Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George R.R. Martin

The unfinished lives

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

Into the West

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A few months ago, I was on the phone with a trusted adviser to discuss some revisions to Astounding. We were focusing on the prologue, which I had recently rewritten from scratch to make it more accessible to readers who weren’t already fans of science fiction. Among other things, I’d been asked to come up with ways in which the impact of my book’s four subjects was visible in modern pop culture, and after throwing some ideas back and forth, my adviser asked me plaintively: “Couldn’t you just say that without John W. Campbell, we wouldn’t have Game of Thrones?” I was tempted to give in, but I ultimately didn’t—it just felt like too much of a stretch. (Which isn’t to say that the influence isn’t there. When a commenter on his blog asked whether his work had been inspired by the mythographer Joseph Campbell, George R.R. Martin replied: “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” And that offhand comment was enough of a selling point that I put it in the very first sentence of my book proposal.) Still, I understood the need to frame the story in ways that would resonate with a mainstream readership, and I thought hard about what other reference points I could honestly provide. Star Trek was an easy one, along with such recent movies as Interstellar and The Martian, but the uncomfortable reality is that much of what we call science fiction in film and television has more to do with Star Wars. But I wanted to squeeze in one last example, and I finally settled on this line about Campbell: “For more than three decades, an unparalleled series of visions of the future passed through his tiny office in New York, where he inaugurated the main sequence of science fiction that runs through works from 2001 to Westworld.”

As the book is being set in type, I’m still comfortable with this sentence as it stands, although there are a few obvious qualifications that ought to be made. Westworld, of course, is based on a movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, whose position in the history of the genre is a curious one. As I’ve written elsewhere, Crichton was an unusually enterprising author of paperback thrillers who found himself with an unexpected blockbuster in the form of The Andromeda Strain. It was his sixth novel, and his first in hardcover, and it seems to have benefited enormously from the input of editor Robert Gottlieb, who wrote in his memoir Avid Reader:

The Andromeda Strain was a terrific concept, but it was a mess—sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever. [Crichton’s] scientists were beyond generic—they lacked all human specificity; the only thing that distinguished some of them from the others was that some died and some didn’t. I realized right away that with his quick mind, swift embrace of editorial input, and extraordinary work habits he could patch the plot, sharpen the suspense, clarify the science—in fact, do everything necessary except create convincing human beings. (He never did manage to; eventually I concluded that he couldn’t write about people because they just didn’t interest him.) It occurred to me that instead of trying to help him strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it—I think he felt relieved.

The result, to put it mildly, did quite well, and Crichton quickly put its lessons to work. But it’s revealing that the flaws that Gottlieb cites—indifferent plotting, flat writing, and a lack of real characterization—are also typical of even some of the best works of science fiction that came out of Campbell’s circle. Crichton’s great achievement was to focus relentlessly on everything else, especially readability, and it’s fair to say that he did a better job of it than most of the writers who came up through Astounding and Analog. He was left with the reputation of a carpetbagger, and his works may have been too square and fixated on technology to ever be truly fashionable. Yet a lot of it can be traced back to his name on the cover. In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges speaks of enriching “the slow and rudimentary act of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.” In this case, it’s pretty useful. I have a hunch that if The Terminal Man, Congo, and Sphere had been attributed on their first release to Robert A. Heinlein, they would be regarded as minor classics. They’re certainly better than many of the books that Heinlein was actually writing around the same time. And if I’m being honest, I should probably confess that I’d rather read Jurassic Park again than any of Asimov’s novels. (As part of my research for this book, I dutifully made my way through Asimov’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage, which came out just three years before The Andromeda Strain, and his fumbling of that very Crichtonesque premise only reminded me of how good at this sort of thing Crichton really was.) If Crichton had been born thirty years earlier, John W. Campbell would have embraced him like a lost son, and he might well have written a better movie than Destination Moon.

At its best, the television version of Westworld represents an attempt to reconcile Crichton’s gifts for striking premises and suspense with the more introspective mode of the genre to which he secretly belongs. (It’s no accident that Jonathan Nolan had been developing it in parallel with Foundation.) This balance hasn’t always been easy to manage, and last night’s premiere suggests that it can only become more difficult going forward. Westworld has always seemed defined by the pattern of forces that were acting on it—its source material, its speculative and philosophical ambitions, and the pressure of being a flagship drama on HBO. It also has to deal now with the legacy of its own first season, which set a precedent for playing with time, as well as the scrutiny of viewers who figured it out prematurely. The stakes here are established early on, with Bernard awakening on a beach in a sequence that seems like a nod to the best film by Nolan’s brother, and this time around, the parallel timelines are put front and center. Yet the strain occasionally shows. The series is still finding itself, with characters, like Dolores, who seem to be thinking through their story arcs out loud. It’s overly insistent on its violence and nudity, but it’s also cerebral and detached, with little possibility of real emotional pain that the third season of Twin Peaks was able to inflict. I don’t know if the center will hold. Yet’s also possible that these challenges were there from the beginning, as the series tried to reconcile Crichton’s tricks with the tradition of science fiction that it clearly honors. I still believe that this show is in the main line of the genre’s development. Its efforts to weave together its disparate influences strike me as worthwhile and important. And I hope that it finds its way home.

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The threshold figure

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Dangerous

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Milo Yiannopoulos—a Breitbart editor best known for his online trolling of Muslims, feminists, and the actress Leslie Jones—would be publishing a memoir with Simon & Schuster. The outraged response to the book deal, which allegedly amounted to something like a quarter of a million dollars, appears to have taken the publisher by surprise, prompting it to release this statement:

We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form. At Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers. While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.

It’s a strange defense that tiptoes right up to the edge of acknowledging that Yiannopoulos is practicing hate speech, while also claiming not to “condone” it, and it carries the buried implication that this is just business as usual. The unstated premise is that publishers have been courting conservative readers with specialized imprints for years, and at a time when the entire publishing industry feels threatened by declining readership, you can’t blame them for going after an author with a proven audience, just as the same imprint, Threshold Editions, has done in the past with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump.

Yet this case is different, and for reasons that don’t have anything to do with its timing. We can start with the fact that this book is being rushed into print in a ludicrously short window of time: it’s currently scheduled to be released on March 14, which pushes the physical limits of the production process to the breaking point. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, George R.R. Martin has said that whenever he finally finishes The Winds of Winter, Bantam could have a hardcover out “within three months of delivery”—which is about as fast as a book can be edited, typeset, printed, and shipped to stores, even with the full resources of a major publisher behind it. Even if we grant that whatever Yiannopoulos is planning on writing is something less than a thousand-page fantasy epic, it’s still a tall order, even if the book were already complete, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter: “I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building—but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.” In other words, he wasn’t shopping around a manuscript, but a brand. This isn’t a book that is being published on its merits, but an attempt to cash in on an existing audience at what seems like a favorable moment. (That said, I don’t have any doubt that Yiannopoulos will be able to deliver it on time, presumably with the assistance of the squadron of interns that he uses to write the articles that appear under his name.) 

Dangerous

You could argue, not without reason, that this isn’t anything new, and that publishers have been cranking out similar books by pundits on the right for years. But there’s a subtle but important distinction that needs to be made here, as Constance Grady of Vox points out:

But in identifying Yiannopoulos as a possible future of conservative thought, Threshold Editions is caught in a cycle. Because by giving him a book deal, they’re not looking at a figure who is already considered culturally legitimate and giving him another platform for his thoughts. They’re looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others—a kind of threshold figure—and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate. They are not just describing; they are prescribing. They have decided that Yiannopoulos seems like someone who is about to be mainstream, and so they have brought him into the mainstream themselves. When Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter that “this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream,” he was being entirely accurate.

I think this nails it, and I’m afraid that Grady is equally right when she says: “And having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of the cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal.”

