Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Branch Rickey

“The rest of the wedding was a blur…”

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"Wolfe walked gingerly down the aisle..."

Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 42. You can read the previous installments here.

I’ve frequently written here about the theory that you can classify any given writer as either a gardener or an architect. George R.R. Martin, who obviously places himself in the former category, returns to that premise repeatedly in discussing his work, and it’s been picked up by other writers of speculative fiction: when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago a few years back, it came up at nearly every panel I saw. And like most such categorizations, it’s most illuminating when we look at the places where it falls short. A good gardener, for instance, doesn’t just put words down on paper and hope for the best: to keep the process from spiraling out of control, he or she soon develops a set of tactics for managing the resulting pages. If there’s a hidden architecture here, it’s the vernacular kind, which emerges out of the constraints of the landscape, the materials, and the needs of the people who live there. It doesn’t arise from a blueprint, but it depends nonetheless on experience and good tricks. And the self-described gardeners of literature—the published ones, anyway—tend to be exceptionally capable at controlling structure at the level of the sentence or paragraph. If they weren’t, the story wouldn’t get written at all. (Or if you’d prefer to keep the gardening metaphor alive, it’s also a little like the parable of the sower: ideas that fall on rocky soil or among thorns are unlikely to grow, but they yield a hundredfold when sown on good ground. And even if this isn’t architecture, it’s at least a kind of horticulture.)

In a similar way, one of the most counterintuitive aspects of the architectural approach is that all of its careful planning and analysis really exists to enable a handful of moments in which the plan goes away. Making an outline is less about laying down the proper path for the story—which is likely to change in the rewrite anyway—than about keeping on task and maintaining a necessary discipline over many weeks and months. This routine exists both to generate pages and to make sure you’re physically there when an organic, unplanned insight occurs: it’s a kind of precipitate from the solution that the writer has prepared beforehand in the lab. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering time, in which you need to stick yourself behind a desk for a certain number of hours or days before good ideas can emerge. Outlining and writing a logical first draft happens to be a pretty great use of the time between inspirations, and it can be hard to tell whether an idea emerged from the preparatory stage or if the latter was just an excuse to keep working until the former appeared. But it still works, and the fact that useful insights tend to appear only after a stretch of systematic, sometimes tedious effort is the best argument I know for writing like an architect. The idea that you need to prepare obsessively to allow for the unexpected isn’t exactly new: in fact, it’s so familiar that it has inspired some of creativity’s great clichés, from Louis Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind” to Branch Rickey’s “Luck is the residue of design.” But like a lot of clichés, they’re true.

"The rest of the wedding was a blur..."

For the most part, The Icon Thief and its successors were meticulously planned novels: they all called for a lot of research, and their outlines, in some cases, approached the lengths of the finished chapters themselves. But that planning was meaningful mostly to the extent that it enabled about ten minutes of real insight, spread unevenly over the course of three years of work. I don’t know of any better example than that of Maya Asthana. When I started writing City of Exiles, the second book in the series, I was working toward what I thought would be a neat twist: Alan Powell, the hero of the first installment, would turn out to be the mole in his own agency. I wasn’t exactly sure how this would work, but I trusted that I’d be able to figure it out, and I wrote about half the book with that revelation in mind. When it came time to outline the second half, however, I froze up: I just couldn’t see how to do it. Yet I’d already baked the idea of a mole into the story, and I couldn’t bear the thought of discarding those pages. Out of desperation, I cast around for another character who could assume that role. And to my surprise, I found that the only plausible candidate was Asthana, the smart, slightly conceited, but warmhearted agent I’d introduced into the story solely as a sounding board for Rachel Wolfe, my protagonist. But once I recognized Asthana’s potential, I realized that her origins as a purely functional supporting character were a real asset: the reader would be unlikely to see the twist coming—and I think the surprise works—because I hadn’t seen it, either.

And one of the unanticipated dividends of that decision was the wealth of small, almost arbitrary character details that I’d unwittingly bequeathed to myself. Like Wolfe, who was originally a minor character whom I made into a Mormon just to make her a little more distinctive, Asthana had acquired traits and bits of business nearly at random, and now I had a chance to put them to good use. In City of Exiles, for example, I’d established the fact that she was planning her wedding, mostly because it was a thread I could write without much effort—I’d gotten married just a couple of years earlier—and because it seemed consistent with her personality. Once Asthana became the villain of the series, though, and after it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to resolve her story in the second book, it seemed obvious that her wedding day was going to be a major set piece in Eternal Empire. Again, I could have simply ignored the clue that had been planted, but it felt right, like using every part of the buffalo, and I had a hunch that it would be a good scene. And it was. In fact, the sequence that reaches its climax here, in Chapter 41, as Wolfe realizes that Asthana is the mole while standing up as a bridesmaid during the wedding ceremony, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole novel. (A big part of the challenge was figuring out how Wolfe could stumble across the truth at the wedding itself. The solution, which involves a surprise poetry reading and a clue from John Donne, manages to be tidy and contrived at the same time.) It’s a scene that never would have occurred to me if the pieces hadn’t fallen into place almost by accident. And while I’d never call myself a gardener, it was nice to see one idea finally bear fruit…

