Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Block

My ten great books #5: Couples

leave a comment »

In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

The old pornographers

with 2 comments

Spaceways by John Cleve

“Dad typed swiftly and with great passion,” Chris Offutt writes in “My Dad, the Pornographer,” his compelling essay from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine. “In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books. Two were science fiction and twenty-four were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using seventeen pseudonyms.” Offutt’s reflections on his father, who wrote predominantly under the name John Cleve, make for a gripping read, and he doesn’t shy away from some of the story’s darker elements. Yet he touches only briefly on a fascinating chapter in the history of American popular fiction. Cleve plunged into the world of paperback pornography and never left, but other writers in the middle third of the last century used it as a kind of paid apprenticeship, cranking out an anonymous novel a month, learning a few useful tricks, and moving on once they had established a name for themselves in other genres. And they included Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Anne Rice, as well as undoubtedly many more who haven’t acknowledged their work in public.

These cheap little novels were the product of a unique cultural moment, spanning the forty years between the introduction of the paperback after World War II and the widespread availability of videocassettes in the early eighties, and we aren’t likely to see their like again—although the proliferation of erotic short stories for the Kindle and other formats points to a possible resurgence. And although in a few cases, like that of Marion Zimmer Bradley, those detours into erotica cast a troubling light on other aspects of the writer’s life, for many authors, it was just another job, in the way a contemporary novelist might dabble in corporate or technical writing. Block—whose first published book was a “lesbian novel,” mostly because he knew it was something he could sell—wrote erotic paperbacks at the rate of twelve or more a year, spending exactly two weeks on each one, including a weekend off. He says:

There was one time I well remember when, checking the pages at the end of the day’s work, I discovered that I’d written pages 31 through 45 but had somehow jumped in my page numbering from 38 to 40. Rather than renumber the pages, I simply sat down and wrote page 39 to fit. Since page 38 ended in the middle of a sentence, a sentence which then resumed on page 40, it took a little fancy footwork to slide page 39 in there, but the brash self-confidence of youth was evidently up to the challenge.

The Crusader by John Cleve

To be fair, it’s tempting to romanticize the life of a hack pornographer, as much as it is for any kind of pulp fiction: most of these novels are terrible, and even for writers with talent, the danger of creative burnout or cynicism was a real one. (Westlake describes this at length in his very funny novel Adios Scheherazade, a thinly veiled account of his own days in the smut mines.) But it’s hard not to feel at least a little nostalgic for a time when it was possible for writers to literally prostitute their talent, while hopefully emerging with some valuable experience. In Writing Popular Fiction, which dates from around the same period, Koontz outlines a few of the potential benefits:

For one thing, since virtually all Rough Sexy Novels are published under pen names, you can learn to polish your writing while getting paid for the pleasure, and have no fear of damaging your creative reputation. Also, because [erotica] puts absolutely no restrictions on the writer besides the requirement of regular sex scenes, one after the other, you can experiment with style, try stream of consciousness, present tense narrative, and other stylistic tricks, to learn if you can make them work.

Pornography and literary modernism have always had a curiously intimate relationship: Grove Press, which published Cleve’s most successful titles, was both a landmark defender of free speech in fiction—it released the first American editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—and a prolific producer of paperback smut. Erotica, both in written form and elsewhere, has often been used to sneak in subversive material that would be rejected outright in more conventional works. For evidence, we need look no further than the career of Russ Meyer, or even of Robert Anton Wilson, who tells the following story about The Book of the Breast:

This book, frankly, got written originally because an editor at Playboy Press asked me if I could write a whole book on the female breast. “Sure,” I said at once. I would have said the same if he had asked me if I could write a book on the bull elephant’s toenails. I was broke that month and would have tried to write anything, if somebody would pay me for it. When I got the contract and the first half of the advance money, I sat down and asked myself what the hell I would put in the damned book.

Wilson eventually ended up structuring the book around an introduction to Taoist philosophy, “to keep myself amused, and thereby speed the writing so I could get the second half of the advance quickly.” Regardless of how we feel about the result, that’s a sentiment that all working writers can cheer. These days, a novelist in need of a paycheck is more likely to go into public relations. But I don’t know if that makes us any better off.