Which is just to say that Simon & Schuster is doing worse than “condoning” what Yiannopoulos represents—it’s enabling it, and in a particularly craven and gratuitous way. Yiannopoulos doesn’t lack for an audience: he already has multiple platforms, and he doesn’t need a book deal to reach those who want to buy what he’s selling. A book might not even expand his readership beyond where it already stands. But by bringing it onto the New Releases table at Barnes & Noble, it has the effect of normalizing it, and it taints the entire publisher by association. I’m reminded of the controversy that has swirled for the last few years over the Hugo Awards, which have been hijacked by a small group of bloggers and commenters, many of whom identify with the same movements that idolize Yiannopoulos. But here’s the dirty little secret: outside a fairly closed circle of online science fiction fans, nobody really cares. I’m part of that world, in a tangential way, and to the extent that even I’ve noticed it, it’s because I dislike how they’ve opportunistically assaulted a vulnerable slice of the fandom. That doesn’t change the fact that their impact on the culture as a whole has been a rounding error, however inflated their view of themselves might be in their own tiny ponds. (Even at Worldcon itself, their impact was barely perceptible.) I’ve kept an eye on them because it’s my job, but the reaction of most people would be one of befuddled nonrecognition. Until this week, that’s basically where Yiannopoulos was—a figure of marginal interest who gained attention mostly by attaching himself like a remora onto promising targets. Simon & Schuster rewarded him for it. Yiannopoulos thinks that this means that he’s won. And the sad part is that he’s probably right.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2017 at 9:34 am

The joy of text

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Search query

When you’re working on any long writing project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you’re eventually forced to deal with the problem of information management. In contrast to what a lot of readers might imagine, most writing—at least for someone like me—doesn’t consist of waiting for inspiration to strike while you’re staring at a blank page. A lot of the work and hard thinking has taken place prior to the physical act of writing a first draft, and more will come later, during the revision process. The rough draft becomes a kind of bottleneck through which ideas have to pass to get from one step to the next, and the challenge is less about coming up with good stuff in the moment than about ordering the material that you already have. If you’ve spent three months thinking about a project and six weeks in the actual writing, which isn’t an unreasonable proportion, you’re faced with the task of mapping one collection of thoughts onto another. The first set is amorphous, disorganized, and accumulated over a long stretch of time; the other needs to be set down in some orderly fashion, in a shorter period, and without forgetting anything important. As a result, many of the tools that writers develop to keep their thoughts straight are really designed to enable a lossless transfer of data in the transition between the chaos of conception and the more linear writing stage.

Over time, I’ve come up with various tricks to keep this information under control. The trouble, as with so much else in life, is that the approaches that work well when you’re first starting out don’t always hold up when you graduate to more complicated projects. Early on, for instance, I used hundreds of index cards to plot out my novels, supplemented with handwritten notes and mind maps, on the belief—which I still hold—that the tactile qualities of pen on paper would generate ideas in themselves. Later, as the individual pieces became too numerous to manage, I switched to keeping track of it all in a series of text files. Without thinking too much about it, I began to use TextEdit, the default text editor that comes packaged with my MacBook. And somewhat to my surprise, I’ve realized that I use it more than any other piece of software. For the actual manuscript, I still use Microsoft Word, but for almost everything else, I turn to TextEdit without hesitation. Why? It opens instantaneously when I click on its icon, as opposed to the ten seconds or so that Word takes to boot up, which makes it ideal as a notepad for jotting down quick thoughts. Even for longer writing sessions, its lack of bells and whistles appeals to me for much the same reason that WordStar still attracts loyalists like George R.R. Martin. There’s nothing between me and the words. In fact, I’m typing the first draft of this blog post on it right now.

Notes in TextEdit

But the most interesting use I’ve made of TextEdit is as a kind of filing system for notes. Nearly all of the information I’ve assembled for Astounding, for example, currently lives on one of four text files. One contains general biographical information about John W. Campbell and my other subjects; another consists of notes gleaned from going through 12,000 pages of his correspondence; another holds similar thoughts from reading through four decades of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and the last houses my notes on the hundreds of science fiction stories and novels that I’m reading or rereading for this project. My notes on back issues and stories are arranged chronologically, so I can scroll down and see patterns at a glance, but with the others, I don’t bother with any kind of order: I just type the notes in the first available spot, and I don’t really care where they end up. The result is a set of huge files—the one for biographical details alone is 60,000 words long. But it doesn’t really matter how big it is, because it’s searchable. If I’m looking for a particular piece of information, I just enter a query, either in the search box within TextEdit itself or through Spotlight, which searches the entire hard drive at once. It’s very fast and generally reliable, as long as I know what to look for, and assuming that I was smart enough to peg my notes to some obvious search term in the first place. It’s as if I’ve created a small, highly specialized slice of the Internet that only returns results that have previously passed through my brain.

Needless to say, there are limitations to this approach. My ability to find anything is predicated on my capacity to remember that it exists in the first place, which is harder than it sounds, given the thousands of discrete facts that I need to keep straight for a project like this. Every few months or so, I’ll sit down and read through the whole bulk of my notes in their entirety, which takes several days, just to refresh my memory about what I’ve got. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s arguably better than trying to do the same with handwritten notes. There’s also a real loss when it comes to the physical manipulation of ideas: I still do mind maps and write down ideas in my notebook whenever possible, and I can even do a rough version of shuffling the pieces in TextEdit by copying and pasting chunks of text until they fall into an order that makes sense. (Much of this, I imagine, would be possible in programs like Scrivener, but I prefer my more flexible approach.) A lot of it also depends on how much I can keep organized in my own head. It’s impossible to imagine writing a whole book at once in this fashion, but as David Mamet once said, you eat a turkey one bite at a time. I’m familiar enough with my own attention span to know how much I can handle—usually the equivalent of three chapters or so—at any given moment. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Taking notes, as I’ve said elsewhere, amounts to a message that you send from the past to the future. And while I still miss my cards sometimes, I’ve found that it’s easier to just text myself.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2016 at 8:57 am

House of passages

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House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

On Friday, I visited Meow Wolf, which is a statement that seems destined to elicit either a knowing smile or a puzzled look, the proportions of which probably change the farther you get from New Mexico. I didn’t really know what it was before I went, which was a good thing, and I’m not sure how to describe it even now, which is even better. It’s housed in a huge building in downtown Santa Fe that used to be a bowling alley and is now owned by local hero George R.R. Martin, who spent millions of dollars in renovations to allow Meow Wolf, an artistic collective with its own long history, to enable its wildest dreams. After buying a ticket, you walk down a darkened hallway into what looks like a crumbling Victorian house, built from scratch down to the last shingle. You can explore every room, look inside every drawer, and even open the fridge, which contains a startling surprise of its own. As you wander, you gradually start to piece together a larger narrative, and you realize that everything you see is a clue. All of the obvious anomalies, from the distorted floor of the upstairs bathroom to the portal in the fireplace, reflect a coherent story about a peculiar family, a missing child, two rival secret societies, and a hub connecting the house to a vast multiverse, tantalizing portions of which are accessible to visitors. (I managed to figure out very little of this for myself, and if you want more information, there’s a much better writeup by Annalee Newitz over at Ars Technica.)

And you come away feeling deeply impressed, even if you leave with most of the mystery intact. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, aside from the notion that it was some sort of interactive exhibit and art installation, and I went from bracing myself for the worst possible version of the experience—I was dreading a kind of kid’s show with insistent actors and cheap set dressings—to the realization that it was probably the best. It’s been compared to an online RPG, and it has to solve many of the same narrative problems, in three dimensions and with a live audience, which obliges it to deal with the challenges of a theme park attraction or a haunted house. There are many small touches of wayfinding that keep you exactly as disoriented as the designers want you to be, but no more, along with subtly incorporated cast members who can give you a nudge in the right direction or indicate a feature that you might have overlooked. And like many of the best video games, it’s accessible both to casuals and to obsessive players. My three-year-old daughter, who is a natural busybody, had a great time simply poking around the house, in which she was granted complete freedom to indulge in her nosiness to her heart’s content. Most of the rooms have both a connection to the overall narrative and elements of self-contained diversion, like the glowing mastodon ribcage that can be played like a xylophone. You can be exactly as engaged with the deeper story as you like, and the fact that local high schoolers seem to treat it as an ideal place to make out probably delights its creators.