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2016 at 8:46 am

The sandbox in the Park

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Parks and Recreation

If there’s an overarching critical narrative about Parks and Recreation, which aired its final episode last night, it’s that the show gradually evolved into something great after starting off as a mediocre clone of The Office. That’s true in itself: the jump in quality between the first and second seasons—as Leslie Knope transformed from a clueless bureaucrat to a hypercompetent idealist constantly done in by her own enthusiasm—is one of the most striking in television history. (Its later evolution, from a show about constant frustration into one in which all its characters’ dreams came true, is interesting as well, and probably has something to do with the nature of cringe comedy, which becomes unbearable over time without a larger positive arc to sustain it.) Yet it didn’t happen by accident. If luck, as Branch Rickey said, is the residue of design, it’s important to note how consciously the show’s creators built the possibility of change into the show’s premise. Reading the excellent oral history of the series recently published on Uproxx, I was most taken by the following tidbit, in which Greg Daniels explains how they decided to set the show in Indiana:

We had gone through every state and weighed its stereotype. We ended up with Indiana being it’s a Midwestern state that people don’t hear about much. Didn’t have a lot of stereotypes attached to it, we thought, nationally.

Which, when you think about it, is an extraordinary choice, since it’s the reverse of the approach that most sitcoms would take. When you’re trying to distill a concept into a single sentence for the benefit of viewers or marketing executives, it’s natural to want to choose a location that carries its own train of associations. The second you hear a title like NCIS: New Orleans, you know more or less everything about it. Parks and Rec did the opposite, picking a locale that it could treat as a blank slate or sandbox, to be populated by characters from its own imagination. Pawnee, Indiana is as persuasive a fictional town as anywhere short of Springfield, and this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d set the show in a place we already thought we knew. That kind of deliberate vagueness extended to the premise itself: it began its life as a proposal from the network for an Office spinoff starring Rashida Jones, evolved into a pitch for a mockumentary version of The West Wing, and even briefly considered taking the same approach to a family show, as Modern Family did later. And once they hit on the idea of making a series about local government, it still left them with a wide range of possible tones and stories. As John Ford—who might well be the only filmmaker Ron Swanson would like—said: “A situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.”

Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

I’ve spoken a lot here before about the mystery of television, in which its basic assumptions are constantly being worked out in plain sight, and how little even a show’s creators can understand when they shoot the pilot. There’s a huge temptation to pitch a series with a big, obvious hook, but really, the best shows are initially a little vague about what they’re going to be about. This may be why shows named for locations or environments (The Office, CommunityCheers) often hold more potential than ones named after characters (Two and a Half Men). It’s an approach that only works if the creators assume, correctly or not, that they’ll be given a run of sufficient length to permit them to tease out each element’s potential. Given the merciless realities of television, this may be a form of irrational optimism, but it’s also essential: you’ve got to believe that you’ll run for six seasons and a movie, even if the odds are you won’t. A show that relentlessly focuses on its short game, like Glee, can find itself stranded when it’s given more than a couple of seasons. And while most shows that hope for a long run end up frustrated, when all the pieces come together, as they did here, it can be enormously satisfying. There’s a reason why last night’s finale ranks among the best I’ve ever seen: it’s the culmination of six years of material that the show was allowed to figure out over time.

And if Parks and Recreation stands apart in the amount of affection it managed to generate toward all its characters, it’s because we got to know them as the writers did, rather than being told who they were in a bullet point or two. Jerry and Donna started as background players who were left deliberately undefined, on the assumption that something good would come out of it if everyone waited for long enough. (As Mike Shur says: “Let’s pick these two people and we’ll put them in this office. They seem funny and we’ll get to it later.”) And such developments often arose from solitary moments of inspiration, out of the dozens of throwaway gags in every episode, that happened to ignite something in the writer’s room. Jerry’s role as the hapless office foil emerged from a single joke in the second season, when Mark accidentally informs him that he was adopted; Andy and April’s romance came out of a random pairing in the episode “Hunting Trip.” Like all great ensembles, it was able to experiment with different combinations of characters, and if one of them clicked, it survived, even as the failed drafts—like the attempt to match up Tom and Ann—live on in the reruns. The finale was an extended exercise in wish fulfillment, even for a show that often seemed determined to make its characters as happy as possible. But it was a worthy conclusion to a great sitcom that was made, like a life, one moment at a time.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2015 at 9:40 am

My twenty favorite writing quotes

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It’s hard to believe, but over the past two years, I’ve posted more than six hundred quotes of the day. At first, this was simply supposed to be a way for me to add some new content on a daily basis without going through the trouble of writing a full post, but it ultimately evolved into something rather different. I ran through the obvious quotations fairly quickly, and the hunt for new material has been one of the most rewarding aspects of writing this blog, forcing me to look further afield into disciplines like theater, songwriting, dance, and computer science. Since we’re rapidly approaching this blog’s second anniversary, I thought it might be useful, or at least amusing, to pick out twenty of my own favorites. Some are famous, others less so, but in one way or another they’ve been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I hope they’ll strike up a spark or two in yours:

Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert

An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.

Edgar Degas

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from such things.

T.S. Eliot

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Luck is the residue of design.

Branch Rickey

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.

Lionel Trilling

The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

David MametSome Freaks

Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative: it is soap opera plus.

Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama

You must train day and night in order to make quick decisions.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Kurt Vonnegut, to The Paris Review

The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?

Dennis Lehane, to The Writer Magazine

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

William Blake

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

—Attributed to Leonard Bernstein

If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Stephen King, On Writing

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the f—king game.

Harlan Ellison

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2012 at 8:00 am

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