Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dean Koontz

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.

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