Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jack Woodford

Tales from the pulp jungle

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In 1934, a young man named Frank Gruber moved from Illinois to New York City, where he took up residence at the Forty-Fourth Street Hotel in Times Square. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Gruber described the hotel’s usual clientele as consisting of “broken-down actors, starving actors, hungry vaudevillians, wrestlers, poor opera singers, touts, bookies, sharpies, hungry actors, no, I said that before, and all around no-goods and deadbeats. And one hungry, would be writer.” Like Robert A. Heinlein, his slightly younger contemporary, Gruber had grown up entranced by the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, although he later said that he had come away from those novels with the wrong message:

Virtually all of the Horatio Alger, Jr. books have the same theme—they tell how poor boys became rich. The theme inspired three generations of Americans. Alas! The reading of the Alger books did not instill in me the ambition to become a rich businessman. No, the books inspired me to become a writer, to write books like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Gruber, like Heinlein, had been impressed by the example of pulp legend Jack Woodford, and by the age of twenty-three, he had accumulated a stack of rejection slips from dozens of publications, ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to what Gruber considered “the lowest form of writing”—the Sunday School papers. Finally, after a period in which he had as many as forty submissions out for consideration at any one time, he sold a story, “The Two-Dollar Raise,” for three dollars and fifty cents. Gruber recalled his sense of elation: “I had made it.”

After a stint as an editor for a series of farm papers in the Midwest, Gruber moved to New York to try breaking into the pulps. He estimated that the trip would take two or three weeks, but it lasted for seven months. Soon after his arrival, he met the prolific Arthur J. Burks, who offered him some useful advice: “The life of a pulp writer is seven years. At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.” Gruber took his words to heart, and he soon learned the everyday survival skills that most aspiring writers are forced to master. As he wrote decades later:

I had “tomato soup” at the Automat on Broadway at least once a day. The Automat restaurants, which are peculiar to the East, are just what the name implies. You get a flock of nickels from the cashier, then go down the battery of little cubicles, inside of which repose the articles of food that appeal to you…So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your own. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto—tomato soup!

Gruber continued: “Cost? Nothing. I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.” And he admitted elsewhere that there were stretches when he ate nothing else for three days at a time.

At last, Gruber got his break, after writing five thousand words overnight to fill a gap in the pulp magazine Operator #5, and he became a reliable contributor to the detective and mystery titles, as well as a member of an association of pulp writers called the American Fiction Guild. He wrote a few stories for Weird Tales, along with a much later effort for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he was never particularly close to the science fiction crowd, with whom he claimed to have waged “a cold war…that exists, to a degree, to this very day.” Gruber was friends with Mort Weisinger, the editor who would later play a significant role in the development of Superman. One day, Gruber got into an argument with Weisinger and the agent Julius Schwartz about what was then known as “pseudoscience fiction,” which encompassed science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Gruber remembered:

In the heat of the discussion I made the statement that all pseudoscience writers were weirdies [sic]. I was roundly denounced by both Mort and Julius and in the ensuing melee I came out with the flat declaration that I could pick out a pseudoscience writer in a roomful of people. Mort promptly challenged me. J. Hamilton Edwards was in New York from his home upstate and would be at the American Fiction Guild. Mort had ten dollars that said I could not pick J. Hamilton Edwards out of the crowd on sight.

Gruber took him up on the bet, which he reduced from ten dollars to two, and they went to lunch. Looking around the room, Gruber saw a writer “with buck teeth as big as those of Clement Attlee’s son-in-law.” He confidently identified him as J. Hamilton Edwards—and he was right. (“Edwards” was really the writer Edmond Hamilton, and he eventually got his teeth fixed.) Gruber recalled: “The story got around and the science fiction writers still hate me.”

The anecdote hints at the divide, which may have been more apparent than real, between the different circles of pulp writers, of whom Gruber wrote elsewhere: “A writer spends so many hours inventing adventures for his fictional characters that he sometimes confuses fiction and fact. He begins to think that he has lived some of the adventures of which he has written.” (Much later, S.I. Hayakawa made a similar observation: “If the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.”) As an example, he mentions another aspiring author at the Fourth-Fourth Street Hotel, who often spent time in Gruber’s room with Weisinger and the writers Jack Reardon and Steve Fisher. One evening, this writer was bragging about his own exploits: “He had been in the United States Marines for seven years, he had been an explorer on the upper Amazon for four years, he’d been a white hunter in Africa for three years.” Gruber quietly took a few notes, and later in the conversation, he asked his friend: “You’re eighty-four years old, aren’t you?” When the writer protested that he was only twenty-six, Gruber showed his work:

I read from my notes. “Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years…I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years.”

