Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Morrell

“It’s a beautiful property…”

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"At the end of the drive stood the main house..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 7. You can read the previous installments here.

In writing, as in life, the best measure of whether or not you truly understand a rule is knowing when to ignore it. Take, for instance, the general principle that chapters should start as late and end as early as possible. The screenwriter William Goldman notes that you can safely omit the beginnings and endings of most scenes, jumping instead from middle to middle, and I first encountered this rule as it applied to fiction in a book on writing by David Morrell, most famous as the author of First Blood. This works both as an overall narrative strategy and as a tactic for managing information within scenes: it’s frequently best to open on action or dialogue, pulling back only later to describe the location, much as a television show will often return from a commercial break on a closeup, followed shortly thereafter by the establishing shot. It’s a nice rule because it builds momentum, generates tension and suspense, and naturally focuses on the sections of a first draft—when the writer is ramping into and out of the scene in his imagination—that can most profitably be cut. And it’s saved my neck on more than one occasion.

Yet a rule like this can also be dangerous if applied mechanically. It’s no accident that the examples above all come from film and television: a scene in a movie can start in the middle because we’re given a lot of incidental information—visual, auditory, or even emotional, in the form of an intonation or the look on an actor’s face—that grounds us in the situation at once. A short story or novel, by contrast, has to rely on words. Focusing relentlessly on the middle may keep the plot racing along, but sometimes at the cost of those passages of description or exposition that lure the reader into the fictional dream. The writer Colin Wilson likes to cite examples, like the opening of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a slow descriptive passage is used to immerse us in the scene, making the ensuing action all the more vivid. Cutting such material indiscriminately can leave the reader stranded or indifferent. Wilson frames it in terms of forcing the left hemisphere to slow down to the pace of the right, bringing the two halves of the brain to bear down together, but you don’t need to accept his explanation to grant his point. A novel made up of nothing but middles may fly by, but it can also start to seem monotonous and superficial.

"It's a beautiful property..."

Scenes of arrival and departure, in particular, are a mainstay of great fiction, for much the same reason that so many stories are built around initial encounters between two people. When the protagonist arrives in a new place or meets a person for the first time, he or she is really being put in the shoes of the reader: instead of catching up to events that have already happened, we’re experiencing them in real time, side by side with the characters, and it encourages a powerful sense of identification. This is especially true when we’re being introduced to something inherently interesting, which is exactly when the narrative can most afford to slow down. (To return to film for a second, one of my chief complaints with the new Star Trek movies is how little time they spend on the ship itself. Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan both have gorgeous docking scenes that allow us to fully appreciate the scale and beauty of the Enterprise, but when J.J. Abrams tries for the same effect, he’s as impatient here as he is everywhere else, and it’s over in less than a minute. It keeps the story moving, but at the expense of the awe we need to take it seriously.)

In Eternal Empire, which generally clocks along at a fast pace, I tried to remain mindful of the need for such moments. My favorite example comes later, at our extended first approach to Tarkovsky’s megayacht—in which I was thinking of both the Enterprise and the Titanic—but there’s another nice instance in Chapter 7, when Maddy arrives at the oligarch’s estate for the first time. I could have started the scene with her emerging from the car at his front door, or even when she was already inside, but it seemed right to devote a couple of pages to the journey there and what she sees on the way. It’s as good a place as any for a sequence like this, which might otherwise seem too leisurely: Maddy is entering a new world, and I wanted to make it just as meaningful for the reader as it was for her. The entire chapter is structured as a sequence of transitions from large spaces to small, leaving her alone at last in her tiny office, and although the exact geography of the setting isn’t all that relevant to the plot, the emotional purpose it serves is a real one. If I did it in every chapter, the result would quickly become unbearable. But the fact that I cut beginnings and endings so obsessively elsewhere allowed me to break the rule here. Because this is where the story really begins…

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February 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

What makes a good writing rule?

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William Goldman

Over the weekend, my wife attended the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, which was held this year in Washington D.C. Between panels, dinners, and breaks for dim sum and karaoke, she found time for a session on longform journalism moderated by the veteran reporter Tom Huang, currently an editor at the Dallas Morning News and the faculty member overseeing the writing program at The Poynter Institute. At the end of the discussion, Huang shared an assortment of his favorite writing tips, including the following: “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph, and see what happens.” (You can find the full list on his Twitter feed, including another really good one: “Start in the middle of the action, then rewind the clock and show us how we got there.”) When my wife got home, she shared this tidbit with me, and asked, “That’s one of your own writing rules, isn’t it?” I agreed. And after a moment of reflection, I added: “You know, I think that might be my favorite writing rule of all time.”

It’s true. Which made me think, in turn, about what the writing rules I’ve found genuinely useful all have in common. I can start by describing the kind of writing rule I don’t like. We’ve heard them all before: “Show, don’t tell.” “Plot comes from character.” “Write what you know.” Such rules aren’t wrong, exactly, but they’re so general and bland that they’re close to worthless, except as motivational slogans. Most books on writing are so full of such platitudes that it’s a wonder anyone gets anything out of them at all, and whenever I skim through a writing guide to find page after page of advice like this, I get a little depressed. Writing is like getting into shape: it’s easy to say “Eat less, exercise more,” but daily discipline is founded on specifics, whether we figure them out on our own or take them from a trusted source. And in a field where vagueness rules the day—which is especially disheartening in a craft founded on concrete particulars—a rule like “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph” feels like a breath of fresh air. (Or, as David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film, “The invigorating infusion of fresh air that this direct and blunt beat brings into this discussion.”)

David Morrell

So what makes a good writing rule? Based on the above, I’d say that it includes at least three major qualities:

  1. It describes a concrete, almost mechanical action. Cutting the first and last paragraphs of a chapter or scene is about as mechanical as it gets. So is the ten percent rule that Stephen King shares in On Writing: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” A robot could do it, and luckily, we’re more than robots.
  2. It’s easily implemented and easily reversed. Not every rule holds true for every situation, and your best option is often to try it out, read the result, and decide whether or not to keep the change. I’ve taken to automatically cutting the first and last paragraphs of everything I write, even if I don’t think it’ll make a difference, taking comfort in the fact that the physical action itself might show me something new and that undoing it is only a click away.
  3. It’s applicable to a wide range of situations. I first encountered this rule in the work of novelist David Morrell, who wrote First Blood, and he cites the screenwriter William Goldman as his own source. Tom Huang, as mentioned above, is a journalist. A novel, a screenplay, and a newspaper article all pose different challenges, but the fact that we see the same rule invoked in all three forms implies that it’s something uniquely powerful.

In short, my collection of ideal writing rules is something like the daliluw, the traditional lore of the Mande blacksmiths that I mentioned here the other week. As Patrick R. McNaughton writes in his book on the subject, the daliluw are “units of highly focused, very practical information…which themselves are grounded in smaller units, the bits and pieces of organic matter and other materials that derive from ‘the science of the trees.'” Just because these units are small and practical doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely valuable, and after twenty years of working seriously at writing, the good ones I’ve found can be counted on one hand. The proof, as always, is in the finished work: Morrell’s rule helped me crack the structure of The Icon Thief, and I only need to compare drafts to see how much was gained. Such rules won’t save a faulty conception or a story that is fundamentally misconceived, but they’ll often make the difference between a shapeless lump of material and something that other people will actually want to read. Writing is an utterly impractical pursuit on its highest level, which means that writers need to be ruthlessly practical on the smallest scale. And while I’d normally try to end this post with a sentence of expansive conclusion, as it turns out, I’ve already cut it.

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2014 at 9:34 am

A writer’s checklist

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Atul Gawande

Recently, I picked up a copy of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which makes the case that in fields involving many routine but complicated steps—aviation, surgery—error rates can be reduced and efficiency increased by means of a simple checklist. His argument is compelling: as the complexity of a procedure rises, we’re more likely to overlook the things we know by heart, which includes fiction as much as anything else. Since I’m currently working on a difficult rewrite, I thought it might be useful to put together a checklist of the principles I try to follow when revising a story, and particularly in cutting it, ticking off boxes as I looked over each chapter in turn. Here’s the checklist I’ve been using this week:

1. Eliminate redundancies. In a rough draft, you’ll often find that you’ve got two beats in a spot where one will do. This is often because you’ve spent the first pass feeling your way into a story, trying one thing and then another, repeating lines of dialogue or moments of introspection to hit upon just the right combination of words. Usually, one of these efforts will stand out as stronger than the rest. Cutting the vestigial attempts that survived into the current manuscript and keeping just the one essential beat you need to convey the idea will save valuable space, and the result will be more powerful by virtue of being more focused. (For a movie that occasionally keeps three moments when might have been more effective, see The Wolf of Wall Street.)