“So what are we saying here?”

leave a comment »

"A plane with Menderes on board..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here

When you’re constructing an argument, whether in fiction, science, or philosophy, when it comes time to lay out your reasoning step by step, you’ll often end up presenting it in the reverse order from which it originally occurred. Sometimes a big idea will arise through accident, intuition, or the need to justify a preexisting position, and after taking it as a starting point, we search retrospectively for the evidence required to support it. Yet when we publish our findings, we pretend as if we arrived at the conclusion through a sequential chain of logic, proceeding from small to large, rather than the other way around. It’s clear, for instance, that scientists often proceed intuitively, at least when it comes to identifying a promising avenue of research, and that major discoveries can be the product of happenstance, luck, or trial and error. In most finished papers, that unruly process is reshaped into a tidy progression from hypothesis to conclusion, which seems only reasonable, given how deeply science depends on a shared language and set of standards. But it also skims over the mistakes, the dead ends, and the unquantifiable factors that affect any kind of intellectual activity.

We find much the same principle at work in fiction, most obviously in the mystery genre. While some authors, like Lawrence Block, can write most of a detective novel with only the vaguest idea of who might ultimately be responsible for the crime, most writers determine the identity of the guilty party early on, then go back to lay down a series of clues for the protagonist to follow. Unlike scientists, writers are careful not to make the progression seem too neat: it isn’t particularly satisfying to read a mystery in which every clue is handed to the hero on a silver platter, so a smart author builds in a few red herrings, wrong turns, and setbacks, an illusion of chance that has been as meticulously crafted as the solution’s apparent orderliness. In the end, though, the hero is moving through a series of encounters that the writer has put together in reverse, and if he often seems absurdly insightful, it’s only because he’s being steered on his way by an author who knows the ending. That’s equally true of puzzle mysteries, of the kind exemplified by Dan Brown, in which the protagonist is presented with a set of enigmas to solve. It doesn’t take much skill to come up with an anagram that the hero can crack at sight, but the reversed order of presentation makes it seem clever rather than a simple trick.

"So what are we saying here?"

In the real world, this kind of backwards reasoning can be dangerous: reality is sufficiently dense and complicated that you can find evidence to support almost any theory, as long as you hide your work and present only a selective subset of all the available facts. One of the factors that makes conspiracy fiction so intriguing is the way in which it edges right up against the point of unforgivable distortion: unlike a pure mystery, the conspiracy novel takes real people and events as its material, but the result is little different from a whodunit that begins with the knowledge that the gardener did it, then scatters bloody gloves and shoemarks for the detective to find. In City of Exiles, for example, I make the case that the Dyatlov Pass incident—in which nine mountaineers died mysteriously in the snow in the Ural Mountains—was a test, conducted at the last minute, of a neurological weapon that was intended to bring down the plane of the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes was, in fact, in a plane that crashed outside Gatwick Airport on February 17, 1959, or only two weeks after the Dyatlov Pass incident, and though he survived, the pilots were killed, and no convincing explanation for the accident has ever been found.

As presented in the novel, the links that join one incident to the other are structured as a chain of inferences leading inevitably to one conclusion. (It’s inevitable, at least, within the context of the story, although for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I was careful to pull back from the theory in the book’s penultimate chapter.) The writing process, however, was altogether different. I’d started with the Dyatlov Pass, and I knew for reasons of plot and symbolic resonance that I wanted to tie it into a plane crash—an image that occurred to me, in a totally arbitrary fashion, as a way to tie the story back to Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah. With this in mind, I went back and searched for plane crashes that had taken place within the proper window of time, and the Gatwick accident had all the right elements. Everything else, including whatever motivation the Soviet security services might have had for killing Menderes, came after the fact. Laid in a straight line, it feels like it was conceived that way from the beginning, but it could have been very different. While doing my research, my attention was drawn to another plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, just one day after the Dyatlov Pass incident. It was the crash that killed Buddy Holly. But if I’d gone in that direction, I don’t know how this novel would have looked…

