Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George R.R. Martin

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

The head has a body

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Norman Mailer

As Blaise Pascal notes, a man is a thinking reed, the most fragile creature in all of nature, and an author is something even stranger: a reed that spends much of its time writing about the actions of other, imaginary reeds. We tend to think of writers as intellectual beings, but an author’s eyes and brain are inextricably tethered to the body, which often has a surprising degree of influence on the work itself. Writing is an intensely physical activity, like playing chess, and I burn a lot of calories in the process: my weight often drops during a first draft, then goes up again in the rewrite, which is when the manuscript itself tends to slim down. (Stephen King says that you should cut ten percent from any first draft, and I sometimes wonder if the missing material just ends up assimilated into the writer’s gut.) These days, the physical effects are even more striking. With a baby in the house, I’ve been getting up earlier than usual, and my writing process is more intermittent but very intense—when Beatrix goes down for a nap, I don’t know if I’ll have twenty minutes or two hours, so I tend to write with one eye constantly on the clock. As a result, I haven’t been this thin since college.

It’s been known for a long time, of course, that brain work is a very real thing. The brain consumes about twenty percent of the body’s energy at any given time, and that’s independent of any actual thinking: it’s more or less the same whether you’re writing War and Peace, killing time on Reddit, or, as is the case for most writers, alternating between the two. But writing isn’t just about the brain alone. Most of the sympathetic nervous system gets into the action as well, since you’re either sweating over a plot problem, caught up in your character’s struggles, or beating yourself up over an intractable page. (This doesn’t even account for the larger stresses of a writer’s uncertain existence, the endless worries over sales, reviews, and editorial notes that serve as a kind of perpetual drumbeat to the melody of the writing life.) It’s something like sitting down for a game of chess that lasts for forty years, and it takes a toll on the body as much as the mind. As the writer May Sarton has memorably observed: “Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.” And we all know how exhausting an exam can be.

George R.R. Martin

There are more immediate physical issues as well. I’ve spoken at length about my own back problems, which arose soon after I wrote eight hundred pages of an epic manuscript while seated on a couch in my old apartment. They’ve never gone away entirely, but these days, they’ve settled into a chronic but manageable undertone, and I’d imagine that there are few authors who don’t suffer to some extent from back trouble. Keeping the body in line is one of the unstated but crucial aspects of the writer’s routine: it’s why alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine abuse is so endemic among novelists, and why a good diet is so important. Weight gain, interestingly, doesn’t seem to be quite as serious an issue, at least among authors of prose fiction. Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I’d guess that novelists tend to lose weight while television writers tend to gain it, which only reflects the difference between a career for which the term “starving artist” was more or less coined and one in which you at least get a free lunch every day. And our heaviest writers, like George R.R. Martin, are often ones who started in one world and crossed over into the other.

In short, when writers describe themselves as athletes, it isn’t entirely a fantasy. In his unforgettable essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Norman Mailer writes:

When it was a matter of strength I had as much as the next man. In those days I would spend time reminding myself that I had been a bit of an athlete (house football at Harvard, years of skiing), that I had not quit in combat, and once when a gang broke up a party in my loft, I had taken two cracks in the head with a hammer and had still been able to fight…

Yet Mailer, too, suffered from fatigue, and he found himself depending equally on marijuana and Benzedrine for one bad period. (Benzedrine seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it was the drug of choice for writers from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand.) Having the kind of career in which you can publish a novel a year for four decades is as much an endurance test of the body as of the spirit, and drugs and alcohol have the same debilitating effect over the long term as they would for any profession in which physical strength is required. The solution, boringly enough, is to treat the body as you would any other tool, and to keep it fueled with diet and exercise as much as you nourish your brain with books and ideas. Because while imagination alone can make a novelist, it’s the body and mind, working in tandem, that make novels.

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2013 at 8:41 am

A Song of DOS and WordStar

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I was recently delighted to discover that George R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, still writes all of his novels on a DOS computer running WordStar. Martin isn’t a complete technophobe—he maintains an active blog, much to the dismay of fans who might prefer that he spend all of his time on other projects—but remains faithful to what he calls “the Duesenberg of word processing software (very old, but unsurpassed).” In itself, this isn’t all that surprising. Writers like to stick with what they know, either out of habit or superstition, and in particular, science fiction and fantasy authors have a tendency to persist in writing on antiquated systems, even as they allow their imaginations to roam far into the future. And although you don’t need to be a political conservative to be conservative about word processing, the two sometimes go hand in hand. Another prominent WordStar fan was the late William F. Buckley, Jr. who, when asked about his preference, said: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”

