Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Elements of Style

How to debug a novel

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Sad Mac

The most effective debugging tool is still careful thought, coupled with judiciously placed print statements.
—Brian Kernighan

Revising a novel and debugging a computer program may seem like very different activities, but they have one important thing in common: when something breaks, you usually don’t know the hell why. With a program, at least, it’s often clear when you have a problem. You’ve carefully written a bunch of code—or typed it in verbatim from a textbook—and checked it over for mistakes, but when you compile and run it, you end up with an error message, a bunch of garbage, or nothing at all. When a novel is failing, it isn’t always as obvious. You’ve invested months into telling a particular story, which you wouldn’t have done if you didn’t care about it, but when you take a few weeks off and go back to reread it, the result seems inert: the characters are flat, the events don’t pop the way they did in your imagination, and you find yourself getting bored by your own story before you’re halfway done. What’s required, in short, is debugging. And while coders have access to a range of useful debugging tools, if you’re writing fiction, you’ve got no choice but to do it the old-fashioned way.

The first step in traditional debugging is to carefully read over the code, preferably on paper. Sometimes you find that you’ve made a stupid syntactical mistake—there’s a missing semicolon or closing parenthesis that throws the entire program out of whack. The equivalent in fiction is bad grammar or sloppy sentence construction, which makes even the best stories die on the page. (Here the best guide, as usual, is Strunk and White, and it’s no accident that its example inspired Brian Kernighan and P.J. Plauger to write The Elements of Programming Style.) On a somewhat higher level, you can ask yourself whether the story follows the few objective rules of storytelling in which you have any confidence. These vary from one genre to another, as well as between authors, but most writers eventually figure out a set of their own. Does the protagonist have a logical objective from one moment to the next? Does each scene start as late and end as early as possible? Does every chapter open with a clear situation? These are the building blocks of narrative, and if they don’t work on the lowest level, the story is likely to fall apart on the highest.

Charles Dickens's manuscript for A Christmas Carol

Which brings us to the print statement. It’s a trick that most beginning programmers figure out on their own: if a program is breaking, it’s often because one or more variables aren’t receiving the values they should. Modern debuggers have tools for tracking down such problems, but the most basic solution is to insert print statements into the code to display the value of the suspect variables at each stage in the process. It’s a window into the program, allowing you to follow it step by step. And although there isn’t an exact equivalent in writing fiction—in which everything is right there on the page—it can often be useful to pause the story to ask yourself where exactly you stand. As a writer reading over your own work, you have full knowledge of where the story is going, and you know that a slow stretch in Chapter 5 is necessary to set up an exciting sequence in Chapter 6. But a reader doesn’t know this. As difficult as it might be, then, you need to ask yourself what a reader encountering the story for the first time will think of a scene on its own terms. And writing it out often helps. Like a print statement, it’s a snapshot of where the story is right now, which is all the reader—or computer—can be expected to care about.

The last technique worth mentioning is the wolf fence algorithm, as first described by Edward Gauss:

There’s one wolf in Alaska, how do you find it? First build a fence down the middle of the state, wait for the wolf to howl, determine which side of the fence it is on. Repeat process on that side only, until you get to the point where you can see the wolf.

In programming, this means subdividing the code until you find the section where the program is failing, then repeating the process until you’ve zeroed in on the problem. Most novelists tend to do this intuitively. When you’re reading over a novel, you start to think of it in large chunks: you know that the sequence from page 150 to 250 works fine, while the first forty pages are giving you trouble, even if you’re not sure how or where. Instead of trying to crack the novel as a whole, it makes sense to focus on the trouble spots, continuing to narrow the scope as you iteratively revise . After the first revision, you find that three out of the five chapters in question seem fine, even though the overall section is still giving you trouble, which implies that the problem is in one of the two chapters remaining. And you repeat as necessary, homing in on something as small as a misconceived page or paragraph, until you’ve found your wolf.

Written by nevalalee

September 12, 2013 at 8:48 am

“He entered the club, leaving the door open…”

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"A shadow detached itself from the rear of the shed..."

(Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 44. You can read the earlier installments here.)

“Although there is no substitute for merit in writing,” E.B. White notes in The Elements of Style, “clarity comes closest to being one.” This is true of all aspects of fiction, from character to dialogue, and it’s especially true of action scenes. An action sequence in a novel is a kind of musical number in which all the basic notes of storytelling are hit with extraordinary focus and concentration, and there’s little room for error. It’s a war between the two central aspects of reading: the impulse to linger and the need to keep going. Most good fiction is written on the premise that the reader will occasionally pause to reflect on a complex sentence, read a paragraph over again, or even turn back a few pages for clarification or context. An action scene, by contrast, is one that begs to unfold in real time, with the act of reading coinciding as much as possible with the rhythm of the action itself. Writing a scene that satisfies these requirements while remaining stylistically consistent with the rest of the novel is a real challenge, and the key, as White points out, is clarity—although I doubt he was thinking of chase scenes or gunfights when he wrote those words.

