Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harry Crews

How do you know when you’re done?

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The Unfinished Span by Otto August Kuhler

If the scariest image in the world, as Stephen King likes to point out, is a closed door, a blank page can’t be far behind. I’ve had to face one nearly every day for the last decade or so of my life, and although I no longer regard it with the dread I once did, some residual fear still remains, especially for the few few minutes before I start work every morning. The fact that I’ve managed to fill that page so many times before somehow doesn’t carry much weight when it comes time to do it again: I usually feel a little nervous when I type the opening sentence of a new story or chapter, as if this, of all days, will be the one where the magic finally fails. The fact that it generally doesn’t, and I’m always able to get at least a rough version down on paper after the usual length of time, has nothing to do with talent or inspiration. It’s more a result of the handful of tricks I’ve learned that actually work when it comes to filling that empty expanse. And although it might seem that a writer’s primary problem is figuring out how to get started, I’ve found instead that the real challenge—and the key to unlocking what limited reserves of productivity I have—is knowing in advance when I’ll be done.

This means having a general idea of how the project will look when I’m finished, in full awareness that the final version will probably take a form that I can’t anticipate. The most obvious variable here is length, and I’ve found it useful to set down a target—whether in words, paragraphs, or pages—for the first draft, basing the estimate mostly on pieces I’ve done before. For a blog post, I aim to generate about four paragraphs of text; for essays or articles, ten to twelve paragraphs; for novelettes, ten to twelve thousand words; for a novel, fifty to sixty chapters of somewhat less than two thousand words each. This kind of writing by numbers may seem mechanical, but that’s part of the point. The final length of any piece of writing is always determined at the revision stage: I tend to cut more than I add, but individual sections often end up being longer or more involved than they were the first time around. Yet setting an arbitrary length for the first draft of a project gives me a kind of template, a certain square footage of canvas on which I can start sketching. 

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

That’s also the real reason I love outlines so much. An outline isn’t really about laying down a fixed plan: everything I’ve ever written has deviated, in large ways or small, from its initial conception. It’s more like a list of benchmarks, or points in the narrative where I can pause, knowing that I’ve done my work for the day. If I place so much emphasis on the idea of a plot as a series of clear objectives, it’s as much of a courtesy for the writer as the reader. Structuring the plot as a sequence of problems gives the reader a thread to follow, but it also provides the writer with a crucial map and compass. Its great advantage is that it gives you unambiguous information about what remains to be done. If the problem is solved, the story, or the scene, is over; if it isn’t, it probably isn’t. Obviously, there are all kinds of exceptions—not every story or scene needs to end with the protagonist getting what he or she wants—but having those markers along the way makes the road easier to travel. And just three or four pieces of information can make the difference between a formless string of events and a story whose ultimate shape, while still open to change, can be dimly glimpsed from the start.

After you’ve done it a few times, it gets progressively easier to intuit how the final product should look. I tend to turn to my old work for a sense of how long something new will be—I figure that if I’ve written one decent 10,000-word story, I should be able to do another—and I’ve come to understand my own rhythms as an author, which include the lengths in which I’m most comfortable working. I don’t have a lot of experience, for instance, with very short fiction; I like having the additional breathing room for development and payoff that a novelette provides. When I’m uncertain about other parts of the process, which is most of the time, I’ll stick to the forms that I’ve come to know best. Over the longer run, of course, it’s necessary to break out of the routines you’ve established, which may involve starting a project when you don’t know what the final form will be. (And there’s no shame in taking works by other writers as a model, much as the author Harry Crews broke down Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair scene by scene.) But when it comes to filling that blank page, the best approach is still putting one foot in front of the other, moving toward a goal you’ve laid out clearly on the map, even if it turns out to be in a different country entirely.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Posted in Writing

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Imitate everyone you know

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Well you can imitate everyone you know
Yes you can imitate everyone you know…

—The Beatles, “Dig a Pony”

Writing, like almost everything else in life, is learned primarily by imitation. Even the greatest writers began by imitating artists they admired—the young Shakespeare, for one, openly imitated Marlowe. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the more thoroughly and consciously you imitate your artistic heroes when you first begin to write, the easier it is to produce original work later on, once you’ve acquired the tools you need.

Here’s how John Lennon, who seems like so great an original today, describes his earliest period as a songwriter:

In the early days, I would often write a melody, a lyric in my head to some other song because I can’t write music. I would carry it around as somebody else’s song and then change it when putting it down on paper, or down on tape—consciously change it because I knew somebody’s going to sue me or everybody’s going to say, “What a rip-off.”

Lennon, it goes without saying, eventually learned how to write melodies on his own. And while it might seem hard for a novelist to imitate another writer to the same degree—by writing a novel that mirrors an existing novel beat for beat, as lyrics might be fitted to an existing melody—it’s certainly possible. Lawrence Block, in his nice little book Writing the Novel, quotes a story from the novelist Harry Crews:

I guess I really learned, seriously learned, how to write just after I got out of college when I pretty much literally ate Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair…I took The End of the Affair, and I pretty much reduced the thing to numbers. I found out how many characters were in it, how much time was in it…I found out how many cities were in the book, how many rooms, where the climaxes were and how long it took Greene to get to them.

…And then I said, “I’m going to write me a damn novel and do everything he did.” I knew I was going to waste—but it wasn’t a waste—a year of my time. And I knew that the end result was going to be a mechanical, unreadable novel. But I was trying to find out how the hell you did it. So I wrote the novel, and it had to have this many rooms, this many transitions, etc. It was the bad novel I knew it would be…And that’s how I learned to write.

Now, it probably isn’t necessary to write an entire novel using this method—although it couldn’t hurt, if you’re serious about internalizing the basics of craft. But it’s often a helpful exercise to go through a novel you admire and break it down to an outline of chapters, scenes, and characters. Ideally, since you’re going to be studying it so closely, the book should represent the genre at its peak: for a thriller, for example, it might be The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs. And once you’ve outlined somebody else’s story, you’ll be in a much better position to outline an original work of your own.

Without the nuts and bolts of craft, which can only be acquired through imitation and hard work, even the most original story will remain unexpressed. But in the end, of course, true originality can’t be reduced to a formula:

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