Gruber concluded: “The writer blew his stack. I will say this, his extremely vivid imagination earned him a fortune, some years later. He wrote one book that directly and indirectly earned him around half a million dollars in a single year.” It was called Dianetics.

“There’s something we need to talk about…”

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"There's something we need to talk about..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 50. You can read the previous installments here.

Suspense is usually the most linear of genres, but a lot of thrillers include exactly one flashback. You know the one I mean: it comes near the end, just after the big twist, to explain precisely how you were fooled. In a heist movie, it frequently involves the revelation that the plan you thought the protagonists were following was actually something else entirely, and in films that are heavily dependent on fridge logic, it can reveal that much of the movie you believed you were watching was really an elaborate mislead. At its best, as with the unforgettable flashback that occurs two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, it can singlehandedly justify the whole concept of flashbacks in general; at its worst, in a movie like Now You See Me, it can leave you asking why you bothered taking any interest in the plot at all. And these reveals seem to be becoming more common, as the need to find new variations on old surprises has caused such plots to become ever more convoluted and implausible. (We’re at a point now where a single flashback scene isn’t enough: we’re treated to entire flashback montages, replaying what seems like half of the movie from a different point of view. When handled well, as in The Illusionist, this sort of thing can be delightful, but it can also leave a viewer feeling that the film hasn’t played fair with its obligation to mislead us with what it shows, rather than what it omits.)

This sort of flashback is obviously designed to save a surprise for the end of the movie, which is where we’ve been conditioned to expect it—even if some violence has to be done to the fabric of the narrative to put the reveal in the last ten minutes, instead of where it naturally occurred. This isn’t a new strategy. Jack Woodford, the pulp writer whose instructional book Trial and Error was carefully studied by Robert A. Heinlein, thought that all stories should end with a punch ending, and he offered a very useful tip on how to artificially create one:

A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.

This is why so many stories contrive to withhold crucial information until the point where it carries the most impact, even if it doesn’t quite play fair. (You frequently see this in the early novels of Frederick Forsyth, like The Odessa File or The Dogs of War, which leave out a key element of the protagonist’s motivation, only to reveal it at the climax or on the very last page. It’s such a good trick that you can almost forgive Forsyth for reusing it three or four times.)

"Let it play out..."

Another advantage to delaying the explanatory scene for as long as possible is that it turns an implausible twist into a fait accompli. I’ve noted before that if there’s a particularly weak point in the story on which the credibility of the plot depends, the best strategy for dealing with it is to act as if has already happened, and to insert any necessary justifications after you’ve presented the situation as blandly as possible. Readers or audiences are more likely to accept a farfetched plot development after it has already been taken for granted. If they had been allowed to watch it unfold from scratch, during the fragile early stages, they would have been more likely to object. (My favorite example is how in the two great American drag comedies, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, we never see the main characters make the decision to pose as women—we cut to them already in makeup and heels, which mostly prevents us from raising any of the obvious objections.) This explains why the expository flashback, while often ludicrously detailed, rarely shows us the one scene that we really want to see: the conversation in which one character had to explain to the rest what he wanted them to do, and why. Even a classic twist ending like the one in The Sting falls apart when we imagine the characters putting it into words. The act of speaking the plan aloud would only destroy its magic.

