Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian

The president is collaborating

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Last week, Bill Clinton and James Patterson released their collaborative novel The President is Missing, which has already sold something like a quarter of a million copies. Its publication was heralded by a lavish two-page spread in The New Yorker, with effusive blurbs from just about everyone whom a former president and the world’s bestselling author might be expected to get on the phone. (Lee Child: “The political thriller of the decade.” Ron Chernow: “A fabulously entertaining thriller.”) If you want proof that the magazine’s advertising department is fully insulated from its editorial side, however, you can just point to the fact that the task of reviewing the book itself was given to Anthony Lane, who doesn’t tend to look favorably on much of anything. Lane’s style—he has evidently never met a smug pun or young starlet he didn’t like—can occasionally turn me off from his movie reviews, but I’ve always admired his literary takedowns. I don’t think a month goes by that I don’t remember his writeup of the New York Times bestseller list May 15, 1994, which allowed him to tackle the likes of The Bridges of Madison County, The Celestine Prophecy, and especially The Day After Tomorrow by Allan Folsom, from which he quoted a sentence that permanently changed my view of such novels: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” But he seems to have grudgingly liked The President is Missing. If nothing else, he furnishes a backhanded compliment that has already been posted, hilariously out of context, on Amazon: “If you want to make the most of your late-capitalist leisure-time, hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, focus your squint, and enjoy.”

The words “hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, [and] focus your squint,” are all callbacks to samples of Patterson’s prose that Lane quotes in the review, but the phrase “late-capitalist leisure-time” might require some additional explanation. It’s a reference to the paper “Structure over Style: Collaborative Authorship and the Revival of Literary Capitalism,” which appeared last year in Digital Humanities Review, and I’m grateful to Lane for bringing it to my attention. The authors, Simon Fuller and James O’Sullivan, focus on the factory model of novelists who employ ghostwriters to boost their productivity, and their star exhibit is Patterson, to whom they devote the same kind of computational scrutiny that has previously uncovered traces of collaboration in Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Patterson doesn’t write most of the books that he ostensibly coauthors. (He may not even have done much of the writing on First to Die, which credits him as the sole writer.) But the paper is less interesting for its quantitative analysis than for its qualitative evaluation of what Patterson tells us about how we consume and enjoy fiction. For instance:

The form of [Patterson’s] novels also appears to be molded by contemporary experience. In particular, his work is perhaps best described as “commuter fiction.” Nicholas Paumgarten describes how the average time for a commute has significantly increased. As a result, reading has increasingly become one of those pursuits that can pass the time of a commute. For example, a truck driver describes how “he had never read any of Patterson’s books but that he had listened to every single one of them on the road.” A number of online reader reviews also describe Patterson’s writing in terms of their commutes…With large print, and chapters of two or three pages, Patterson’s works are constructed to fit between the stops on a metro line.

Of course, you could say much the same of many thrillers, particularly the kind known as the airport novel, which wasn’t just a book that you read on planes—at its peak, it was one in which many scenes took place in airports, which were still associated with glamor and escape. What sets Patterson apart from his peers is his ability to maintain a viable brand while publishing a dozen books every year. His productivity is inseparable from his use of coauthors, but he wasn’t the first. Fuller and O’Sullivan cite the case of Alexandre Dumas, who allegedly boasted of having written four hundred novels and thirty-five plays that had created jobs for over eight thousand people. And they dig up a remarkable quote from The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who “favorably compare French popular fiction to the German, paying particular attention to the latter’s appropriation of the division of labor”:

In proclaiming the uniqueness of work in science and art, [Max] Stirner adopts a position far inferior to that of the bourgeoisie. At the present time it has already been found necessary to organize this “unique” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had time to paint even a tenth of his pictures if he regarded them as works which “only this Unique person is capable of producing.” In Paris, the great demand for vaudevilles and novels brought about the organization of work for their production, organization which at any rate yields something better than its “unique” competitors in Germany.

These days, you could easily imagine Marx and Engels making a similar case about film, by arguing that the products of collaboration in Hollywood have often been more interesting, or at least more entertaining, than movies made by artists working outside the system. And they might be right.

