Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Louis Stevenson

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Robert Louis Stevenson

You have your little handful of facts, little bits of a puzzle, and you sit and think, and fit ’em together this way and that, and get up and throw ’em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk. And it’s real soothing, and when done gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

“He took in his surroundings…”

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"He took in his surroundings..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 50. You can read the earlier installments here

One of the few really useful tricks I’ve picked up as a writer is that if you don’t know what happens in a particular scene, try giving it a location. There’s a book on the movies—I think it’s Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title, but it could also be Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns—that describes a comedian walking onto a standing set and immediately coming up with bits of business involving the furniture and props on hand, and a similar process seems to operate in fiction. When you’re inventing a sequence from scratch, whether it’s a chase scene or a quiet interaction between two characters, you’re initially handicapped because the setting in which it occurs is a blank stage. If you can assign it a location, even a relatively arbitrary one, the layout of the surroundings quickly suggests ideas for movement, action, and rhythm, or what a stage director would call blocking. And although a novelist can design a fictional location in any way he likes, in practice, it’s best if the place involved is a real one with concrete physical constraints.

This is part of the reason why so many authors enjoy drawing maps. In fantasy fiction, a map of the territory often precedes the writing of the story itself, both because worldbuilding is a fun pursuit—even without a narrative to support it—and because the landmarks can impose their own kind of logic. (There’s an entire book, Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi, devoted to teasing out the parallels between cartographic and narrative thinking, and it’s worth a read.) Robert Louis Stevenson went so far as to recommend mapmaking to writers of all kinds:

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers.

"He forced himself to think..."

The value of maps may be less obvious for a novel like City of Exiles, but in practice, they turned out to be absolutely crucial. Much of suspense fiction, as I’ve noted before, consists of laying down an intensely detailed stratum of “realism” that allows the writer to get away with greater imaginative leaps, and that was especially the case here: the plot hinges on a series of implausible events that work only if they’ve been grounded in what seems like some version of the real world. Location research played an important role here, and the trip to London I took paid dividends in such scenes as Karvonen’s first hit and the chase at the London Chess Classic. These are scenes in which real locations dictated much the action, and I don’t think I could have invented anything nearly as convincing if I hadn’t, as Stevenson says, walked every foot and learned every milestone. And even when I wasn’t able to check out a location firsthand, I still relied on maps and landmarks, arguably to an even greater extent, since it meant that I had to plot out complicated action from an armchair.

In Chapter 50, for example, the logic of the story hinged on a solution to a specific series of geographical problems. Karvonen is driving through a snowstorm in Helsinki, heading for the passenger harbor, when he’s forced to make a detour because of a traffic accident. Along the way, he’s stopped by a police van, and in order to avoid being arrested, he shoots and kills the officer. The crime has to be witnessed, forcing him to abandon his car, but he still has to be able to slip away and head for the next place in his itinerary, the network of tunnels under the city that I knew from the beginning would be the setting for my climax. After poring over Google Maps for most of an afternoon, I finally ended up with a location that worked, near the park by Uspenski Cathedral. (Among other things, it allowed me to conveniently interpose a canal between Karvonen and the onlookers to the shooting, who could witness it without being able to respond in time.) If you read the chapter carefully, you’ll see that every beat was suggested or determined by the geography I had to follow. The result is one of my favorite scenes in the novel. And it wouldn’t have worked at all if I hadn’t had a map…

A writer’s treasure map

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Map of Treasure Island

The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behavior of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. And how troublesome the moon is…!

But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, shortcuts and footprints for his messengers ; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

July 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

“A web at once sensuous and logical…”

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Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

The conjuror juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer…

[I]t is just that wit, those perpetual nice contrivances, these difficulties overcome, this double purpose attained, these two oranges kept simultaneously dancing in the air, that, consciously or not, afford the reader his delight…That style is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the greatest gain to sense and vigor. Even the derangement of the phrases from their (so-called) natural order is luminous for the mind; and it is by the means of such designed reversal that the elements of a judgment may be most pertinently marshaled, or the stages of a complicated action most perspicuously bound into one.

The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style, that is the foundation of the art of literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

Playing billiards with Robert Louis Stevenson

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Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

Often in the evening [Stevenson] would turn into the billiard-room, and there his talk might be heard at its best. A fellow-visitor has given a spirited and sympathetic description of him in those days, and adds: “Once only do I remember seeing him play a game of billiards and a truly remarkable performance it was. He played with all the fire and dramatic intensity that he was apt to put into things. The balls flew wildly about, on or off the table as the case might be, but seldom indeed ever threatened a pocket or got within a hand’s-breadth of a cannon. ‘What a fine thing a game of billiards is,’ he remarked to the astonished onlookers, ‘—once a year or so!'”

Sir Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

The visual approach to editing

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Last week, after a short break, I went back and reread the rough draft of Eternal Empire, my third novel, and immediately had something close to a panic attack. I was surprised by this, because my initial read, right after finishing the draft, was highly positive—I thought it had the potential to be the best novel I’d ever written. The second time around, however, I could hardly find anything right with it: it seemed too slow, too padded, and above all too long. Looking at it more objectively, I could tell that the structure was ultimately sound, and I knew intellectually, if not viscerally, that the set pieces and story points were all good. I hadn’t constructed this novel haphazardly; I’d approached it with a solid plan. (As David Mamet says: “The more time you have invested, and the more of yourself you have invested in the plan, the more secure you will feel in the face of terror.”) All the same, I was left with a problem: the book was at least 15% too long, after close to the same amount had already been cut from the previous draft, and I had just over four weeks to fix it.

What I’m about to describe is going to sound slightly insane, but please bear with me. I began by going through my printed draft with a pencil and crossing out anything I could. For the most part, I wasn’t so much reading the chapters, which I knew fairly well by that point, as regarding them with the eye of a sculptor: I was cutting paragraphs that seemed too long, unbroken chunks of exposition, lengthy speeches, anything that looked like it was taking up too much space. If I had two long paragraphs in a row, I asked myself if what they were saying could be better expressed in one, and nearly every time, the answer was yes. And I paid particular attention to the beginning and end of each scene, looking for ways to get into the scene later and leave earlier, as well as cutting anything that seemed purely transitional, which can be as simple as starting with two characters already in a room instead of out in the hallway. Every now and then, I’d create a PDF of the draft and flip through it rapidly on my laptop, looking for moments when a chapter seemed to run a page or two longer than I was expecting, working mostly by intuition.

This may seem like a strange way of operating, but it’s not so different from what a film editor like Walter Murch does when he views a movie at high speed or with the sound turned down: I’m not worrying about the details, but focusing on big structural elements, which often express themselves visually on the page. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same, and to my mind, that’s also true of paragraphs. I’m not saying that every paragraph should be the same length, but that there’s a basic rhythm of description, action, and dialogue that I try to hit on a consistent basis, which is visually apparent at a glance. After all, when you’re browsing through a novel in a bookstore, you aren’t necessarily reading the words: you’re looking at the page to see whether it resembles your personal standard of readability. We all have a different sweet spot, but it’s one that we can intuitively recognize, once we’ve read enough books we like. And even when we’re reading a novel for real, we tend to approach the words on a page with a different state of mind when we see, out of the corner of one eye, that the chapter is about to end—a subliminal factor that doesn’t exist in film.

Personally, I’m convinced that this kind of high-level, predominantly visual approach to editing has a real impact on the experience of a reader who is encountering the story for the first time, moment by moment. And although this shouldn’t be the only editing approach a writer uses, it’s a valuable one, especially at the early stages of the editing phase, when you’re crossing out pages wholesale and focusing on the big picture. There will be plenty of time for granularity later, and if you find, on rereading, that you’ve accidentally cut out something important, you can always restore it. (This, incidentally, is why it’s important to save a new version of your manuscript with each major iteration of editing.) In my own case, by the time I’d finished this part of the process, I found that I’d cut close to 10,000 words from a draft that had already gone through one round of extensive cutting. Still, the memory of that first, awful read-through was a vivid one, and to get the manuscript down to what I thought was a reasonable length, I had to resort to the opposite approach. Tomorrow, I’m going to describe how I cut the next few thousand words, with the help of a well-designed spreadsheet.

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2012 at 9:39 am

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