Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pixar

Beyond good and evil

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Ponyo

First, a toddler movie update. After a stretch in which my daughter watched My Neighbor Totoro close to a hundred times, she’s finally moved on to a few other titles: now she’s more into Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s other great masterpiece for children, and, somewhat to my surprise, the original Disney release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. All, thankfully, are movies that I’m happy to watch on a daily basis, and seeing them juxtaposed together so often has allowed me to draw a few comparisons. Totoro still strikes me as a perfect movie, with a entire world of loveliness, strangeness, and fine observation unfolding from a few basic premises. Ponyo is a little messier, with a glorious central hour surrounded on both sides with material that doesn’t seem as fully developed, although it’s not without its charms. And Winnie the Pooh impresses me now mostly as an anthology of good tricks, gags, and bits of business, as perfected over the decades by the best animators in the world. It’s sweet and funny, but more calculated in its appeal than its source, and although it captures many of the pleasures of the original books, it misses something essential in their tone. (Really, the only animator who could give us a faithful version of Milne’s stories is Miyazaki himself.)

And none of them, tellingly, has any villains. Beatrix hasn’t been left entirely innocent of fictional villainy, and she already knows that—spoiler alert—Hans is “the bad guy” and Kristof is “the good guy” based on her limited exposure to Frozen. Yet I’ve always suspected that the best children’s movies are the ones that hold the viewer’s attention, regardless of age, without resorting to manufactured conflicts. You could divide the Pixar films into two categories based on which ones lean the heaviest on scripted villains, and you often find that the best of them avoid creating characters whom we’re only supposed to hate. The human antagonists in the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are more like impersonal forces of nature than deliberate enemies, and I’ve always been a little uneasy about The Incredibles, as fantastic as so much of it is, simply because its villain is so irredeemably loathsome. There are always exceptions, of course: Toy Story 3 features one of the most memorable bad guys in any recent movie, animated or otherwise. But if children’s films that avoid the easy labels of good guys and bad guys tend to be better than average, that’s less a moral judgment than a practical one: in order to tell an interesting story without an obvious foil, you have to think a little harder. And it shows.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

That said, there’s an obvious contradiction here. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when I tell my daughter fairy tales, I tend to go for the bloodiest, least sanitized versions I can find. There’s no shortage of evil in the Brothers Grimm, and the original stories go far beyond what most children’s movies are willing to show us. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is as frightening a monster as any I know, and I still feel a chill when I read her first line aloud. The wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother whole, and as his punishment, he gets killed with an axe and sliced open with sewing shears. (At least, that’s what happens in the version I’ve been reading: in the original, Little Red Riding Hood herself proposes that the wolf’s belly be filled with heavy stones.) The queen in “Snow White” attempts to kill the title character no fewer than three times, first by strangling her with a lace bodice, then with a poisoned comb, before finally resorting to the apple to finish the job. And when you sanitize these stories, you rob them of most of their meaning. As I noted in my original post on the subject:  “A version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless.”

So why do I value fairy tales for their unflinching depictions of evil, while equally treasuring children’s films in which nothing bad happens at all? I could justify this in all kinds of ways, but I keep returning to a point that I’ve made here before, which is that the only moral value I feel like inculcating in my daughter—at least for now—is a refusal to accept shoddy or dishonest storytelling. Miyazaki and the Brothers Grimm lie on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they’re unified by their utter lack of cynicism. One might be light, the other dark, but they’re both telling the stories they have in the most honest way they can, and they don’t feel obliged to drum up our interest using artificial means. In Miyazaki, it’s because the world is too magical for us to need a bad guy in order to care about it; in the Brothers Grimm, it’s because the world is already so sinister, down to its deepest roots, and the story is less about giving us a disposable antagonist than in confronting us with our most fundamental fears. When you compare it to the children’s movies that include a bully or a bad guy who exists solely to drive the plot along, you see that Totoro and “Hansel and Gretel” have more in common with each other than with their lesser counterparts. There’s good in the world as well as evil, and I don’t plan on sheltering my daughter from either one. But I’m going to shelter her from bad storytelling for as long as I can.

