Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Art of Fiction

The survivors

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Today I’ll be publishing the last in a series of posts devoted to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

Every subculture begins as a strategy for survival, although not everyone arrives at the same set of tactics. In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, the author Madison Moore describes one possible approach: “Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you’re tired of hiding. It’s so much easier to be normal, to fit in, to repress yourself.” Brian Herrera, an assistant professor of theater at Princeton, makes a similar point:

You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. people like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner refers to writing as a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and you could say much the same thing about the notion of camp, which was invented by men and women who had to develop superhuman capacities of mental and emotional endurance. As Prior Walter says as he hears the sound of beating wings at the end of Millennium Approaches: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.”

But not everyone reacts to pressure in the same way. In the passage that I quoted above, Moore continues: “A lot of folks, people who embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men’s clothing, ‘safe’ clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.” Yet there’s something equally compelling about those who hold themselves in reserve. The Pet Shop Boys were defined in the early days by reticence and irony, which was wildly misinterpreted by listeners who took “Opportunities” and “Shopping” at face value. Part of this stance stems from what Nabeel Zuberi, as I noted here yesterday, calls “a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body,” but it also reflects something in particular about Neil Tennant. In his landmark interview with Attitude, he set himself pointedly apart from the kind of world that Moore and Herrera evoke:

I’ve never wanted to be part of this separate gay world. I know a lot of people will not appreciate hearing me say that. But when people talk about the gay community in London, for instance, what do they really mean by that? There is a community of interests, particularly around the health issue, but beyond that what is there really? There’s nightclubs, drugs, shopping, PAs by Bad Boys Inc. Well…I’m sorry but that isn’t really how I define myself. I don’t want to belong to some narrow group or ghetto. And I think that if they’re really honest a lot of gay people would say that they felt like that as well.

And no matter how you feel about this, the result was a body of work—at least for its first decade—about survival in plain sight. It was about getting from A to B.

The ensuing web of strategies—the detachment, the reserve, the use of technology to conceal overwhelming emotion—is a big part of why the Pet Shop Boys have always been important to me. I’m not gay, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable in my own skin, and the world that their music creates also speaks to a certain kind of introvert. More recently, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the science fiction community, in which many of the same qualities were channeled along somewhat different lines. Science fiction appealed strongly from the beginning to readers who saw themselves as outsiders, and with a slight change of label, it offered a secret inner life with affinities to what Stephen Spinella describes in The World Only Spins Forward: “Because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You’re living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mindset.” When you walk around the World Science Fiction Convention, you see a few fans at the extreme of fabulousness, along with others, like me, who look more like they might be treating everyday life as a form of cosplay. Both cultures also have a vested interest in technology. Science fiction has often been more comfortable talking about machines than about people, and Tennant, Lowe, and their contemporaries were drawn for some of the same reasons to the synthesizer. It was private, anonymous, a reaction against the cult of the self in rock music, and it offered forms of expression for people in solitude. As Stephin Merritt puts it in the wonderful song “Foxx and I,” his admiring ode to the original frontman of Ultravox:

Anyone can change into a machine
Girl or white, black or boy
Dull or very strange, into a machine
Come with me…

I’m perfectly aware, of course, of the differences between these two cultures, as well as the forms of exclusion that can develop even within a community of those who identify themselves as outsiders. But they both offer fascinating insights for anyone who cares urgently about the forms that cultural survival can take. (There are countless others, obviously, but these are the two that happen to have been most important to my own life.) I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve recently begun to realize how much of my view of the world was based on wishful thinking, and I’m starting to confront the real possibility that it will continue to get worse for the rest of my life. This only raises the huge unresolved question of how to live under such circumstances, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And while I’m not the first to take refuge in the consolations of art—my favorite books, movies, and albums nearly all emerged from conditions of existential crisis—I feel obliged to point to one possible line of defense that was designed to be overlooked. In my eyes, Tennant and Lowe’s music exemplifies a certain kind of courage that prefers to go unrecognized. Very marked the point at which those impulses were transmuted into something more liberating, and ever since, the subtext of their early songs has become text, perhaps because their audience now consists largely of the community in which Tennant was never quite sure he wanted to be a member. Some of these later albums are great, and hugely meaningful to me, but it’s the version from Please through Very that sticks with me the most, and which seems to have the most to say to us now. Wryness and understatement may not seem like weapons, but like AutoTune, they have their place, and they served their users well enough at a time not unlike our own. The sense of liberation expressed by Very strikes me now as premature, but not wrong. And I hope that I can hear it again one day.

