Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Scott Meredith

When Clarke Met Kubrick

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

“I’m reading everything by everybody,” Stanley Kubrick said one day over lunch in New York. It was early 1964, and he was eating at Trader Vic’s with Roger A. Caras, a wildlife photographer and studio publicist who was working at the time for Columbia Pictures. Dr. Strangelove had just been released, and after making small talk about their favorite brand of telescope, Caras asked the director what he had in mind for his next project. Kubrick replied that he was thinking about “something on extraterrestrials,” but he didn’t have a writer yet, and in the meantime, he was consuming as much science fiction as humanly possible. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what he was reading, which is a frustrating omission in the career of a filmmaker whose archives have been the subject of so many exhaustive studies. In his biography of Kubrick, Vincent Lobrutto writes tantalizingly of this period: “Every day now boxes of science fiction and fact books were being delivered to his apartment. Kubrick was immersing himself in a subject he would soon know better than most experts. His capacity to grasp and disseminate information stunned many who worked with him.” Lobrutto notes that Kubrick took much the same approach a decade later on the project that became The Shining, holing up in his office with “stacks of horror books,” and the man with whom he would eventually collaborate on 2001 recalled of their first meeting: “[Kubrick] had already absorbed an immense amount of science fact and science fiction, and was in some danger of believing in flying saucers.” At their lunch that day at Trader Vic’s, however, Caras seemed to think that all of this work was unnecessary, and he told this to Kubrick in no uncertain terms: “Why waste your time? Why not just start with the best?”

Let’s pause the tape here for a moment to consider what other names Caras might plausibly have said. A year earlier, in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” Isaac Asimov provided what we can take as a fairly representative summary of the state of the genre:

Robert A. Heinlein is usually considered the leading light among good science fiction writers. Others with a fine grasp of science and a fascinatingly imaginative view of its future possibilities are Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, James Blish, Clifford D. Smiak, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Walter Miller, A.J. Budrys…These are by no means all.

Even accounting for the writer and the time period, there are a few noticeable omissions—it’s surprising not to see Lester del Rey, for instance, and A.E. van Vogt, who might not have qualified as what Asimov saw as “good science fiction,” had been voted one of the top four writers in the field in a pair of polls a few years earlier. It’s also necessary to add Asimov himself, who at the time was arguably the science fiction writer best known to general readers. (In 1964, he would even be mentioned briefly in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, which was the perfect intersection of the highbrow and the mainstream.) Arthur C. Clarke’s high ranking wasn’t just a matter of personal affection, either—he and Asimov later became good friends, but when the article was published, they had only met a handful of times. Clarke, in other words, was clearly a major figure. But it seems fair to say that anyone claiming to name “the best” science fiction writer in the field might very well have gone with Asimov or Heinlein instead.

Caras, of course, recommended Clarke, whom he had first met five years earlier at a weekend in Boston with Jacques Cousteau. Kubrick was under the impression that Clarke was a recluse, “a nut who lives in a tree in India someplace,” and after being reassured that he wasn’t, the director became excited: “Jesus, get in touch with him, will you?” Caras sent Clarke a telegram to ask about his availability, and when the author said that he was “frightfully interested,” Kubrick wrote him a fateful letter:

It’s a very interesting coincidence that our mutual friend Caras mentioned you in a conversation we were having about a Questar telescope. I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial “really good” science-fiction movie…Roger tells me you are planning to come to New York this summer. Do you have an inflexible schedule? If not, would you consider coming sooner with a view to a meeting, the purpose of which would be to determine whether an idea might exist or arise which could sufficiently interest both of us enough to want to collaborate on a screenplay?

This account of the conversation differs slightly from Caras’s recollection—Kubrick doesn’t say that they were actively discussing potential writers for a film project, and he may have been flattering Clarke slightly with the statement that he had “always wanted” to talk about a movie with him. But it worked. Clarke wrote back to confirm his interest, and the two men finally met in New York on April 22, where the author did his best to talk Kubrick out of his newfound interest in flying saucers.

But why Clarke? At the time, Kubrick was living on the Upper East Side, which placed him within walking distance of many science fiction authors who were considerably closer than Ceylon, and it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if he had approached Heinlein or Asimov, both of whom would have been perfectly sensible choices. A decade earlier, Heinlein made a concerted effort to break into Hollywood with the screenplays for Destination Moon and Project Moon Base, and the year before, he had written an unproduced teleplay for a proposed television show called Century XXII. (Kubrick studied Destination Moon for its special effects, if not for its story, as we learn from the correspondence of none other than Roger Caras, who had gone to work for Kubrick’s production company.) Asimov, for his part, was more than willing to explore such projects—in years to come, he would meet to discuss movies with Woody Allen and Paul McCartney, and I’ve written elsewhere about his close encounter with Steven Spielberg. But if Kubrick went with Clarke instead, it wasn’t just because they had a friend in common. At that point, Clarke was a highly respected writer, but not yet a celebrity outside the genre, and the idea of a “Big Three” consisting of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein was still a decade away. His talent was undeniable, but he was also a more promising candidate for the kind of working relationship that the director had in mind, which Kubrick later estimated as “four hours a day, six days a week” for more than three years. I suspect that Kubrick recognized what might best be described as a structural inefficiency in the science fiction market. The time and talents of one of the most qualified writers imaginable happened to be undervalued and available at just the right moment. When the opportunity came, Kubrick seized it. And it turned out to be one hell of a bargain.