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

The Toy Story of our lives

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Toy Story That Time Forgot

A few weeks ago, Pixar announced that Toy Story 4 is officially in production, with the dream team of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton advising the writing duo of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. (I don’t doubt the talents of the latter two, but I still smile a little at the thought of that meeting: I’d like to think that it consisted mostly of four big, nerdy guys in Hawaiian shirts being inexplicably charmed by Jones’s pitch for the franchise.) Like many fans of what I’ve come to see as the best series of children’s films ever made, I’m tickled, but cautious. It’s not so much the fear that a mediocre fourth movie would undermine my feelings for the first three—heck, I’ve been through that process before. Rather, it’s the fact that a perfectly fine arrangement already exists, in the form of the animated shorts about these characters that Pixar has continued to produce. I’m not sure I need to see Toy Story 4, but I’d happily accept a run of shorts that went on forever, if it means we get more miniature masterpieces along the lines of Partysaurus Rex.

The nice thing about the Toy Story shorts is that they meet a particular need while leaving our memories of the movies untouched. Much of the appeal of these films comes from their almost frightening emotional resonance, and while it’s unfair to hold a short cartoon to the same standard, I love these characters so much that I’m glad just to be treated to a few brief vignettes of their lives. As we learned from Cars 2, cleverness alone can’t sustain an entire feature, but it’s more than enough to fill six minutes, and the format of the animated short allows Pixar to revel in a few crucial aspects of the franchise—its ingenuity and humor—while not having to strain for the intensity of feeling that the movies achieve. In that regard, it’s revealing that the longer specials, Toy Story of Terror and last night’s Toy Story That Time Forgot, tend to hit beats that we’ve seen before: the villain in the former feels more than a little like his counterpart in Toy Story 2, and the latter introduces an army of toys who don’t know that they’re toys, of which Buzz drily notes: “Incredible, isn’t it?”

Toy Story That Time Forgot

More than anything else, this is what gives me pause at the prospect of Toy Story 4. The first three movies seem almost inevitable in the emotional ground they cover: the series gradually became a meditation on growing up, and now that Andy has gone off to college, it’s hard to envision what remains to be told. Still, I’ve been surprised before, and if anything, Toy Story That Time Forgot serves as a reminder of how much feeling can still be plumbed from these characters and their situations. For most of its length, it’s a cute diversion, maybe a notch below the best of the shorts so far. (It lost me a little during its long middle section, which takes place entirely within the plastic world of the Battlesaurs: a lot of the fun of these stories arises from the element of scale, with the toys’ adventures set against the baseboards and table legs of the larger everyday world, and we lose this when the action unfolds in artificial surroundings.) Yet by the end, I was unexpectedly touched by its message, like that of The Lego Movie, which implies that toys find their greatest meaning when they surrender to a child’s imagination.

Obviously, it’s hard to separate my response from my own experience as a father, which is a fairly recent development—my daughter wasn’t even born when Toy Story 3 was released. And I see a lot of Bonnie in Beatrix. She’s just arriving at the age when she starts to tell stories involving her toys that I couldn’t have anticipated: she’ll sling her Hello Kitty purse over her shoulder and announce that she’s taking the train to work, or explain that Mr. Bear needs to have his diaper changed, and she’s already beginning to spin private narratives using the figures in our plastic nativity set. And even if my feelings have been shaped by where I happen to be in my own life, I can’t help but think that if there’s one last region for the series to explore, it’s here—in the strange closeness that emerges between a child, her toys, and her parents. (So far, the series has only given us hints of this, notably in the form of the intriguing clues, which can’t be dismissed, that the little girl who gave away Jessie the Cowgirl grew up to be Andy’s mom.) Toy Story has a lot to say about small children, but it’s been oddly indifferent so far to families. That’s the fourth movie I’d like to see, and I’ll tell this to anyone who wants to listen, even if it means I have to take a meeting with Rashida Jones.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

Blinn’s Law and the paradox of efficiency

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Disney's Frozen

Note: I seem to have come down with a touch of whatever stomach bug my daughter had this week, so I’m taking the day off. This post was originally published, in a somewhat different form, on August 9, 2011. 

As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.
—Blinn’s Law

Why isn’t writing easier? Looking at the resources that contemporary authors have at their disposal, it’s easy to conclude that we should all be perfect writing machines. Word processing software, from WordStar to Scrivener, has made the physical process of writing more streamlined than ever; Google and Amazon have given us access to a world of information that would have been inconceivable even fifteen years ago; and research, editing, and revision have been made immeasurably more efficient. And yet writing itself doesn’t seem all that much less difficult than before. The amount of time a professional novelist needs to spend writing each day—let’s say three or four hours—hasn’t decreased much since Trollope, and for most of us, it still takes a year or two to write a decent novel.

