Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pablo Picasso

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Picasso's Dora Maar Au Chat

The artist is a receptacle for emotions, regardless of whether they spring from heaven, from earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing face, or from a spider’s web. This is why he must not distinguish between things. Quartiers de noblesse do not exist among objects.

Pablo Picasso

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2016 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2016 at 7:30 am

A series of sketches

leave a comment »

Nilo Cruz

I write a series of scenes. Then I look at all the scenes, and then I start sculpting the play. To me, writing is like sketching. You don’t enter the canvas immediately—you do a series of sketches. Picasso did hundreds of sketches before he started Guernica. So I do the same thing, just to find out about my characters. Some of those scenes make it to the play, some of them don’t. So it is a process of search, doing a little bit of research about their lives through actually writing scenes and finding out about them. Again, some of them make it to the play and some of them don’t…

If you think of dramaturgy in North America, which is so realistic and so literal sometimes, sometimes what theaters—especially dramaturgs—ask for is more information, which sometimes can really weigh down a play. There’s only so much information a play can have. If you start putting in so much information, it becomes something completely different, it doesn’t sing…You’re serving this person, but at the same time, you’re not serving the art form. I feel like as a writer, you have to take commentaries with a grain of salt.

Nilo Cruz, to Guernica

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

Picasso until proven otherwise

leave a comment »

August Wilson

I always say that any painter that stands before a canvas is Picasso until proven otherwise. He stands before a blank canvas and he takes his tools. Paint, form, line, mass, color, relationship—those are the tools, and his mastery of those tools is what will enable him to put that painting on canvas. Everybody does the same thing. His turn out like that because he’s mastered the tools. What happens with writers is that they don’t want to learn the craft—that is, your tools. So if you wanna write plays, you can’t write plays without knowing the craft of playwriting. Once you have your tools, then you still gotta create out of that thing, that impulse. Out of necessity, as Bearden says: “Art is born out of necessity.” Most writers ignore the very thing that would get them results, and that’s craft. And how do you learn craft? In the trenches.

August Wilson, to The Believer

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2016 at 7:30 am

Crayon physics

with 2 comments

Crayon drawings

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 26, 2014.

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

Crayon physics

leave a comment »

Crayon drawings

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.

I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.

Crayon drawings

I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.

So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2014 at 9:57 am

The conspiratorial urge

leave a comment »

Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in JFK

Like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a period of a year or so in my early teens when I must have read a dozen books, in their entirety or in part, on the Kennedy assassination, ranging from the Warren Commission Report itself to works on a sliding scale of lunacy ranging from Case Closed to Appointment in Dallas. This was mostly thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film that strikes me now as a maddeningly skillful, highly irresponsible work of fiction, as well as, inconveniently, one of the greatest of all American movies. When I first saw it, though, I was prepared to take much of it at face value, partially because I encountered it during a golden age for conspiracy fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum had been released a few years earlier, and The X-Files had premiered that fall. As a result, I was primed to soak up reams of conspiracy literature, and not just on the assassination but on all aspects of history and culture: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s books on the Shroud of Turin—which in my weaker moments I still find oddly persuasive—and endless works on the secrets of the Bible, the Masons, and even, yes, the Rosicrucians, spiraling out into the larger subjects of the paranormal and occult. (There comes a point in every kid’s life when he tries to move a salt shaker with his mind, and in some ways, I’ve never entirely left it, although I’d like to think I’ve channeled those energies into more constructive pursuits.)

This was also the year in which I wrote my first novel, typing up three hundred pages of science fiction using WordStar at my parents’ office, and when I look back at it now, I can see how closely those two impulses were entwined. It’s possible that puberty leads to a surge in an obsessive kind of creativity, the kind that results in drawing endless pages of comics or picking up the guitar, and to the extent that I was drawn to conspiracies, both real and imaginary, it wasn’t because I distrusted the government or the official version of history, but because I fell in love with a creative act. Writing a novel and constructing a conspiracy theory seemed like similar pursuits: they both involved sustained intellectual effort, wide reading, and a considerable amount of ingenuity. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not at the time. I happened to come of age at an era when conspiracy theories still involved weeks of sleuthing in libraries and piecing together fragments of information from many scattered sources, none of which were easily accessible. It may seem strange to wax nostalgic about an age of paranoia, but I miss the old days. Conspiracy theories have always been weirdly distorted versions of conventional scholarship, both in their methods and in the kinds of personalities they attract, and just as the ease of searching texts leads to a loss in serious academic work—you no longer need to read all the books on a library shelf to get the references you need—even contemporary conspiracy theories are looking a little thin.

