I learned about my story along the way proved invaluable.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, with one caveat: I believe that writing often is math, although not exclusively, and only as a necessary prop for emotion and intuition. Getting good ideas, as every writer knows, is the easy part. It’s the structure that makes them dance.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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