So what happened? In some ways, it’s an example of the paradox of labor-saving devices: instead of taking advantage of our additional leisure time, we create more work for ourselves. It also reflects the fact that the real work of writing a novel is rarely connected to how fast you can type. But I prefer to think of it as a variation on Blinn’s Law. As graphics pioneer James Blinn first pointed out, in animation, rendering time remains constant, even as computers get faster. An artist gets accustomed to waiting a certain number of hours for an image to render, so as hardware improves, instead of using it to save time, he employs it to render more complex graphics. This is why rendering time at Pixar has remained essentially constant over the past fifteen years. (Although the difference between Toy Story and Cars 2, or even Brave, is a reminder that rendering isn’t everything.)

Disney's Frozen

Similarly, whatever time I save by writing on a laptop rather than a manual typewriter is canceled out by the hours I spend making additional small changes and edits along the way. The Icon Thief probably went through eighteen substantial drafts before the final version was delivered to my publisher, an amount of revision and rewriting that would have been unthinkable without Word. Is the novel better as a result? On a purely technical level, yes. Is the underlying story more interesting than if I’d written it by hand? Probably not. Blinn’s Law tells us that the leaves and grass in the background of a shot will look increasingly great, but it says nothing about the quality of storytelling. Which seems to imply that the countless tiny changes that a writer like me makes to each draft are only a waste of effort.

And yet here’s the thing: I still needed all that time. No matter how efficient the physical side of the process becomes, it’s still desirable for a writer to live with a novel, or a studio to live with a movie, for at least a year or so. (In the case of a film like Frozen, that gestational period can amount to a decade or more.) For most of us, there seems to be a fixed developmental period for decent art, a minimum amount of time that a story needs to simmer and evolve. The endless small revisions aren’t the point: the point is that while you’re altering a word or shifting a paragraph here or there, the story is growing in your head in unexpected ways. Even as you fiddle with the punctuation, seismic changes are taking place. But for this to happen, you need to be at your desk for a certain number of hours. So what do we do in the meantime? We do what Pixar does: we render. That’s the wonderful paradox of efficiency: it allows us, as artists, to get the inefficiency we all need.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

Toy Story of delight

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Toy Story of Terror

Breaking Bad may be over, but last night, my wife and I watched what emphatically ranks as a close second in our most highly anticipated television events of the year: Toy Story of Terror, the first of what I hope will be many Pixar specials featuring the characters from my favorite animated franchise. Not surprisingly, I loved it, even if I’d rate it a notch below the sublime Partysaurus Rex. It’s constructed in the usual shrewd, slightly busy Pixar manner, with complication piled on complication, and it packs a startling amount of plot into a runtime of slightly over twenty minutes. A big part of the appeal of the Toy Story franchise has always been its narrative density: these aren’t long movies, but each installment, especially the latter two, is crammed with ideas, a tradition that the shorts have honored and maintained. And although it may not rank among the greatest holiday specials ever made, it gave me a hell of a lot of pleasure, mostly because I was delighted, as I always am, to see these characters again.

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow a television show to exploit different, surprising combinations of characters, but I don’t think I’ve really delved into its importance in film, which operates under a different set of constraints. Instead of multiple seasons, you have, at best, a handful of installments, and often just one movie. A rich supporting cast can lead to many satisfactions in the moment—think of the ensembles in Seven Samurai, The Godfather, L.A. Confidential—but it also allows you to dream more urgently of what else might have taken place, both in the runtime of the movie itself and after the story ends. When a great ensemble movie is over, it leaves you with a sense of loss: you feel that the characters were doing other things beyond the edges of the frame, pairing off in unexpected ways, and you wish there were time for more. (It’s no accident that the franchises that inspire the most devoted fanfic communities, from Harry Potter to Star Trek, are the ones that allow fans to play with the widest range of characters.)

Toy Story of Terror

And I don’t think I’ve ever felt this so keenly as I have with the characters from Toy Story. Over the course of three films and a handful of shorts, the franchise has created dozens of memorable characters, and it’s remarkable how vividly even briefly glimpsed figures—Wheezy, the Chatter Telephone—are drawn. Part of this is due to the fact that toys advertise their personalities to us at once, and you can mine a lot of material from either underlining or subverting that initial impression, as in the case of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, who stands as one of the most memorable movie villains of the last decade. But it’s also thanks to some sensational writing, directing, and voice acting in the established Pixar style, as well as the ingenuity of the setting and premise itself. At its best, the franchise is an adventure series crossed with a workplace comedy, and much of its energy comes from the idea of these toys, literally from different worlds, thrown together into the same playroom. Andy’s bedroom, or Bonnie’s, or any child’s, is a stage on which an endless number of stories can be told, and they don’t need to be spectacular: I’d be happy just to watch these toys hanging out all day.