House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

But if you’re really serious about drilling down to the underlying mystery, there’s a wealth of material at your disposal, much of it remarkably dense: a fake newspaper casually left on a kitchen table, a corkboard with sinister correspondence from the neighborhood middle school, a fat binder of notes about the multiverse, a desktop computer crammed with files. And although the comparisons to video games or theme parks suggest themselves naturally, the best parallel is to Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. (The formal name of the exhibit is “House of Eternal Return,” which may be a play on words between the act of leaving and the act of returning.) They share the same mingled sense of dread and discovery, and like the novel, the art complex rewards both casual browsing and deep exploration, with much of its charm lying in the implication that it can never be fully exhausted. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and world-building, and the big sensory effects that it creates can’t be separated from its attention to detail on the most granular level. It’s impossible to resist doing a few spot checks, and once you’ve verified that the dresser has clothes in it and that the notebook on the desk is full of real writing, the credibility of the whole enterprise rises enormously. As Douglas R. Hofstadter once wrote of an ingenious word puzzle: “It strikes me as weird (and wonderful) how, in certain situations, the verification of a tiny percentage of a theory can serve to powerfully strengthen your belief in the full theory.” That’s certainly true here, and it would clearly reward repeated visits.

Of course, to see it in the first place, you have to go to Santa Fe, which points both to its appeal and to the inherent obstacles it faces. Thanks to the financial support and creative freedom that Martin has provided, this is likely to be the best possible incarnation of this kind of endeavor that will ever exist, and it’s difficult to envision many other cases in which such a benefactor would be willing or able to take on a similar risk. Meow Wolf estimates that it needs about a hundred thousand visitors every year to break even, which seems like a high bar to clear—even if it represents just one percent of what Game of Thrones pulls in on a good week. Given its nature as a localized interactive experience, it seems destined to be both a labor of love and an irreproducible outlier. (To be honest, I’m not entirely sorry about this: I’m not sure that I want to see a version of this experience that was done with anything less than the resources and the attentiveness that we see here, and a bad knockoff of it would be unbearable.) Yet I have the feeling that its real legacy will be as a crucible of talent, or a hub to an artistic multiverse of its own, with other projects or careers reverberating away from it like ripples in spacetime. To conceive, plan, and above all execute this story in a tangible form, with all of the specific problems that would have presented themselves along the way, must have been an education in itself, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the participants went on to do fascinating things with the skills they acquired in the process. It’s a house that leads into many rooms, and the most interesting ones may not even exist yet.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2016 at 9:16 am

“The rest of the wedding was a blur…”

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"Wolfe walked gingerly down the aisle..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2016 at 8:46 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties: “At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, ‘No. I won’t do that.’ And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, ‘Well, okay then, don’t do it that way.’ Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.”

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In the blog post that I discussed here last week, he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million or more hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it got the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2016 at 8:50 am

The song has no ending

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Nearly seven years ago, when readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were anxiously awaiting the appearance of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin published a blog post titled “To My Detractors.” He noted “the rising tide of venom” that had arisen in response to the book’s lateness, and he wrote:

Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don’t want me “wasting time” on those, or talking about them here. Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don’t want me “wasting time” on the NFL, or talking about it here.

Some of you hate my other projects…Some of you don’t want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A Dance with Dragons.

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don’t want me to “pull a Robert Jordan” on you and deny you your book.

Martin obviously didn’t take such criticisms all that seriously. Last week, however, he published another post that was very different in tone. A Dance with Dragons had finally come out four years earlier, and fans had moved on to clamoring for the release of The Winds of Winter. Martin wrote: “You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.” He acknowledged that the book wasn’t close to being done, and he continued:

Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact…you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my twenties.

This post was widely reported and analyzed, but few observers appear to have noted the extent to which it deliberately echoed its predecessor, almost point for point. Martin seemed to grant that the “distractions” invoked by his detractors might, in fact, have been partially responsible for the delay—and although this sounds like a concession to his critics, it feels more to me like an act of self-wounding from a writer who is already deeply depressed, to use his own words, by his own lack of progress.

George R.R. Martin

And as much as I can understand it, it saddens me. Martin is a gardener, not an architect, and as an avowed architect myself, I can speak with some objectivity about the advantages, as well the disadvantages, of the gardener’s approach. What impatient fans sometimes fail to recognize is that the very elements that they love so much about the series arise from precisely the same place as the factors that have led to these delays. Its density of detail, its attention to character, its sense of taking even its author by surprise: all are inseparable from a creative process that is inherently unpredictable. In a blog post that most famously included the line “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” Neil Gaiman got close to the heart of the matter:

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren’t coming out on time.

And the tradeoff between time and quality—which might strike regular readers of this blog as familiar—is especially true of a series like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to live with the richness and unpredictibility that the gardener provides, you have to be prepared to die by it as well. And if those double-edged qualities weren’t there, you wouldn’t have been drawn to these books in the first place.

But there’s also a very real sense in which the series’s own successes contained the seeds of its downfall. (This is certainly true of Game of Thrones itself, which I’ve stopped watching largely because of issues that were invisibly contained in its conception from the very beginning.) Martin’s approach to writing isn’t wrong, but it’s problematic when linked, like a conjoined twin, to a television series that has to release new seasons on a regular schedule. The idea of a novelist finishing a book series in parallel with its production in other media isn’t unprecedented: J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter did much the same. But the movies are less hungry for plot and more forgiving of delay, and big franchises, like the James Bond series, have weathered long interruptions in production without damaging the brand. A cable series can’t do that, and the pressure on Martin, which is clearly enormous, arises from a structural tension between the kinds of novels he writes and the implacable logic of television—which doesn’t even mention the pressure from his publishing house, which is a huge machine trembling to take action as soon as his manuscript is delivered. Martin, who spent years writing for television, knows this, but he still hoped he could make it work: “I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has.” His disappointment in himself is painfully clear, and his sole consolation should be that what he was trying to do was probably impossible. Being unable to write to your satisfaction is the worst thing that can happen to any writer, regardless of the larger systems in which he plays a role, and we can only say to writer’s block what Arya is told to say to death: “Not today.”

From Walter White to Castle Black

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Stephen Dillane on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

Two years ago, after the stunning Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias” first aired, George R.R. Martin wrote the following on his blog:

Amazing series. Amazing episode last night. Talk about a gut punch.
Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.
(I need to do something about that.)

Ever since, Martin and the showrunners of Game of Thrones have been as good as their word, moving past the material in the original books to treat us to moments of violence and cruelty, sexual and otherwise, designed to deliver the kind of gut punch that Breaking Bad did so well. It all culminated, for now, in the most recent episode, in which Stannis—who wasn’t exactly a fan favorite, but at least ranked among the show’s more intriguing characters—burned his own adorable daughter alive. (Now that I’ve taken an extended break from the series, there’s something oddly liberating about reading about the high points the next day, instead of sitting through yet another hour of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes.)

I’m no longer a Game of Thrones fan, but I’ll give the show partial credit for setting itself an enormous technical challenge. It tells a complicated story with at least three major factions competing to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but it seems determined to make it impossible for us to root for anyone with a legitimate shot at the throne. This has always been a series devoted to undermining our usual reasons for enjoying fantasy fiction, and giving us a conventional hero to follow might have obscured its larger point—that Westeros is a deeply messed up world with a system designed to spark endless cycles of bloodshed, no matter who wears the crown at any given moment. In the abstract, this is one hell of an ambitious goal, and I’m the last person, or almost the last, to argue that a show has any obligation to make its protagonists likable. Yet I still feel that it has an obligation to make them interesting, and this is where the series falters, at least for me. When I look at the show’s current lineup of characters, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once wrote about the novels of James Fenimore Cooper: “The reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

In fact, in the absence of other satisfactions, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like an object lesson in the foolishness of becoming attached to anybody. It’s so singleminded about setting up and knocking down our hopes that it seems to be implicitly asking why we bother latching onto anyone at all. To which I’m tempted to respond with the words of Krusty the Clown: “Because I’m an idiot. Happy?” But the show either isn’t satisfied or no longer seems capable of doing anything else. At times, it resembles none of its characters so much as the loathsome Ramsay Bolton, with his systematic breakdown of Theon’s last shreds of humanity. Bolton, at least, is an unrepentant sadist, while the show hedges its cruelties with the implication that this is all somehow good for us. By alienating us from everyone, though, it’s taking the easy way out. We’ve known from the start that there can only be one winner here, at most, and if the show had managed to engage us with every side, the idea that most of these people won’t survive might have seemed genuinely tragic. Instead, I no longer particularly care who ends up on the Iron Throne. And by frustrating us so diligently in the short term, the show has denied itself an endgame that might actually have meant something.