My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

The joys of thrift-store browsing

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If browsing in a bookshop is, as I’ve often said before, a kind of dreaming, sifting through the books in a large thrift store is like the lowest dream level in Inception, where the dreams of countless others end up jumbled together without rhyme or reason. (You can also end up stranded there for longer than you expect.) I’m always a little thrilled whenever I wander into a thrift store for the first time, never knowing if I’ll find the sad little collection of ’70s paperbacks at your average Goodwill or an awe-inspiring labyrinth like the one in the late, lamented Ark in Chicago. Browsing in used bookstores always involves some measure of serendipity, an openness to happy accidents, and a thrift store, in particular, is the opposite of a nicely curated experience like that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon: usually frustrating, but sometimes enlightening, both in terms of the specific books you find and for the art of browsing in general. And every now and then, you’ll find something that makes you want to shout: Eureka!

One fascinating thing about thrift stores is that you’ll often see patterns in the books on hand, titles that repeatedly appear there and nowhere else, giving you an uncanny glimpse into what our culture’s detritus will look like after we’re gone. Some are easy to understand: Reader’s Digest condensed book collections, obsolete technical manuals or Dummies books, the various editions of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Then there the novels that large numbers of people bought and then decided, for one reason or another, to give away. Some are the difficult books that followed a big bestseller: I’ll almost always see a copy or two of A Maggot by John Fowles, for instance. Other books that seem to crop up frequently in thrift stores: Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Bull From the Sea by Marie Renault, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. And there’s often an entire shelf’s worth of The Da Vinci Code, neatly lined up like the matching volumes of an exceptionally uninformative encyclopedia.

And then there are the unexpected treasures. Even a recent trip to Village Discount Outlet, by far the most chaotic of all Chicago thrift stores, resulted in a vintage copy of The Sesame Street Dictionary, which I’d nostalgically been meaning to pick up for a long time. Before the Ark closed, during a strange acquisitive phase, I picked up two shopping bags of old first editions, including a pristine hardcover copy of The Pillars of the Earth. (Originally, I’d intended to buy these first editions for a few dollars each, then resell them for a profit online. In the end, the math didn’t quite work out, so they’re still in a box at the back of my closet, awaiting their moment of glory.) I even once found a signed and inscribed copy of George S. Kaufman and His Friends by the legendary author and agent Scott Meredith—with a twenty-dollar bill inside. For a long time, this ranked as my most satisfying catch. A few weeks ago, however, I managed to top it.

One of the small pleasures of my recent move to Oak Park is that I’m now just a two-minute walk from a branch of the Brown Elephant, one of the Chicago area’s nicest thrift stores. I browse there idly from time to time, and last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, on a shelf near the front of the store, I saw a prize I’d been hoping to find for most of my life: the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in two volumes, complete with magnifying glass. The price? Ninety dollars. But I also knew that the store would be slashing all prices in half on Black Friday. So I waited. And waited. And when the morning after Thanksgiving came, I dropped my parents off at the airport, drove home, lined up in front of the store with the other shoppers, and ran straight for the front shelf when the doors opened. The dictionary was there. Clutching it in my arms, I headed for the cash register, probably elbowing a few old ladies out of the way in the process. I’m looking at it now as I write this. Eureka.

A portrait of Dean Koontz as a young man

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Sooner or later, one comes to the painful realization that most books on writing are useless. Most are either written by unknowns, whose advice obviously needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt; critics or teachers who lack practical experience; or famous novelists whose instruction is colored by the irreproducible circumstances of their own good fortune. Success in fiction hinges on so many factors, many of them out of the writer’s hands, that trusting what, say, Janet Evanovich has to say about craft is like chasing performance in investment funds: past performance is no guarantee of future results. What we really need is a book written years ago by a struggling author, in which he laid down some rules on how to write and described as honestly as possible his own methods—only to become famous and acclaimed after the book’s release by following his own advice. And as a matter of fact, this book exists.

Earlier this week, in my review of In Time, I briefly mentioned Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which is one of the four or five most useful books on practical storytelling I’ve ever seen. The book has many virtues, but its most interesting quality is completely accidental. Koontz wrote the book in 1972, when he was only twenty-six, and best known as a productive author of short category novels. Within a few years, he’d be famous. Part of the fascination of this book, then, is its candid snapshot of the real work habits of a writer who was about to embark upon one of the successful careers in modern popular fiction. It’s very rare for an author of writing guides to go on to genuine fame—the only other one who comes to mind is J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a number of screenwriting manuals before creating Babylon 5—so unlike most books on writing, the advice here has been tested, in real time, in the best possible way.