I’m particularly pleased to see WordStar singled out, because that’s the program I used to write my first novel. At the time, I was thirteen years old, and in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I pounded out a science fiction novel heavily influenced by Dune and the work of Orson Scott Card, about a religious matriarchy on a watery planet populated by intelligent fish. The computer I used was the IBM clone in my parents’ office, and I still get a little misty when I recall its clunky monitor—white on black, with each letter composed of visible pixels—and the mysteries of navigating its operating system. I also wrote fragments of stories on an even more ancient “portable” computer that weighed about twenty pounds and resided for about a year on the desk in my bedroom. It didn’t have a hard drive, but it had a keyboard and amber display, and that was all I needed. (All of what I wrote there, sadly, has been lost forever, and if it still exists at all, it’s on a floppy disk that would require considerable archaeological ingenuity to read.)

George R.R. Martin

Like most of us, I’ve since moved on to Word, but I can understand the impulse to remain loyal to what you find familiar: I wrote my first novel as an adult on Word 4.0, and resisted making any upgrades for a long time. (I still think the latest version has too many bells and whistles, but I’ve managed to get used to it.) Part of this can be chalked up to sentimentality: just as many of us tend to believe that popular music peaked around the time we got our first girlfriend or boyfriend, writers tend to cling to whatever tool or system they used at the time of their first great success. But there’s a practical element to it as well. Much of writing, as I’ve said many times before, boils down to habit, and writers are rightly nervous about upsetting the intricate balance of routines and rituals that they’ve developed over the years. Even the most productive writer knows that he’s one bad morning away from the hell of writer’s block, and it makes sense to persist in whatever works, when we’re surrounded by a universe of doubtful alternatives.

And it’s possible that these writers are on to something. I once asked Stanley Schmidt, the legendary former editor of Analog, why he continued to write acceptance and rejection slips on a typewriter, rather than a computer, and his answer was simple: it’s faster. With a typewriter, you just roll in a fresh sheet of paper, type the message, and slide it into the envelope the author has hopefully provided, and you don’t need to worry about saving and printing. WordStar benefits from a similar simplicity. You aren’t distracted by fonts or anything more than the most rudimentary formatting, and you don’t need to worry about how the text will look on the screen: like the Model T Ford, WordStar will show you any color you like, as long as it’s black. Ultimately, it’s just you and the story, and if it isn’t working, there’s no way to fool yourself otherwise. Most of us, of course, will continue to write on a piece of technology far too advanced for our real needs. But in the end, the words are the stars.

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2013 at 9:52 am

Are you a gardener or an architect?

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There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect.

That’s George R.R. Martin talking, and if my experience this weekend at Worldcon is any indication, the distinction between literary gardeners and architects may be Martin’s most lasting contribution to the way we think about writing. Of the ten or so events on writing I attended, either as a viewer or a panelist, I’d say that the gardener/architect distinction came up in at least half, usually to appreciative murmurs from the audience. Either approach, the speakers were quick to say, is perfectly fine, depending on the writer’s methods and personality—which is certainly true. But I also noticed that nearly every writer who brought up the distinction identified himself as a gardener, with an implicit sense that architects are slightly inhuman technicians whose left-brained approach can deprive them of the happy accidents of character and incident that lie at the heart of writing.

Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m an architect. My first blog post was called “Nails and Houses.” My favorite book on storytelling of any kind, David Mamet’s On Directing Film, abounds in architectural metaphors, and I seized every chance I could to recommend it at my panels this weekend. (I have a feeling I sold more copies of Mamet’s book than any of my own work.) I’ve used a lot of different metaphors to describe outlining, which I’ve called a stealth first draft and compared to the relationship that a screenplay bears to a finished movie, but perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the outline is a blueprint. At this point, I wouldn’t dream of starting a substantial writing project without an outline for at least the first major section, and I still believe that having an outline often makes the difference between finishing a project and ending up with a few tantalizing fragments. And while I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for everyone, it works so well for me that I’ve discussed it at length, both on this blog and elsewhere.

What needs to be emphasized, however, is that a novel is not a house, however seductive that analogy may be. It’s easier to remodel, for one thing. And it can be planned and built in increments: I never outline an entire novel at once, but always leave a residue of plot and character problems unresolved at every stage. In some ways, the architectural approach to writing is less like building a house than like city planning: it involves many connected structures, built over time and for different reasons, each one of which subtly changes its neighbors and the surrounding landscape. Just as a healthy neighborhood consists, according to Christopher Alexander, of the coordination of patterns scaled to human needs, writing a novel is about orchestrating many self-contained pieces—beats, scenes, chapters—into a harmonious whole. And the result, if you’ve done it properly, is less a city like Brasilia, with its structure imposed from the top down, than London, which makes sense on the ground but also reveals surprising patterns when seen from above.

And what I’ve discovered about these architectural habits is that they’re very much like what Mamet says about his own methods: applied correctly, they set the imagination free. As a blueprint, an outline helps you organize materials and find places for elements that otherwise might be lost. I’m much more likely, for instance, to remember and utilize the free-floating fragments of inspiration that come at odd moments—while shaving, showering, or taking a walk—when I have a larger structure in which they can fit. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, of course, and a willingness to revise in light of new developments. Even when I’m working out a carefully structured plan on the page, I’m often surprised by unexpected plot or character turns, which emerge, not in spite of the pattern that surrounds them, but because of it. That tension between structure and serendipity is one of the great joys of writing. And fortunately, with a novel, it’s always possible to remodel, rebuild, and, when necessary, demolish.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

When the writing stops, the cutting begins

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On Sunday, I went to a branch of the ubiquitous print shop franchise that I continue to think of as Kinko’s, although apparently Kinko’s itself hasn’t existed as a corporate entity for many years, and picked up a copy of House of Passages, the sequel to The Icon Thief. These days, my routine for reading a first draft is pretty fixed: since this isn’t meant for anyone’s eyes but my own, I cheerfully disregard the usual conventions of proper manuscript format, printing out the whole thing single-spaced and binding it all together. The former is to save paper; the latter is to keep all the pages in one place, both for convenience while reading, and also for archival purposes. This is one printout of this novel, possibly the only one, that I’m going to keep forever.

Over the past two days, I’ve read through the entire manuscript, making cuts and emendations in pencil on the draft itself, while taking notes in a separate journal (from Ex Libris Anonymous, incidentally). Some of these notes are as basic as the fact that I no longer like a certain supporting character’s name; others point out inconsistencies in the plot or areas where additional information needs to be laid into an earlier section to prepare the reader for developments to come. Because I’m cutting and taking notes at the same time, it took me longer to read through this draft than I expected. All told, it required about twelve hours, spread out over a couple of days, to work my way through the entire thing. (I was also distracted by the fact that my wife and I are buying a house, but that’s a story for another time.)

Once I finished going through the manuscript, I began the laborious work of entering all of my handwritten changes into the copy I’m saving in Word. By itself, this process of transcription can take something like four hours, and there are moments when I’m tempted to save time by reading the draft in Word and making the changes directly. Still, there are reasons why I’ve stuck with my current method. Reading close to 130,000 words online isn’t great for the eyes. There’s also something satisfying about the physical sensation of crossing out whole sentences and paragraphs with a pencil. Most importantly, by dividing the process into two parts, I’m giving myself an extra chance to think, reconsider, and amend my own changes, and I’ve often made interesting discoveries while transcribing.

The upshot, then, is that after two days of work, I’ve already cut 15,000 words from the draft, which is pretty much where I wanted to be: I’ve easily obeyed Stephen King’s dictum, which I wanted to do before showing the novel to my agent, and I still have leeway for later cuts and revisions. By the end, after I’ve sweated out the rest (to use George R.R. Martin’s phrase), the manuscript should be roughly 100,000 words long, which is about right. And as for the novel’s merits…well, it’s a first draft. I already have a long list of changes I need to make, and it’s going to change in a thousand other ways, many of them unknown at this point, before it’s of publishable quality. All the same, it strikes me as reasonably competent, occasionally readable, and only periodically confusing—and I have two months to make it better, which is a good thing. Because the clock starts ticking now.

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2011 at 8:48 am

George R.R. Martin on world-building

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[George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire] enjoys being surprised by his own work. He thinks of himself as a “gardener”—he has a rough idea of where he’s going but improvises along the way. He sometimes fleshes out only as much of his imaginary world as he needs to make a workable setting for the story. Tolkien was what Martin calls an “architect.” Tolkien created entire languages, mythologies, and histories for Middle-earth long before he wrote the novels set there. Martin told me that many of his fans assume that he is as meticulous a world-builder as Tolkien was. “They write to say, ‘I’m fascinated by the languages. I would like to do a study of High Valyrian'”—an ancient tongue. “‘Could you send me a glossary and a dictionary and the syntax?’ I have to write back and say, ‘I’ve invented seven words of High Valyrian.'”

—Laura Miller, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2011 at 9:14 am

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