A few seasons back, I might have defended Game of Thrones as a show that used dubious tactics for the sake of a larger strategy, but now I no longer believe in the strategy, either. (This lack of trust, more than any one scene, is the real reason I’ve stopped watching.) And I keep coming back to Martin’s comparison to Breaking Bad. Part of me likes to think that Martin merely mistyped: Walter White may not be a bigger monster than anyone on this show, but he’s certainly a better one. And the difference between him and his counterparts in Westeros—as well as the difference between a series that kept me hooked to the end, despite its occasional missteps, and one that I’ve more or less abandoned—lies in the queasy identification that Walt inspired in the audience. We may not have wanted Walt to “win,” but we loved watching him along the way, because he was endlessly interesting. And Breaking Bad earned its big, heartbreaking moments, as Hannibal has done more recently. But that kind of emotional immersion requires countless small, nearly invisible judgment calls and smart choices of the kind that Game of Thrones rarely seems capable of making. I don’t need to like Stannis, any more than I needed to like Walt. But I wish I liked the show around him.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2015 at 10:06 am

Gravity’s word processor

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The Scythian

In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary critic Edward Mendelson outs himself as yet another fan of old-school word processors, in this case WordPerfect, which he describes as “the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.” He goes on to draw a contrast between his favored program, “a mediocrity that’s almost always right,” and Microsoft Word, “a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose,” with its commitment to a platonic ideal of sections and styles that make it all the harder for writers to format a single page. It’s the difference, Mendelson implies, between a mindset that approaches the document from the top down, thinking in terms of templates and overall consistency, and the daily experience of a writer, who engages in direct combat with individual words and sentences, some of which have to be italicized, indented, or otherwise massaged in ways that don’t have anything to do with their neighbors. And as someone who lives comfortably within his own little slice of Word but wants to tear his hair out whenever he strays beyond it, I can’t help but sympathize.   

I happened to read Mendelson’s essay with particular interest, because I’m a longtime fan of his work. Mindful Pleasures, the collection of essays he edited on Thomas Pynchon, is one of those books I revisit every few years, and in particular, his piece on encyclopedic fiction has shaped the way I read authors from Dante to Joyce. Pynchon, of course, is a writer with more than a few ideas about how technology affects the way we live and think, and in his conclusion, Mendelson takes a cue from the master:

When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.

There’s more than an echo here of Gravity’s Rainbow, which pits its anarchic, cartoonish personalities against an impersonal conspiracy that finally consumes and assimilates them. And if Pynchon’s fantasy is centered on a rocket cartel that manipulates world events to its own advantage, a writer trying to wrestle a document into shape can sometimes feel like he’s up against an equally faceless enemy.

WordStar

If Word can be a frustrating tool for writers, it’s because it wasn’t made for anyone in particular, but for “everyone.” As one of the core handful of programs included in the Microsoft Office suite, it’s meant to serve a wide range of functions, from hammering out a high school essay to formatting a rudimentary corporate newsletter. It’s intended to be equally useful to someone who creates a document twice a month and someone who uses it every day, which means that it’s tailored to the needs of precisely nobody. And it was presumably implemented by coders who would rebel against any similar imposition. There’s a reason why so many programmers still live in Emacs and its text-based brethren: they’re simple once you get to know them, they’re deeply customizable, and they let you keep your hands on the keyboard for extended periods of time. Word, by contrast, seems to have been designed for a hypothetical consumer who would rather follow a template than fiddle with each line by hand. This may be true of most casual users, but it’s generally not true of coders—or writers. And Word, like so much other contemporary technology, offers countless options but very little choice.

There are times, obviously, when a standard template can be useful, especially when you’re putting together something like an academic bibliography. Yet there’s a world of difference between really understanding bibliographic style from the inside and trusting blindly to the software, which always needs to be checked by hand, anyway, to catch the errors that inevitably creep in. In the end, though, Word wasn’t made for me; it was made for users who see a word processor as an occasional tool, rather than the environment in which they spend most of their lives. For the rest of us, there are either specialized programs, like Scrivener, or the sliver of Word we’ve managed to colonize. In my post on George R.R. Martin and his use of WordStar—which, somewhat embarrassingly, has turned out to be the most widely read thing I’ve ever written—I note that a writer’s choice of tools is largely determined by habit. I’ve been using Word for two decades, and the first drafts of all my stories are formatted in exactly the way the program imposes, in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman. I’m so used to how it looks that it fades into invisibility, which is exactly how it should be. The constraints it imposes are still there, but I’ve adapted so I can take them for granted, like a deep-sea fish that would explode if taken closer to the surface, or an animal that has learned to live with gravity.

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

Nice to meet you, Harwin—or is it Hullen?

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The cast of Game of Thrones

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to use Metcalfe’s Law to explain why ensemble casts on television can be so useful. It’s a formula that states that the value of a social network, such as a telephone exchange, is proportional to the square of the number of connected individuals (or, more precisely, n(n-1)/2). Any network, whether it consists of users linked by computers or characters on a show like Mad Men, gains its power less from the individual units than through their interactions, and with every additional member, the number of potential connections grows exponentially. That’s why television relies so much on ensembles: once you’ve run for a season or two, you’re constantly in search of interesting pairings that haven’t yet been explored in stories. A show with three major cast members has only three possible combinations, but with six characters, the number rises to fifteen, and while some of these pairings can be more fruitful than others—Monica and Chandler are more fun than, say, Ross and Phoebe—the odds of finding something that works increase with the number of theoretical interactions. Or so you’d hope.

In practice, of course, that level of connective density can pose problems of its own, especially in written form. When you’re reading a novel for the first time, you’re engaging in a complicated set of mental adjustments, which aren’t any less impressive for being so routine. You’re learning the rules of the world that you’re entering, making decisions about how fully to commit to the logic of the story, and figuring out who the hell everybody is. And the more names you’re asked to process at once, the harder it can be to surrender. In the first couple of pages of the opening chapter of A Game of Thrones, for instance, we’re introduced in quick succession to Bran, Robb, Eddard, Theon, Jon Snow, Jory Cassel, Harwin, and Hullen, all without a lot of handholding. This can be part of the fun of epic fiction, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my head started to hurt a little with every new name. Reading ought to be a left-brained process, and it can be exhausting when the right hemisphere is tasked immediately with keeping track of a dozen characters and their various relationships. It starts to feel less like entertainment than bookkeeping, or like being whisked through a series of introductions at a party at which you forget each name as soon as you hear it.

The cast of Game of Thrones

And we’re talking about George R.R. Martin, an old pro who is consciously testing the limits of how much information a reader can handle. In the hands of lesser writers, the chore of keeping the players straight can sap all the pleasure from the opening pages. (I sometimes feel this way when reading a story in Analog, in which I’m thrown a bunch of new names at once while trying to figure out what planet I’m on.) And it’s good for a writer to develop the habit of easing the transition into the story’s world as much as possible, especially in those crucial early stages when the costs of putting a book down are much lower than those of continuing. It helps, for instance, to introduce one major character at a time; to include short descriptive tags whenever convenient (“Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow”); to omit names for minor figures, like the innkeeper we see once and never meet again; to keep the names you do use distinctive; and to make sure, above all, that each relationship is relatively clear before moving on to the next. There are times, obviously, when a writer will want to withhold this kind of information for a legitimate reason. In general, though, the cost to narrative momentum is so great that the situations where this makes sense are rare.

