Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Georges Simenon

A choice of futures

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Jack Williamson

A plausible impossibility is always preferable to an improbable possibility.


Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the legendary science fiction author Jack Williamson when I came across a statement that struck a nerve. When asked about the genre’s supposed ability to predict the future, Williamson replied:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This resonated with me, because I often feel the same way about my own fiction. I’m not all that interested in extrapolating future trends for their own sake, mostly because I feel that other writers are better at it: instead, I’m more drawn to stories that put known facts into surprising juxtapositions that lend themselves to a final twist. And in practice, this often means that the plot turns on a highly unlikely combination of factors that I needed to make that particular story possible. (See “The Boneless One,” “Kawataro,” and just about everything else I’ve ever written.)

Obviously, I try to conceal any underlying improbabilities from the reader, mostly by following what I’ve called the anthropic principle of fiction, in which a story’s setting and basic premises are chosen to enable the twist, rather than the other way around. There’s no denying that there’s an element of sleight of hand involved, and you could even argue that it could be dangerous, especially when the requirements of an entertaining plot are confused with science fiction’s reputation for accurate predictions. As the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa wrote in an early review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics:

I have long felt that there are dangers to the writer as well as to the reader in pulp fiction. It did not occur to me until I read Dianetics to try to analyze the special dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing. The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

But we aren’t worried that an author of mystery novels, say, will become so enamored of his account of a perfect crime that he’ll feel obliged to carry it out himself. Science fiction, at least of the hard variety, differs from similar genres in that much of its appeal arises from its apparent foundation in fact. As a result, it’s easier to imagine an author failing to distinguish between reality and his own speculations, even as he elides that boundary in his fiction for the sake of a good story. In the interview quoted above, Jack Williamson talks about “the popular myth of [science fiction’s] futurological accuracy,” which is still a major aspect of the field’s reputation, and a reason why many writers are drawn to it in the first place—even though science fiction has a mixed track record at nailing down the details. If a story does happen to get something right, it’s often by accident, and incidental to the main thrust of the story. When we talk about movies that do a good job of predicting how the future might look, one of the first to come up is Minority Report, which makes some remarkably shrewd guesses about facial recognition, driverless cars, and gesture interfaces. What’s funny, of course, is that few of these gadgets have anything to do with the plot itself, which is based less on science than on fantasy: they have more to do with art direction than storytelling, and don’t have much to do at all with the original story by Philip K. Dick, who was far more interested in mood, theme, and paradox than in forecasting how we’d interact with our screens.

Yet that’s exactly as it should be, and it’s something that both readers and writers of science fiction should keep in mind whenever they think about the choice of futures that a story makes. Frederik Pohl once said: “The mistake you must never make about science fiction is in thinking that, because it is about the future, it is necessarily about the future.” Stanley Schmidt, the former editor of Analog, recently quoted Pohl’s reminder and followed it up with an observation of his own: “Writers in this field are seldom trying to predict what the future will be, but rather to imagine a wide range of ways it could be—and how each of them, if it came to pass, would affect our lives.” This is perfectly correct, but it’s also worth remembering why we do it. The novelist Georges Simenon stated that the goal of his fiction was to find situations that would oblige his characters “to go to their limit,” and that’s true of most good science fiction as well, with the difference that the inciting incident is something rooted, however tenuously, in scientific extrapolation. When choosing between futures, or between the consequences of a particular idea, we’re often less interested in what we think could actually happen than in what will put the most pressure on our characters, and, by extension, our readers. (This also explains why dystopian futures are so prevalent in fiction these days—they’re more immediately promising as a source of narrative material.) On its highest level, science fiction is about the possible, but in the trenches where readable stories are made, it’s often more about Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. And if that weren’t true, these stories probably wouldn’t exist at all.

The geometrical problem

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Georges Simenon

Unconsciously I probably always have two or three, not novels, not ideas about novels, but themes in my mind. I never even think that they might serve for a novel; more exactly, they are the things about which I worry. Two days before I start writing a novel I consciously take up one of those ideas. But even before I consciously take it up I first find some atmosphere…[The] characters will be taken partly from people I have known and partly from pure imagination—you know, it’s a complex of both. And then the idea I had before will come and stick around them. They will have the same problem I have in my mind myself. And the problem—with those people—will give me the novel…

As soon as I have the beginning I can’t bear it very long; so the next day I take my envelope, take my telephone book for names, and take my town map—you know, to see exactly where things happen. And two days later I begin writing. And the beginning will be always the same; it is almost a geometrical problem: I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives. Then I write my novel chapter by chapter.

Georges Simenon, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2015 at 7:30 am

The art of the start

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Georges Simenon

If finishing a novel is one of the hardest things in the world, starting it can’t be all that far behind—and that doesn’t even take into account the treacherous ground in the middle. I’ve written for just about every working day for most of the last seven years, and although I’m reasonably confident in my abilities to see a project through, I always feel a little trepidation when I sit down to write something for the first time. Part of the reason I’m so obsessive about productivity and routine is that deep down, I have a hunch that these are the only things keeping writer’s block at bay: I secretly fear that if the day comes when I don’t manage to write a full chapter or blog post, I won’t be able to write a word ever again. For me, and I suspect for many other writers, productivity is almost a neurotic response, or a sublimation, of writer’s block itself, and the authors who seem to get the most done are often the ones who dread the alternative the most. Whether or not this is a healthy way of living is something I’ll let others decide; all I know is that if I stop, like the mythical shark, I’ll drown. Here are a few of the strategies I’ve developed for getting that shark in motion:

1. Pick a start and end date. Clearly, this is important if you’re trying to meet an actual deadline, but it can be equally valuable when you’re writing only for yourself. Whenever I start a new writing project, one of the first things I’ll do is print out a set of calendar pages for the next few months, roughing out the various stages in advance: a month for research and outlining, say, another month for working on the first draft, a week off, then two weeks of revision. The schedule I’ve worked out—which is based on my own sense of my writing speed and routine—is subject to change, and I always write it in pencil. But there are benefits to having at least a tentative timeline. It’s a great motivator; it prevents me from getting hung up on any one stage; and it reassures me that the road ahead, while still daunting, has a definite end. It’s nice to remind myself that if I can write a thousand words a day, I’ll have a novel at the end of six months, but it’s even better to know that this means I’ll have a draft in hand by March 31. This method works best if you’ve outlined the novel fairly carefully, but even if you’re the kind of writer who likes to plunge in without a plan, a start and end date will give structure to what can otherwise be a frighteningly amorphous process. (I’m not alone in this, by the way: I know that Georges Simenon, among others, kept a careful calendar of his work.)

David Mamet

2. Divide the work up into achievable tasks. I’ve quoted David Mamet on this point many times before, but it’s such a good piece of advice that I can’t resist citing it again:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

I’ve expanded elsewhere on what this means, but one point worth emphasizing is that different tasks are suited for different hours, circumstances, and states of mind. I’ve found, for example, that when it comes to writing the first draft of a chapter or section, I need a long stretch of uninterrupted time, so I’ve taken to doing this after the baby goes to bed. For revision, outlining, and general brainstorming, I can do much of it in bits and pieces, so it ends up being scheduled for odd moments during the day. It takes a while for any one writer to figure out his or her best schedule, but once you get a feel for your best working routine, it makes sense to structure each day accordingly.

3. Clean your desk—but only once. Since you’re going to be spending a lot of time alone in a room, you should do what you can to make the space a pleasant one. My own desk has a way of accumulating every piece of clutter in the entire house, so I devote an hour or so before starting a project to clearing away the worst of it, leaving only the notes and materials relevant to the work at hand. That said, compulsive organizing can turn into its own form of procrastination, so I’d recommend just doing this once, before you begin, and then leaving it to fend for itself. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the clutter will soon return, but instead of being a mishmash of materials from the rest of your life, they’ll be items relating to the story you’re writing—outlines, scraps of paper, sketches, diagrams, reference books, pictures. What you’re really doing is creating a narrative haven, to use Lawrence Block’s memorable phrase, “much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” That nest is where the best writing takes place, but only if you’ve cleared the ground first and allowed it to grow on its own. So get a calendar, divide up the work, prepare the stage—and then, if you’re lucky, you’re ready to begin.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2014 at 9:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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