Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Something Happened

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

Playing solitaire with ideas

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Yesterday, I spoke briefly about how Walter Murch, editor of Cold Mountain and longtime collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, had to cope with the loss of providential randomness that occurred when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Final Cut Pro. Over time, Murch has developed a number of ways of dealing with the situation, including detailed script notes, picture boards, and handwritten scene cards. And in an elegant instance of convergent evolution, Murch’s tools of the trade, as an editor, are not so different from the tricks that most novelists utilize for similar reasons.

In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman gives as beautiful a description of the reasoning behind such tools as any I’ve ever encountered:

The scene cards, picture boards, and script notes are simple and uncomplicated. But they aren’t just different methods of cataloging. Like composer and printmaker John Cage’s throwing the I Ching to determine creative choices, these tools allow Murch to incorporate randomness into the edit process. If a scene isn’t working for some reason that isn’t readily apparent, a sideways glance at the picture boards might reveal a hiccup in the pattern of images that wasn’t obvious before. Let’s reshuffle the scene cards and see what color pattern emerges…But it requires forethought and effort to plan for the unplanned, to invite the unexpected, and to prepare these alternate tools for working on a film. [Italics mine.]

This last point is essential. It can take many hours, and a lot of planning, to be sufficiently random. Murch could prepare scene cards much more quickly on a computer program, but he prefers to do them by hand: “There is something appealing about the visual handcraftedness,” he says. “The personality of handwriting is more engaging to the eye, especially if I’m going to stare at them for a year and a half.” (Which is one reason why, as Jon Vagg recently pointed out in the comments, my own mind maps tend to look so weirdly calligraphic, until they almost become aesthetic objects in their own right.)

Scene cards, too, can be a useful tool for a novelist. Once I’ve generated ideas through a mind map or other method, the individual nuggets—which can be lines of dialogue, plot points, or fragments of action or description—usually end up on cards. (I used to use index cards, but I’ve since found old business cards, obtained from local merchants or friends changing jobs, to be a more convenient size.) Then, once I have enough cards, I play solitaire: the cards go on my desk, or on the floor, and I rearrange them until the outline of each section begins to take shape. And I’m not the only writer who does this. Nabokov, famously, wrote entire novels on index cards, and here’s Joseph Heller talking to The Paris Review:

I keep a small sheath of three-by-five cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down. It won’t be an idea (“have him visit a brothel in New Orleans”). What I put down is an actual line of intended text (“In the brothel in New Orleans was like the time in San Francisco”). Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably. Occasionally there’s one that sings so perfectly the first time that it stays, like “My boy has stopped speaking to me and I don’t think I can bear it.” I wrote that down on a three-by-five card, perhaps on a bus, or after walking the dog. I store them in filing cabinets. The file on Something Happened is about four inches deep, the one on Catch-22 about the length of a shoe box.

In the end, the cards for Kamera, as pictured above, took up a couple of long boxes. For my most recent stories, like “Kawataro”—which I’ve just learned will be appearing in Analog in June 2011—I’ve been doing much of this organizational work on the computer, but for my next novel, I’m planning to return to the card system. It’s slower and more cumbersome, but as I’ve said before, writing things out by hand can generate ideas by itself. And, as Murch observes, handwritten cards are much easier to live with, especially if you’re going to be staring at them for a year of your life.

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