The analogy to movies and television seems especially appropriate in the case of Patterson, who has often drawn such comparisons himself, as he once did to The Guardian: “There is a lot to be said for collaboration, and it should be seen as just another way to do things, as it is in other forms of writing, such as for television, where it is standard practice.” Fuller and O’Sullivan compare Patterson’s brand to that of Alfred Hitchcock, whose name was attached to everything from Dell anthologies to The Three Investigators to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a good parallel, but an even better one might be hiding in plain sight. In her recent profile of the television producer Ryan Murphy, Emily Nussbaum evokes an ability to repackage the ideas of others that puts even Patterson to shame:

Murphy is also a collector, with an eye for the timeliest idea, the best story to option. Many of his shows originate as a spec script or as some other source material. (Murphy owned the rights to the memoir Orange Is the New Black before Jenji Kohan did, if you want to imagine an alternative history of television.) Glee grew out of a script by Ian Brennan; Feud began as a screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam. These scripts then get their DNA radically altered and replicated in Murphy’s lab, retooled with his themes and his knack for idiosyncratic casting.

Murphy’s approach of retooling existing material in his own image might be even smarter than Patterson’s method of writing outlines for others to expand, and he’s going to need it. Two months ago, he signed an unprecedented $300 million contract with Netflix to produce content of all kinds: television shows, movies, documentaries. And another former president was watching. While Bill Clinton was working with Patterson, Barack Obama was finalizing a Netflix deal of his own—and if he needs a collaborator, he doesn’t have far to look.

A writer’s season

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The baseball season is 160-plus games long—if there’s a hole, the pitchers will exploit it. Writing is like that, too. You have to make everything from scratch, and that includes not just plot and character, but economics, philosophical truth, gender relations, various kinds of professional expertise, weather and interior design, etc. If there are any of these areas in which you’re a little weak, you can try to write around them—but you’ll probably be found out.

Benjamin Markovits, in The Guardian

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December 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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A writer should not undervalue any tool of her trade just because she finds it easier to use than the others. As you get older you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Zadie Smith, in The Guardian

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September 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Peter Shaffer

I hate it when Brecht says that we should not be interested in the next scene because it distracts us from the current one. I find that priggish and tedious. I want to be enthralled.

Peter Shaffer, to The Guardian

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March 17, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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March 4, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Will Eno

The total effect and meaning of a play probably always has to include the audience’s private responses and conjurings, and if the thoughts and feelings of the play can ping back and forth between audience and performer, a large and meaningful amount of area can be covered. The monologue strikes me as an elegant and economical way to accomplish that pinging.

Will Eno, to The Guardian

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January 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

“Moving blindly up the path through the trees…”

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"The park was peaceful enough..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 39. You can read the previous installments here.

One of these days, I’m going to write an oral history of novelists who use Google Maps. I have a feeling that most of us do it, even though there seems to be a certain retience—perhaps because we’re supposed to have done our research using more occult methods—to admitting this. E.L. James, who never visited Seattle before using it as the setting of Fifty Shades of Grey, cops to it happily: “I spent a lot of time on Google Maps.” And the novelist David Nicholls, best known for One Day, wrote an excellent essay on the subject last year for The Guardian, in which he discusses how he researched a scene for his novel Us:

I have never visited Bologna but a few clicks of the computer mouse bring me a thousand images of the railway station, inside and out. The online website has already told me the train’s arrival time on the day of the fictional events, and a few more clicks will bring up a map of the fastest taxi route to the airport. Zooming in on the station, I can take the hand of the little unisex figure in the right-hand corner, drop it in the ticket hall and, in view mode, click through the doors and find a taxi…In the finished novel, this journey will take up four sentences. My virtual mapping of the route will have almost no discernible impact on the prose that I’ve already sketched out…It’s certainly less costly and time-consuming than visiting Bologna, but it still feels a little like cheating. What if I’ve missed something? Isn’t being there part of the job?

Of course, Google Maps is no substitute for real location research, when your time and resources allow for it. Location work has been an integral part of my writing ever since my first published story, “Inversus,” in which the idea of an homage to the Alice novels set in contemporary Boston led me inexorably to the statue of the hare in Copley Square. And my scouting trips for The Icon Thief and City of Exiles rank among my favorite memories as a novelist. Nicholls does a nice job of evoking what this kind of reconnaissance means:

Many years ago, while writing my first novel, I took a train to find the house where my fictional character lived. I brought with me a notebook, pen and camera and walked the streets from the station down to the sea, found a spot that felt right and took a great many photographs of quite staggering dullness. In retrospect, the expedition was probably little more than an exercise in procrastination…Still, it felt important to make the journey, find the address and trace the character’s route from that house to the pier so that I could place pins in a map and know “here’s the house, the takeaway, the pub, it all happened right here,” even if it hadn’t really happened at all. Little of that research found its way on to the page directly. Reading the novel now, through the gaps in my fingers, there is nothing you could call descriptive prose and the fictional address I attributed to the house, 16 Archer Street, sounds horribly made up. But if the expedition was a little foolish and pretentious, it still felt important to go, because wasn’t this what proper writers were meant to do?

"Moving blindly up the path through the trees.."

The answer is yes—but Google Maps also affords peculiar advantages and delights of its own. What I’ve come to value the most about it, weirdly, is its vagueness. No matter how comprehensive the images are on Street View, there are always nooks of your ideal route that remain maddeningly opaque, and you inevitably end up wishing for greater resolution, or the ability to peek around a particular corner. But that’s exactly how it should be. Research, as I’ve said many times before, isn’t about factual accuracy, but furnishing material for dreams, and it’s easier to write, say, a chase scene if you have some landmarks to guide you on your way. But it helps to have some gaps, too, if only for the effort of imagination they impose. I flew to London for a week to research City of Exiles, and the payoff is visible in many scenes. Yet the novel’s two most memorable sequences, at the London Chess Classic at Olympia and in the tunnels underneath Helsinki, took place at a pair of locations that I was unable to visit firsthand. For the details, I was obliged to rely on photographs, descriptions, and an infuriatingly brief video or two. None of it was as comprehensive as I would have liked, but it forced me to think a little harder, and it shows. If I got a detail wrong here or there, few readers could be expected to notice, but the ensuing action had to be envisioned all the more intensely. And the state of mind that comes from poring over a map, while different from location work, can be no less rewarding. It’s never my first choice, but I’ve rarely been disappointed with the results.

This issue became particularly important for Eternal Empire, which spans many locations in Europe that I was unable to visit for myself. But that didn’t prelude the possibility of other discoveries. In Chapter 39, Maddy disembarks from the yacht in Yalta for her pivotal meeting with Ilya—their first encounter in several years. Why Yalta? For reasons of plot, the yacht had disembarked from Romania and was on its way to Sochi, and Yalta seemed like a reasonable port of call along the way. As for the location of the meeting itself, I wanted somewhere within walking distance or a short drive of the marina, which seemed logical enough. And after a quick search, I settled on the nearby zoo and children’s park. It features grotesque wooden carvings of trolls and dwarves, as well as a live actor playing the witch Baba Yaga, and it was obvious that it would provide the kind of atmosphere and variety of settings that this sort of scene demands. (Maddy and Ilya end up meeting by a statue of a slain dragon, which neatly ties into the image of the Scythian rider that recurs throughout the novel, and they have the bulk of their conversation near the bars of an animal cage that mirrors Maddy’s own situation.) Once I had that location, I cobbled together a route as best I could from Google Maps, photos, and videos, and the result was more than adequate for an evocative scene of six pages, even if, as Nicholls puts it, it was “a fish-eyed lens view with no sounds or smells or interaction.” The picture I had was incomplete. But it gave me the chance to fill in the rest myself…

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January 7, 2016 at 8:12 am

Carrying your ideas with you

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Michael Atiyah

I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, I suppose. I don’t specialise in any one. I pick up a bit here, a bit there, and if I find a connection between them, I get excited…

I’m not the sort of person who does my mathematics writing on paper. I do that at the last stage of the game. I do my mathematics in my head. I sit down for a hard day’s work and I write nothing all day. I just think. And I walk up and down because that helps keep me awake, it keeps the blood circulating, and I think and think.

The main thrust of your thinking can only take place in big chunks of time, not only for hours but for days, weeks, you carry these ideas with you. You go out for a walk and you take your ideas with you. You go on a bus, you take a train, even when you go to sleep you wake up in the morning and you’ve got this enormously complicated set of ideas with you for long periods, maybe even for a year or two.

Michael Atiyah, to The Guardian

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November 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

My own ten rules of writing

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Inspired by the example of Zadie Smith and other authors from last year’s feature in the Guardian—whose contributions range from indispensible, like Elmore Leonard’s, to irritating, like Jonathan Franzen’s—I’ve put together my own ten rules for writing fiction. I offer these up with the caveat that I’ve developed them haphazardly over time, with a lot of wrong turns along the way, and have only recently begun to incorporate most of them into my own work. And since these rules reflect only what works for me, this post is really more like a series of notes to myself. Still, I hope you’ll find them interesting, especially in comparison to your own:

  1. Write full-time if you can. For both artists and entrepreneurs, the single greatest predictor of success is whether you’ve quit your day job. And this will be much easier if you’ve already taken steps to simplify your life as much as possible.
  2. Write short stories, or even better, novelettes, for practice, but don’t forget that most of your education as a writer will come from writing novels. A novel is also more likely to get the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, even if you ultimately intend to work in some other medium.
  3. Work from an outline. If nothing else, this makes it much more likely that you’ll finish your novel, rather than abandoning it halfway through.
  4. Write an entire first draft before going back to revise, and never edit an unfinished manuscript. Remember that a bad version at least gives you something to change, and that finishing a draft, no matter how rough, is what separates a real writer from the thousands who simply want to write.
  5. Structure each scene around a clearly defined goal for the protagonist—or, even better, a series of goals defined in terms of specific actions. More than backstory, description, or interior monologue, a clear objective in each scene is what brings a character to life.
  6. If a sequence of scenes isn’t reading well, try cutting the first and/or last paragraphs of each chapter. Even better, don’t write the beginning or end of a scene at all, but jump from middle to middle.
  7. When in doubt, aim for clean, transparent, unobtrusive prose. As Robert Louis Stevenson says, all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same.
  8. Cut all first drafts by at least ten percent, and more if possible.
  9. Learn how to generate ideas on demand: use mind maps, intentional randomness, lists. Find spare moments and use them: assign yourself small creative tasks on walks, in the shower, while shaving. Always have pen and paper on hand. And never throw anything away.
  10. Read deeply in your own genre, but also seek out books that other writers of your generation aren’t reading.

In retrospect, most of these rules are really just about good habits and productivity, which strike me as the most important qualities a writer can have. If you’re the kind of person who can write something every day for five years, while also reading widely and seeking out interesting experiences, the rest will take care of itself. In the end, the only real rule is that you can always turn bad writing into good writing, but can’t do anything with no writing at all. And if there are any rules you think I’ve forgotten, I’d love to see them in the comments.

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September 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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In defense of plot

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Earlier this week, critic John Lucas of the Guardian wrote an article alarmingly headlined “Has plot driven out other kinds of story?” He points to what he calls the resurgence of plot in literary fiction—giving Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story [sic] as an example, although he gets the title wrong—and wonders if contemporary fiction, influenced by film, has privileged plot above all other elements. (This seems manifestly untrue, at least on the literary side, but we’ll ignore that for now.) He wonders if Kafka would be published today, conveniently overlooking the fact that most of Kafka’s work wasn’t published at all until after his death. He makes the common but unsubstantiated claim that plotless or unresolved fiction is truer to life than its plotted equivalent, and gently slaps the wrist of novels in which, heaven forbid, “every scene advances the action.” In his conclusion, not surprisingly, he hedges a bit:

Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature.

Lucas’s article isn’t a bad one, but I disagree with almost everything it says. Take the assertion in the second sentence quoted above. I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, has ever claimed that plot is the only pleasure to be derived from great literature. If anything, the opposite is true: people tend to underrate the importance of plot in our greatest writers. There’s a common assumption that Shakespeare, for instance, didn’t care about plot, or wasn’t especially good at it, because he took most of his stories from conventional sources. The fact is, though, he was great at plot, and clearly relished it. The sources of Hamlet or Lear contain only the barest outlines of the story, which Shakespeare ingeniously enriches with incident, character, and structure. His plays have the busiest plots in all of literature, and they’re far more intricate than merely commercial considerations would dictate, which implies that he enjoyed plot for its own sake.

I’ve talked about the merits of plot in a previous post, so I won’t repeat all of my points here. To me, though, plot is a joy, both in my own writing and in the work of others. Plot is both a heightening of reality and a reflection of it: life is full of plots and stories, and the construction of a plot that feels true to life and satisfying as art is one of the most extended challenges a writer can face. Removing the plot, with its necessary pattern of constraints, leaves the author free to indulge all of his worst impulses, a freedom that few writers have the discipline to survive. Indeed, I’d argue that the greatest thing about plot is its impersonality, even its coldness. In On Directing Film, David Mamet reminds us that a story is moving to the extent that the writer can leave things out, especially what is deeply felt and meaningful. And in the honest construction of a logical, surprising, inevitable plot, there’s very little room for affectation or self-indulgence.

In the end, plot isn’t the enemy; bad plots are—just as we need to guard against bad style, characterization, and theme. No element of fiction is inherently more worthwhile than any other, and attempts to privilege one above all others generally lead to what John Gardner calls frigidity, an elevation of one’s own personality over the demands of the story. Conversely, when all the elements work together, the effect can be overwhelming. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which the Guardian‘s sister paper recently named the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel of the past twenty-five years, is as beautifully plotted as they come, a work in which the structure of the story is inseparable from its deeper themes. For most of us, then, plot is the necessary matrix in which a novel can grow in ways that are true to the fictional dream, not to our own preoccupations. Plot, at its best, is a cure for vanity.

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