I put these principles to good use in Chapter 50 of Eternal Empire, which rewinds the plot slightly to replay a crucial scene in its entirety. Structuring it as a flashback was clearly meant to preserve the surprise, but also to downplay its less plausible angles. For the story to work, Maddy had to reveal herself to Tarkovsky, justify her good intentions, and propose a complicated counterplot, all in the course of a single conversation. I think that the chapter does a decent job of pulling it off, but placing the discussion here, after the effects of the decision have already been revealed, relieves it of some of the weight. The reader is already invested in the premise, simply by reading the events of the preceding chapters, and I hoped that this would carry us past any gaps in the logic. But it’s worth noting that I never actually show the crux of the conversation, in which Maddy spells out the plan she has in mind. Asking a character to fake his death for the sake of some elaborate charade is a scene that can’t possibly play well—which might be why we almost never see it, even though a similar twist seems to lie at the bottom of half of the surprise endings ever written. We don’t hear Maddy telling Tarkovsky what she wants him to do; we just see the results. It’s a form of selective omission that goes a long way toward making it all acceptable. But as the reader will soon discover, the plan hasn’t gone quite as well as they think…

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 1

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A RoboBee

Note: For the next three days, I’ll discussing how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online.

At this point in my life, I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and you’d think that the process would have gotten a little easier by now. Invariably, though, whenever I sit down to write something from scratch, I’m paralyzed by the fear that I won’t be able to do it again, and I can barely remember—despite the detailed notes that I keep about my process—how I’ve done it before. And this insecurity isn’t entirely unfounded. When you’re a reasonably prolific writer, you end up caught in an arm’s race between two competing trends. On the one hand, you’re a stronger, more efficient craftsman than you were when you first started, and you’ve learned a few tricks along the way about plot and character, even if, as Jack Woodford notes, you can’t always articulate what it is that you’re doing. On the other hand, once you’ve written half a dozen stories for public consumption, you find yourself boxed in, not just by the possibilities of any one idea, but by all the other ideas that you’ve already used. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you soon realize that each story you write closes off certain avenues for future exploration. As David Brin once wrote: “If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard [science fiction] writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking.” And while that’s true of the field as a whole, it’s also true of any one writer and his or her own backlog of ideas.

In my case, I’ve found that I tend to fall back repeatedly on a couple of stock formulas, notably the story in which what looks like a paranormal phenomenon turns out to have a valid, if highly unlikely, scientific explanation. (In a way, it follows the basic form of an episode of The X-Files while inverting its logic: my stories take place in an equally weird universe in which Dana Scully is always right.) In practice, this kind of story has a way of relying on the same handful of monkey tricks, in which, for instance, the events hinge on some obscure medical condition, the symptoms of which are misinterpreted until the end as something else. When the stories are read individually, there’s no reason why I can’t resort to that gimmick as often as it works, as long as the plot and setting are distinctive enough to make their similarities less obvious: these stories appear few and far between, and I don’t know how many readers remember them well enough to see a pattern there. But I’m also writing with one eye to that hypothetical day when all of these stories will be collected within book covers—if not by a conventional publisher, then at least in an electronic edition that I assemble myself for my own satisfaction. And when you read a string of such stories back to back, it soon becomes clear if a writer relies too often on the same kind of twist. Whether or not this is a valid concern is beside the point: if it motivates me to strike out in new directions, it’s probably a good thing.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

And if you’re really worried about writing the same kind of story too often, there are basically two things you can do. The first approach tackles the problem from the top down: you can pick a notably different story type or subcategory and see what happens when you try to work within those conventions. This was the tack that I followed with “Cryptids,” which was basically a straight monster story, and although the success of the outcome is debatable—many readers seem to have liked the result better than I did—you can’t say that it reads like the other stories I’ve written. The second approach, which is more interesting, is to start from the bottom up: you seek out raw material from a different source than the ones that have provided you with ideas in the past. Many of my premises have emerged from science journals or magazines, which lends itself to a particular kind of plot: the twist, when it comes, is surprising to the extent that it turns on a quirky fact that most readers wouldn’t be expected to know off the tops of their heads. When I decided, about a year ago, to write something new, I figured I’d start somewhere else. In this case, I picked up a stack of back issues of The Atlantic, which is hardly known for its science coverage, and browsed in it until something caught my eye. I was looking for articles that suggested a setting or general plot structure, preferably with a lot of background material that I could use, and I finally found it in the form of a long article by Brian Mockenhaupt on the tragic case of nineteen firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona.