It’s also worth noting how much easier it is to keep track of the characters I’ve listed above on the television version of Game of Thrones. On television, in film, or on the stage, handling a large cast is a easier, both because we can rely on an actor’s physical presence to distinguish him from others and because our eyes are better at processing material like this than our brains are alone. (It’s a little like the difference between playing mental chess and looking at the pieces on the board: it’s harder to play a reasonable game when you’re preoccupied with remembering where everything is.) In Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman advises writers to never open a script with a courtroom scene, since the stage directions can quickly degenerate into a list of names—the judge, the defense team, the prosecuting attorney, the client, the witnesses. He goes on to say that it’s fine to open a movie this way, since we’ve got the faces of the actors to help keep it all straight, and finally concludes: “I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t ask the screenplay to do what it has trouble with. Information overload is one of those trouble spots.” And this applies as much to fiction as to screenwriting. Your characters may be vivid in your own imagination, but to the reader, they’re just names on the page. And you’ve got to proceed with care and consideration if you want to turn those names into people.

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

The Long Game

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Last week, while writing about the season finale of Hannibal, I laid out a pet theory about television shows that have a tendency to kill off their lead characters:

When it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that [Bryan] Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thrones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.

In other words, when someone dies, there’s always a tradeoff involved, and a smart show will only eliminate a protagonist if the short-term benefit outweighs the long-term cost of no longer having that character around. This rule doesn’t really work for a show like The Vampire Diaries, which finds myriad ways of resurrecting its key players, but until recently, it did a decent job of explaining events on Game of Thrones. The characters who died tended to be either figureheads who were more interesting in what they represented than in their actions within the story; initially compelling players who had been increasingly sidelined; or ostensible leads who weren’t all that engaging in the first place. And I felt confident that if a character—or actor—was actively enriching the show by his or her presence, the series wouldn’t lightly throw it away.

Well, so much for that theory. (In financial terms, the model worked fine when tested against past data, but fell apart outside my historical sample.) If last night’s episode was especially shocking, even for a show that seems designed to regularly break its viewers’ hearts, it’s partially because of the ways in which the series has diverged unexpectedly from the books. To hear readers tell it, Oberyn doesn’t seem to have been a particularly memorable character on the page, but Pedro Pascal’s performance has been one of the small delights of an often meandering season, and his departure feels like a real loss in a way that previous fatalities have not. Another series, after seeing what it had on the screen, might have revised the storyline accordingly—it wouldn’t be the first time that a character was granted a stay of execution because of the charisma a performer brought to the part—but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been cruelly faithful to Martin’s overall vision. There really wasn’t any way to keep Oberyn around, and it’s in the collision between what the show was slowly discovering on its own and the brutal necessities of its source material that makes the outcome so painful.

Pedro Pascal on Game of Thrones

I’m not really complaining here: it’s that very tension between the unpredictable nature of television and the demands of the text that makes this show special. Still, Oberyn’s death bothered me beyond any reasonable measure, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I’d grown so attached to the character—or because his demise was so graphic. (You know when a show has set a new standard for violence when I start to long nostalgically for Hannibal‘s more aestheticized form of bloodshed.) Game of Thrones is a good show that I’m glad to have the chance to watch, but there’s also a sense in which it uses its virtuoso moments of gore and reversal to cover up the lack of momentum elsewhere. A lot of the fourth season has felt like it was stalling for time: events at Castle Black and across the Narrow Sea have been stuck in a holding pattern, with much talk and declamation leaving the characters more or less exactly where they were before, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they’re playing for time. For all her power, Daenerys can’t go anywhere or do much of anything yet because we still have four more books of material to cover, and the result has turned one of my favorite characters from the early days of the series into something dangerously resembling a bore.

In retrospect, I think it may have been a mistake to divide the third novel across two seasons: it buys Martin more time to finish the books, but it leads to a lot of thumbs twiddling between the squishing of heads. To its credit, Game of Thrones has always nailed the big moments, and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week’s episode, which, if the pattern from previous seasons is any indication, should be a real barnburner. Over the long term, though, the show needs to find a more sustainable rhythm if episodes like “The Mountain and the Viper” are going to play like the dramatic culminations they are, rather than another instance of Martin and company jerking the audience around. This may require even more radical departures from the structure the books have imposed, and even a willingness to drop certain plot threads altogether—while building up the rest—until the time comes to integrate them again into the main story. This isn’t a radical notion; serialized television drops and picks up characters all the time, and the space it gains allows the show to develop its heart more fully. Game of Thrones spends an inordinate amount of time, even now, reminding us that certain characters exist, when that space might have been better spent showing characters like Oberyn simply existing, if only until they depart from the stage for good.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

The Reddit Wedding

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The front page of Reddit

Early last Sunday, after giving my daughter a bottle, putting on the kettle for coffee, and glancing over the front page of the New York Times, I moved on to the next stop in my morning routine: I went to Reddit. Like many of us, I’ve started to think of Reddit as a convenient curator of whatever happens to be taking place online that day, and after customizing the landing page to my tastes—unsubscribing from the meme factories, keeping the discussions of news and politics well out of view—it has gradually turned into the site where I spend most of my time. (It’s also started to leave a mark on my home life: I have a bad habit of starting conversations with my wife with “There was a funny thread on Reddit today…) That morning, I was looking over the top posts when I noticed a link to an article about the author George R.R. Martin and his use of the antiquated word processor WordStar to write all of his fiction, including A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones. At first, I was amused, because I’d once thought about submitting that very tidbit myself. A second later, I realized why the post looked so familiar. It was linked to this blog.

At that point, my first thought, and I’m not kidding, was, “Hey, I wonder if I’ll get a spike in traffic.” And I did. In fact, if you’re curious about what it means to end up on the front page of Reddit, as of this writing, that post—which represented about an hour’s work from almost a year ago—has racked up close to 300,000 hits, more than doubling the lifetime page views for this entire blog. At its peak, it was the third most highly ranked post on Reddit that morning, a position it held very briefly: within a few hours, it had dropped off the front page entirely, although not before inspiring well over 1,500 comments. Most of the discussion revolved around WordStar, the merits of different word processing platforms, and about eighty variations on the joke of “Oh, so that’s why it’s taking Martin so long to finish.” The source of the piece was mentioned maybe once or twice, and several commenters seemed to think that this was Martin’s blog. And the net impact on this site itself, after the initial flurry of interest, was minimal. A few days later, traffic has fallen to its usual modest numbers, and only a handful of new arrivals seem to have stuck around. (If you’re one of them, I thank you.) And it’s likely that none of this site’s regular readers noticed that anything out of the ordinary was happening at all.

My blog stats

In short, because of one random link, this blog received an influx of visitors equivalent to the population of Cincinnati, and not a trace remains—I might as well have dreamed it. But then again, this isn’t surprising, given how most people, including me, tend to browse content these days. When I see an interesting link on Reddit, I’ll click on it, skim the text, then head back to the post for the comments. (For a lot of articles, particularly on science, I’ll read the comments first to make sure the headline wasn’t misleading.) I’ll rarely, if ever, pause to see what else the destination site has to offer; it’s just too easy to go back to Reddit or Digg or Twitter to find the next interesting article from somewhere else. In other words, I’m just one of the many guilty parties in what has been dubbed the death of the homepage. The New York Times landing page has lost eighty million visitors over the last two years, and it isn’t hard to see why. We’re still reading the Times, but we’re following links from elsewhere, which not only changes the way we read news, but the news we’re likely to read: less hard reporting, more quizzes, infographics, entertainment and self-help items, as well as the occasional diverting item from a site like this.