A novel isn’t a movie, of course, and it can be dangerous to look to film for examples of how to stage action: movies have tools at their disposal, like montage and intercutting, that don’t come easily to fiction. But film still provides some useful illustrations. I’ve noted before that my favorite action scenes of recent years—the Guggenheim shootout in The International, the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, and the opening chase in Drive—were all worked out on the page, rather than in the editing room. They unfold in real time and proceed from one logical beat to the next, and there’s rarely any doubt about what the characters are thinking, although the full meaning of the scene in Drive isn’t revealed until the very end of the sequence. They’re cleanly photographed and cut together in a way that isn’t afraid to hold on a shot, and each depends intimately on spatial relationships, both in the physical geography of the set and within the frame itself. All these decisions have their common origin in a concern for clarity. The audience is grounded at every moment, and we’re never confused, as we often are by Michael Bay, about what is happening on the screen.

"He entered the club, leaving the door open..."

In short, a good action scene, either in fiction or in film, serves as an intense microcosm of the virtues of good storytelling itself. Like the story as a whole, it’s best when it’s built on a sequence of clear problems, which the protagonist succeeds or fails at solving in some logical order. Clarity is always important, but never more so than when the action needs to move at a fast pace, and the use of clean, vivid prose is the literary equivalent of the composed shot and spatially coherent editing. Each sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end: it’s no accident that the three scenes I’ve mentioned above could be taken out of their surrounding movies and enjoyed in their own right, as many of us tend to do when we’re watching them at home. And just as finding the right rhythm for an action scene in a movie can come down to the addition or removal of a few frames, the action in a novel needs to be written and revised with particular care, long after the author’s own excitement has begun to fade, until the logic is crystal clear in the moment to a reader encountering it for the first time.

When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still figuring most of this out, and although it took me a long time to formulate these rules, I managed to follow them intuitively, at least most of the time. Chapter 44, for instance, is as close to a conventional action scene as you’ll find in the book, and it’s only in retrospect that I can see how the objectives follow logically one after the other, as determined by the geography of the setting at the Club Marat. Ilya emerges from the darkness under the boardwalk behind the club, takes out the busboy, slips through the back door, makes his way up the corridor to the downstairs office, incapacitates the restaurant manager, arms himself, and places a call to Sharkovsky for a meeting, knowing that he’ll come to the office first. The only bloodshed comes a few pages later, when Ilya shoots Misha, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s only a coda to the real source of interest, as we follow Ilya’s thoughts and decisions from one point of cover to the next. There’s no question that I was inspired by the movies I loved, especially the final confrontation in Michael Mann’s Thief, and the action here unfolds in the novelistic equivalent of one continuous shot. And it isn’t over yet. As Ilya and Sharkovsky are about to discover, they aren’t alone…

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

To be or not to be?

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

One of the most daunting aspects of writing good fiction is the sheer number of rules involved. It’s hard enough to write convincing stories about men and women who never lived, but along with developing empathy and imagination, you also need to think hard about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and the sequence of tenses, and in the end, a lot of it comes down to intuition. I’ve been writing for so long that I rarely need to pause to wonder about grammar, and I’ve more or less internalized The Elements of Style—although I still try to read it again every year or so. But no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something you’ve missed. It wasn’t until my first severe copy edit, for instance, that I realized that I was totally ignorant of such matters as the difference between “toward” and “towards” or “further” and “farther,” and I’d never worried much about the use of a comma before the conjunction in a dependent clause. (For the record, I think the latter is fine in certain cases, and I’m strongly in favor of splitting infinitives.)

Faced with so many rules and guidelines, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture. My favorite example is the admonition, which I’ve seen a lot recently, that writers should avoid “to be” verbs. In itself, the advice seems sound: verbs like is, am, was, and are lack specificity, lend themselves to bland constructions, and aren’t as vivid as verbs that convey clear action. In practice, though, the rule can be a bitch to implement. When we’re told to revise to avoid adverbs or eliminate the passive voice, we can usually fix a sentence by cutting a word or restructuring a clause, but eliminating “to be” verbs isn’t a something you can do with a simple find and replace. (In theory, you could replace most occurrences with the equivalent of “seemed,” which you’ll often see in Updike, among others, and I’ll often do this to emphasize a particular character’s perspective. But this is a solution that is best used sparingly.) Instead, following the rule often means writing a new sentence entirely, which is something that gives most writers the shivers.