It’s a compelling, beautifully researched piece, and I could tell at a glance that could form the basis of a good story. Even better, it reminded me of an article that I’d read and filed away a few months earlier with an eye to developing it later: a New York Times piece by Fernanda Santos about the convict crews that are increasingly being put to work fighting forest fires in places like Yarnell. At the time, I had the vague notion of writing up something like Con Air meets Backdraft, which is an idea I’m happy to pass to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading. Since this was going to be a story for Analog, though, I started to look for a scientific angle using the dumbest method imaginable—I did a few searches in the archives of my favorite science magazines to see if I could find anything interesting about firefighting. As luck would have it, I found two articles right away in Discover that sparked a chain of ideas of their own. The first was about coal seam fires, the invisible infernos that can rage underground for decades, most famously in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; the other was about the use of tiny drones, resembling bees, that might be used by firefighters to send back information about the inside of a burning building. Within seconds, I saw the outline of a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire and using drones to map it. It was a nifty image, but it lacked characters or a plot. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how a narrative began to suggest itself, and why I named the story after a disease that can be caught by beekeepers.

The subconscious plotmaker

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The Hard-Boiled Virgin by Jack Woodford

[The rules of plot are] no more to be carried in your conscious mind than scales are supposed to be carried in the conscious mind of a musician. Grammar is of practically no use to an author; all the great authors in all ages ignore and snub it completely in all their books; but such grammar as an adult person employs is always employed subconsciously, without thinking about it. And so it is with plot. At first you pay strict attention, objectively and consciously, to matters to plot; and gradually, as you become an established writer, when some youngster asks you how to plot, you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. You try to answer him and suddenly discover that you don’t seem to know from nothing about plot. But when you sit down and start to write a story, you find when you are done that it is somehow plotted.

This phenomenon may be more precisely brought to your mind, perhaps, through the often observed antics of people who are asked to spell some such word as “separate.” Nine out of ten college graduates spell it: “seperate.” But those who…can spell will, often, when you ask them how to spell something, grab a pencil and write it. If you ask them why they do this they will tell you that they must see it…Spelling is bound up in the average person’s mind with a manual act; the manual act of writing; this in turn has a separate compartment in the subconscious mind which acts automatically, subconsciously, and almost hypnotically; so, although they cannot tell you how to spell a word, if they put the manual conditioning to spelling into operation they can write it correctly.

Jack Woodford, Plotting

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

“Three years earlier…”

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"Three years earlier..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 26. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the tidbits of writing advice I’ve picked up over the years, one I never tire of quoting comes courtesy of the legendary pulp novelist Jack Woodford. In his classic book Trial and Error—which manages to be both a useful writer’s manual and a gem of self-promotion—Woodford says:

The trouble with most first short stories is that they have their beginnings buried in their middles. Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action.

Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place. Now you need no longer wail, “But I don’t know how to start a story!”

To my eye, this is what a writing tip should be: practical, immediately applicable, and just a little mechanical. Putting it into practice is a matter of copying and pasting. If it works, great; if not, it’s easy to reverse it. But what strikes me the most about it now is that although Woodford is talking about how to start a story, when you generalize it, it’s really a rule about flashbacks. I’ve always seen flashbacks as a dangerous tool: they interrupt what ought to be a continuous flow of action, whether internal or external, and offer the temptation to spend time on backstory, rather than revealing character through action. But they also have their uses. As Woodford notes, you usually want to get the story moving in the very first sentence, and a flashback can be used, paradoxically, to enable narrative momentum by placing the exposition at a point where the plot can sustain it. When you follow Woodford’s approach, you find that the flashback naturally appears during an organic pause, where the plot has to regroup to take a breather anyway. All stories, if they aren’t going to exhaust the reader, need a few stretches of relative flatness to balance out the high points, and it’s valuable real estate. If you find that you really need a flashback—if only because the backstory would be more vivid or interesting if clustered in a single unit, rather than dispersed—then it probably belongs at a moment when the story can afford to slow down.

"They regarded each other in silence..."