My ten creative books #6: The Art of Fiction

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I bought The Art of Fiction by John Gardner nearly a quarter of a century ago, at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, California, shortly before starting my freshman year of high school. (On that same afternoon, I picked up a copy of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller, and my family also somehow acquired our first cat, which suggests that my life would be significantly different if that one day were magically erased.) Since then, I’ve read it in pieces a dozen or more times—it’s one of the few books that I’ve brought wherever I’ve moved—and I still know much of it by heart. Writing guides 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, and his illustrations of process are still the most vivid that I’ve ever seen:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Yet Gardner is equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul,” including frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism, and in 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 his high standards in mind.

By now, I’ve internalized all of his advice, even if I don’t always follow it, and as a result, when I read his book again now, it’s less as a guide than as a novel in itself, with an archetypal writer—who shouldn’t be confused with Gardner—who emerges as a character in his own right. For instance:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And his offhand observations about other writers have stuck in my head as well. Writing of a possible plot hole in Hamlet, for instance, Gardner offers a view of Shakespeare that I’ve never forgotten:

The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.

Of the countless books that I’ve read on writing, this is still the best, as well as the finest manual of the life of which Gardner writes elsewhere: “Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world…For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

The fanfic disposition

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Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

Quote of the Day

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In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” [Henry] James speaks of the “immense sensibility…that takes to itself the faintest hints of life…and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

The frigid juicemaker

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By now, many of you have probably heard of the sad case of Juicero, the technology startup that developed the world’s most advanced juicer, which retails for hundreds of dollars, only to be rocked by a Bloomberg report that revealed that its juice packs could just as easily be squeezed by hand. At first glance, this seems like another cautionary tale of Silicon Valley design gone wrong, along the lines of the $1,500 toaster oven, but its lessons are slightly more profound. A few days ago, Ben Einstein, a general partner at the venture capital firm Bolt, conducted a teardown of the Juicero Press to figure out why it was so costly, and he came away impressed by its design and construction: his writeup is filled with such phrases as “beautifully molded,” “a complex assembly with great attention to detail,” “painstakingly textured,” and “incredibly complex and beautifully engineered.” At one point, Einstein marvels: “The number, size, complexity and accuracy of these parts is somewhat mind-blowing for a young hardware startup.” The trouble, he points out, is that the cost of such components makes the juicer far more expensive than most consumers are willing to pay, and it could have delivered comparable performance at a lower price by rethinking its design. A Juicero Press uniformly compresses the entire surface of the juice pack, requiring thousands of pounds of force, while a human hand gets much the same result simply by squeezing it unevenly. Einstein concludes:

I have to believe the engineers that built this product looked at other ways of pressing the juice, but if the primary mechanism could apply force in a more focused way it could easily save hundreds of dollars off the shelf price of the product.

As it stands, the engineers at Juicero evidently “went wild,” building a beautifully made and confoundingly expensive product in the hopes that a market for it would somehow materialize. It’s like a juicer designed by Damien Hirst. In a peculiar way, it makes for a refreshing contrast to the usual hardware startup horror story, in which a company’s plans to build the world’s greatest espresso machine run aground on the inconvenient realities of manufacturing and supply chain management. Juicero’s engineers obviously knew what they were doing, at least on a technical level, but their pursuit of great design for its own sake appears to have blinded them to more practical realities. The market for juicers isn’t the same as that for fine watches, and its buyers have different motivations. In the absence of feedback from customers, the engineers went ahead and built a juicer for themselves, loading it with features that even the most discerning of users would either never notice or wouldn’t feel like factoring into the purchase price. In real estate terms, they overimproved it. When my wife and I bought our house six years ago, our realtor warned us against overspending on renovations—you don’t want to invest so much in the property that, if you sell it, you’re forced to list it at a point that doesn’t make sense for your block. The Juicero’s lovingly machined parts and moldings are the equivalent of granite countertops and a master bathroom in a neighborhood where homeowners are more interested in paying a reasonable price for a short walk to the train.