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

The art of the start

leave a comment »

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

“From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see…”

leave a comment »

"From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve never concealed the fact that I love to outline, although there are times when this feels like I’m admitting to a shameful secret. At a moment when literary gardeners seem to outnumber architects, when you say that you not only outline everything you write, but actively enjoy it, it’s a little like confessing to some harmless but suspect deviancy, like being into latex or voting Republican. But although I’ve discussed my outlining process in detail, I’m not sure I’ve ever conveyed how liberating it can be, and how, far from making it hard to lose yourself in a scene, it actually makes it easier to enter it. When I’m outlining, I start with a handful of plot points that I know I need to cover, but after a few minutes have gone by, I’m just riffing on the page. I’m not thinking about good prose, proper grammar, or even complete sentences—I’m putting down each moment as it occurs to me, almost in real time, and before long, I’m more deeply involved in the events I’m describing than if I were worrying about the shape of my sentences, until I’m often surprised by the result. (Lawrence Block describes a similar phenomenon in his classic Writing the Novel.)

Which isn’t to say that outlining doesn’t have its pitfalls. In particular, if you’ve outlined too far in advance, when the time comes to actually write the chapter, you’ll discover that you’re already bored with it. My own solution, which I think is a pretty good one, is to outline only one section of a novel at a time. Originally, this was an intuitive approach that arose from my impatience to dive into the writing itself, but it also has practical benefits. When I sit down to write Part I, which has been outlined down to the paragraph level, it’s often with only a general sense of what happens in Part II. This introduces a welcome element of risk, and also makes my sense of the first section more flexible. No matter how throughly I’ve outlined the sequence of events, I know there’s a good chance that I’ll need to go back and change it radically based on a development that I haven’t yet anticipated. In both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, this sort of uncertainty meant, among other things, that I wrote scenes for important characters who later, to my surprise, turned out to be murderers—which I hope misleads the reader as much as it did me.

"All right. I'll talk to the girl first..."

The tricky thing about this strategy is that it means a great deal of time will elapse between writing different sections. Ideally, this won’t be obvious to a reader after the necessary revisions have taken place, but it can be psychologically challenging for an author returning to the story after a long absence. For The Icon Thief, close to three months went by between my writing the last sentence of Part I and the first sentence of Part II, which are separated by less than ninety minutes in narrative time. In this case, the long gap was made necessary by the fact that although I knew I had to introduce an elaborate conspiracy theory in the second part of the novel, I had only a vague idea of what this theory would be. That aspect of the plot alone took several weeks to figure out, a process I hope to describe further in a future post. And this doesn’t even take into account the machinery of the story itself, which had to be conceived, plotted, and in some cases researched on location. Not surprisingly, when I finally got around to starting Part II, my head was in a very different place than it was when I left Ilya in that vineyard.

As a result, I have an unusually strong memory of writing the first few sentences of Chapter 26. In many ways, it felt as if I were starting the novel all over again, which is why it begins, atypically, with a scene described from a distance, as Powell and Wolfe approach a burning car in the vineyard parking lot. Looking back at it now, I see that their situation was a reflection of my own. I was coming back to my own story after being away for a long time, with my head full of Rosicrucianism and Duchamp and who knows what else, so it took a lot of effort to focus again on the nuts and bolts of this particular crime scene. Similarly, when Powell returns to the mansion to interrogate its occupants about what has just taken place, I’m standing alongside him, curious to see how my characters have dealt with the situation while I was gone. And it was with a sense of great satisfaction that I turned to the following chapter, which brings all the threads of the story together at last. When the next chapter opens, Maddy is sitting alone in a room, waiting to be questioned by Powell, and if she seems nervous, it’s not hard to understand why. She’s been waiting there for months…

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

Writing the detailed outline, part 1

leave a comment »

Habit, as I’ve said before, is a writer’s best friend, and these days, I find myself having to fall back on my old work ethic more than ever. With the publication of The Icon Thief less than four weeks away, it’s easy to forget that I have another novel due in less than nine months. And while November 1, which is when I’m contracted to deliver The Scythian, may seem like a long way off, in order to produce a decent book, I need to start writing now. Over the past couple of weeks, then, I’ve been taking my rough synopsis for the novel and fleshing it out into a blueprint that I can use to write the first draft. In some ways, this is the most crucial step of the process, so it seems like a good time to talk here about what what an outline really means, at least to me, and how it differs from what most of us imagine when we envision the outlining stage. Because a detailed outline is the most useful writing tool I’ve ever found.

Every writer has a different approach to outlining. Some, like Elmore Leonard, don’t do it at all; others, like Lawrence Block, work best from brief notes on a couple of index cards; and a few create an outline that is basically a short novel in itself. I fall squarely in the latter camp. As I’ve noted before, I outline like it’s my second job. Part of this is due to the conventions of the kind of thriller I’ve found myself writing: much of the reader’s enjoyment, at least in theory, comes from the convergence of countless small plot threads and pieces of information, which need to be planned in advance. It’s also because of what I can only describe as a sort of paradoxical laziness. The physical act of writing a first draft is so taxing that the last thing I want is to worry about an unresolved plot problem when I’m just trying to put words on the page. As a result, I’ve found myself dividing the writing process in half: first, I produce a detailed outline, which takes care of the bare bones of story, and only then do I begin the actual writing. For whatever reason, this makes the whole process less painful.

In a way, it’s something like the relationship between a screenplay and a finished movie. When you read a screenplay, you get a lot of information: the order of scenes, all of the dialogue, and enough of a sense of the action to allow you to picture it in your head. All the same, even the greatest script isn’t meant to be a self-contained work of art: it’s a blueprint that is gradually elaborated at every step of the way. A detailed outline is like a script for the novel I hope to write: it contains each important story beat, a sense of dialogue and atmosphere, and a list of objectives, sometimes down to the individual sentence. The result is a document that can approach the length of the final draft itself. For The Scythian, for instance, I’ve already outlined eight chapters, which I expect will come to something substantially less than fifteen thousand words. The number of words in my “outline” so far? Twelve thousand.

Obviously, this approach isn’t for everyone, and even as I look back on what I’ve written here, it sounds somewhat insane. Yet I’ve found that it’s the only way I can produce the sort of fiction I enjoy writing, under what are often considerable time constraints. And far from inhibiting creativity, I find that it actually enhances it. Writing an outline is an elaborate and intellectually challenging sort of game: I don’t need to worry about writing well, but about constructing a series of clearly defined beats that tell the story I want to tell, even in the absence of good prose. Since I live with an outline for weeks, I find myself fussing over it at odd moments, tinkering with it, sometimes radically altering it. And when the time finally comes to write, I have a solid foundation of story on which I can always rely, even if the act of writing itself often takes me in surprising directions. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I approach the outlining process each day, and how I turn a mere synopsis into the blueprint for an actual story.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

“Come home from land, with stone in hand”

with one comment

This week I’m reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, the classic handbook of rural living that inspired the back to the land movement. While I don’t intend to relocate to a farm anytime soon, it’s hard not to be inspired by the Nearings’ combination of pluck, idealism, and practicality, which all but cry out to be applied to one’s own life. One of the book’s most appealing sections, for instance, details the building of a stone house, made mostly of stones that the Nearings gradually collected from their own fields, from walks in the woods, and from the roadside, keeping an eye out at all times for “well-shaped rocks.” By so doing, they were simply following the advice of Thomas Tusser, the Tudor poet and author of Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, who wrote:

Where stones be too manie, annoieng thy land,
Make servant come home with a stone in his hand.
By daily so dooing, have plentie yee shall,
Both handsome for paving and good for a wall.

Reading these words, it struck me that this isn’t so different from what a writer does. Writers are gleaners, picking up material wherever they find it, often in the course of doing something else. I’ve spoken before of Lawrence Block’s image of the novelist as a songbird, weaving bits of ribbon and cloth into its nest “for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.” In a way, the Nearings’ example is even better, because it encompasses both discipline and serendipity: a writer often finds well-shaped rocks by chance, but only if he was looking for them in the first place. And the habit of looking for material at all times, even in casual reading or conversation, is one of the most important skills that a writer can develop.