The umbrella man's umbrella

Yet even in their modern, increasingly hysterical form, conspiracy theories can best be understood as a literary impulse. An even better analogy might be that of the collage: you’re assembling information into a larger, surprising pattern, and much of the power of the result comes from its resonance with its original form. We remember Picasso welding a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create the head of a bull because it forces us to see its constituent parts in a new light, and we’re drawn to conspiracies about the life of Jesus, say, because of the way it combines familiar elements—the wedding at Cana, the last supper—into something novel. The “best” conspiracy theories are the ones that seem to invent the least: they’re about juxtapositions and recombinations, or laying a new scrim on the lens to bring out unexpected details. That’s why a subject like the Kennedy assassination has turned out to be so fruitful. There’s an overwhelming amount of material available, some of it contradictory and enigmatic, so it feels like a bin of mosaic pieces that can be set together in countless ways. To add yet another analogy to the mix, it’s like a magnet that draws certain personalities who are unconsciously in search of a subject. A writer can weigh and discard various ideas for a long time before finding the one that magically clicks, and I have a feeling that a lot of conspiracy theorists were born looking for an event that would allow them to indulge their existing hunger for interpretation. The urge to create comes first, and its darker companions, like paranoia, emerge as a way of justifying the work itself.

But a line needs to be drawn here. History isn’t fiction; real life isn’t a novel; and while the creative urge in storytelling often leads the author to discover more about himself and how the world works, conspiracies encourage emotional retreat and alienation. When I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time, I was seduced by its inventiveness and erudition, and I totally missed its larger point about the pathology of paranoia, or how our urge to connect everything to everything else can distort reality’s irreducible mysteries. In my own fiction, I’ve taken pains, almost to a fault, to have it both ways: The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both end on the revelation that the historical conspiracies they describe are something other than what they seemed. Part of this is my desire to show some residual respect for the real people and events I use—Duchamp wasn’t a Rosicrucian, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel that made that point in earnest, however ingenious the argument might have been. But it had even more to do with a shift in my own priorities. For all the cleverness involved in the construction of a good conspiracy, it pales compared to the intellectual effort required to see the world as a whole, with all its contradictions, its dead ends, and its combination of unfathomable complexity and frustrating simplicity. That’s the real challenge, and it’s work enough for a lifetime. And in the end, we’re all acting alone.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

The edge of the canvas

with 2 comments

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

Picasso on creation and destruction

leave a comment »

Pablo Picasso

What a sad fate for a painter who loves blondes, but who refrains from putting them in his picture because they don’t go with the basket of fruit! What misery for a painter who hates apples to be obliged to use them all the time because they go with the cloth! I put everything I love in my pictures. So much the worse for the things, they have only to arrange themselves with one another…

Formerly pictures used to move towards completion in progressive stages. Each day would bring something new. A picture was a sum of additions. With me, picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture, then I destroy it. But in the long run nothing is lost; the red that I took away from one place turns up somewhere else.

Pablo Picasso

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

How to conspire in Russian

with 2 comments

On May 3, 2006, an unknown man in a blue blazer entered the crowded salesroom at Sotheby’s, one of the two great auction houses in New York, where he was handed a paddle and given a seat toward the rear of the floor. He sat quietly for the first part of the sale, then bought a Monet and a Chagall for a combined price of $7.5 million. Finally, to the surprise of the crowd, he began to bid on the most anticipated lot of the evening, the Picasso masterpiece Dora Maar au Chat. Bidding was intense, with at least five buyers competing fiercely, but the man at the rear of the room was relentless, waving his paddle as if trying to swat a fly. In the end, he won the painting for $95 million, the second-highest price ever paid at the time for any work of art. As the crowd erupted in applause, the buyer was surrounded at once by a circle of Sotheby’s staff. No one knew who he was or who his employer might be, but observers reported one tantalizing detail: based on his accent, he seemed to be Russian.

After the sale, there was intense speculation about the buyer’s identity, which remained shrouded in rumor and mystery. The truth may be somewhat more prosaic—it’s now widely believed that the bidder, although obviously inexperienced, was an agent for the oligarch Boris Ivanishvili—but the image of the unknown Russian, which I first encountered in a pair of articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine, sparked my imagination. At the time, as I mentioned yesterday, I looking for a story around which to structure a novel about the New York art world, and I knew at once that this incident would make for a sensational opening scene—and a fictionalized version does, in fact, appear as the first chapter of The Icon Thief. (As I’ve since discovered, there are two kinds of scenes that are impossible to mess up, no matter how hard a writer tries: an auction, and a jury delivering its verdict.) What I didn’t realize at the time was that this single story would determine the course of my life for the next four years, and shape my writing career forever.

I saw right away that the Russia angle would provide me with a vast amount of material, which is what every story idea needs in order to survive. Russian money had been driving prices in the art market for years, with oligarchs converting oil and gas dollars into Impressionists and Old Masters, so it would have been hard for any art novel to avoid dealing with the subject. Yet there was another aspect to this angle that was even more promising. As I explored the story’s potential, it gradually occurred to me that the art world, with its opacity and impenetrability to outsiders, provided an ideal setting for the kind of dense, layered conspiracy novel that I’d loved ever since reading Foucault’s Pendulum, and which I’d always wanted to write. And the history of Russia lends itself naturally to conspiracies, from the Oprichniki of Ivan the Great to the plots of Bakunin, from the Czarist Okhrana to the contemporary entanglements of politicians, oligarchs, intelligence officers, and organized crime. The figure of the unknown Russian buyer, I saw, gave me the entry point I needed.