There are two big takeaways here. One is the fact that there’s no such thing as good design or engineering in isolation—you always have to keep the intended user in mind. The other is that aesthetic considerations or technical specifications aren’t sufficient guidelines in themselves, and that they have to be shaped by other constraints to be channeled in productive directions. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Apple’s cult of thinness seems to be driven by the search for quantifiable benchmarks that can drive innovation. Lowering the price of its products would be an even better goal, although it isn’t one that Apple seems inclined to pursue. Juicero, to its detriment, doesn’t appear to have been overly concerned by either factor. A juicer that sits on your kitchen counter doesn’t need to be particularly light, and there’s little incentive to pare down the ounces. There clearly wasn’t much of an effort to keep down the price. A third potential source of constraints, and probably the best of all, is careful attention to the consumer, which didn’t happen here, either. As Einstein notes:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120 million over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10 million and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699…Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

And you don’t need to look hard to find equivalents in other fields. A writer who endlessly revises the same manuscript without seeking comments from readers—or sending it to agents or publishers—is engaging in the same cycle of destructive behavior. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about artistic frigidity, which he defines as a moral failing that confuses side issues with what really matters. The symptoms are much the same in literature as they are in engineering: “It is sometimes frigidity that leads writers to tinker, more and more obsessively, with form.” Juicero suffered from a kind of technological frigidity, as does its obvious role model, Apple, which seems increasingly obsessed with aesthetic considerations that either have a minimal impact on the user experience or actively undermine it. (We saw this most recently with the Mac Pro, which had a striking cylindrical design that was hard to configure and suffered from heating issues. As engineering chief Craig Federighi admitted: “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.” And it seems only fitting that Apple’s frigidity led to a problem with heat.) Ordinary companies, or writers, have no choice but to adjust to reality. Deadlines, length limits, and the demands of the market all work together to enforce pragmatic compromises, and if you remain frigid, you die. As the world’s largest tech company, Apple has to actively seek out constraints that will rein in its worst impulses, much as successful writers need to find ways of imposing the same restrictions that existed when they were struggling to break in. As Juicero’s example demonstrates, a company that tries to ignore such considerations from the beginning may never get a chance to prove itself at all. Whether you’re a writer or an engineer, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re selling juicers, but you’re not. You’re selling the juice.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2017 at 9:29 am

“If she was going to run, it had to be now…”

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"Maddy only nodded..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 55. You can read the previous installments here.

In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:

The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.

And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.

"If she was going to run, it had to be now..."

Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:

So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)

So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…

“I know who you are…”

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"When Maddy turned around..."

Note: This post is the forty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 46. You can read the previous installments here.

Freedom in writing is a lot like its equivalent in everyday life. In theory, we’re all free actors of ourselves, as Harold Bloom describes the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, but in practice, we’re hemmed in by choices and decisions that we made years ago—or that other people or larger systems have made for us. Similarly, a novelist, who really does have access to limitless possibilities, inevitably ends up dealing with the kind of creative constriction that Joan Didion describes in an observation to The Paris Review that I never get tired of quoting:

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone…I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.

The difference between writing and life, of course, is that it’s easier for a writer to start over. No matter how much time or effort you’ve put into a project, you can always throw it away and begin again without anyone being the wiser, which is harder to pull off in the real world. Yet many writers stubbornly insist on sticking to what they’ve written, as if they didn’t have any alternative.

And the kicker is that they’re often perfectly right, at least where the first draft is concerned. Earlier this week, I talked about the finite amount of energy that a writer can allocate to the different stages of the creative process, and the strategies that he or she develops to conserve it. Discarding the material you’ve already written is a good way to sap the limited resources you have. More pragmatically, starting over usually amounts to never finishing the story at all: the most common reason that most attempts at a novel peter out halfway through is because the author was unable to live with what he or she had written the day before. A crucial part of becoming a writer lies in learning how to plow ahead despite the shortcomings of the work you’ve done, which often means treating your existing pages as fixed quantities. If nothing else, it’s a helpful strategy for concentrating exclusively on the work at hand: during the first draft, it makes sense to think of what you’ve written so far as inviolate, because otherwise, you’ll be tempted to go back and tinker, when you should be more concerned with the pages you don’t have. Revision requires another mental shift, in which everything is on the table, no matter how much work you’ve invested in it. And that transition—which flips your approach to the rough draft completely on its head—is one that every writer has to master.

"I know who you are..."

But there’s an even more interesting case to be made for preserving the elements you’ve already written, or at least for doing everything you can to work with them before giving up. In the past, I’ve spoken of writing as a collaboration between your past, present, and future selves: it’s too complicated for any one version of you to handle alone, so you set up ways of communicating across time with different incarnations of yourself, aided by good notes. Your existing pages are a message from the past to the present, and they deserve to be taken seriously, since there’s information there that might otherwise be lost. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says of a writer working on a story about Helen of Troy:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

Every writer, I think, will recognize this—but it only works if you trust that your past self knew what he or she was doing. And you’re more likely to come up with useful ideas if you treat that material as irrevocable. Like any constraint, it’s only fruitful if it can’t easily be eluded.

There’s a small but telling example in Eternal Empire of how this works. Way back in Chapter 5, when Maddy visits Tarkovsky’s house for the first time, she sees Nina, the oligarch’s daughter, riding a horse on a polo field, dressed in jodhpurs and a bomber jacket. Nina looks stonily at Maddy for a long second, and then disappears. It provided a nice visual button for the scene, but in order for it to make sense, I had to introduce Nina later on as a character. And I had no idea what role she might play. I had her pop up now and then in the pages that followed, always seen from a distance, just to remind the reader and myself that she still existed. Finally, when I reached Chapter 46—months after writing that first image—I knew that I couldn’t postpone it any longer: from a structural perspective, coming just before the huge set pieces that conclude the novel, it was the last area of calm in which any interaction between Maddy and Nina could take place. I thought more than once about cutting the earlier beat, which only amounted to a few lines, and taking the daughter out of the story entirely. But when I forced the two of them to meet at last, I ended up with what still feels like an essential moment: Nina drops a clue about her father’s plans, as well as to the overall plot, and they feel a brief connection that I knew would pay off in the final act. Without the image of that girl on a horse, which I introduced, as Gardner says, “by impulse, because it seemed right,” none of this would have occurred to me. It took a long time for it to justify itself, but it did. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t acted as if I didn’t have a choice…

Written by nevalalee

March 10, 2016 at 8:55 am

Surviving the German forest

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Jad Abumrad

Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:

The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”

Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.

Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:

When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.

Notes by Ira Glass

What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.

And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 10:11 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

“Ilya kept an eye on the building…”

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"Ilya kept an eye on the building..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If you ever happen to walk past 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, you’ll see what looks at first like an ordinary Greek Revival townhouse, painted to blend in with the buildings on either side. When you study it more closely, however, you’ll see that the windows are blacked out, and if you try the front door, it appears that there’s nobody home. In fact, the entire house is a fake—it’s a combination elevator and ventilation shaft for the subway, disguised as an ordinary brownstone. (You’ll see similar structures in London and Paris, the latter of which Umberto Eco discusses at length in Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered the concept.) These vents exist solely for a utilitarian purpose, but for the sake of the neighborhood, they’ve been constructed to pass at first glance for buildings like any other. And although these hidden entrances to the underworld are fascinating in themselves, I’ve also come to think of them as an analogy for a certain kind of writing, which is equally concerned with keeping the ductwork of the story safely out of sight.

It’s possible, if you like, to think of the chapters in a novel as a series of houses lined up on a city street. Each one may be very different on the inside, and their exteriors have small peculiarities of design that are visible to a practiced eye, but for the most part, they have the same general size, shape, and proportions. Still, the initial impression can be misleading. Some chapters are intended as important edifices in their own right, or as places where the reader can move in and linger for a time; others are there purely to fill a functional role in the story, to prop up a plot point or relieve narrative pressure from the novel’s depths. (I don’t think it’s an accident that television writers refer to expository scenes or dialogue as “laying pipe.”) The trick, of course, is to make each chapter seem like an important destination in itself, even if it’s really there for structural or practical reasons. And one of the less glamorous parts of writing a novel consists of detailing and furnishing these interstitial chapters so the reader will think of them as something besides mere infrastructure—or, even better, not think of them at all.

"From somewhere to his left came a scream..."

In practice, these chapters can give a writer more trouble than any other. A scene that is inherently dramatic only asks the author to fully realize its potential; one that exists solely to get the characters from one place to another has to be dressed with just as much care, if not more. The best solution, obviously, is to cut this kind of transitional material whenever you can, but that isn’t always an option. In that case, the writer needs to tackle the scene as if it were crucially important on its own terms, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Chapter 15 of City of Exiles provides a good example of a chapter that exists primarily for structural reasons, although I’d like to think this isn’t immediately apparent. It’s here mostly to serve as a bridge between two sequences: Ilya has obtained information about Karvonen’s next target, but before I can bring him to the following stage, I need to give the reader a sense of his plans and action in the meantime. (I also need to set up the next chapter, in which Ilya visits the bookstore that Wolfe and Asthana have been watching.) The scene itself is a quiet one, with Ilya staking out the office building where the target is likely to appear, but if I cut it, the crucial string of chapters that follow will seem undermotivated. I did what I could, then, to at least make it readable: I used the structure of the stakeout itself to give it a clear shape, invested it with as much incidental detail—most of it gathered on location—as I could manage, and tried to give Ilya some interesting things to think about. Whether or not the reader notices any of this is beside the point; my only real goal is to keep the momentum going for a few pages, convey the information that the story requires, and move on. In the end, if nothing else, the pipes have been laid. And they’re about to take us to much more interesting places…

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January 30, 2014 at 9:50 am

How to repeat yourself

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John Gardner

Writers are generally advised not to repeat themselves. After I’ve finished the rough draft of a story, one of my first orders of business is to go back through the manuscript and fix any passages where I’ve inadvertently repeated the same word in the same sentence, or within a short run of text. Knowing how often you can use a word is a matter of taste and intuition. Some words are so common as to be invisible to the reader, so you can, and should, use the word “said” exclusively throughout a story, even as dialogue can usually be varied in other ways. Other words or phrases are so striking that they can’t be used more than once or twice in the course of an entire novel, and I’ll sometimes catch myself maintaining a running count of how often I’ve used a word like “unaccountable.” Then there are the words that fall somewhere in the middle, where they’re useful enough to crop up on a regular basis but catch the reader’s eye to an extent that they shouldn’t be overused. Different writers fall back on different sets of words, and in my case, they tend to be verbs of cognition, like “realized,” or a handful of adverbs that I use entirely too often, like, well, “entirely.”

Whenever I’m sifting through the story like this, part of me wonders whether a reader would even notice. Some of these repetitions jar my ear to a greater extent than they would for someone reading the story more casually: I’ve often revisited these pages something like fifty times, and I’m acutely aware of the shape of each sentence. (Overfamiliarity can have its pitfalls as well, of course: I’m sometimes shocked to discover a glaring repetition in a sentence that I’ve read over and over until I can no longer really see it.) But I encounter this issue often enough in other authors’ books that I know it isn’t just me. Catching an inadvertent repetition in a novel, as when Cormac McCarthy speaks twice in Blood Meridian of something being “footed” to its reflection, has the same effect as an unintentional rhyme: it pulls you momentarily out of the story, wondering if the writer meant to repeat the same word or if he, or his editor, fell asleep at the switch. And a particularly sensitive eye can pick up on repetitions or tics that even an attentive reader might miss. In his otherwise fawning study U & I,  Nicholson Baker complains about John Updike’s overuse of the verb “seemed,” which even I, a massive Updike fan, hadn’t noticed until Baker pointed it out.

Nicholson Baker

But repetitions can also be a source of insight, especially when you’re coming to grips with an earlier draft. A writer can learn a lot from the words he habitually overuses. If you find yourself falling back on melodramatic adverbs like “suddenly,” you might want to rethink the tone you’re taking—it’s possible that you’re trying to drum up excitement in a story that lacks inherent dramatic interest. My own overuse of verbs like “realized” might indicate that I’m spending too much time showing characters thinking through a situation, rather than conveying character through action. You can learn even more from longer phrases that reappear by accident. As John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction, discussing a hypothetical story about Helen of Troy:

Reading…lines he has known by heart for weeks, [the writer] discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery: The brooch Helen threw at Menelaus the writer has described, he discovers, with the same phrase he used in describing, much later, the seal on the message for help being sent to the Trojans’ allies. Why? he wonders. Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And the comparison to dreaming is a shrewd one. “Repetitions are magic keys,” Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum, and although he’s talking about something rather different—a string of sentences randomly generated by a computer—there’s a common element here. When you write a first draft, you’re operating by instinct: you accept the first words that come to mind, rather than laboriously revising the text, because you’re working in a mode closer to the events of the story itself. At its best, it’s something like a dream, and the words we select have a lot in common with the unmediated nature of dream imagery or word association in psychoanalysis. Later, we’ll smooth and polish the surface of the prose, and most of these little infelicities will be ironed away, but it doesn’t hurt to look at them first with the eye of an analyst, or a critic, to see what they reveal. This doesn’t excuse us from falling back on the same hackneyed words or phrases, and it doesn’t help a writer who thinks entirely in clichés. But it’s in our slips or mistakes, as Freud knew, that we unconsciously reveal ourselves. Mistakes need to be fixed and repetitions minimized, but it’s still useful to take a moment to ask what they really mean.

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November 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

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 true importance of plot

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Last week, while assembling my list of my twenty favorite writing quotes, I was struck by a statement by Kurt Vonnegut, which I’d read countless times before without really thinking through its implications. The more I reflect on it, however, the more it seems to sum up much of how I feel about narrative plot and structure, to the extent that it deserves a post of its own. Here it is:

I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s also a profound insight that every author ought to keep in mind. Writers go into fiction for any number of reasons, but keeping the reader reading is as close to a universal objective as they come—and plot remains by far the best solution we’ve ever discovered to seizing and holding a reader’s attention. It isn’t about realism or accuracy, but about allowing a novel or story to reach its ultimate goal, which is to be read in its entirety. And if there’s any possible way for a writer to express his ideas and feelings within the constraints of plot, he’d be a fool to do otherwise, any more than he’d allow his book to be published in an unreadable font, littered with typographical errors, or in any other form that impedes the reader’s engagement with the work itself.

Life is full of stories, but it’s rarely full of plots—that is, of events that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, or any kind of structure at all. Phases in one’s life tend to blur and overlap, and the ending, when it comes, is never as tidy as it is in fiction. As a result, some writers reject plot as inherently unrealistic, and they work hard to develop essentially shapeless or unconventional fictions that more closely mirror the messiness of life. There’s nothing wrong with this, and some of my favorite authors, like Proust, have done remarkable things with minimal plots. (There is a plot in Proust, incidentally, but it’s one that could be adequately covered in a medium-sized novella, rather than spread over seven large volumes.) But to reject plot because it seems unrealistic is to miss the point. Plot, I’m convinced, isn’t so much a flawed simulation of real life as a narrative convention designed to guide the reader to the end of long, complicated fictions, by providing a series of wayposts or guides along the way. Like dialogue markers (“he said,” “she said”) or many of the conventions of realistic fiction, it’s less about realism than readability. And it’s dangerous to underestimate its importance.

In other words, plot—or more generally structure—is something like grammar. The rules of basic English usage are conventions intended to facilitate ease of communication. Some of these rules may seem arbitrary, and they are, but it’s still necessary to have a shared set of standards to maximize clarity, avoid ambiguity, and interpose as few obstacles as possible between the reader and the work itself. Grammar is the etiquette of language. Like etiquette, it’s designed to smooth out interactions and give us a set of guidelines to follow when we aren’t intuitively sure what the right course of action would be, and when in doubt, in absence of a good reason otherwise, it’s smartest to follow it. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, if a writer has attempted a distracting stylistic innovation—like replacing the periods in a story with commas—it’s best to read the passage over many times, asking constantly whether the benefits of the change are outweighed by its potential inaccessibility. And in the majority of cases, it’s often best to work within existing conventions, rather then casting them aside at the risk of seeming frigid or self-indulgent.

And the same thing applies to plot. Plot is a set of conventions designed to accomplish exactly one thing: to get the reader to the end of the novel. A novel that remains unread, or only partially finished, has failed at its only undeniable purpose, which is to present a single organized vision to the reader. Works of nonfiction or certain extraordinary novels may hold a reader’s attention through philosophy, argument, or exceptional writing, but for the most part, the basic tools of creating and preserving interest are as old as storytelling itself: an interesting protagonist, personality expressed through action, and a clear series of objectives and conflicts. (I should also point out that an argument is also a kind of plot, and that even the most abstruse major works of philosophy tend to be invisibly structured to sustain the reader’s curiosity.) And that’s why plot matters. It’s a useful armature or framework for what the writer wants to say, assuming that he’s really interested in keeping his readers to the end. It can, and should be, questioned, undermined, and sometimes rejected, but it can’t be ignored.

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2012 at 10:02 am

A writer’s intuition, right or wrong

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Intuition is getting a bad rap these days. As both the book and movie of Moneyball have made clear, the intuition of baseball scouts is about as useful as random chance, and the same might be said of stock pickers, political pundits, and all other supposed sources of insight whose usefulness is rarely put to a rigorous test. Intuition, it seems, is really just another word for blind guessing, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. The recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, goes even further, providing countless illustrations of how misleading our intuition can be, and how easily it can be distracted by irrelevant factors. (For example, something as simple as rolling a certain number on a rigged roulette wheel can influence our estimates of, say, how many African countries are in the United Nations. Don’t ask me how or why, but Kahneman’s data speaks for itself.)

And yet it’s hard to give up on intuition entirely. For one thing, it’s faster. I believe it was Julian Jaynes who pointed out that intuition is really just another word for the acceleration of experience: after we’ve been forced to make decisions under similar circumstances a certain number of times, the intermediate logic falls away, and we’re left with what feels like an intuitive response. Play it in slow motion, and all the steps are still there, in infinitesimal form. This kind of intuition strikes me as essentially different from the sort debunked above, and it’s especially useful in the arts, when no amount of statistical analysis can take the place of the small, mysterious judgment calls that every artist makes on a daily basis. In writing, as in everything else, the fundamentals of craft are acquired with difficulty, then gradually internalized, freeing the writer’s conscious mind to deal with unique problems while intuition takes care of the rest. And without such intuitive shortcuts, a long, complex project like a novel would take forever to complete.