The Elements of Style

But there’s a more general lesson here, which is that this rule is more diagnostic than prescriptive. When you go back over your work and find a lot of “to be” verbs, it’s really a sign that other faults are present: your writing may be too abstract, too passive, too general. Going back to fix the offending sentences by hand may address the problem in the short term, but really, the only good solution is to cultivate habits of thought that prevent such constructions from appearing in the first place. Focusing on the verbs themselves is a little like treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease, or, more accurately, counting calories while forgetting to exercise. The ultimate objective is to write concretely, to create images in the mind of the reader, and to put an emphasis on clarity and vividness, and the only way to achieve this is to write endlessly, to patiently revise, and to read authors who embody the qualities of soul you admire.

In short, the problem of style needs to be attacked from both directions. The rules of grammar are there for a reason: they’re a means of facilitating communication and making sure that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. In practice, though, they’re acquired mostly through trial and error, by writing a million bad words along the way, until the writer starts to develop an ear for good language, in the same way a songwriter can improvise a vocal melody without thinking consciously about the theory of music. Attaining that kind of intuition is every writer’s dream, but even when you attack the problem as diligently as you can, you generally find that craft keeps moving the goal posts. And even the most accomplished author still makes mistakes: Norman Mailer spent something like ten years writing Harlot’s Ghost, and overlooked a dangling modifier in the very first sentence, even if he tried to justify it after the fact. But it’s still worth playing the game, as long as we remember that when we worry about “to be” or not “to be,” craft is still the question.

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2013 at 9:23 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.

Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

Quote of the Day

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[A]lthough there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”

E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2012 at 7:30 am

Playing the odds

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Earlier this week, in my post about revision, I wrote: “If you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero.” Later, in the comments, a reader quite reasonably asked if it wasn’t possible to take a slightly less rigid stance—that is, if there was some kind of sensible middle ground of interim revision. The answer, of course, is yes: there are as many approaches to writing as there are writers, and there are certainly some who can finish a novel while diligently revising along the way. The catch, as I see it, is that such writers will always be outnumbered by those who get stuck revising the first few chapters. In short, my warning may not apply to you, but it’s probably safest to assume that it does. Because like most writing advice, it’s really about playing the odds.

Here’s what I mean. Any rational observer would have to conclude that the odds are already stacked against any aspiring writer. I won’t go into the obstacles in detail—the difficulty of finding an agent, the questionable state of modern publishing, the uncertainty of success even after a novel has been released—but it’s safe to say that anyone’s chances of becoming a working writer are fairly slim. As a result, the determined writer is like a smart gambler playing against the house: it may be a losing game, but he still adjusts the odds in his favor whenever he can. Card counters (or even amateur video poker players like me) know that incremental advantages are what make the difference between breaking even and going home broke. The same holds true for writing. It’s such a ridiculously impractical pursuit that it’s necessary to be pragmatic about it whenever possible. And if the odds of our writing a publishable novel are increased by following a few basic rules, we’d be foolish not to consider adjusting our habits accordingly.

Playing the odds is also why I place such emphasis on craft. In her recent book The Possessed, which I’m reading now, writer Elif Batuman questions the whole premise of craft, as drilled into the heads of writers at a thousand workshops:

What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

Regular readers of this blog can guess how sharply my own opinions differ from Bautman’s—among other things, I do think that a lot of what we call creative writing boils down to overcoming bad habits—and I hope to devote more time soon to the issues she raises. For now, though, I’ll restrict myself to pointing out the obvious, which is that while there’s no guarantee that a writer with good craft will produce great literature, the odds of a writer without craft producing anything readable are vanishingly small. Are there exceptions? Sure. But anyone who hopes to make a living from writing is already betting that he’s going to be the exception to the rule. To worsen the odds by neglecting craft is like blindly discarding your entire hand in hopes of drawing a royal flush. It could happen, but it isn’t likely.

So how do you improve the odds? You begin by working as intelligently as you can: you listen to Strunk and White, you do, in fact, omit needless words, and you don’t revise until the entire first draft is done. (You’ll probably need to make a few mistakes along the way, as I did, before you’re convinced of the wisdom of this approach: the rules of writing, like any kind of philosophy, are only acquired though experience.) Then, once you have enough craft at your disposal, and hopefully a few published credits, you can start to break the rules. After all, if you’re the exceptional writer you hope you are, a little bit of craft—which will adjust the odds in your favor far out of proportion to their actual cost—won’t keep you from finishing the novel you were born to write. So why take the chance?

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

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