I also discovered that even the most elaborate fictional inventions pale in comparison to the reality of Russia itself. Despite my background—I’m Finnish and Estonian on my mother’s side—I’d never given a lot of thought to Russia before, but I quickly found myself fascinated by its peculiar geographical and historical position. Russia, as Alexander Blok wrote, is a sphinx, with its head in Europe and its body in Asia, and the tension between these two halves of the Russian experience, which go a long way toward explaining the recurring role of conspiracies in Russian history, struck me as hugely important, as well as resonant with my own life. As a result, I’ve found myself thinking nonstop about Russia for years, over the course of three novels, all because of a single news story that caught my eye. And I’m nowhere near the end of it. As one of my characters says in City of Exiles: “If all you want are questions, then Russia is the country of your dreams. You never get to the bottom of it, no matter how much you try.”

At last, I had my subject—but to write a conspiracy novel, you need a suitable set of conspirators. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how one particular secret society pressed itself on my attention.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2012 at 10:40 am

To outline or not to outline?

with 4 comments

Many novelists hate outlines. And with good reason. If followed too slavishly, they can result in a novel that feels artificial and contrived. They make it hard to follow your characters wherever they’re willing to go. They discourage, or so it seems, those happy accidents that are the high points of every writer’s life. And, perhaps most dangerously, they can lead to boredom on the part of the author, which, if left unchecked, usually carries over to the reader as well.

Me? I outline the living hell out of everything. I outline like it’s my second job. For Kamera and for all of my short fiction, I tend to outline things down to the level of the individual paragraph—and sometimes the sentence as well. One portion of my outline for “Kawataro,” a novelette that is coming out in Analog in June, was 1,800 words long, with more than two hundred separate items, for a section that ended up being just over 3,800 words in the final draft. And while this is an extreme example—a short story is usually much more compressed than a novel—it isn’t entirely atypical. I love outlines. And I couldn’t write much of anything without them.

Which isn’t to say that you should do the same. Outlining, like everything else that goes into a novel, is a very personal thing. Some writers will be happy with a page of notes that lays out the novel’s structure in very general terms, while others will want an index card for every paragraph. Every writer eventually works out his or her own favorite approach. And that’s fine. But I strongly believe that you need some kind of outline before you begin writing, even if you take for granted—and you should—that the outline will change drastically before you’re done.

Why? It’s simple: a novel with an outline is about ten times more likely to be finished than a novel without one. This is true for literary fiction, mainstream, genre, and everything in between. Finishing a novel is hard enough even with an outline; without it, and many writers aren’t likely to get past the first few chapters. It’s just too easy to lose your way. Yes, it’s true, as E.L. Doctorow says below, that you can get home at night using only your headlights—but only if you’ve driven the road before. Or have a map. An outline is a combination of both.

What about the risk that an outline will rob the novel of surprise? In my experience, it doesn’t happen. For one thing, the creation of the outline itself can be full of surprises, assisted by some of the creativity tools I talk about here, here, and here. More importantly, when I sit down to write every day, I have no real idea what to expect. I can experiment, I can take a different tack than planned, but only because I know I have an outline to fall back on. Example: in Kamera, a dead body is discovered in the second chapter. Halfway through the writing of the novel, the identity of the killer shifted from one character to another. It surprised the hell out of me. But I knew that the rest of the outline was sound, which gave me the confidence to make the change. And it elevated the entire novel.

Another point: I believe that the first draft of a novel should be written as quickly as possible. Kamera took more than two years to bring from initial conception to final manuscript, but less than three months, spread out over a longer period, was spent physically typing the first draft, often at the pace of a chapter per day. Why so fast? As I’ve said before, writing is revision, and the sooner you have that shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott says, the sooner you can make it good. If you get stuck on a problem in the first chapter, you may find the answer in the twentieth. And it’s much easier to focus on perfecting individual sentences when the weight of the entire novel is reassuringly there in the background. It exists. And the only way to write a first draft so quickly is with an outline.

Basically, an outline is a sketch. You put it down lightly on paper, make it as detailed or vague as you like, but not so heavy that you can’t erase it later. Once you’ve got a sense of the overall shape, you fill in the blanks, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn’t. And as these stills from Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso illustrate—and as you can see more clearly in the video here—the overall composition can continue to evolve long after you’ve begun laying down the paint. But make that sketch first. Six months from now, when you’re still staring at that canvas, you’ll be glad you did.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

%d bloggers like this: