Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dean Koontz

Talking with Barry Malzberg

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In the course of researching my book Astounding, I got to know the author Barry N. Malzberg, who by any estimation has had one of the most singular careers in all of science fiction. Over the course of three sessions in July 2019, I interviewed Barry about his life and work in a conversation that ended up lasting close to two hours, which I’ve finally put online. We spoke about his influences and early career; his time at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency; the rise and fall of the softcore erotica market; his friendships with Dean Koontz and Bill Pronzini; his brief stint as editor of Amazing Stories magazine; his encounter with the editor John W. Campbell; and the origins, legacy, and “bad karma” of his novel Beyond Apollo. I think there’s some good stuff there, so enjoy! (If you get the chance, you might also want to check out my recent interview with the science fiction podcaster Mikel J. Wisler, in which we discuss a similarly broad range of topics, including my New York Times review of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.)

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 3

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Art by Kurt Huggins for "Stonebrood"

Note: This is the last of three posts in which I discuss how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online. Be warned that a few spoilers follow.

When I began doing research for “Stonebrood,” one of the first articles I read was a vivid piece in Discover by the journalist Kristin Ohlson. It’s primarily about the Ruth Mullins fire, a coal seam blaze that has been quietly burning for nearly a decade in Hazard, Kentucky, and it follows geologists Jennifer O’Keefe and James Hower as they investigate the area, a barren landscape with toxic white smoke billowing up from vents in the earth. It closes with a warning:

[Hower] notes that the Ruth Mullins fire is migrating slowly toward nearby Highway 80. If a coal seam fire burns through the road, asphalt could crack open and sink, swallowing people and cars and unleashing a hellish scenario that might finally make people pay attention to what is going on beneath their feet.

As a reader, I found the thought chilling, but as a writer, I could only say: “Thank you.” One of the most challenging aspects of writing hard science fiction is finding compelling ways of staging the ideas that drew you to a subject in the first place, and a highway collapse—which occurs on the first page of the novelette—seemed like as dramatic an opening scene as any I could imagine.

And in many ways, it’s that initial sequence—which plays much the same role as a cold open does on an episode of television—that makes the rest of the story possible. Reading over “Stonebrood” again, I think it’s a strong piece of work, but its action is almost entirely internalized, and it unfolds in a more subtle fashion than most of my other stories, leaving it up to the reader to connect most of the thematic dots. (In its tone and pacing, not to mention in the nuts and bolts of the action, it has a lot in common with “The Whale God,” another story about a protagonist dealing with unsettling hallucinations while trying to get a practical job done.) The opening buys me a lot of capital with the reader: it’s a self-contained, exciting set piece that clearly establishes the stakes of what Marius and his team are trying to prevent, and it provides a burst of adrenaline that carries us through the remainder of the first section, which is really nothing more than three men standing around a borehole. Most of my stories save their first big plot development or action scene for around a third of the way through, and it takes a great deal of effort to sustain the reader’s attention through the material required to get us to that pivotal moment. Placing the most compelling sequence right at the beginning lends some necessary momentum to a story that might otherwise seem a bit too introspective or subdued.

The October 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

That said, there’s a risk involved in leading off with your most memorable scene, which is that the rest of the story will seem anticlimactic by comparison. Henning Nelms, the legendary magician, mystery novelist, and jack-of-all-trades, puts it best in a discussion of how to structure a magic act:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

A story like “Stonebrood” is a kind of magic act in itself—it creates a mystery and then produces a solution with a flourish—and I knew that I had to be careful about paying off the expectations that the first scene raised. I did this, in part, by keeping the memory of the incident alive in the protagonist’s mind, and by making certain choices that tied otherwise unrelated story points back to the opening. In a flashback, we see how Marius, as a teenager, uses carbon monoxide to kill the gangster who had murdered his uncle. He could have simply shot the guy, but the image of that smoldering charcoal, which also ties into the smoker that his grandmother uses to calm her bees, reminds us of how the eight people died in the sinkhole. And it’s that kind of connection, as artificial as it might be, that allows the story to read like a unified sequence of ideas, rather than a succession of loosely related events.

Once I’d finished the research and come up with the general outlines of the plot, it soon became clear that writing “Stonebrood” was largely a matter of not screwing up the material I’d uncovered. I had a gripping opening; a memorable location, in the form of the blasted landscape above the coal seam fire and, in particular, the ruins of the abandoned ghost town nearby, a type of location that has been memorably used before by such works as Silent Hill and Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways; and a lot of evocative secondary material from the Lithuanian lore of bees. (The plot itself, in which Marius is haunted by memories of his grandmother and the sinister gangster Garastas, harks back to The Icon Thief and its sequels, and if I made use of it again here, it’s mostly because I had it readily available.) I’m happy with the result, and I’d rank it in the top half of all the novelettes I’ve published. It’s a type of story I’ve written before and will probably write again, and its interest, as usual, lies mostly in the details of the setting and the specifics of the twist. What I like most about it, though, is the tone, which seems to have been acquired, as if by contagion, from the moodiness of the setting: like the landscape in which it takes place, it’s brooding, mostly quiet, but with forces beneath the surface that always seem on the verge of erupting. I think it sustains that tone nicely, and it’s the opening cataclysm that allows the rest of it to work.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2015 at 9:01 am

The novel with a key

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The Royal We

As I write this post, my wife is about fifty pages away from finishing The Royal We, a novel that she devoured over the course of the last few days like a bottomless bag of popcorn. I’ve only glanced at the book, but I’ve been impressed by what little of it I’ve seen, starting with the title, which is the kind of clever play on words—while also telling you exactly what the story is about—that could sell a hundred thousand copies in itself. It’s about a college student who meets, falls in love with, and finally marries the Prince of Wales, and if the plot sounds a touch familiar, that’s precisely the point. The Royal We isn’t exactly about Kate Middleton: its protagonist is American, for one thing, and the story diverges from the facts of the most famous public courtship in recent memory in small but meaningful ways. But like Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, another book my wife loved, it’s a novel that all but begs us to fill in the blanks. And although it’s clearly written with taste and skill, it’s also a marketer’s dream. At a time when publishers are struggling to create new brands, the equivalent of high-class celebrity fanfic is as good a way as any to catch a reader’s eye. (Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be especially high class: an erotic fan novel about Harry Stiles of One Direction is being made into a movie as we speak.)

But what sets such recent books apart from prior efforts in the same line is how cheerfully they disclose their sources of inspiration. The roman à clef is as old, in one form or another, as the novel itself, but it really came into its own with the works of writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann—”The giants,” as Spock calls them in The Voyage Home—whose novels were explicitly designed to encourage readers to put famous faces to lightly fictionalized names. As Dean Koontz said years ago in Writing Popular Fiction:

[A roman à clef is] a story in which all the characters seem to be allusions to real people—preferably quite famous people—and to real events the reader may have read of in newspapers and magazines; this establishes a celebrity guessing game among readers and reviewers that strengthens the illusion that you are telling of genuine events and, not incidentally, increases the book’s sales…In actuality, the [novel] bears only passing resemblance to the real lives of the personalities mentioned, but the reader likes to feel that he is getting the whole, ugly story firsthand.

American Wife

And it’s worth noting how hard the novel, like a con artist “accidentally” displaying a briefcase full of cash to a mark, has to work to give the reader a winking nudge about how it should be read, while superficially acting as if it’s trying to keep a secret. The book needs to insist that names have been changed to protect the innocent, even as it makes its reference points obvious, and it demands a tricky balance. Too obscure, and we won’t make the connection at all; too transparent, and we’ll reject it as fantasy. (I’ll leave aside the example of Irving Wallace, one of Robbins and Susann’s contemporaries, who wasn’t above explicitly stating his sources in the text. In The Plot, a scandal involving a character clearly based on Christine Keeler is described as “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair,” while in The Fan Club, a pulpy novel about the kidnapping of a famous movie star, a character comes right out and says: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.”) The Royal We and American Wife, although less coy, pull off much the same feat by selectively altering a few recognizable elements, as if industriously disguising their source material while implicitly keeping the spirit unchanged.

The result, if done correctly, offers an easy form of subtext, making the novel somewhat more interesting in ways that have little to do with craft. It’s a temptation to which I haven’t been entirely immune: City of Exiles includes a character so manifestly based on Garry Kasparov that I seriously considered just putting him in the story outright, as Frederick Forsyth did with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Simon Wiesenthal. (If I chickened out in the end, it was mostly because I felt queasy about making the real Kasparov the target of an assassination attempt.) And it’s such a powerful trick that it gives pause to some novelists. In the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that if he’d given us, say, Howard Hunt under an assumed name, the reader would think: “This is obviously Howard Hunt. Now I’ll get to see what made him tick.” By giving us Hunt without a mask, the reader is free to say: “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And that might even be the most honorable approach, even if it isn’t likely to thrill publishers, or their lawyers.

The old pornographers

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Spaceways by John Cleve

“Dad typed swiftly and with great passion,” Chris Offutt writes in “My Dad, the Pornographer,” his compelling essay from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine. “In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books. Two were science fiction and twenty-four were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using seventeen pseudonyms.” Offutt’s reflections on his father, who wrote predominantly under the name John Cleve, make for a gripping read, and he doesn’t shy away from some of the story’s darker elements. Yet he touches only briefly on a fascinating chapter in the history of American popular fiction. Cleve plunged into the world of paperback pornography and never left, but other writers in the middle third of the last century used it as a kind of paid apprenticeship, cranking out an anonymous novel a month, learning a few useful tricks, and moving on once they had established a name for themselves in other genres. And they included Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Anne Rice, as well as undoubtedly many more who haven’t acknowledged their work in public.

These cheap little novels were the product of a unique cultural moment, spanning the forty years between the introduction of the paperback after World War II and the widespread availability of videocassettes in the early eighties, and we aren’t likely to see their like again—although the proliferation of erotic short stories for the Kindle and other formats points to a possible resurgence. And although in a few cases, like that of Marion Zimmer Bradley, those detours into erotica cast a troubling light on other aspects of the writer’s life, for many authors, it was just another job, in the way a contemporary novelist might dabble in corporate or technical writing. Block—whose first published book was a “lesbian novel,” mostly because he knew it was something he could sell—wrote erotic paperbacks at the rate of twelve or more a year, spending exactly two weeks on each one, including a weekend off. He says:

There was one time I well remember when, checking the pages at the end of the day’s work, I discovered that I’d written pages 31 through 45 but had somehow jumped in my page numbering from 38 to 40. Rather than renumber the pages, I simply sat down and wrote page 39 to fit. Since page 38 ended in the middle of a sentence, a sentence which then resumed on page 40, it took a little fancy footwork to slide page 39 in there, but the brash self-confidence of youth was evidently up to the challenge.

The Crusader by John Cleve

To be fair, it’s tempting to romanticize the life of a hack pornographer, as much as it is for any kind of pulp fiction: most of these novels are terrible, and even for writers with talent, the danger of creative burnout or cynicism was a real one. (Westlake describes this at length in his very funny novel Adios Scheherazade, a thinly veiled account of his own days in the smut mines.) But it’s hard not to feel at least a little nostalgic for a time when it was possible for writers to literally prostitute their talent, while hopefully emerging with some valuable experience. In Writing Popular Fiction, which dates from around the same period, Koontz outlines a few of the potential benefits:

For one thing, since virtually all Rough Sexy Novels are published under pen names, you can learn to polish your writing while getting paid for the pleasure, and have no fear of damaging your creative reputation. Also, because [erotica] puts absolutely no restrictions on the writer besides the requirement of regular sex scenes, one after the other, you can experiment with style, try stream of consciousness, present tense narrative, and other stylistic tricks, to learn if you can make them work.

Pornography and literary modernism have always had a curiously intimate relationship: Grove Press, which published Cleve’s most successful titles, was both a landmark defender of free speech in fiction—it released the first American editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—and a prolific producer of paperback smut. Erotica, both in written form and elsewhere, has often been used to sneak in subversive material that would be rejected outright in more conventional works. For evidence, we need look no further than the career of Russ Meyer, or even of Robert Anton Wilson, who tells the following story about The Book of the Breast:

This book, frankly, got written originally because an editor at Playboy Press asked me if I could write a whole book on the female breast. “Sure,” I said at once. I would have said the same if he had asked me if I could write a book on the bull elephant’s toenails. I was broke that month and would have tried to write anything, if somebody would pay me for it. When I got the contract and the first half of the advance money, I sat down and asked myself what the hell I would put in the damned book.

Wilson eventually ended up structuring the book around an introduction to Taoist philosophy, “to keep myself amused, and thereby speed the writing so I could get the second half of the advance quickly.” Regardless of how we feel about the result, that’s a sentiment that all working writers can cheer. These days, a novelist in need of a paycheck is more likely to go into public relations. But I don’t know if that makes us any better off.

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

“Powell stared silently through the glass…”

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"Powell stared silently through the glass..."

(Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For a certain kind of novelist, there’s an enormous temptation to base one’s characters on recognizable people, and many stories gain nearly all of their interest from the perception that they’re thinly veiled depictions of real public figures. As Dean Koontz points out in his dated but valuable book Writing Popular Fiction, works by the likes of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann are compelling largely because we think we can guess who these rich, glamorous, oversexed characters are supposed to be, and we’re more likely to take the author’s portrait at face value precisely because the names have been changed: the novel implicitly promises to tell it like it is, without fear of libel, at least for readers who are clever enough to fit names to faces. Irving Wallace went even further, spelling out his sources in the text itself—and often on the back cover copy. As I’ve mentioned before, in a novel like The Plot, Wallace isn’t simply content to create a character based on Christine Keeler, but blandly tells us that her scandal was “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair.”

While this can be an effective fictional device, a lot of novelists resist it, and for good reason. Norman Mailer, in his afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, explains that his decision to incorporate real people into the narrative using their proper names arose from a desire to avoid this kind of phony authenticity:

It was obvious, therefore, that one would have to give Jack Kennedy his honest name…One could only strip him of his fictional magic by putting a false name on him; then the reader’s perception becomes no more than, “Oh, yes, President Fennerly is Jack Kennedy—now I will get to learn what made Jack Kennedy tick.”

As a result, Mailer uses the actual names of important characters like Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, and Bill Harvey, knowing that the reader will naturally be more critical of how these men are portrayed, thinking, “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And it’s also likely that Mailer, in writing in what amounts to an epic spy novel, was encouraged by the conventions of suspense fiction, in which real names are often used to give the action an air of verisimilitude. Frederick Forsyth, for example, populates his books with such historical figures as Kim Philby and Simon Wiesenthal, many of whom were still alive when these novels were written, allowing him to blur the line between fiction and reportage—which is a large part of his work’s appeal.

"Archvadze, his arms folded across his chest..."

In The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’m operating in a similar mode, and I’ve occasionally run into the problem of whether or not to use the real names of living people. (I’m much less concerned about historical figures, whom I tend to name freely, even as I indulge in other forms of speculation or invention.) President Putin never appears directly in these books, but he’s frequently mentioned, and I decided long ago that it would be absurd to refer to him by any other name. I thought seriously about placing a real energy company at the center of the plot of City of Exiles, but I finally chickened out, reasoning that a fictional version would give me more narrative freedom in later installments. And for a long time, I considered making Garry Kasparov a major figure in the second novel. In the end, I didn’t, although there isn’t much doubt about which legendary chess grandmaster Victor Chigorin is supposed to represent. I changed the name partly to give me more flexibility in constructing the story, and also because I felt uncomfortable subjecting Kasparov to what ultimately happens to Chigorin, which isn’t pretty.

Besides, it’s usually more interesting when characters diverge from their original inspirations. I’ve mentioned before that Maddy and Ethan were loosely based on the real art world couple of Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, although I doubt that many people would have made the connection. In Chapter 49, however, when we finally learn what happened to Anzor Archvadze—who has been missing in action for much of the novel’s second half—I imagine that more than a few readers were immediately reminded of Alexander Litvinenko. The two cases are very different, of course: Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning, while Archvadze is dying of toxic epidermal necrolysis, which bears a greater resemblance to another mysterious death in Russia. Still, I hope that readers do think of Litvinenko, not so much in order to capitalize on the parallels to a real event than out of a desire to remind them of how much like a novel the truth can be. Litvinenko’s death was often compared to something out of a spy thriller, but it was horribly real. And as farfetched as Archvadze’s fate might seem, reality is far stranger…

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

Learning from the masters: Stephen King and The Shining

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Room 237

Last week, in my post on the mirror scare, I noted that most of the conventions we see in horror movies don’t really work on the printed page: a book can’t startle us, or throw a cat at us, or use a scare chord to make us jump in our seats. When a commenter asked if I could think of any tropes that could be utilized by authors of horror fiction, I replied that they could all be found in a short scene of four pages or so in The Shining, when little Danny Torrance enters Room 217 for the first time. (It was changed to Room 237 in Kubrick’s movie, apparently at the request of the hotel where it was shot.) Looking back, this strikes me as worthy of a blog post in its own, so if you haven’t read the novel, you can at least check out the scene in question here. I’d recommend only reading it in a brightly lit room, where no one is likely to sneak up behind you. When you’re done, read it again. And if you’re at all interested in writing literary horror—which is only a highly refined and intensified version of suspense itself—I can’t imagine a more useful exercise than taking this scene apart to see how it works, once most of the gooseflesh has subsided.

Let’s consider the sequence beat by beat. The most striking thing about the chapter is how beautifully it builds. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about the importance of cutting the beginnings and endings of scenes, and how directors like Kurosawa will intentionally omit purely transitional moments, such as shots of a character opening or closing a door. The one place where this rule can be ignored, and where it truly begs to be broken, is when there’s a monster waiting in the next room. As I’ve said before, the scariest image in the world is that of a closed door, once you’ve established what might be lurking behind it, which is why King spends so much time getting Danny into the room itself. Once he’s inside, the narrative continues to unfold slowly, with lots of homely little details, like the closet with its “clutch of hotel hangers, the kind you can’t steal,” as Danny moves inexorably toward the bathroom—and the tub. And once we have time to collect ourselves, we find that we’ve been given a perfect illustration of Orson Scott Card’s distinction between dread, terror, and horror. In the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dean Koontz says much the same thing:

Does King start the scene with Danny in the room? No way. The scene begins with Danny outside 217, the passkey in his pocket, and he takes more than two hair-raisingly tense pages just to open the door and step inside. Anticipation. King makes us sweat. But when Danny finds the dead woman in the bathtub, and when she opens her eyes and reaches for him, the rest of the scene moves like a bullet and climaxes one page later. We are given more time to dread the encounter than to experience it.

Saul Bass artwork for The Shining

This is all perfectly true, although I should also point out that, contrary to what Koontz says, the dead woman doesn’t open her eyes at all. Her eyes are already open when Danny slides the shower curtain back, as described almost as an aside within a longer paragraph—”Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles”—which makes the image even more horrible. She’s been waiting for Danny for a long time. And that’s the kind of touch that makes King the best author the genre has ever seen. The rest of the chapter is a terrifying master class in just about every tool a horror author can use, and it’s been imitated by other writers, as well as King himself, ever since. Once the dead woman comes out of the tub, she moves slowly, which is far more terrifying than the alternative: this isn’t a monster you can outsmart or outrun. Danny spends much of the scene trying to convince himself that nothing here can hurt him, when we unfortunately know better. And once it seems that the horror is over, it’s really just getting started—at which point King cuts away, crucially, to leave us to imagine what happens after Danny turns around to stare into that dead and purple face.

King has written scarier books than The ShiningPet Sematary is probably his greatest sustained work of this kind, even if it falters a bit near the end—but I don’t think he’s ever topped this sequence. (It’s especially scary when reading the original Signet paperback, in which the scene takes place on page 217.) I’ve written about my admiration for King before, but I may as well say again that he’s one of the few popular novelists who have only grown in my estimation over time. He’s good in ways that you can only appreciate after you’ve read the work of talented but lesser novelists working in the same genre. I recently read Koontz’s Phantoms, for instance, and while it’s a nice propulsive read, it feels two-dimensional and calculated in comparison to King’s work. In fact, I’ve often thought it would be worthwhile to go back and systematically seek out all of the books from King’s classic period—which I’d arbitrarily say stretches from Carrie through Needful Things—that I haven’t read yet. Growing up, I devoured just about everything King ever wrote, but for whatever reason, I managed to skip over The Dead Zone, FirestarterCujo, and the entire Dark Tower series. I’ll need to back and check them out one of these days. But I’ll make sure to turn all the lights on first.

“Tell Sharkovsky that I’m coming…”

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"In the early morning..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his very useful book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz points out that there are three basic narrative techniques used to generate suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The best thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, often use all three elements at once, and it’s rare to find a good suspense novel that doesn’t draw on each one at some point or another. Of the three, the chase may be the most straightforward, simply because it lends itself so organically to an exciting sequence of events. As Koontz writes:

Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero’s hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero’s options should be narrowed until, at least, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it.

I may as well note here again that I’ve never been a fan of the innocent man wrongfully accused. It lends itself too easily to victim stories and idiot plots, with their endless string of misunderstandings, and when I see this kind of story locking into place, I tend to get impatient. If you’re Hitchcock, you might be able to make it work; otherwise, I’d much rather see a movie, or read a book, about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.

That said, I love chase stories, and my second novel, City of Exiles, is largely one long chase, as Rachel Wolfe works to track down Lasse Karvonen before he can put his violent plan into action. (Note that the story also includes a race against time and an anticipation of a violent event, a structure that was entirely conscious on my part. Even more than the novels that came before or after it, City of Exiles was my attempt to build a thriller essentially on first principles, and it was planned as such from the ground up.) The Icon Thief is a more curious hybrid, with elements of a conspiracy thriller and police procedural that don’t fit neatly into the suspense category, but a chase occupies much of the second half of the novel, as my thief and assassin Ilya Severin tries to keep one step ahead of the police, while also taking out his revenge on the men who betrayed him. And the result is a structure that carries the reader neatly through the complicated developments of Part II, which otherwise might start to seem a little shapeless.

"Tell Sharkovsky that I'm coming..."

The chase story really begins here, in Chapter 28, as Ilya makes his way through a quiet neighborhood in the Hamptons and breaks into a deserted home to acquire the tools he needs. This sort of scene is the meat and potatoes of a novel like this, and I had a lot of fun imagining it, as well as the ensuing chapters in which Ilya obtains identification and begins to lay the groundwork for his next move. And it’s important to note that he isn’t a victim. He’s on the run, yes, and he doesn’t have a lot of resources, but he’s still the one driving the story: he knows that his survival, over the long term, depends on figuring out why he was betrayed, which means he needs to seek out the very antagonists he might otherwise want to elude. This kind of reversal, in which the hunted becomes the hunter, is crucial in this kind of plot, which otherwise tends to degenerate into a long series of close calls and narrow escapes. It’s because the structure of a chase is so intuitive that you need to be careful here: the temptation to deal your hero one setback after another is hard to resist, but it isn’t interesting unless he can also take matters into his own hands.

Another issue with chase stories is that after a certain point, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Koontz ticks off a handful of possible variations, all of which have been done to death: a spy chased by enemy agents, a killer pursued by a detective, or, if you must, an innocent man eluding the authorities. After you’ve written this kind of story once, it can be hard to find reasons to do it again. We see this in a movie like The Bourne Legacy, which fluently copies the chase structure of its predecessors to no real purpose: in the end, the chase serves only as an end in itself, with nothing of interest revealed along the way, which is why the air ultimately goes out of the movie like a deflated balloon. This is also why I decided, while writing City of Exiles, to abruptly switch gears halfway through. I’d already written about Ilya on the run for what seemed like hundreds of pages, and I didn’t feel like writing that novel again, so I finally upended the stakes in the only way I could. Those of you who have read that book will know what I mean. At this point in The Icon Thief, though, the story was still fresh, and I was having a good time. But things are going to get much harder for Ilya soon…

“How are we supposed to watch a house like this?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Last week, I received the first batch of notes from my agent and other readers on the rough draft of Eternal Empire. This kind of detailed feedback is always essential, but this round was especially interesting, because it included comments from people who hadn’t read the first two books in the series. Overall, the response was very positive, and it pointed to a number of possible avenues for further tightening and clarification. But I was most interested in one recurring theme in the comments, which was that I ought to include additional backstory. A number of readers without previous knowledge of the series thought that I should provide a little more background on returning characters, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read The Icon Thief or City of Exiles, which is a perfectly valid point. But I also noticed something strange: in several cases, they wanted more background on characters they assumed had been more fully fleshed out in previous books—when, in fact, they were appearing here for the first time ever.

In other words, readers assumed that they were being deprived of information that had appeared somewhere in the first two installments, when it was really just a reflection of my natural tendency, as a writer, to give as little backstory as possible. I’m not going to go into my feelings on this topic again, since these have been adequately covered elsewhere on this blog. And from experience, I know that when you go out for comments, you’ll often get requests for this kind of background material—requests, I’m convinced, that you should push back against whenever possible. When readers want more backstory, it’s often a sign that things in the present tense of the story aren’t as clear as they should be, and there are ways of addressing this without cutting away from the action. A perceived lack of backstory may be a symptom of certain problems, but the solution often lies elsewhere, at least in the majority of cases. That said, there are times when backstory and exposition are genuinely necessary. And one of the greatest challenges for any writer lies in integrating this material in a way that seems natural, or at least minimally disruptive.

The best way to introduce verbal backstory and exposition is through action. This is why Dean Koontz, in his invaluable Writing Popular Fiction, notes that the long, dry summation of the mystery that we find at the end of most Agatha Christie novels would often work better in the context of a suspenseful sequence—with the protagonist, for instance, cornered by the villain, which provides an opening for our hero to explain how he figured out the evil plan. (Hence the frequently mocked monologues by the villains in the James Bond movies, which actually make perfect dramatic sense.) Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option: action scenes, if properly done, tend to be tightly structured, with only the essential number of moving parts, and can’t always handle the burden of extra information at a time when the plot should be moving forward as quickly as possible. A better solution, perhaps, is to insert exposition into a natural pause within a larger sequence of suspense. The best kind of suspense, after all, is about waiting for something to happen, and while a couple of your characters are waiting, you can have them talk about whatever you want, within reason.

The result is often something like Chapter 20 of The Icon Thief, which is a sort of portmanteau chapter in which I cover as much expository material in as little space as possible. Powell and Wolfe are on stakeout, seated in a car outside Archvadze’s mansion, at a point when I’ve already established that two other important characters are there for reasons of their own—and that a heist is unfolding even as we speak. As a result, I felt free to let Powell and Wolfe talk about a range of topics I hadn’t yet covered: the background of the case, additional developments on the murder at Brighton Beach, and, most unusually for me, Powell’s own backstory, notably the influence of his father, a former diplomat and intelligence officer now suffering from dementia. This is the kind of information I wouldn’t be able to include anywhere else, given my own rules for advancing the narrative with only the minimal amount of retrospection, but here, it’s borderline permissible, because the story has been structured in such a way as to allow for an organic pause. Moments like this, which naturally emerge from the flow of the narrative, are where backstory and exposition belong, so it’s no surprise that I try to pack in as much as possible. And fortunately for the reader, there’s a lot of action right around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2012 at 9:53 am

The essential writing break

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Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write at all. When you’re working on a novel, especially in the latter stages, it threatens to take over your entire brain, often in very literal ways: there always comes a point in the process, usually after the third or fourth rewrite, when I’m convinced I could reconstruct the entire thing from memory. Fortunately, I’ve never had to try, but the fact that I could do it gets at an important point that every writer needs to remember. The relationship you have with your novel, at least at the moment, will be more intimate than any you’ll ever have with the greatest work of fiction written by someone else. You’ll find yourself thinking about its structure while shaving, and drifting off in the middle of a conversation, as my wife knows, to puzzle out a rough spot on page 73. In the end, you’ll see its shape more perfectly than anyone else ever will, which will allow you to make the deep structural changes necessary to make it work for a reader who is only aware of the story unfolding page by page.

Yet this can also be dangerous. When the novel sits in your head “with all the palpability of a huge elm lying uprooted in your backyard”—as Norman Mailer once said of Henry Miller’s fiction—it can be hard to see it through the eyes of a conventional reader. Most fiction, as I think Joan Didion says, is judged on the level of the paragraph. This is as true for literary fiction as for its commercial counterparts. And it means that the mindset of a novelist who knows every line forward and backward is fundamentally different from that of a reader encountering a story for the first time. It means, ultimately, that you need to read your novel on two levels at once: as the author, godlike, with perfect knowledge of what comes next and how it relates to the page before you, and as the reader, in search of a story, who only has access to the information in the pages in his or her left hand.

Getting into that headspace, without any preconceived notions about the novel’s shape, can be a tricky business. The best way is to take an extended break. Some novelists, like Dean Koontz, have argued against such breaks, saying that it’s only an excuse for a writer to begin to doubt the quality of the work, which is certainly true in some cases. Still, more writers tend to agree with Stephen King, who advises us to take some time off between drafts to regain the necessary level of detachment. King recommends six weeks, but for some of us, that isn’t possible—given my own writing schedule, I can’t justify taking off more than two weeks or so before diving back into Eternal Empire. The best solution, in that case, is to spend your break writing something else, which I intend to do now. A couple of weeks spent writing a short story does wonders when it comes to coming back to a longer project with fresh eyes.

My own plan, in this case, involves an extra level of rereading: after my two weeks are up, I’m going to sit down and read The Icon Thief and City of Exiles from cover to cover, hopefully in as close to a single sitting as possible, followed by the current draft of Eternal Empire, which is designed to conclude the story begun in the first two books. Ideally, I’ll be able to see details and moments of resonance that deserve to be fully developed in the final novel, and affinities between the books that I couldn’t have seen before, when I was knee-deep in the process of writing them in the first place. It may take years, but there always comes a moment when a novel you’ve written turns into an object with which you feel only incidentally connected, which is what The Icon Thief has finally become to me. (I certainly couldn’t reconstruct it from memory anymore.) And that’s the ultimate break, in the sense of severing or rupture: the point at which your novel, at long last, becomes just another book.

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2012 at 9:44 am

The Red Queen’s guide to writing

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One of the buried themes of this blog over the past year has been the ongoing, and not entirely intentional, acceleration of my writing process. The Icon Thief took about two years to write, revise, and sell. Its sequel, City of Exiles, was written in less than nine months, not counting a few extra weeks at the end for revision and copy-editing. And while I tried to negotiate a little more wriggle room for The Scythian, I’m still slated to deliver it about nine months from the day I signed the contract, which, when you take other projects into account, is even less time than it sounds. I don’t necessarily mind the compressed schedule: it’s forced me to be smarter and more efficient in how I plan these books, and as a result, I’ve learned a lot as a writer. I’ve even begun to take a certain pride in my productivity, and until recently, I held on to the hope that I’d eventually be able to scale back to the comfortable pace of a novel a year.

Or so I thought. These days, however, the consensus in publishing seems to be that a novel a year is far too slow, and even a novel every nine months is nothing special. A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times points out that mainstream novelists are increasingly being compelled to publish two or more books every year, both because of competition with other kinds of content and in an attempt to keep a writer’s name in the public eye. The enormous popularity of series fiction has taught publishers the importance of building an audience with successive books, rather than betting everything on one big, self-contained novel every few years. This makes a lot of sense for individual writers—and it’s certainly had a surprising influence on my own career—but when everyone is doing it, the advantage disappears. As Lee Child observes, with a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Of course, mainstream novelists have always felt pressure to work at a fast pace. Agatha Christie referred to herself as “a perfect sausage machine,” and, at her peak, she produced two novels a year with clockwork regularity. In his book Writing Popular Fiction, published in 1972, Dean Koontz casually notes that a novelist who can produce “only” one or two category novels every year will never know real financial security, and that “half a dozen novels per annum” are the minimum for a comfortable lifestyle. Koontz, in his prime, was more than capable of writing a category novel in a week, and he was so prolific that he published under multiple pen names, out of his publisher’s concern that he would saturate the market—a fear that seems positively quaint in the days of the likes of James Patterson, who turns out something like twelve books a year with an army of co-writers, forcing the rest of us to struggle to catch up.

The trouble is that once a novelist, or any artist, has begun to produce at a certain rate, it’s all but impossible to pull back, at least not without alienating readers who have grown used to the ability to buy a new book by their favorite author (or brand name) multiple times every year. And it’s ultimately impossible for a writer to maintain that kind of pace forever, at least not without outside help. It isn’t hard to imagine a publishing landscape divided between a handful of big brands, often assisted by ghostwriters, and independent authors working vainly to keep up with the endless demand for content that this environment creates—if we aren’t there already. In the short term, it’s good for business, and I don’t blame publishers for trying to maintain their financial viability by any means possible. But as a writer, and reader, I can’t help worrying about where this all ends. As the Red Queen herself says: “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2012 at 10:21 am

A portrait of Dean Koontz as a young man

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Sooner or later, one comes to the painful realization that most books on writing are useless. Most are either written by unknowns, whose advice obviously needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt; critics or teachers who lack practical experience; or famous novelists whose instruction is colored by the irreproducible circumstances of their own good fortune. Success in fiction hinges on so many factors, many of them out of the writer’s hands, that trusting what, say, Janet Evanovich has to say about craft is like chasing performance in investment funds: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What we really need is a book written years ago by a struggling author, in which he laid down some rules on how to write and described as honestly as possible his own methods—only to become famous and acclaimed after the book’s release by following his own advice. And as a matter of fact, this book exists.

Earlier this week, in my review of In Time, I briefly mentioned Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which is one of the four or five most useful books on practical storytelling I’ve ever seen. The book has many virtues, but its most interesting quality is completely accidental. Koontz wrote the book in 1972, when he was only twenty-six, and best known as a productive author of short category novels. Within a few years, he’d be famous. Part of the fascination of this book, then, is its candid snapshot of the real work habits of a writer who was about to embark upon one of the successful careers in modern popular fiction. It’s very rare for an author of writing guides to go on to genuine fame—the only other one who comes to mind is J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a number of screenwriting manuals before creating Babylon 5—so unlike most books on writing, the advice here has been tested, in real time, in the best possible way.

So what does the book tell us? Koontz starts by laying down the basic elements of all genre fiction—a strong plot, a protagonist with believable motivation, a colorful background, and a great deal of action—and then details the requirements of specific genres. Some of the information here is badly dated, especially the chapters on Gothic romance and erotica, but the sections on science fiction and fantasy, suspense, and mystery are still among the best I’ve found. The chapter on science fiction, in particular, is crammed with useful advice, and I still think about Koontz’s section on the tools of suspense (the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event) whenever I start a new writing project. Koontz winds up with a few chapters on practicalities, most of which lean heavily on Scott Meredith’s classic Writing to Sell, but which also provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a category writer at the time. Whenever I feel pressured by my current schedule, which basically calls for a novel a year, I remember what Koontz says about productivity:

If you can produce only one or two category novels a year—especially science fiction, Gothics, mysteries, and fantasies—you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door—and you without a stone to throw…Even if you are prolific enough to produce and sell eight or ten novels a year, your income may hold steady at $20,000 a year, which is comfortable but by no means enough to classify you as a nouveau riche.

Obviously, things have changed a lot in the past forty years, but part of the book’s appeal lies in its evocation of a time in which category writers like Koontz, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block could make a good living on the midlist. Nine years later, after he became famous, Koontz addressed the changing state of publishing in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, and while this book has its merits as well, it lacks some of the charm of the earlier work. In addition to its considerable practical value, Writing Popular Fiction is one of the best portraits we have of a young genre novelist working at an exciting, if exhausting, time, and I’ve tried to recapture some of that excitement in my own writing life. As I’ve mentioned before, I picked up my copy at a church book sale in my early teens, and it’s been a constant companion ever since. These days, you can find it online for around twenty bucks, and it’s well worth the price. If nothing else, it certainly worked for its author.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

Why suspense matters

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Over the past few days, I’ve invoked the example of Hitchcock more than once, and for good reason. As the likes of Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma understood in the fifties, and audiences across the world knew much earlier than that, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are central to our experience of the movies. His goal was as simple as possible—to play the audience like a piano—but his methods were endlessly complex. As a result, the great Hitchcock thrillers are like laboratories for the investigation of storytelling, in everything from plot construction to art direction to cinematography and editing, not to mention iconic performances from the actors he sometimes claimed to despise. And if the machinery is more visible here than it is in, say, Bergman, it’s because of the genre that Hitchcock perfected. Suspense is the most basic emotion that narrative cinema can evoke, and Hitchcock, as we all know, was its master.

What isn’t always acknowledged is how central suspense is to other forms of art, especially fiction. Years ago, in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, John Updike spoke of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and suspense remains, in some ways, the most fundamental of all genres: nine times out of ten, any good novel is, at heart, a novel of suspense, even if the suspense centers on emotion rather than external action. In his classic book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz observes that of all genres, suspense has the fewest overt requirements—simply the need to keep the reader intensely interested in what happens next—which implies that other genres can be understood as overlays on the suspense form. Science fiction is suspense in the future; mystery is suspense where the emphasis is less on stopping the killer than on figuring out who it is. And without a solid foundation of suspense, readers in any genre aren’t likely to keep turning the pages.

This is one reason why I turned to suspense when I began to write for a living, and currently find myself writing something close to pure thrillers. These weren’t necessarily the novels I read the most growing up, but for a relatively young writer still learning the tricks of the trade, it seemed like a good idea to begin with storytelling in its most general form. The lessons you learn from writing suspense—anticipation, momentum, converging structure, and especially clarity of action and motivation—can be applied to any sort of fiction you later choose to tackle. There’s simply no way to forget these things once you’ve internalized them. And while it’s often necessary to set them aside—one of the weaknesses of the suspense form, along with its underlying coldness, is the constant need for things to always be happening—they’re still the ultimate safety net, a sort of writer’s insurance policy when other tools fall short.

And they can lead you to surprising places. Back in the seventies, Koontz noted that most books marketed as mainstream fiction are really suspense novels in disguise, and that remains true today. A novelist like Ian McEwan is essentially an author of suspense, but one whose work has been elevated by intelligence and taste to the point where he can contend for a Booker Prize. Elsewhere, competition with other media has forced serious novelists to pace even ambitious literary novels like page-turners, as Jonathan Franzen says to Time: “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist.” I’d much rather read a big literary novel written by an author who understands suspense than one who hasn’t served the same apprenticeship, and for my part, I think it’s all but inevitable that I’ll try to make that leap one day. But not yet. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing suspense, it’s that there are always more lessons to come.

Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

On endless endings

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In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:

Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.

This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)

As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.

Dean Koontz on the discipline of writing

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A lot of writers aren’t disciplined, you know. I think that’s often because they hate writing so much yet find they are driven to do it either for psychological reasons or because it’s the only thing they can do. I’m driven to write, as well, obsessed with writing, but I happen to enjoy it immensely. I’m fascinated with the infinite flexibility of the English language and with linear narrative. That makes it easier for me to sit down at the keyboard every day. Not easy, you understand. It’s never easy.

Some people have an image of the successful writer’s life that is pure fantasy. They think it’s a little noodling at the computer for two or three hours in the morning, then a leisurely lunch by the pool, followed perhaps by a nap, then a round of literary teas and parties. Mostly it’s hard work, alone in a room. If you like people, as I do, the solitary aspect of the job is the worst thing about it. We attend fewer parties than anyone I know. We go years without a vacation.

Dean Koontz, interviewed in The Dean Koontz Companion

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2011 at 9:18 am

A writer’s routine (mine)

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I believe it was Dean Koontz who said that there’s nothing more boring than reading about somebody else’s diet, unless it’s reading about a novelist’s writing routine. Still, since you’re going to be hearing a lot about my writing life over the next six months, as Midrash slowly inches its way toward completion, I thought it might be useful—and marginally interesting—to tell you something about my own schedule, at least as it works on an ideal day. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reading about the routines of other writers—like the fact that Gay Talese keeps a thermos full of coffee on his desk. (Feel free to skip this post, of course, if you couldn’t care less. I’ve got some good movie stuff coming soon, I promise.)

I wake up most mornings at eight, just in time to have breakfast with my wife, who works as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Breakfast consists of green tea, orange and pomegranate juice, and fresh fruit. (We’re trying to eat a little healthier these days.) Then, after she heads to work, I write up the day’s blog post—like this one!—and spend twenty minutes on the Wii Fit. After reviewing my notes for that day’s chapter, which I should probably read earlier in the morning, I shower, shave, put on my suit and tie (okay, not really, although I know that some novelists have done this) and start my morning’s work around 10:30, thermos of green tea at the ready.

Most days, when I’m actually writing—as opposed to outlining, doing research, or indulging in creative procrastination—I try to have at least a shitty first draft of the target chapter done by noon, which means typing nonstop for two hours or so. I don’t worry about elegance or structure, although I do try to be grammatically correct; all I care about is getting the basic elements of the chapter, which I’ve already outlined, into some kind of coherent form. Then I’ll go back and do a rough polish of the entire thing, with a short break for lunch (granola with blueberries, spirulina, and more green tea), generally finishing up around 3:00.

At that point comes my only real break of the day, during which I either run errands, read, or take a nap (which, as Mad Men knows, is an essential part of any writer’s routine). Then around 4:30 I start again, doing yet another polish—and a fourth if I have time—before my wife gets home around seven. Then I mail a Word file of the day’s work to myself, cross it off my outline, and try to relax for the rest of the evening, aside from writing a draft of the next day’s blog post before bedtime, which is usually around 11:30. The following morning, the whole process begins again. Repeat fifty or sixty times, not counting research, outlining, or revision—because every draft I write this way needs to be massively revised—and you’ve got a novel, or something like it.

Of course, this basic routine—which, incidentally, applies only to weekdays—can vary a lot. This week, for instance, my publisher is having the cover meeting for Kamera, which meant that I had to spend some time writing up my thoughts on cover art and filling out an author’s questionnaire. (I hope to talk more about cover art soon.) As much as I’d like to have evenings and weekends for myself, I’m not sure how often this will happen, given what has turned out to be a rather tight writing schedule. (In the old days, before I got married, I’d often take a longer break in the afternoon, then work until close to midnight.) So obviously there’s room for variation. But so far, this seems to be the routine that works best for me.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

Posted in Writing

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For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

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