Another necessary habit, of course, is saving and remembering what one finds. When the Nearings were building their house, they put up a series of signs on the building site, with labels like “Corner,” “Floor,” and “Chimney,” where they’d set appropriate stones as they found them. Similarly, a writer needs at least a permanent text file or notebook page for any project he might be working on at the time, where he can jot down new ideas or bits of material as they arise. For what I hope will my third novel after The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, for example, I’ve reserved a page in my journal for a better part of a year now, writing down fragmentary thoughts whenever they come to mind. The ideas aren’t in any order; it’s just a heap of stones. But whenever I go back and check it, I’m often surprised by what I find there.

And what about ideas that don’t fit into your current project? These stones deserve to be saved, too. When I was in college, I kept a commonplace book of quotes and ideas, and although I’ve since fallen out of the habit, I still try to keep notes as best I can. (This blog, especially its section on Quotes of the Day, has come to serve much of the same purpose.) And you never know what will later come in handy. A stone that doesn’t seem useful now may end up, to borrow one of the subtlest images in the Bible, as the keystone for a project you haven’t even imagined. The trick is to always keep your eyes open, in libraries and in life. As the Nearings write: “Stone gathering became a real preoccupation on our walks or drives, and it was a rare day when we did not come back ‘with stone in hand.” And that should be a writer’s goal as well.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2011 at 9:44 am

“Insert brilliant idea here”

leave a comment »

One of the most frustrating and challenging moments in any writer’s life is when you know where you are and where you want to be going, but have no idea how to get there. In fact, there are times when I feel like one of the gnomes in the celebrated episode of South Park from which the above image is taken. You’re writing a story, and you have some good ideas for the beginning and the end, but the part in the middle is a mystery. This unknown element can be as small as the distance between two minor plot points or as large as the entire second act, but in all cases, the essential problem is the same. All you need is something to get from point A to point C, and, ideally, it should be brilliant.

This situation is a familiar one for writers of mystery and suspense fiction. A good mystery novel should come off as a perfect puzzle, in which every element was carefully premeditated and laid in beforehand, but in practice, large gaps are often left by the author to be filled in later. In Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block relates that while writing the first installment in his popular series of Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, he got within two or three chapters of the ending before finally figuring out who the villain was, thanks to a chance remark by a friend. “I had to do some rewriting to tie off all the loose ends,” Block notes, “but the book worked out fine.” I have a feeling that most mystery novelists could tell similar stories. And as long as the result looks preordained, it’s perfectly okay.

I’ve encountered similar issues all the time in my own writing, even though I outline like crazy. With The Icon Thief, I knew from early on in the process where the story would end: in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with my main character standing before the closed door leading into Étant Donnés. How to get her there, however, remained a problem for a long time, and it wasn’t until I had written more than a third of the novel that I managed to come up with a solution. Similarly, in House of Passages, there’s a moment when I knew that a character had to make a series of brilliant deductions to advance to the next stage of the plot. But what? I could see the blank space where they would go, but not the deductions themselves, and like Block, I ended up going back and laying in most of my clues after the fact.

And yet this is one of the great pleasures of writing. I’ve previously quoted Walter Murch on the fact that you don’t want to answer all of the questions posed by a work of art at its earliest stages. In fact, you should hope that serious questions remain unanswered until the very end. In any artistic pursuit, once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, there’s always the risk that you’ll become bored or complacent. The best way to avoid this is by deliberately leaving problems for yourself to solve, trusting that luck, intuition and skill will carry you through. Almost invariably, they do—or at least well enough so that, with the proper adjustments, nobody will ever notice the seams. In the process, you’ll grow as a writer. And maybe, in the end, you’ll even profit.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

The making of a novelette (part 3)

with 4 comments

In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:

I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters 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.

Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.

The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).

My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)

Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.

In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

Imitate everyone you know

with 6 comments

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:

%d bloggers like this: