Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times

The seductions of structure

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Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Learning about a writer’s outlining methods may not be as interesting as reading about his or her sex life, but it exercises a peculiar fascination of its own—at least for other writers. Everyone else probably feels a little like I did while reading Shawn McGrath’s recent appreciation of the beautiful source code behind Doom 3: I understood what he was getting at, but the article itself read like a dispatch from a parallel universe of lexical analyzers and rigid parameters. Still, the rules of good structure are surprisingly constant across disciplines. You don’t want more parts than you need; the parts you do have should be arranged in a logical form; and endless tinkering is usually required before the result has the necessary balance and beauty. And for the most part, the underlying work ought to remain invisible. The structure of a good piece of fiction is something like the structure of a comfortable chair. You don’t necessarily want to think about it while you’re in it, but if the structure has been properly conceived, your brain, or your rear end, will thank you.

In recent weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to read two enjoyable pieces of structure porn. The first is John McPhee’s New Yorker essay on the structure of narrative nonfiction; the second is Aaron Hamburger’s piece in the New York Times on outlining in reverse. McPhee’s article goes into his methods in great, sometimes laborious detail, and there’s something delightful in hearing him sing the praises of his outlining and text editing software. His tools may be computerized, but they only allow him to streamline what he’d always done with a typewriter and scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size…One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood.

Regular readers will know that this is the kind of thing I love. Accounts of how a book is written tend to dwell on personal gossip or poetic inspiration, and while such stories can be inspiring or encouraging, as a working writer, I’d much rather hear more about those slivers of paper.

Scene cards on the author's desk

And the reason I love them so much is that they get close to the heart of writing as a profession, which has surprising affinities with more technical or mechanical trades. Writing a novel, in particular, hinges partially on a few eureka moments, but it also presents daunting organizational and logistical challenges. A huge amount of material needs to be kept under control, and a writer’s brain just isn’t large or flexible enough to handle it all at once. Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas, and for most of us, it boils down to taking good notes, which I’ve compared elsewhere to messages that I’ve left, a la Memento, for my future self to rediscover. By putting our thoughts on paper—or, like McPhee does, in a computerized database—we make them easier to sort and retrieve. It looks like little more than bookkeeping, but it liberates us. McPhee says it better than I ever could: “If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse…The procedure eliminated all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.”

This kind of organization can also take place closer to the end of the project, as Hamburger notes in his Times piece. Hamburger says that he dislikes using outlines to plan a writing project, and prefers to work more organically, but also observes that it can be useful to view the resulting material with a more objective, even mathematical eye. What he describes is similar to what I’ve called writing by numbers: you break the story down to individual scenes, count the pages or paragraphs, and see how each piece fits in with the shape of the story as a whole. Such an analysis often reveals hidden weaknesses or asymmetries, and the solution can often be as simple as the ten percent rule:

In [some] stories, I found that most of the scenes were roughly equal in length, and so cutting became as easy as an across-the-board budget cut. I dared myself to try to cut ten percent from each scene, and then assessed what was left. Happily, I didn’t always achieve my goal—because let’s face it, writing is not math and never should be. Yet what I learned about my story along the way proved invaluable.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, with one caveat: I believe that writing often is math, although not exclusively, and only as a necessary prop for emotion and intuition. Getting good ideas, as every writer knows, is the easy part. It’s the structure that makes them dance.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

“If there are ten readers out there…”

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George Saunders

I want to be more expansive. If there are ten readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.

George Saunders, to The New York Times

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”

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Let’s say you’re reading a novel, perhaps a thriller, and while you wouldn’t say it’s a great book, you’re reasonably engaged by the plot and characters. The story is clocking along nicely, the author’s prose is clean and unobtrusive, and suddenly you’re brought up short by something like this:

He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.

Hold on. What do those Pratt & Whitney engines have to do with anything? Is this a novel or an aircraft catalog? Well, it’s neither, at least not at the moment: rather, it’s an instance of a novelist being reluctant to part with a laboriously acquired piece of research. Suspense novelists are especially guilty of this sort of thing—the above example is from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, admittedly not the most original target in the world—but it’s something that every writer needs to beware: the temptation to overload one’s fiction with factual detail, especially detail that was the result of a long and painful research process.

This tendency is easy to understand in historical and science fiction, in which so much energy has gone into researching a story set in another time and place, but it’s less obvious why it should also be so common in thrillers, which in other respects have become ever more streamlined. Anthony Lane, in an amusing article on the top ten books on the New York Times bestseller list of May 15, 1994, quotes a sentence from Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow (the one about the Frankfurt bus lines), which he claims is the most boring clause in any of the books he’s read for his essay. He then says:

The odd thing about pedantry, however, is that it can’t be trusted. Many of the writers on this list are under the impression that if they do the factual spadework, the fiction will dig itself in and hunker down, solid and secure. The effect, unfortunately, is quite the opposite. It suggests that the writers are hanging on for grim life to what they know for fear of unleashing what they don’t know; they are frightened, in other words, of their own imagination…When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

True enough. Lane is mistaken, though, when he blames this tendency, elsewhere in his article, on the work of James Michener, which consists of “gathering more research than any book could possibly need, then refusing to jettison a particle of it for the sake of dramatic form.” Michener is probably to blame for such excesses in historical fiction, but as far as thrillers are concerned, there’s another, more relevant culprit: Frederick Forsyth. Much of the pleasure of The Day of the Jackal (which Lane elsewhere claims to read once a year) comes from Forsyth’s expertise, real or cunningly feigned, in such matters as identity theft and the construction of an assassin’s rifle, which makes the less plausible elements of his novel all the more convincing. He’s so good at this, in fact, that legions of inferior writers have been seduced by his example. (Even Forsyth himself, in his later novels, isn’t entirely immune.)

Here, then, is the novelist’s dilemma: an appropriate amount of research will lure readers into the fictional dream, but too much will yank them out. So what’s a writer to do? The answer here, as in most other places, is that good habits of writing in general will trim away the worst of these particular excesses. For instance, Stephen King’s invaluable advice to cut all your drafts by ten percent applies twice as much to expository or factual passages. We haven’t discussed point of view yet, but by restricting each scene to the point of view of a particular character, you’re less likely to introduce extraneous information. And the endless labor of rereading, editing, and revision, once time has given you sufficient detachment from your own work, will gradually alert you to places where the research has begun to interfere with the underlying story.

There’s another place where excessive research can also be dangerous, and that’s in the writing process itself. Nearly every novel requires some degree of background material, but how much is too much? It’s always hard to say when research turns into procrastination, but here’s my own rule of thumb: two or three months of research is probably enough for the beginning of any project. Later on, you can always take a break to do more, and should certainly go back and check your facts once the novel is done, but any more than three months at the start, and you risk losing the momentum that encouraged you to write the novel in the first place. And once that momentum is gone, not even a Pratt & Whitney engine will get it back.

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