That’s the mark of great storytelling, and as time goes on, I’ve begun to suspect that this may be the best movie trilogy I’ve ever seen. I’ve loved this series for a long time, but it wasn’t until Toy Story 2 came out that it took up a permanent place in my heart. At the time, I was working as an online movie critic, and I was lucky enough to see it at a preview screening—I almost typed “screaming,” which is a revealing typo—packed with kids. And I don’t think any movie has ever left me feeling happier on leaving the theater, both because the film itself was a masterpiece, and because I knew that every child in the world was going to see it. Ten years later, Toy Story 3 provided the best possible conclusion to the central story, and I don’t think I want any more movies, as much as I want to spend more time with these characters. But the decision to release additional shorts and specials was a masterstroke. For any other franchise, it might have seemed like a cash grab, but I can’t help but read it as an act of generosity: it gives us a little more, but not too much, of what we need. And it makes me a little envious of my own daughter, who, if all goes according to plan, will grow up with Woody, Buzz, Rex, and the rest, not just as beloved characters, but as friends.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

A writer’s progress

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Over the past few days, I’ve been engaged in a long conversation with my younger self, using what Stephen King has rightly called the only real form of time travel we have. Years ago, when I left my job in New York to become a professional writer, my first major project was a long novel about India. I spent two years writing and revising it in collaboration with an agent, only to abandon it unpublished in the end for reasons that I’ve described elsewhere. It was a bittersweet experience at best, one that taught me much of what I know about writing, while also leaving me with little to show for it, and as a result, I haven’t gone back and read that novel in a long time—more than four years, in fact. Now that I’ve finished Eternal Empire, however, I’ve got some time on my hands, and one of the first things I wanted to do, since I no longer have a book under contract, is go back and look at that early effort to see whether there’s anything there worth saving. And the prospect of reading this novel again after so long filled me with a lot of trepidation.

In some ways, I doubt I’ll ever have this kind of experience again. This first novel represents the very best that I could do at that time in my career: I lavished everything I had on it for two years of my life, and so it would be surprising, at least to me, if there wasn’t at least something worthwhile there. But I’ve changed a lot in the meantime, too. When I sat down to write my first book, it largely to prove to myself that I could do it at all: I’d never written an original novel before, unless you count the science-fiction epic I cranked out in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and I’d suffered through several unfinished projects in the meantime. Today, the situation couldn’t be more different: I have something like 350,000 words of professional work behind me, and I’ve gone through the process of writing, cutting, and revising a manuscript with an editor twice, with a third time just around the corner. I’m a better, smarter writer now, and this is probably the only chance I’ll have to confront the best work of my early days with the detachment that four years of distance affords.

And while reading the novel again, I discovered something fascinating: this manuscript, which is the final version of a book that went through countless edits, revisions, and iterations, is basically as good as the first drafts I write today. It isn’t a bad novel by any means: there’s a lot of interesting material, some exciting scenes, and many extended passages of decent writing. But it’s clearly the work of a novice. Most chapters go on for longer than they should; I spell out motivations and subtext rather than leaving them to the reader; and, much to my embarrassment, I even have long sections of backstory. At the time, this was the novel I wanted to write, and since then, my tastes have changed and developed in certain ways, which is precisely how it should be. Yet here’s the funny thing: I still write chapters that are too long, spell things out too explicitly, and tell more than I should about a character’s background. The difference now is that I cut it, usually before I’ve even printed out a copy to mark up with a red pencil. And whatever mistakes that remain tend to be made, and addressed, more quickly.

Which gets me to an important point about progress. There’s no such thing as real progress in the arts, at least as far as storytelling is concerned, but there’s certainly room for an individual author to grow and improve over time—and the best thing that a writer can learn, as they say at Pixar, is that you need to be wrong fast. Sometimes I’m wrong only in my own head, while I’m working out a scene in my mind’s eye, and I’ve corrected the mistake long before I begin to type. More often, I need to write something out first and change it once I realize it isn’t working. But the fact that my first drafts now are as good as my final drafts of a few years ago implies, if nothing else, that I’ve accelerated the process, which is about all a writer can ask. I’m still fundamentally the same person I was when I wrote my first novel, but a lot more efficient, and I’ll be happy as long as I can continue in the same general direction. As David Belle, the founder of parkour, says: “First, do it. Second, do it well. Third, do it well and fast—that means you’re a professional.”

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2012 at 9:32 am

Posted in Writing

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