Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Warning Sign

The real value of hard work

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There’s an animated discussion today among a couple of bloggers (Seth Godin and Ben Casnocha, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan) on the value of hard work. Godin believes that if you’re going to work at anything, you should work hard: “The biggest waste is to do that thing you call work, but to interrupt it, compromise it, cheat it and still call it work.” Casnocha agrees, and suggests that one reason some of us don’t work as hard as we should is because it deprives us of a convenient excuse:

In other words, if you work hard and fail, there’s the presumption that you’re innately not very talented. If you don’t work hard and fail, you can credibly preserve the belief or illusion that had you only put forth 100% effort, it would have worked out.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But I don’t necessarily agree with the underlying assumption, which is that most of us would be more successful if we simply worked harder. Most of the people I know work very hard indeed. The problem, if there is one, is that we work hard on the wrong things.

Few things in life are easier, or more seductive, than working intelligently and industriously on something utterly misguided, as long as the outcome is assured. My own life is a case in point. (Or, at the very least, it’s the example that I can discuss with the greatest firsthand knowledge.) I spent years working diligently on things that had little, if anything, to do with becoming a novelist, whether it was in school, at work, or in various side projects. For the most part, I did fairly well, but the main reason I avoided pursuing my real goals was that it would deprive me of excuses. As long as I was concentrating on other things, I could tell myself that I could be a writer if I just applied myself. But as soon as I quit my job to write for a living—which is what I eventually did—I would have no excuse if I failed. As commenter Russell Stadler notes on Casnocha’s blog, quoting Eric Hoffer, many of us aren’t looking for achievement, but for an alibi.

So the real challenge, even before the hard work begins, is to make sure you’re doing it for a reason, and not as an excuse to avoid something else. And even after you’ve found your true niche, it’s possible to work hard, on a superficial level, while still avoiding actual risk. I work hard as a writer, and I’m just starting to see the results, but I also need to avoid the temptation to channel all my energy into the same handful of pursuits. For instance, there’s a certain kind of short story—the science fiction procedural, for lack of a better word—that I can write easily and well, to the point where it requires a conscious effort to try something else. One of my first efforts at a different kind of story, “Ernesto,” was picked up by Analog, but another, “Warning Sign” is still bouncing around years later, after the anthology in which it was supposed to appear was canceled. So there’s risk involved. But without it, I’m never going to grow as a writer.

Finally, it’s important to remember that hard work isn’t everything. Writers, and most other creative types, are judged by results, not by the effort they expended. I’m proud of the fact that I’m on track to finish a novel in nine months, as promised, but in the end, the book will stand or fall on its own merits. (While it’s probably true that writers who work hard are more likely to succeed than those who don’t, there’s no Pulitzer Prize for work ethic.) And many creative breakthroughs aren’t the result of hard work, but what looks like its opposite: they’re discovered in sleep, while shaving, in the bathtub, partly as a result of all the hard work that has been done before, but also because of its absence. The moral, then, is that hard work is essential—but only for the right reasons, directed toward areas of the unknown, and supplemented, crucially, by laziness.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2011 at 10:27 am

The making of a novelette (part 1)

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Note: This post contains some unavoidable spoilers about my novelette “Kawataro.” You’ve been warned!

With all due respect to Faulkner, I think it’s occasionally useful for a writer to be able to sit down and will a story into existence, if not for the money—which is rarely a worthwhile motivation—then at least for the practice. There’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a story from conception to final draft in only a couple of weeks, whether the goal is to satisfy an untapped creative urge or simply to fill a hole in one’s schedule. In the case of “Kawataro,” I had a break of roughly a month in the writing of The Icon Thief, when I was waiting to get some comments from my agent, and I decided to fill the time by writing a couple of short stories. One story, “Ernesto,” has yet to be published, although I hope you’ll have a chance to read it at some point. The other was “Kawataro,” the development of which provides a—hopefully—interesting illustration of how I work.

“Kawataro” began, as many of my stories do, with a trip to the library. Whenever I need an idea for a story, I head for the periodicals section of the Sulzer Regional branch and pick up a large stack of magazines, preferably Discover or Scientific American. (I used to have a big collection of back issues at home, purchased off eBay for the specific purpose of generating story ideas. These were left behind after my move to Chicago, but not before generating ideas for “The Last Resort,” “Warning Sign,” and “The Boneless One.”) My usual method is to browse until I see one or two articles that get my attention, and then to daydream about possible connections or plot ideas. For “Kawataro,” the inciting article was Margalit Fox’s story in Discover about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins of Israel, who, because their population contains a high percentage of genetically deaf individuals, have developed their own unique sign language. (Fox’s book Talking Hands tells more about this fascinating community.)

So how did an article about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins become a novelette about a remote Japanese fishing village? As usual, it was a combination of chance, inclination, and the inexplicable workings of the writing process. After reading the article, I had a vague idea for a story about a scientist trying to solve a mystery involving a community of the deaf, which could only be explained when it became clear that her patients were suffering from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. (This may seem like an oddly specific story structure, but it’s actually a variation on the plot of my first Analog story, “Inversus.”) Looking into conditions resulting in deafness, I found that Pendred syndrome had the characteristics I needed: it caused deafness and hypothyroidism, which I thought might be useful for a medical mystery, though I didn’t yet know what the mystery was. Then I stumbled across this article, which contained the following fateful statement:

Goitre is the most variable syndrome in Pendred syndrome and is caused by impaired thyroxin production because of an organization defect. Goitre prevalence is dependent of the daily iodine intake and is, for example, seldom seen in Japan, where the daily iodine intake is high.

This may not seem like much, but when I read it, my receptivity to potential material was particularly strong. At once, I saw the outlines of my story: a Japanese village, a community of the deaf, and a syndrome that had gone undiagnosed because of the local diet. (I even suspected that a burakumin community might provide a suitably endogamous population for such a syndrome to take hold.) Now I had the scientific backbone of the story, and if I were just trying to write a short vignette, it might have been enough. But I was planning to write a novelette, which requires a real plot, and hopefully some action and suspense along the way. What next? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I hit on a structure for the plot itself, and how the mysterious figure of the kappa, or kawataro, first entered the picture. (For the remaining installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Two weeks with another novel

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As of today, I’ve been working on my second novel for two weeks, which seems as good a time as any to take stock of where things stand. So far, I’ve written draft versions of nine chapters, plus the prologue, amounting altogether to around 25,000 words. Since I’m clocking along at the rate of a chapter a day, these aren’t great drafts. But they aren’t bad. And I’m relieved to see that the average length of each chapter is pretty close to what I anticipate it will be in the end, which means that I won’t end up cutting the manuscript in half (as I did with my first novel).

Things are moving forward in other ways, too. As I mentioned last week, my short story “Warning Sign” has been picked up for inclusion in a paperback anthology. I’m pleased by this, since I’ve had this story in my back pocket for a while, and it looks like this collection will be a nice fit. As far as Kamera goes, there have been a couple of interesting developments. First, the cover art meeting was held last week at NAL. I wasn’t there personally, but I did send some comparable covers to my editor, as well as my thoughts on possible cover designs. Obviously, though, I’m glad to leave this up to the design team, and I’m looking forward to sharing what they have to say.

The biggest development, though, is the likelihood that the title of the novel may change. I’m actually okay with this—I’m well aware that Kamera isn’t the easiest title in the world to market—but we’re still some ways away from having a workable alternative. I’ve already begun to brainstorm possibilities with my agent and editor, and I’m hoping to have a new title locked down fairly soon. Once we’ve all agreed on something, I’ll be talking about the process in more detail. (In the meantime, I can’t resist posting this video again. The Duchamp Imbroglio, anyone?)

Anyway, that’s all the news for now. Hopefully I’ll have a draft of Part I done by early April, at which point I’ll give you another update. Now back to work…

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2011 at 9:18 am

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