And like most useful writing tools, a flashback can be perform a double duty, inserting a moment of delay where it increases the suspense. Elsewhere, I’ve used the movie Snowpiercer as an example: just before the protagonist is about to reach the end of his violent quest, he pauses, lights a cigarette, and tells us a little about himself for the first time. Anywhere else, and the speech would have seemed like a misstep; here, it both postpones the climax at a point of maximum tension and reminds us of the stakes involved at just the right moment. Snowpiercer may be the most relentlessly linear action movie I’ve ever seen—it tracks the hero’s progress from one train compartment to another, so that his movement through physical space exactly parallels the structure of the story—and it cleverly places what amounts to a flashback at the only spot where it wouldn’t interrupt the plot’s forward motion. But even more loosely constructed stories can benefit from its example. Not every narrative needs to move singlemindledly from A to B, and in certain exceptional works, like The English Patient or Citizen Kane, the movement between past and present and back again can almost become a character in itself. But chronological order is the baseline from which we depart only with good reason. And those departures work best when they occur in places where the rhythm allows for a regathering.

The flashback that opens Part II of Eternal Empire is an interesting case, because it was written long after the rest of the novel was complete. My editor had suggested clarifying the relationship between Maddy and Ilya, which otherwise depends mostly on the reader’s knowledge of The Icon Thief, and I realized that she had a good point: much of the action of the novel’s second half hinges on the evolving understanding between these two characters. It also gave me a chance to revisit a piece of the story that the previous books had left unexplored. And because the novel was already so tightly structured, it made sense to stick it here. Last week, I noted that I usually start any writing project with three or four big twists in mind, and I’ll outline the book so that each of these occur at the end of a section. As a result, the beginning of the next section benefits from the residual momentum that the previous climax has generated. Inserting the flashback here put it at a point where I could trust that the reader, having come this far, would at least make it through the next few pages, and it provided a useful way of delaying the resolution of the previous scene, which ended with the hood coming down over Maddy’s head. It wasn’t part of my original conception, but once it was there, it seemed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the surrounding material. And when we catch up with Maddy again, waiting in the back of the car for whatever is coming next, we know exactly what brought her there…

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2015 at 9:57 am

“We want you to go work for him…”

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"We want you to go work for him..."

Note: This post is the fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 3. You can read the previous installments here.

Most of the practical tools of the writer’s trade are really just ways of avoiding exposition. This is true even of those writing rules that might seem like fundamental axioms of the craft. “Show, don’t tell,” for instance, is about nothing else than dramatizing the action as much as possible within the fabric of the narrative itself, which often involves trimming or recasting exposition wherever you find it. The advice to try cutting the beginning and end of each chapter, or even of the overall story, is designed to target those sections where exposition is most likely to collect, as the author laboriously explains who the characters are and where they are instead of plunging into the middle of events. And even the rule that each draft should be ten percent shorter than the previous one has exposition squarely in its sights. When you’re looking for ways to tighten a manuscript, it’s nearly always in the places where something is being explained or stated twice. The point isn’t just to reduce length; it’s to carve out the heart of the story by cutting away the parts where characters discuss the plot with one another—which is often just an excuse for the author to explain it to himself.

Sometimes, of course, a degree of exposition is necessary for the sake of concision: if you can get something across in a paragraph that would take three pages to dramatize, the reader is generally better off. Even here, though, writers develop specific strategies for making such sections more palatable. Jack Woodford’s advice, which I love, is to read through the story until you find the first concrete action, begin it there, and then simply copy and paste all the prefatory material that came earlier as soon as the exposition starts up again. What Woodford knew is that exposition is easier to tolerate when the reader knows why it’s there—when, in short, you’ve already established a character, a conflict, or an existing line of action that requires a paragraph or two later on for clarity. You could even argue that something as basic as structuring the scene as a series of objectives is partially a way of supporting the burden of whatever expository material you need to convey. Once you’ve established what a character wants, you can circle back to explain why he or she wants it, which instantly renders that information more meaningful. As a rule, readers can get through almost anything if they know it has a legitimate reason for being there.

"Tarkovsky is familiar with your case..."

I’ve had to think a lot about the problem of exposition because my stories are necessarily full of it. In hard science fiction, there’s usually a bunch of background and technical detail, and the difficulty of integrating it smoothly into the narrative is why so many stories in the genre are close to unreadable. My novels, in turn, have plots that emerge from historical and political material that often occurs offstage, either because they’re real events that have taken place long before the start of the book or because they unfold at a higher level than the one the main characters inhabit. It’s inherent to the kinds of stories I’ve ended up telling, which means I’ve had to scramble at times to keep the action in the present tense. I haven’t always succeeded; there are sections in The Icon Thief and City of Exiles that are basically two characters talking in a room, and if those chapters survived until publication, it’s only because I couldn’t think of any better way of doing it. When that happens, I often resort to more superficial tricks, which work to the extent that they get the reader from one page to the next. Staging an important conversation against a backdrop of impending action is one approach; grounding it in a relatively interesting setting, like an autopsy, is another; and sometimes I just throw up my hands and do a walk and talk.