So what does the book tell us? Koontz starts by laying down the basic elements of all genre fiction—a strong plot, a protagonist with believable motivation, a colorful background, and a great deal of action—and then details the requirements of specific genres. Some of the information here is badly dated, especially the chapters on Gothic romance and erotica, but the sections on science fiction and fantasy, suspense, and mystery are still among the best I’ve found. The chapter on science fiction, in particular, is crammed with useful advice, and I still think about Koontz’s section on the tools of suspense (the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event) whenever I start a new writing project. Koontz winds up with a few chapters on practicalities, most of which lean heavily on Scott Meredith’s classic Writing to Sell, but which also provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a category writer at the time. Whenever I feel pressured by my current schedule, which basically calls for a novel a year, I remember what Koontz says about productivity:

If you can produce only one or two category novels a year—especially science fiction, Gothics, mysteries, and fantasies—you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door—and you without a stone to throw…Even if you are prolific enough to produce and sell eight or ten novels a year, your income may hold steady at $20,000 a year, which is comfortable but by no means enough to classify you as a nouveau riche.

Obviously, things have changed a lot in the past forty years, but part of the book’s appeal lies in its evocation of a time in which category writers like Koontz, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block could make a good living on the midlist. Nine years later, after he became famous, Koontz addressed the changing state of publishing in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, and while this book has its merits as well, it lacks some of the charm of the earlier work. In addition to its considerable practical value, Writing Popular Fiction is one of the best portraits we have of a young genre novelist working at an exciting, if exhausting, time, and I’ve tried to recapture some of that excitement in my own writing life. As I’ve mentioned before, I picked up my copy at a church book sale in my early teens, and it’s been a constant companion ever since. These days, you can find it online for around twenty bucks, and it’s well worth the price. If nothing else, it certainly worked for its author.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

Does a writer need a coach?

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The physician and journalist Atul Gawande has a nice piece in this week’s New Yorker about coaching—what it is, why it works, and whether it’s useful in fields aside from professional sports. He concludes that, yes, it can be helpful even for those operating at a high level of expertise to get guidance from another expert, with the aim of sustaining and improving performance over time. Gawande draws on examples from a wide range of professions, including teaching, music (with some thoughts on the subject from Itzhak Perlman), and his own field, surgery, where he says that a single session with his chosen coach, a retired general surgeon, “gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”

He also talks briefly about writing, a field in which most professional practitioners work constantly with coaches, of sorts, in the forms of editors and agents. Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribner’s, served as a coach for such authors as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, while in science fiction, John W. Campbell played an important coaching role for Isaac Asimov. The agent Scott Meredith performed a similar function for many of his clients. And many writers have had less formal, but equally important, mentors throughout their careers: Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And like coaches in other professions, their function is less to teach the basics of the craft than to shape and guide the work of others once a certain level of expertise has been reached.

I’ve certainly benefited from coaches of all kinds. I’ve had two literary agents, and while my first such partnership didn’t end particularly well, the process of taking a huge novel and stripping it down to its constituent parts was one of the most valuable, if painful, educations I’ve ever received. My current agent also put me through the paces for the early drafts of The Icon Thief, which was taken apart and reassembled in ways that allowed me to write the sequel, City of Exiles, in record time. I’ve also learned a lot from my editor, and from the many readers, formal and informal, who have offered me advice over the years. Some, like Stanley Schmidt at Analog, have done so in a professional capacity, while others have simply served as what Gawande calls “outside ears,” giving me valuable perspectives on work that I can no longer evaluate on my own.

Even relatively experienced authors, then, are constantly being coached, which may be why the best writers continue to make progress well into their forties and fifties, after professionals in most other fields have begun to peak. The hard part, it seems, isn’t so much finding a coach as knowing which ones to trust, and listening to tough advice even after you’ve grown confident in your own abilities. I’ve always said that if there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s structure—which didn’t prevent my first novel from being radically restructured, to its great benefit, on its way to publication. Writing is such a weird, absurd profession that you take help whenever you can get it. As Ed Macauley said, in reference to a different kind of game: “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win.”

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2011 at 8:59 am

Quote of the Day

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The newspapers once published a story about a noted psychologist, and quoted him as saying that the four words that most easily arouse emotion in Americans are Lincoln, mother, doctor, and dog. This news fired the imagination of one young writer, who immediately wrote a story and topped it with what he described as the most ideal title of all time: Lincoln’s Mother’s Doctor’s Dog.

Scott Meredith, Writing to Sell

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2011 at 8:36 am

For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

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