2. Cut the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. This is the Rambo rule that I’ve discussed here more than once, since I first encountered it in a book on writing by First Blood author David Morrell. In your first draft, you’ll often spend a lot of time ramping into a scene and then easing out of it again, and the middle section is what you want to preserve. Along with being aware of this in theory, I’ve found that it helps to actually cut the first and last paragraphs on the screen, even if you’re pretty sure that you’ll need them. If you decide to preserve them after all, it’s easy to click “Undo,” but sometimes you’ll find—when you see it in black and white—that the result works just fine on its own.

3. Open in medias res. Much of the ramping up I’ve mentioned above consists of setting the scene: if the characters wander into a park or museum, you naturally want to spend a paragraph on their surroundings. This kind of description has its place, but it rarely belongs at the beginning of a chapter, which ought to be concerned with the who rather than the where. On television, you’ll often see a device in which the first image after the commercial break is of a closeup of a character, pulling back only later to an establishing shot, and it’s a trick worth imitating. Open on dialogue and action, and once the scene is moving, you can insert some descriptive or transitional material to indicate where we are and how we got here.

Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

4. Overlap elements of the narrative. My favorite example here is Exley’s wristwatch in the film version of L.A. Confidential, which cleverly combines three small character beats into a single scene by starting each one slightly before the previous one has finished. This has the effect of stitching together the components more tightly, and it also saves time. Most chapters in a novel can be reduced to a list of moments that occur in succession, and it’s helpful to look for places where the action can be compressed by placing the start of one moment slightly before the end of the one before.

5. Cut all transitional material. Like Kurosawa, I’m well aware that many books and movies spend all too much time getting characters into and out of rooms, walking from place to place, and generally moving from one location in the story to the next. Even with that knowledge, though, I find that my first drafts still include countless paragraphs about characters in elevators, cars, and doorways. Nearly all of this can be cut, and even if there’s material here that you want to preserve, you’ll find that it often sits more comfortably in the heart of the scene itself, once the characters have arrived at wherever it is they’re going.

6. Parcel out information. In his useful book The Eye is Quicker, which provided my quote of the day, the film editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman points out that information in a movie can be delivered in three different ways: to the audience first, to the character first, or to the audience and character simultaneously. The first is good for suspense, the second for anticipation, the last for surprise, and each one has its merits. Novels, too, spend a lot of time delivering information to the reader, and it’s worth reviewing the units of each scene—plot points, character moments—to see if they can be delayed or telegraphed.

7. Look for asymmetry. When you’re writing a scene for the first time, it’s easy to be seduced by symmetrical structures: it’s nice to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and that little tripod can be invaluable when it comes to roughing out the events. From the reader’s perspective, however, it’s sometimes best to upset the balance: an individual scene can be mostly buildup, mostly climax, or mostly denouement, and that variation in rhythm lends interest to the narrative as a whole. If a chapter reads too neatly in itself, it won’t mesh well with its neighbors, so it helps to look for cuts that nudge it in one direction or the other.

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

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.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

“Louis Barlow, the assistant special agent in charge…”

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(Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Nearly every filmmaker can tell you stories about a great performance that was cut, for various reasons, from the final version of a movie. William Goldman gives a nice account in Which Lie Did I Tell? of Linda Hunt’s lost supporting turn in Maverick; the editor Ralph Rosenblum has a heartbreaking anecdote in When The Shooting Stops about actor Monroe Arnold, whose brilliant performance was cut entirely from Goodbye Columbus; and you can hear similar stories from half the cast of The Thin Red Line. (The A.V. Club has an nice list of other examples.) And if this happens frequently in movies, it’s even more common in novels, where it’s much easier to cut, condense, or even scrap characters entirely. A handful of writers have spoken about this, and at least one—Stephen King in the uncut edition of The Stand—has even restored a missing character. But I’d guess that nearly every novel of any length probably includes characters whose original roles were considerably more extensive than what eventually ended up in print.

In The Icon Thief, the greatest casualty was the character of Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge. Barlow originated as a convenient foil for Powell, my British investigator, and when I conceived the character, I didn’t have much more in mind than a cross between Landsman from The Wire and Alec Baldwin in The Departed. In writing the first draft, however, I got to like Barlow a lot—he was an amusing character, outwardly crude but much smarter than he seemed, who injected some welcome humor into an essentially serious novel. Unfortunately, a lot of it didn’t survive. As I’ve mentioned before, when I restructured the novel, I was forced to condense much of Powell’s material, and the real casualty here was Barlow—in the original draft, he first appears in a big scene in the fifth chapter, and in the final version, he doesn’t show up until we’re past the first hundred pages. As a result, he’s the one character in this book whose image, in my own mind, is much different than what the reader sees.

Chapter 15 is my attempt to salvage as much of Barlow’s material from the first draft as I could, while also conveying a lot of essential information as efficiently as possible. The result is almost comically condensed. Over the course of a single chapter, Powell needs to hear about a mysterious language on a wiretap; convince Barlow to give him an audio sample; bring in a graduate student to translate, and get him security clearance; explain to Wolfe how he figured out that the language was Assyrian, and how bringing in the translator has given him a source inside the wire team; and use the resulting translation to determine that the men under surveillance are planning to attend a party in Southampton. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters and given additional background material on several more. This is a lot of material, and it’s all essentially designed to get us to a single plot point: Powell and Wolfe are going to stake out the house in the Hamptons. And I’ve only got five pages to cover it.

The challenge was to get through all this material in a way that was light on its feet without feeling overly rushed, and I think it sort of works, although I had to use a lot of tricks to get there. For instance, there were originally two agents listening to the wire, but I combined them into one character to save room—a nice novelistic illustration of Occam’s Razor, which says that you never want more moving parts than you need. I made good use of First Blood author David Morrell’s tip to cut the first and last paragraphs of a scene that isn’t working, which gets me into and out of the heart of the chapter without any delay. And the result, I think, is a nice example of an expository chapter that reads well in its own right—and I doubt I would have zipped through this information quite as efficiently if I hadn’t been forced to do so by structural constraints. When you have ten pages worth of material to convey in half the space, you find ways of doing it in less time. And that’s the moral here: I miss Barlow and the scenes that he lost, but in the end, I didn’t really need him.

“Outside, the bathhouse was clean and bright…”

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(Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

By now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t like backstory. This isn’t a philosophical objection, but a practical one: I’ve found that there’s a certain category of characters, in both fiction and film, who are simply more effective the less you know about their background. This is emphatically true of Forsyth’s Jackal, for instance, and it used to be true of Hannibal Lecter before Thomas Harris decided to destroy him in his last two novels. And it’s true of my own Ilya Severin, who resembles Lecter and the Jackal only in that he’s a character who works best when the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks. Of course, you can’t do without some backstory—but a little goes a long way. Chapter 13, in which we learn a bit about Ilya’s background, the death of his parents, and his relationship with his mentor Vasylenko, is a crucial chapter, then, and not just for The Icon Thief: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the conflicts I establish here won’t be fully resolved for another two novels.