Chapter 3 of Eternal Empire is a good case in point. There’s a huge amount of information I need to convey to set the real story in motion: Maddy is being recruited to go undercover to investigate the finances of a Russian oligarch, and for any of this to make sense, I have to explain who the oligarch is, the rationale behind the assignment, and the reasons why Maddy might be reasonably expected to agree to it. The scene itself was designed to get all this across in a readable way; it’s no accident, for instance, that Maddy and Powell are talking in Green Park, rather than in an office somewhere, if only for the teeny bit of additional interest the setting afforded. But the key to making the scene work—and I think it does—lies in a single line that Powell says to Maddy: “We want you to go work for him.” Once his agenda is on the table, the whole thing becomes more engaging, since it’s no longer about information for its own sake, but about setting the context for a crucial decision. Most of my work in rewriting the chapter lay in cutting and rearranging the text so that this line came as close to the beginning as possible. I couldn’t jump into it right away, and there’s still a page or two of dialogue that I needed to set up the offer. But once it’s out there, the rest locks into place, and the reader’s attention is focused less on the past than on what everyone will do next….

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2015 at 9:19 am

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Mr. Leonard and Mrs. Post

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Emily Post

When I was in my early twenties and fresh out of college, I bought a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette and read through it cover to cover. I wasn’t just looking for tips on how to improve my own table manners, although I was interested in seeing if there was anything important I’d somehow missed, and I’ve never forgotten her advice on how to discreetly spit out an olive pit. What fascinated me more about the book, and which took me through more than seven hundred pages of advice on place settings, forms of address, and wedding seating arrangements, was the idea of etiquette itself. Etiquette begins as behavior, as millions of human beings collide in unpredictable ways, and over time, certain habits start to seem more elegant or desirable than others. At first, the process is collective and organic, learned by example, observation, and trial and error; later, someone writes it down, and we learn it by the book. It might seem stodgy or restrictive, but ideally, it’s a set of best practices, a guide to what has worked for people in similar situations in the past, all set down in one convenient place.

As unlikely as it might seem, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the death of Elmore Leonard. Whenever a writer of his stature dies, it brings forth the usual tributes, and in Leonard’s case, nearly every obituary or discussion of his legacy mentions the ten rules of writing that he contributed years ago to the New York Times. There are hundreds of such lists out there—even I’m guilty of writing one—but Leonard’s collection of maxims has displayed unusual staying power, and I suspect that it’s familiar even to those who haven’t read a word of his fiction. The list resonates, first, because it’s full of excellent, pragmatic advice (“Keep your exclamation points under control,” “Never open a book with weather”) and because it embodies Leonard’s own virtues of humor, directness, and experience. Like the rules of etiquette, these are tools that have been discovered and refined over time, learned through practical use, and finally distilled into a set of guidelines to benefit others who are just starting out. And if you don’t like Leonard’s rules, there are plenty of other good lists to follow.

Elmore Leonard

The proliferation of books on writing, from the sublime Paris Review interviews to guides by the likes of Janet Evanovich, means that it’s possible to spend as much time reading other writers’ thoughts on craft as on creating your own work. That wasn’t always the case: when Jack Woodford’s book Trial and Error—the spiritual ancestor of many of the popular writing guides we see on shelves today—was first published in 1933, there wasn’t much out there like it. And although much of the advice in these books is very good, there’s a limit to how far it can take us. I went through a period where I devoured every book on writing I could find, searching for tricks or tips, but these days, I’m more likely to find new ideas by reading about other forms of craft, like theater, coding, or the visual arts. I’m a little burnt out on writing handbooks, not because they aren’t useful, but because such rules are less valuable as guidelines, imposed from the top down, than as a way of clarifying the discoveries that every author makes on his or her own. Almost everyone eventually learns not to open a book, or even a chapter, with the weather, but the reasoning behind it—that’s better just to get on with the story—is something you only learn with time.

