Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Irving

“He found himself studying her face…”

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"The murdered man lay dead in his bath..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first and final installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

You can tell a lot about a writer by the way he or she approaches endings. Some novelists, like Stephen King, prefer to dive into a story without knowing how it ends, which allows the action to unfold more organically—and also leaves you with the possibility, which we often see in King, of a rousing, suspenseful story that peters out in a vast anticlimax. Others prefer to have a specific ending in sight, or even to work backward from a conclusion, as John Irving says to The Paris Review: “I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up?” My own approach, as in most things, involves trying to have it both ways. I generally start with a decent sense of where the story is going, but I postpone any detailed outlining until I’m ready to begin the last fifty pages or so. With The Icon Thief, I figured out the ending pretty quickly, and it remained virtually unchanged throughout more than a year of rewrites. And then, less than a month before we were scheduled to go out to publishers, I changed it.

The original ending tracks the existing epilogue fairly closely until the final page, although there are a number of important differences. My first version was told from the point of view of Vasylenko, a character we haven’t seen except in passing, as he meets with Lermontov—now on the run—to discuss the latter’s move from London to Moscow. The two men visit the British Museum, where David’s Death of Marat is conveniently on loan from Brussels, then head to Vasylenko’s home in Fulham. Ilya is waiting for them there. And although we suspect that he’s there to kill them both, he’s really working to extract a confession with Powell, who is listening on a wire as he waits outside to make the arrests. Ilya leaves the two men to the police, throws his gun into the Thames, and walks away, apparently liberated at last. (Incidentally, I opened the scene with The Death of Marat mostly because I wanted to discuss an ingenious theory about the painting that I first encountered in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, although it may also have been an unconscious homage to The Eight by Katherine Neville, who, three years later, would go on to provide the cover blurb for Eternal Empire.)

"He found himself studying her face..."

As endings go, I thought it was pretty good, even if the final beat owed a lot to the last scene of Michael Clayton—a movie I’ve raided for inspiration more than once. Later, though, after the rest of the novel had been revised, I found that the ending no longer worked. The greatest single change to the plot, as I’ve mentioned before, was to have Ethan die at Lermontov’s hands. Once that change had been made, the dynamic of the ending, a hundred pages later, was all wrong. Lermontov had to face the consequences for killing such an important character, and the one who most deserved to take revenge was Maddy. I don’t think I realized this right away; it was more an intuitive sense that the balance of the conclusion was flawed. Once I figured this out, the logic of the scene was fairly straightforward, and I wrote it in less than a day. The revised version is told from Lermontov’s point of view, an important fix, and now it’s Maddy who is working with Ilya to tie off the loose ends. Justifying her involvement required a bit of thought, and I’m still proud of my solution, in which Maddy is able to track Lermontov down based on his purchase of an unusual picture frame from the House of Heydenryk, the owner of which later contacted me to thank me for mentioning his company in such a positive light.

Strangely enough, this radically altered ending, which changes the dynamic of Maddy’s entire journey as a character, didn’t require a great deal of revision for the rest of the novel, although obviously scenes that read one way in the original version acquire a different meaning now. But that small decision ended up affecting the books that followed in fundamental respects. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a series, and I was content to leave Maddy where we last see her—compromised to some extent by her revenge, yes, but also free to make a life for herself in a way that Ilya is not. Even after I knew that I’d be writing at least one more book with some of the same characters, I wanted to keep Maddy out of it, and she doesn’t appear at all in City of Exiles. (If nothing else, I felt that she deserved a break.) Much later, though, I began to see that her story wasn’t finished, and I found myself curious to see where she ended up after Ilya left her alone on that street in Fulham. The result was Eternal Empire, which in some ways was an attempt to work out some of the implications of Maddy’s last, fateful decision. And the answers I found weren’t always what I expected…

This is the last installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, which I began over a year ago. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking back over the experience and reflecting a bit about what I’ve learned along the way.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

Wouldn’t it be easier to write for television?

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Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?

My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.

Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:

Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.

And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.

So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

John Irving on plot

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Titles are important; I have them before I have books that belong to them. I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin.

John Irving, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2011 at 1:19 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 8:05 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day, Writing

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