And it’s a reality that writers and publishers, including homegrown operations like mine, need to confront. The migration of content away from homepages and into social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing; comments on Reddit, for instance, are almost invariably more capably ranked and moderated, more active, and more interesting than the wasteland of comments on even major news sites. (Personally, I’d be fine if most newspapers dropped commenting altogether, as Scientific American and the Chicago Sun-Times recently did, and left the discussion to take place wherever the story gets picked up.) But it also means that we need to start thinking of readers less as a proprietary asset retained over time than as something we have to win all over again with every post, while getting used to the fact that none of it will last. Or almost none of it. A few days after my post appeared on Reddit, George R.R. Martin was interviewed by Conan O’Brien, who asked him about his use of WordStar—leading to another burst of coverage, even though Martin’s preferences in word processing have long been a matter of record. And while I can’t say for sure, between you and me, I’m almost positive that it wouldn’t have come up if someone on Conan’s staff hadn’t seen my post. It isn’t much. But it’s nice.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2014 at 9:52 am

Game of spoilers

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Sean Bean on Game of Thrones

Recently, I entered one of the most nervewracking phases of my pop culture life: I’m almost, but not quite, caught up on Game of Thrones. For various reasons, mostly because my diet of television was already overstuffed, I hadn’t gotten around to watching any of the series until last month, shortly after the fourth season premiered. When I did the math, I found that I could catch up quickly enough to watch the back half of the season as it aired if I ran through an episode a night, which is precisely how my wife and I have been spending the last four weeks. Fortunately, it’s the kind of show made for an epic binge, and there are extended stretches, especially in the second season, when you can’t wait to keep going. (Things slow down considerably in the third season, probably because of the decision to split one book across two ten-episode runs, but that’s a subject for another post.) And now that I’m only three episodes away from being able to watch the show in real time, I’m both relieved and a little anxious. Navigating the spoilers for the series so far has been an adventure in itself, and now that I’m so close to the goal, I feel a little like an explorer reaching the end of a series of booby traps—which, as Indiana Jones pointed out, is usually when the ground falls out from under your feet.

Game of Thrones is unique, of course, in that the spoilers theoretically never end. So far, the show has adapted two and a half books from a seven-book series, five installments of which have been published, which means that something like four more years of plot points are already in print. (If it isn’t clear by now, I’m coming to the series before encountering the books, although I expect that I’ll probably read them all before long, especially if I can figure out a good way to read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons simultaneously.) The series has shown a willingness to depart from the books in certain ways, but it’s fair to assume that it will closely follow the overall narrative as laid down in Martin’s novels. As a result, viewers of Game of Thrones have a different relationship to spoilers than with any other show in history. On the one hand, if you’re just a day or two behind, there’s an enormous risk of spoilers online and in social media: even if you manage to stay off Twitter while the current episode airs, there’s always the danger of running into a gif, an offhand reference, or a think piece in the New York Times. On the other hand, beyond that immediate risk, we have what you might call the Experts and Newbies divide, and by the time we’re all on the same page, we’ll be well into the next presidential administration. And even knowing roughly how many years the series is going to run counts as something of a spoiler in itself: no matter how far along the narrative seems, we know that there’s much, much more to come.

Maisie Williams on Game of Thrones

Yet there are also ways, perversely, in which having certain developments spoiled has enhanced my enjoyment of the show. I nearly made it to “The Lion and the Rose” with one big twist still unknown to me, only to have it spoiled the day before by a gratuitous joke in an unrelated article on The A.V. Club. Not surprisingly, I was pretty mad about this—I was so, so close—but I found that it didn’t diminish the episode’s suspense. In some respects, it increased it: Hitchcock famously describes the difference between suspense and surprise, coming down squarely in favor of the latter, and much of my tension during the episode came from my knowledge of what was coming, much as Vertigo works better when its central revelation arrives at the beginning of the third act, rather than at the end. Did it make the episode better? Not necessarily, and I’m sure the creators would have preferred, as I did, that I’d gone in cold. Still, it allowed me to appreciate how cleverly all of the elements of the story were being laid into place, which otherwise would have had to wait until a second viewing, and it didn’t lessen the impact of a virtuoso set piece which ranks among the best things the show has ever done.

And there’s a sense in which our prior knowledge of the show—whether through accidental spoilers or having read the books—adds another dimension to the viewer’s engagement. The best parallel to this is Hannibal, a show based on source material that I do know by heart, and which pushes against its inspiration in ways that have become delightful and surprising. Even the most casual viewer probably knows more or less where Hannibal Lecter’s story is going, and Bryan Fuller’s stated intention to carry the series through Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the climactic Hannibal novel itself tips us off to the arc of the stories for years to come. So far, however, this hasn’t been a weakness but a strength: Fuller has shown a readiness to depart from canon in startling ways, as well as to incorporate new arrangements of the puzzle pieces he has, and for a Thomas Harris fan, that’s part of the fun, whether it comes from a line of repurposed dialogue or a new interpretation of a character we thought we knew. We may have a good idea of the what, but the how remains unknown. And it’s in the how, or in those aspects of style and inspiration that can’t be spoiled in advance, that great television thrives.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

I love you, you’re perfect, now change

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David Lynch

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What creator just can’t put out work fast enough for you?”

Over the past few days, I’ve been revisiting David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman, one of the weirdest and most unappreciated books of the last decade. On its release, it was widely panned by reviewers and readers alike—it current boasts a pathetic two stars on Amazon—but it’s actually a fascinating work, assuming that you can manage to rid yourself of the notion that it’s a book about Kidman at all. It’s really more about Thomson, or, more accurately, about a deliberately unsettling Charles Kinbote figure who happens to share Thomson’s name, as well as a meditation on how we relate to movies and movie stars. Hence the numerous digressions, the sometimes unsettling fantasies, and Thomson’s habit of imagining roles for Kidman that she couldn’t possibly have played. He also practices a form of counterfactual criticism in which he critiques a movie by inventing an altogether different story that he would have liked to see instead. The book includes extended, elaborate pitches for alternate versions of To Die For and Malice, as well as a take on Eyes Wide Shut in which every female role would be played by Kidman herself. The result is both fascinating and deeply annoying. Even when coming from our most interesting film critic, saying that the only way to fix a movie would be to have the filmmakers go back in time and do another story entirely isn’t particularly helpful.

Yet I’m convinced that Thomson, a very intelligent man who has written novels of his own, is perfectly aware of this, and that his book is really a veiled commentary on how we try to retroactively transmute works of art—and their creators—into the forms that we’d prefer. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film or television show with an engaging supporting character and saying: “I wish the story were about this guy!” Similarly, a movie will often suggest promising detours and directions that sadly aren’t taken, and it’s easy after the fact to observe, for instance, that Argo would have been a more interesting movie if it had probed more deeply into the relationship between reality and cinematic fantasy. Of course, this willfully ignores how works of art, both good and bad, are made. If a writer simply proceeded according to a rational plan, or had the ability to look at his work objectively when he was finished, it might be possible to scrap years of work to tease out the implications of one subordinate thread. In practice, it isn’t that simple. No matter how good the plan is, artists often find themselves proceeding by intuition, groping in the dark, and the story they end up with is both one they’ve chosen and one that was thrust upon them. And this doesn’t even take into account the contingencies and compromises that time, budget, or commercial considerations impose on any work in the real world.

Thomas Harris

Which is all just to say that a solution that may seem obvious to us when we’re watching a story in the comfort of our own living rooms may be anything but obvious to an artist in the weeds. (The reaction to the finale of How I Met Your Mother is only the most recent example of the gap between the creator’s intentions and the audience’s feelings about how the story should have gone.) Yet we still often feel, as fans, that we know better, and this applies to the overall shape of an artist’s career as much as anything else. We want George R.R. Martin to focus on A Song of Ice and Fire instead of wasting his time on Wild Cards, or for Thomas Harris to get off Hannibal Lecter already and give us the great thriller we just know he could write. A long silence or a random side project seems like an affront, or an abdication. Really, though, we have no idea of the real reason. A writer may not be like J.D. Salinger, who evidently wrote every day and locked the manuscripts up in his safe, but what looks like a break is often filled with immense invisible activity: failed attempts, abortive deals, creative dead ends, promising byways, or the general messiness of life. And just as a story is shaped by factors that may never even occur to us as we smugly point out how it should have been, so an artist’s life—which is a work in progress in itself—has a logic that can’t be seen from the outside.