This chapter also receives particular emphasis from its place in the novel’s structure. Until now, the novel has alternated chapters between Maddy, my lead character, and the secondary protagonists, a structural device that I imposed late in the game in order to give more emphasis to Maddy’s story. Chapter 13 is the first time I break this pattern—normally the reader would expect a Maddy chapter here—and although I didn’t plan it deliberately, I think this works to subconsciously underline the scene’s importance. A novel’s structure can convey messages below the reader’s normal level of awareness, and here, it tells us to pay attention: Maddy’s narrative isn’t the only one we need to be following. (Needless to say, I was only able to violate the established pattern because Maddy had already been established as the novel’s primary character and had been given some interesting objectives. If I’d disrupted the structure earlier in the book, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)

Not surprisingly, this was a hard chapter to write. I haven’t really kept track, but I have a feeling this may be the most frequently reworked chapter in the entire novel, at least when it came to the many small structural changes that were required to fit it smoothly into the surrounding narrative. Earlier versions tended to bring the novel’s momentum to a temporary halt, so I did what I could to minimize the interruption, cutting the chapter as much as possible and lopping off most of the first page, as First Blood author David Morrell helpfully recommends. I also rearranged the material a bit: the original draft opened with several paragraphs of description of the banya, or bathhouse, where the action takes place, before launching into the scene itself. By opening with a line of dialogue instead and saving the full description for later—the novelistic equivalent of starting with a closeup before cutting to a wide shot—the first page reads much more smoothly. It’s a tiny fix, but so effective that I often do the same thing now whenever I need to introduce a new location.

If I indulge myself a little more than usual in setting the stage here, it’s because this chapter is based on one of my more memorable excursions as a writer, when I spent a day at a Russian bathhouse in Sheepshead Bay. I’m part Finnish, so I’ve always been fond of saunas, but outside of certain memorable movies, I didn’t know much about the Russian version. The resulting field trip gave me more material than I could possibly use, but many of the details in the ensuing chapter—like the birch leaves floating on the surface of the pool after someone dives in after flogging himself with the venik—come directly from that excursion. And my day at the bathhouse was a reminder of why I’d wanted to become a novelist in the first place: it’s a license to explore parts of the world that I otherwise never would have seen, even in my own back yard. Later expeditions would take me to London, Brussels, and beyond, but in some ways, this is the one I remember most fondly…and it only took half an hour on the N train.

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August 8, 2012 at 10:02 am

How Rambo saved my novel

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Earlier this year, as I was pushing forward on the final draft of The Picasso Imbroglio—er, I mean, Kamera—I hit a wall. The first third of the novel had always been a challenge: it has a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts, and as I read it over again, I found that there was a stretch of six or seven chapters where the book kept losing momentum. The material was there, the writing was decent, but the pacing wasn’t quite right. And I might never have solved the problem if it hadn’t been for David Morrell, author of First Blood and creator of John Rambo.

Morrell, as one might expect, is a pretty interesting character. He’s the author of twenty-eight novels, a former English professor at the University of Iowa, and one of the world’s leading experts on the postmodern novelist John Barth. As his website notes, “He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and car fighting, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels.” So it’s safe to say that his author biography is much cooler than mine.

He’s also the author of Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, which is the book that saved my neck earlier this year. It’s full of good stories, especially the one about how Morrell nearly forgot to get profit participation in First Blood’s sequels or merchandising, since in the original novel—spoiler alert!—Rambo dies at the end. (Given how things turned out, he’s probably glad he held on to the rights.) And the book also contains a lot of useful advice, including one rule so powerful that it instantly joins the pantheon of great writer’s tricks:

Unless you’re writing a novel whose manner is intentionally that of a nineteenth-century novel, your work will often benefit by cutting the beginning and the end of the [action] in each scene. Start with dialogue. Start with activity. Conclude with something strong….Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

Italics are mine, for obvious reasons, because I tried Morrell’s trick on the uncooperative chapters of my own novel, and by God, he was right! I found that I tended to close each chapter with a tidy concluding paragraph, as if I were tying a bow on the scene. In most cases, though, it’s far better just to move on, even before the main action is over. The reader will fill in the rest. And simply by cutting the first and last paragraphs of a few chapters, along with a bit of rewriting, I was able to solve my pacing problems so easily that it seemed almost like magic.

(Note that Morrell credits this advice, in turn, to the great William Goldman, author of Adventures in the Screen Trade, who evidently suggests that “the key to constructing a series of scenes is to omit their beginnings and ends and jump from middle to middle.” I’m a huge Goldman fan, and I own and love Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I haven’t been able to track down this specific reference. If anyone out there can point me in the right direction, I’d be very grateful.)

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