Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walter Mosley

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

The art of postponement

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Napoleon Dictating to his Secretaries

When Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France, he developed a useful strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved in the meantime. At first glance, a writer might not seem to have a lot in common with Napoleon—although he did write fiction as a young man—and the process of writing a novel, while daunting, is slightly less difficult than administering an empire. But there’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. When you’re a writer, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material and detail required by even the simplest story. How does Trevor dispose of the gun? What kind of outfit would Barbara wear to the restaurant? How can Amanda get out of the upstairs bedroom before Don gets home? Sometimes a solution will present itself at once; occasionally you’ll rack your brains for hours without coming up with anything good. But I’ve found that when you don’t know the answer, you’re often better off just postponing it for later.

Which isn’t to say that a writer should plunge blindly into a story without any sense of the destination, or that I don’t prefer to plan as much as possible in advance: I’ve spoken at length about my love of outlining, and I like to have at least the overall shape of a story sketched out before I start work on the first page. As I’ve grown more experienced as a writer, though, I’ve learned that it’s better to work around—or just omit—a tricky section rather than let it sap the momentum you’ve built up so far. You may not be happy with the page as it stands, but if you insert a placeholder and move on, when you go back to revisit it, you’ll often find, like Napoleon, that the problem has taken care of itself. Either the troublesome section ends up being condensed or cut entirely in the rewrite; or something good will occur to you eighty pages later; or you’ll find that the makeshift solution you cobbled together works just fine, at least within the role it needs to play in the larger story. It’s impossible to know really matters until the entire rough draft is done, and it’s far more dangerous to get hung up on trifles while putting the entire project at risk.

Walter Mosley

Other writers have offered similar advice. In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley observes:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away—even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.

And I’ve found that this red question mark is useful for far more than just research issues. The great film editor Walter Murch talks about leaving “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” of any creative project, both because it keeps the process interesting and because the version of yourself who confronts the problem will be better equipped to deal with it. Writing a novel is essentially an extended collaboration between your past, present, and future selves, with the process stretching across many months or years. It’s unreasonable to expect that your present self will have all the answers, and in fact, your future self will probably know more than you do now, once you’ve invested more time into the project. (That’s why I always advise writers to finish a complete first draft before going back to revise: an issue that seems insurmountable in Chapter 1 may have an obvious solution in Chapter 20, but only if you’ve written the intervening eighteen chapters first.) All that matters is that you get something down, even if you suspect that you’ll need to change it later. It can’t be postponed forever, of course. But it often helps to postpone it for just long enough.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

Walter Mosley and the red question mark

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For the last word on research, I’ll turn things over to Walter Mosley, author of Devil in a Blue Dress, who isn’t necessarily known for his research skills—as he puts it, “I write books about places I’ve been and people I like to think I understand”—but who has, you’ll probably agree, done pretty well for himself. In This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley says:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away—even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later. [Italics mine.]

Don’t estimate the power of that red question mark—or of saving a problem for later. Once you’ve moved on, time has a funny way of resolving plot problems that seemed insurmountable. And like Napoleon, who always waited a week before responding to any letters, you may find that by the time you get around to the problem, it has already taken care of itself.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2011 at 8:15 am

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