The rules of writing are a lot like the rules of life: they only find meaning once you’ve intuited them yourself. Although it rarely hurts, reading philosophy doesn’t automatically make us good citizens, any more than reading Emily Post can transform you into a natural socialite. A philosophical insight, or a rule of good behavior, only attains its full meaning after you’ve deduced it from your own life and assimilated it into your experience. Part of this is just because of the way we think—we’re more likely to believe in something after we’ve lived through it firsthand rather than reading it in the pages of a book—and also because such rules rise or fall on their specific applications. “Love your enemies” is just a luminous phrase until we’ve been forced to apply it to a particular enemy with a face and name we’d prefer to hate, just as “show, don’t tell” only assumes its full power after we’ve relearned it in a thousand different situations. And like the best rules of ethics and life, once we’ve figured them out for ourselves, they become obvious, even invisible, until they only seem to remind us of what we already know.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2013 at 8:50 am

The recursive art of fiction

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Quicksort

One of the most striking things about writing fiction is how the strategies you apply to the highest level of story often work on the smallest pieces as well. Take, for instance, one of the most basic rules of craft: start the story as late in the action as possible, and end it as soon after the climax as you can. In the rewrite, jumping in late and getting out early sometimes means cutting pages from the beginning and end to remove extraneous material, or engaging in slightly more sophisticated surgery: the pulp novelist Jack Woodford, in two brilliant pieces of advice I’ve quoted here before, notes that you can keep much of the “the usual driveling collection” of exposition and anticlimaxes if you restructure the novel so that the real beginning and end come before and after the boring parts. The same rule applies to individual chapters, scenes, and beats. William Goldman famously advises writers to omit the beginning and end of each scene so the story jumps from middle to middle, and I’ve often fixed a sequence of chapters that didn’t work by cutting the first and last paragraphs of each.

In other words, a rule that works for the overall shape of the story also helps you make decisions about the structure of its smallest components. This isn’t so far from the principle of recursion as understood in computer science. Recursion means writing a function—a set of instructions—that at one point in the process calls on itself to deal with a subset of the larger problem. The most famous example is Quicksort, the sorting algorithm developed in the sixties by C.A.R. Hoare. Quicksort begins with a string of numbers to be sorted, picks one number at random from the middle of the string, then sorts the entire list into two parts, with all the larger numbers in one half and the smaller ones in the other. Then it applies itself to each smaller piece, dividing and sorting until a subset has fewer than two elements, which means we’re done. And although recursion doesn’t always result in saving time or storage, it’s a useful way to think about problems, as Kernighan and Ritchie note: “Recursive code is more compact, and often much easier to write and understand, than the non-recursive equivalent.”

Quicksort tree

That’s the benefit of a recursive approach to fiction, too: it tackles big problems in ways that are intuitively easier to understand because you’ve already used them on a lower level, and vice-versa. I’ve found that when a novel gets off track, it’s often because the writer has gotten lost in the weeds: you get hung up on little details—like how to get a character out of a room—until you’re so close to the problem that you can no longer see it. The solution is to remember that each chapter, scene, or paragraph is really a story in miniature, and it can be hacked in the same way you found the novel’s three acts. A recursive set of rules for writing fiction might look something like this, starting at the level of the story as a whole and working your way down:

  1. Divide the narrative unit into three parts. (This is usually a matter of intuition, and, like choosing the initial element in Quicksort, it doesn’t really matter at first where you draw the lines. We divide the story into three parts, rather than two, in deference to the rule of three.)
  2. For each unit, figure out the protagonist’s objective and the action he or she needs to take to achieve it.
  3. Repeat for each subsidiary unit until it can’t be divided any further.

In practice, this means that the story as a whole falls into three acts; each act falls into three sequences, with each one consisting of, say, ten chapters; each sequence yields three smaller sequences; each chapter has its own beginning, middle, and end; and so on down to the level of the page and paragraph, until you’re down to a single beat—a unit of narrative that can’t be divided any more. For that beat, you find the protagonist’s objective and concrete, physical actions, which, when taken together, add up to the overall objective for the scene, all the way up to the superobjective for the novel as a whole. (This way of breaking down scenes into beats and thinking in terms of objectives is more fully explored in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which does for storytelling what The C Programming Language does for coding.) Put this way, it may sound mechanical, and it is: in practice, it’s more of a dialogue between the writer’s intuition and rational mind, as you try to fit in scenes that have seized your imagination into the overall logic of the narrative. Like coding, it’s rarely as neat in practice as in theory. But thinking about it recursively helps us remember that the rules at the top are often the same as the ones at the bottom.

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2013 at 9:31 am

Transformed by print

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A page from my first draft

Somewhere in his useful and opinionated book Trial and Error, the legendary pulp writer Jack Woodford says that if you feel that your work isn’t as good as the fiction you see in stores, there’s a simple test to see if this is actually true. Take a page from a recent novel you admire—or one that has seen big sales or critical praise—and type the whole thing out unchanged. When you see the words in your own typewriter or computer screen, stripped of their superficial prettiness, they suddenly seem a lot less impressive. There’s something about professional typesetting that elevates even the sloppiest prose: it attains a kind of dignity and solidity that can be hard to see in its unpublished form. It isn’t just a story now; it’s an art object. And restoring it to the malleable, unpolished medium of a manuscript page often reveals how arbitrary the author’s choices really were, just as we tend to be hard on our own work because our rough drafts don’t look as nice as the stories we see in print.

There’s something undeniably mysterious about how visual cues affect the way we think about the words we’re reading, whether they’re our own or others. Daniel Kahneman has written about how we tend to read texts more critically when they’re printed in unattractive fonts, and Errol Morris recently ran an online experiment to test this by asking readers for their opinions about a short written statement, without revealing that some saw it in Baskerville and others in Comic Sans. (Significantly more of those who read it in Baskerville thought the argument was persuasive, while those who saw it in Comic Sans were less impressed, presumably because they were too busy clawing out their eyes.) Kindle, as in so many other respects, is the great leveler: it strips books of their protective sheen and forces us to evaluate them on their own merits. And I’d be curious to see a study on how the average review varies between those who read a novel in print and those who saw it in electronic form.

"Arkady arrived at the museum at ten..."

This is is also why I can’t bear to read my own manuscripts in anything other than Times New Roman, which is the font in which they were originally composed. When I’m writing a story, I’m primarily thinking about the content, yes, but I’m also consciously shaping how the text appears on the screen. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve acquired a lot of odd tics and aversions from years spent staring at my own words on a computer monitor, and I’ve evolved just as many strategies for coping. I don’t like the look of a ragged right margin, for instance, so all my manuscripts are justified and hyphenated, at least until they go out to readers. I generally prefer it when the concluding line of a paragraph ends somewhere on the left half of the page, and I’ll often rewrite the text accordingly. And I like my short lines of dialogue to be exactly one page width long. All this disappears, of course, the second the manuscript is typeset, but as a way of maintaining my sanity throughout the writing process, these rituals play an important role.

And I don’t seem to mind their absence when I finally see my work in print, which introduces another level of detachment: these words don’t look like mine anymore, but someone else’s. (There are occasional happy exceptions: by sheer accident, the line widths in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 29 happen to exactly match the ones I use at home, so “The Boneless One” looks pretty much like it did on my computer, down to the shape of the paragraphs.) Last week, I finally received an advance copy of my novel Eternal Empire, hot off the presses, and I was struck by how little it felt like a book I’d written. Part of this is because it’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft, I’ve been working on unrelated projects since then, and a lot has happened in the meantime. But there’s also something about the cold permanence of the printed page that keeps me at arm’s length from my work. Once a story can no longer be changed, it ceases to be quite as alive as it once was. It’s still special. But it’s no longer a part of you.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2013 at 8:35 am

Jack Woodford on how to start a story

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The Hard-Boiled Virgin by Jack Woodford

The trouble with most first short stories is that they have their beginnings buried in their middles. Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action.

Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place. Now you need no longer wail, “But I don’t know how to start a story!” Even if you never learn how you can always get a good start by, after you have written into the story, arbitrarily yanking out a good beginning somewhere and putting it at the start of the story.

Jack Woodford, Trial and Error

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June 22, 2013 at 9:50 am

Jack Woodford on avoiding anticlimax

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About the only thing left of importance…is the matter of ending your story when it has ended. A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.

Jack Woodford, Plotting

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

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