Take David Lynch. For much of the late eighties and early nineties, he occupied a cultural position that no one has managed to fill since. While remaining as prickly, surreal, and inexplicable as ever, he delivered a television series that became a national obsession, lent his name to an entire subcategory of storytelling, and appeared on the cover of Time. His influence has been enormous—you can see it on shows as different as Hannibal and Mad Men—and he still has countless fans. (Years ago, when I tried to attend his reading of Catching the Big Fish at the landmark Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was turned away because the store was full, which hasn’t happened to me before or since.) But it’s been eight years since his last movie, which in itself reflected a plunge into even greater interiority, freed by digital video and unencumbered by studio constraints. Do I want him to make another movie? Obviously. Would I want it to be more like Blue Velvet than Inland Empire? Yes. But I’m also aware that all the things I love about Lynch are inseparable from the man himself, and that his work has always emerged from unexpected and unpromising places. This still doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about the next turn his career could take, or wondering what Inland Empire would have been if it were an hour shorter. It’s a fun parlor game. But we shouldn’t confuse it with playing the game for real.

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2014 at 9:56 am

A writer’s bucket list

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Darren Aronofsky

I never thought I’d say this, but I may as well admit it: I’m getting pretty excited for Noah. When Darren Aronofsky announced that he was tackling an epic Biblical movie as his next project, it seemed like a strange departure from the director of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. The trailers have been oddly thrilling, though, and early word is that this is a deeply weird, personal movie that just happens to have cost a hundred million dollars to make, which is a prospect I can never resist. And in fact, Aronofsky’s obsession with Noah goes back a long time, and it reflects the intensely meaningful nature of the material he chooses. In an excellent New Yorker profile, Tad Friend writes:

In the mid-nineties [before his first film was made], Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years: the stress and the bloody toes his sister incurred in ballet practice became Nina’s in Black Swan; his parents’ cancer scares informed Izzi’s cancer in The Fountain. After he wrote a prose poem about Noah for his seventh-grade English teacher, Vera Fried, he got to read it over the P.A. system—”The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air”—and was transformed from a math geek into a writer. He rewarded Fried by giving her a walk-on in Noah as a one-eyed hag.

I love this story, because I can relate to it: I suspect that every writer has a short list of stories that he or she would love to write one day, and Aronofsky has been lucky and tenacious enough to see many of them on the big screen. (Black Swan was the kind of unexpected international success that gives a director one free pass for his next movie, and Aronofsky, to his credit, seems to have cashed it in on the greatest possible scale.) In my own case, I’ve got a private roster of ideas that I’ve been carrying around in my head for a long time, many for close to two decades, and I’ve occasionally had the chance to get them in print. The Icon Thief was my attempt to write a conspiracy novel that would reflect—and at least partially exorcise—the love I felt in high school for Foucault’s Pendulum, and my desire to write something about the vision of Ezekiel, which dates back to around the same period, informed a good chunk of City of Exiles. As for the others, I’m developing one right now in the form of a new novel, although I’m not sure where it will end up, and I hope to get around to the rest one of these days. And if I don’t tell you what any of them are, it’s only because I want to keep them all for myself.

George R.R. Martin

In practice, though, it’s easy to postpone such ideas in favor of ones that seem more immediately pressing, both because we’re afraid that we may not be able to do them justice and because we think we’ve got more time than we really have. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, as George R.R. Martin points out in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. After discussing the early death of his friend, the writer Tom Reamy, Martin says:

But Tom’s death had a profound effect on me, because I was in my early thirties then. I’d been thinking…well, I have all these stories that I want to write, all these novels I want to write, and I have all the time in the world to write them, ‘cause I’m a young guy, and then Tom’s death happened, and I said, Boy. Maybe I don’t have all the time in the world. Maybe I’ll die tomorrow. Maybe I’ll die ten years from now…After Tom’s death, I said, “You know, I gotta try this. I don’t know if I can make a living as a full-time writer or not, but who knows how much time I have left? I don’t want to die ten years from now or twenty years from now and say I never told the stories I wanted to tell because I always thought I could do it next week or next year.

I can relate to this, too. Life is short and art is long, and it seems like there’s no excuse for putting off the stories you love for a day that may never come. But it’s also important to leave room on that bucket list for surprises, and even to depart from it occasionally to see what else you might discover. If there’s one problem with tackling nothing but your own passion projects, it’s that you’re too close to the subject matter to evaluate your work on its own merits: I’ve often done my best work when I’ve been able to start a project from a position of detachment, feeling my way into a passionate engagement with the material from the outside. In the end, like most things in an artist’s life, it’s a matter of balance, and it’s important to keep a middle ground between the stories you’ve always wanted to write and those tricky, intractable ideas that seduce you when you least expect it. (It’s perhaps no accident that Aronofsky’s two best movies, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, were based on stories by others, however closely they may have overlapped with the director’s own obsessions.) For most of us, we don’t need to choose: a writer’s life includes many stories written on impulse, under contract, or because it was all we were capable of doing at the time. And that’s fine. Because on a real writer’s bucket list, there’s only one item, which is to keep writing at all costs.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2014 at 9:56 am

“She couldn’t believe it was over…”

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"Ilya saw that the path to the elevators was blocked..."

Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 21. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about my fascination with television, and especially with the challenges involved in telling an extended, episodic narrative in a medium that offers no clearly defined endpoint. Trying to plan too far in advance is a fool’s game: you never know if you’re going to get a single pilot, ten episodes, or a decade’s worth of stories, so you simultaneously need to act as if you might be canceled tomorrow and if you’ll get six seasons and a movie. Inevitably, the situation encourages shows to burn through ideas as quickly as possible. Since you don’t know how long you’re going to be on the air, it doesn’t make sense to hold any of the good stuff in reserve—which is why so many series seem to work themselves into exhaustion around the fifth season or so. At the other extreme, planning too far in advance can rob a show of its surprise and spontaneity, as I argued last year in my Salon piece on The X-Files and House of Cards. Even a show like Breaking Bad, which was able to set its own timetable for its final run of episodes, allowed chance and uncertainty to creep into the process: when Vince Gilligan and his writing staff showed us that machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car at the beginning of the final season, even they weren’t sure how it was going to be used in the end.

Since a book is written and conceived in its entirety before its initial publication, it’s harder for a novelist to set challenges like this, although there are exceptions. Writing in a serial format, as Tom Wolfe did with the original draft of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Stephen King did with The Green Mile, can create something of the same effect, and it’s an approach I’ve often been tempted to try. It’s also a factor for authors of series fiction. Plotting out one novel is hard enough in itself, much less trying to figure out a narrative arc that spans several volumes, and I suspect that most writers who stretch a single story across multiple books aren’t quite sure how the final result will look. George R.R. Martin’s evolving sense of the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire has been thoroughly documented—he originally conceived it as a trilogy, only to see it balloon to a projected seven installments—and although he claims to have a general sense of how the story will end, I expect that even he will be surprised by many of his own developments. Part of this has to do with sustaining the writer’s interest over a project that can consume many years of his or her life, but even more of it has to do with the impossibility of holding that much information in one’s head at any one time.

"She couldn't believe it was over..."

As a result, a plot development in the middle of a series can sometimes resemble a shot in the dark, a best guess as to which avenues of exploration will turn out to be dramatically profitable. By the time I started work on City of Exiles, I knew that I wanted it to be the middle volume of a trilogy, which meant that every choice would affect not just the plot I was writing, but a hypothetical third book whose outlines I could see only dimly. (I’d like to believe that the three books in the series feel like one unified story, but I had no idea what Eternal Empire would be about, or even who the protagonist would be, until I’d submitted a draft of the second installment.) Of all the judgment calls I made, the one that had the greatest impact on what followed was the decision to have Ilya captured by the police at the exact midpoint of the series. At the time, as I mentioned last week, it was a way of forestalling writer’s block: I didn’t want to write the same novel all over again, and the change was radical enough to get me excited about where the story would go. But it also imposed enormous limitations, since I was effectively confining my most dynamic character for an extended period of time, and it meant that I was suddenly writing a prison novel, which wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I started.

When I wrote the scene of Ilya’s capture, which occurs in Chapter 20, I knew that all of these elements would present issues down the line, but I tried to take a page from the episodic narratives I admired and focus solely on the moment. I think the result is an exciting scene, and hopefully an unexpected one, all the more so because I didn’t know what would happen next. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine this series unfolding in any other way, and it certainly opened up a rich vein of new ideas. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to write this scene at all if I didn’t know that I had ample background material available on the British prison system, in the form of memoirs, journalism, and other works of nonfiction, most of which will make its appearance in Part II.) By writing both Ilya and myself into a corner—and one I wouldn’t be able to get out for another three hundred pages, spread over two different books—I gave the series a jolt of energy that it badly needed. Whether the result was better or worse than it would have been if I’d gone in a different direction is something I’ll never know. All I can say is that it made me a lot more curious about the outcome, and that when I put Ilya in handcuffs, I had no idea how, if ever, he’d get out of them again…

Written by nevalalee

March 13, 2014 at 10:10 am

“When Renata awoke that morning…”

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"When Renata awoke that morning..."

Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A writer makes a lot of decisions before he starts to put words on the page, but the most important choice is easily that of point of view. Determining whether a narrative should be written in the first person, third person, or some other variant not only shapes the concrete choices you make from one sentence to the next, but it fundamentally influences the kinds of stories you can tell. A writer’s preferences are a reflection of his tastes and personality, and I’m no exception. I won’t go as far as Henry James, who believed that the first person was “barbaric” for anything but short works of fiction, but it’s no accident that of all my published stories, only one, “Ernesto,” makes use of the first-person point of view, and it’s also the shortest story I’ve ever written. (I decided to write it in the first person partially as a personal experiment, but also for sound narrative reasons. It’s a scientific detective story featuring a thinly disguised version of the young Hemingway, and by telling it from the perspective of another character, I was able to avoid the temptation to write it in a bad version of Hemingway’s style. It was also an homage to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: if your lead character is a genius, it’s often best to narrate it from Watson’s point of view, or else your hero will spend half the story commenting on his own brilliance.)

For the vast majority of my stories, I use a third-person omniscient point of view, in which I can dip at will into the thoughts and perspectives of any character, although I do what I can to keep it under control. Most of my scenes and chapters are effectively written in third-person limited, which means that I stick to one character’s perceptions until the chapter is over, switching to another only when the next scene begins. I prefer this to the approach, which you see in such authors as James Clavell, in which every character’s thoughts are fair game at any point: it can often feel as if you’re switching between perspectives at random, and it makes it hard to keep any secrets without actively cheating the reader. When I do switch between perspectives in a scene, as is sometimes necessary to intercut the action, I try to do it only once, at a pivotal moment, and I do what I can to make the transition clear. The result has served me well through three novels and multiple short stories—most of which are written in pure third-person limited—and I’ve come to think of it much as Paul Graham thinks of the Lisp programming language:

If you’re not sure yet what kind of program you’re writing, it’s a safe bet to write it in Lisp. Whatever kind of program yours turns out to be, Lisp will, during the writing of it, have evolved into a language for writing that kind of program.

"Renata ignored her..."

Yet the third-person omniscient point of view also has its pitfalls. It offers the constant temptation to switch between more perspectives than you really need, and more than two or three can be hard for a reader to follow. We’re naturally inclined to focus our emotional energies onto a single character, which is why most movies have a clearly defined star part, and it can be hard to know where to fix our attention if multiple characters are competing for time. This is particularly troublesome when long gaps go between appearances. Some readers find the shifting perspectives in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire difficult to manage, and I vividly remember losing patience with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an otherwise excellent novel, when it became clear that each section was going to be told from the point of view of a different character, and that we’d never return to that perspective again once the section was over—which made it very hard to invest in any one person. I’ve learned from hard experience to provide a narrative home base for the reader, which is why each of my novels start by emphasizing one thread slightly over another. In The Icon Thief, it’s Maddy’s story; in City of Exiles, it’s Wolfe’s. So I always begin each novel by cutting back repeatedly to this main thread, usually in every other chapter, until the core of the narrative has been established.

As a result, there’s a point in each of my books, usually around Chapter 10, in which the story branches out into a more expansive structure. If you map it out on paper, the moment when this happens is clear at a glance: it’s when I drop the alternating structure of the opening section, having established the protagonist, and start to move more freely between different characters. In City of Exiles, this occurs in Chapter 11, which is told from the point of view of the photographer Renata Russell, who has appeared until now only in a supporting capacity. Giving this chapter to a tertiary character serves a structural as well as a narrative function: it’s a signal to the reader that from this point onward, the scope of the novel will widen. It also allows me to incorporate information that couldn’t easily be provided from the point of view of any of the characters who have taken center stage thus far. Here, Renata pays a visit to James Morley, a fund manager who has agreed to have his portrait taken, and at first, its significance to the larger plot isn’t entirely clear. Hopefully, though, the reader will take it on faith that this scene will pay off later on—which is why it lives most comfortably here, and not earlier in the novel, when the rules of the game were still being established. As it stands, it’s a nice, short scene that also gives me a chance to explore the headspace of an interesting supporting character, and as it turns out, it could only happen now. Renata, alas, won’t be around for much longer…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am

Music for crappy speakers

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Brian Eno

It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.
—Brian Eno

There’s a moment in Once, one of my favorite movies of recent years, in which the leads, played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, stuff themselves into their recording engineer’s tiny car so they can hear how their freshly mixed debut album sounds on the worst speakers imaginable. It’s a cute scene, and it contains a germ of good advice. A while back, the record producer Bill Moriarty made a case on his blog for mixing records on “crap speakers,” rather than high-end studio monitors, to more closely replicate the experience of a listener playing the album at home. The original post seems to have disappeared, but a long quote is available here, including my favorite part:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

At first, this advice may not seem to be applicable to writers, since the words on the page don’t change from one format to another. Like me, you may prefer that readers experience your book on the physical page, rather than on Kindle or squeezed onto a tiny cell phone screen, but there’s no real loss of information. But if there’s an equivalent for the speaker—which turns an electrical audio signal into sound—in the reading process, it’s the reader’s brain, which transforms words into actions and images. And even if you ignore the natural variations between readers, there’s no question that people are going to be encountering your story in many different states of mind. Some will be reading it closely and attentively, although this may only be your copy editor; others will be looking at it critically, with an eye for flaws; many will be distracted, tired, or simply looking for escape; and nearly all will be giving it something less than their full attention, both because there are so many other available distractions and because close attention is something a book earns.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once

This only means you need to be mindful of how your book will read under less than perfect circumstances. Many novels, including mine, are designed to be read straight through, which is something you rarely, if ever, get in practice: readers pick books up and put them down, often in the middle of a chapter or sequence you’ve carefully constructed to read as a whole, and days or weeks may pass between one page and the next. And just because you’ve introduced a key plot point on page 50 doesn’t mean the reader will remember anything about it when it reappears on page 200. In particular, I’ve learned from hard experience to keep the characters as clear as possible. If a novel has a large cast, I try to give each character a distinctive name, often beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, and I’ll unobtrusively drop in a reminder of who this person is whenever he or she has spent a long time offstage. Not every writer follows this rule—George R.R. Martin, for one, takes pride in trampling on it—but I see it as a small courtesy for a reader who may not be reading the story with as much attentiveness as I’d like.

But this doesn’t mean that every novel should be pitched at the level of a reader who is glancing at the book between sips of sangria at the beach, any more than an album designed to play well enough on a squeakbox from Radio Shack can’t also sound great on the top of the line from Bose. It’s more about optimizing the frequencies that all readers will hear. The best books—like the best stories of every kind—work on more than one level at once: ideally, there’s a thread of story that will draw in even the most distractible reader while deeper registers of meaning are available for those who want to discover them. Nabokov constructs Lolita like a thriller; Jonathan Franzen knows that his novels have to compete with multiple other forms of distraction, and he structures them accordingly; and Shakespeare, above all others, understood the value of plot and suspense as a vehicle for the most agonized intellectual explorations. For those with the patience to hear them, the subtler frequencies are there, but even on the most distracted of mental speakers, the underlying music ought to come through.

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

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