Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Étant Donnés

“Insert brilliant idea here”

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One of the most frustrating and challenging moments in any writer’s life is when you know where you are and where you want to be going, but have no idea how to get there. In fact, there are times when I feel like one of the gnomes in the celebrated episode of South Park from which the above image is taken. You’re writing a story, and you have some good ideas for the beginning and the end, but the part in the middle is a mystery. This unknown element can be as small as the distance between two minor plot points or as large as the entire second act, but in all cases, the essential problem is the same. All you need is something to get from point A to point C, and, ideally, it should be brilliant.

This situation is a familiar one for writers of mystery and suspense fiction. A good mystery novel should come off as a perfect puzzle, in which every element was carefully premeditated and laid in beforehand, but in practice, large gaps are often left by the author to be filled in later. In Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block relates that while writing the first installment in his popular series of Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, he got within two or three chapters of the ending before finally figuring out who the villain was, thanks to a chance remark by a friend. “I had to do some rewriting to tie off all the loose ends,” Block notes, “but the book worked out fine.” I have a feeling that most mystery novelists could tell similar stories. And as long as the result looks preordained, it’s perfectly okay.

I’ve encountered similar issues all the time in my own writing, even though I outline like crazy. With The Icon Thief, I knew from early on in the process where the story would end: in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with my main character standing before the closed door leading into Étant Donnés. How to get her there, however, remained a problem for a long time, and it wasn’t until I had written more than a third of the novel that I managed to come up with a solution. Similarly, in House of Passages, there’s a moment when I knew that a character had to make a series of brilliant deductions to advance to the next stage of the plot. But what? I could see the blank space where they would go, but not the deductions themselves, and like Block, I ended up going back and laying in most of my clues after the fact.

And yet this is one of the great pleasures of writing. I’ve previously quoted Walter Murch on the fact that you don’t want to answer all of the questions posed by a work of art at its earliest stages. In fact, you should hope that serious questions remain unanswered until the very end. In any artistic pursuit, once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, there’s always the risk that you’ll become bored or complacent. The best way to avoid this is by deliberately leaving problems for yourself to solve, trusting that luck, intuition and skill will carry you through. Almost invariably, they do—or at least well enough so that, with the proper adjustments, nobody will ever notice the seams. In the process, you’ll grow as a writer. And maybe, in the end, you’ll even profit.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

Stumbling into a story: recognizing a great idea

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One of the accidental themes of my recent posts has been the idea that, since a novel can take up a year or more of your life, you’d better choose your subject carefully. And at first glance, the stakes can seem dauntingly high. Choosing a subject for a novel is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the analogous process for a short story, since a novel takes considerably longer and is exponentially more complex. It’s possible to occasionally gamble on a doubtful premise for a shorter piece, or even a novelette, but for a novel, the potential cost in time and effort is far too high. And while I’ve previously outlined various ways of generating ideas, I haven’t addressed what might be the most important question of all: how do you know if an idea is worth it?

Part of me is inclined to slightly misquote A.E. Housman here, and say that I can no more define a good idea than a terrier can define a rat. Looking for good ideas is simply what writers do, consciously or unconsciously, and the process of identifying an idea for a novel is undeniably a matter of intuition. And the best ideas often come to us with a forcefulness comparable only to love at first sight, or perhaps to Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. When I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, for instance, I knew that I had to write a book about it. But at that point, I’d also been researching a novel about the art world for months, with a crucial missing piece at its center, which allowed Étant Donnés to slide neatly into place.

This gives us one important clue: great ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re simply one important step—and not necessarily the first—in a process that will inevitably outlast that initial burst of enthusiasm. Which also means that your instinctive level of interest or excitement is not necessarily the best measure of whether an idea is good or not. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re going to be approaching a novel in all kinds of moods, and there’s going to come a time, especially after you’ve spent months on research and outlining, when you find your own premise exhausting. This kind of burnout happens to every writer. The real test of an idea’s value, then, isn’t how much you love it at first glance, but whether it’s the kind of long-term, sustainable idea that can nourish the lengthy process of writing a novel.

This is the best advice I can give: since great ideas are only meaningful as part of a process that includes craft, hard work, and a lot of luck, the best way to ensure that you’ll recognize an idea when it comes is to get the process started, now, long before the idea shows itself. You begin by deciding, once and for all, to write a novel; you tentatively arrive at a genre, a tone, maybe even a setting or some characters, while knowing that all these things are likely to change. Then you go exploring, casting your net wide at first, then gradually zeroing in on your true subject. That way, you’ve prepared a place for great ideas to nest, and are less likely to be sidetracked by ones that are seductive but unproductive—although you should always write everything down. And when you finally stumble across that great idea, if you’ve laid the groundwork accordingly, you’ll recognize it at once.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

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