Every artist develops this sort of intuition sooner or later, making it possible to skip such intermediate steps. As I’ve noted before, Robert Graves has described it as proleptic or “slantwise” thinking, a form of logic that goes from A to C without pausing for B. All great creative artists have this faculty, and the greater the artist, the more pronounced it becomes. One of the most compelling descriptions of poetic intuition I’ve ever seen comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in a brief aside about Shakespeare. Gardner points to the fact that in Hamlet, the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation, a detail that strikes some readers as inconsistent. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” Fair enough. But then Gardner continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

That intuition, “sudden as lightning,” is what every writer hopes to develop. And while none of us have it to the extent that Shakespeare did, it’s always satisfying to see it flash forth, even in a modest way. Earlier this week, while reading through the final version of City of Exiles, I noticed a place where the momentum of the story seemed to flag. I made a note of this, then moved on. Later that day, I was working on something else entirely when I suddenly realized how to fix the problem, which was just a matter of eliminating or tightening a couple of paragraphs. After making these changes, I read the chapter over again, but this was almost a formality: I knew the revisions would work. There’s no way of objectively measuring this, of course, and there were probably other approaches that would have worked as well or better. But intuition provided one possible solution when I needed it. And without many such moments, right or wrong, I’d never finish a novel at all.

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November 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Searching for the slate piece

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Yesterday, with some trepidation, I read through the partial manuscript of the sequel to The Icon Thief for the first time, going through the entire draft in close to one sitting. At this point, I’ve finished the first two sections of the novel, totaling about 100,000 words—although this will be cut considerably—and still need to write the conclusion, which will be much shorter. It seemed like a good time, then, to pause and take stock of what I have. For the past few months, I’ve been writing with my head down, doing a chapter a day and then moving on immediately to the next. The upshot is that I’ve got much of the story on paper, but still don’t know, precisely, what this novel is about, which is something you discover only after much brooding and rereading. And this is also how you discover the ending.

Ending any story is hard. When you write a novel, in particular, you generally have at least some idea of where the plot is headed, but ultimately the story creates its own momentum, accumulating episodes and images until it tells you, quite forcefully, where it wants to go. That’s why rereading the manuscript at this point is particularly important: images or characters that seem incidental at first glance may suddenly take on new life, until it becomes clear that no ending will be satisfying that doesn’t include some or all of these elements. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner discusses this closing return of images at great length, going so far as to invent a sort of algebraic notation: let a represent a pair of bloody shoes, b a willow tree, c an orphan home, and so on, each of which conjures up associates of its own, until, at the end of the novel, we get something like this:

I have to admit, though, that I’ve been reading The Art of Fiction for most of my life and still have no idea what this diagram means—which only indicates that the return of images at the end of a novel is a complicated matter indeed. More useful, perhaps, is David Mamet’s concept of the slate piece. I’ve mentioned it before, but basically, in filmmaking, the slate piece is the fragment of film captured at the beginning of a take, just after the slate board has been clapped and withdrawn. Normally this piece of film, taken before the scene starts, is discarded, but sometimes it can be mined for useful footage during the editing process—say, if the director desperately needs a shot of the actor glancing to his left, in order to intercut it with a previously unrelated shot to pace up a scene. In Bambi vs. Godzilla, Mamet writes:

This accidental, extra, hidden piece of information is called the slate piece. And most of moviemaking, as a writer, a director, a designer, is the attempt not to invent but to discover that hidden information—the slate piece—that is already lurking in the film.

To a surprising extent, this is true for a novelist as well, especially as one approaches the end. So I definitely had Mamet’s slate piece in mind as I read over my first draft—which went pretty well, or at least as well as this sort of thing ever can. There’s barely a sentence or paragraph that doesn’t contain something cringeworthy, but as far as I can tell, the overall structure is sound, and it doesn’t seem to require any wholesale changes. The major issue, at the moment, is that it needs to be cut, which is only what I expected—I tend to write my drafts about twenty percent too long, which gives me a lot of leeway when the time comes to revise. I see scenes that need to be compressed, whole pages that need to be removed, chapters that need to be cut by half, which, fortunately, is something I know how to do. The hard part, then, will be finding the ending. This is what I’m going to be focusing on for the next four weeks.

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June 14, 2011 at 10:12 am

The books of my life

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Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.

The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)

My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.

The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?

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