Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Which Lie Did I Tell?

Foundation and Hollywood

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Yesterday, the news broke that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will finally be adapted for television. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such announcements, but the package that they’ve assembled sounds undeniably exciting. As we learn from an article in The Wrap:

HBO and Warner Bros. TV are teaming to produce a series based on Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy that will be written and produced by Interstellar writer Jonathan Nolan…Nolan, who is already working with HBO on Westworld, has been quietly developing the project for the last several months. He recently tipped his hand to Indiewire, which asked him: “What’s the one piece of science fiction you truly love that people don’t know enough about?” [Nolan replied:] “Well, I fucking love the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov…That’s a set of books I think everyone would benefit from reading.”

Whoops, my mistake—that’s a story from two years ago. The latest attempt will be developed by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple, which acquired it from Skydance Television in what Deadline describes as “a competitive situation.” And when you turn back the clock even further, you find that efforts to adapt the trilogy were made in the nineties by New Line Cinema, which went with The Lord of the Rings instead, and even by Roland Emmerich, who might be the last director whom you’d entrust with this material. There were probably other projects that have been long since forgotten. And it doesn’t take a psychohistorian to realize that the odds are stacked against this new version ever seeing the light of day.

Why has the Foundation series remained so alluring to Hollywood, yet so resistant to adaptation? For a clue, we can turn to Asimov himself. In the early eighties, he was approached by Doubleday to write his first new novel in years, and an editor laid out the situation in no uncertain terms: “Listen, Isaac, let me make it clear. When [editor Betty Prashker] said ‘a novel,’ she meant ‘a science fiction novel,’ and when we say ‘a science fiction novel,’ we mean ‘a Foundation novel.’ That’s what we want.” Asimov was daunted, but the offer was too generous to refuse, so he decided to give it a try. As he recounts in his memoir I. Asimov:

Before I got started, I would have to reread the Foundation trilogy. This I approached with a certain horror…I couldn’t help noticing, of course, that there was not very much action in it. The problems and resolutions thereof were expressed primarily in dialogue, in competing rational discussions from different points of view, with no clear indication to the reader which view was right and which was wrong.

This didn’t mean that the trilogy wasn’t engaging—Asimov thought that “it was a page-turner,” and when he was done, he was surprised by his personal reaction: “I experienced exactly what readers had been telling me for decades—a sense of fury that it was over and there was no more.” But if you’re looking to adapt it into another medium, you quickly find that there isn’t a lot there in terms of conventional drama or excitement. As Omar Sharif once said about Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film…with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either…what would you say?

In fact, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the Foundation series—or at least the first book—has to offer the movies or television. Speaking as a fan, I can safely state that it doesn’t have memorable characters, iconic scenes, or even much in the way of background. If I were hired to adapt it, I might react in much the same way that William Goldman did when he worked on the movie version of Maverick. Goldman confesses in Which Lie Did I Tell? that his reasons for taking the assignment were simple: “I knew it would be easy…The last thing in life I wanted was to try another original. This adaptation had to be a breeze—all I needed to do was pick out one of the old [episodes] that had too much plot, expand it, and there would be the movie.” He continues:

One of the shocks of my life happened in my living room, where I spent many hours looking at the old Maverick shows I’d been sent. Because, and this was the crusher, television storytelling has changed…Not only was the [James] Garner character generally passive, there was almost no plot at all. Nothing for me to steal. I essentially had to write, sob, another original.

Similarly, the Foundation series gives a writer almost nothing to steal. Once you get to “The Mule,” the action picks up considerably, but that’s obviously your second—or even your third—season, not your first. In the meantime, you’re left with the concept of psychohistory and nothing else. You have to write another original. Which is essentially what happened with I, Robot.

And even psychohistory can be more trouble that it might be worth. It works most convincingly over the course of years or decades, which isn’t a timeframe that lends itself to movies or television, and it naturally restricts the ability of the characters to take control of the story. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible. (In fact, I have some decent ideas of my own, but I’ll keep them to myself, in case Goyer and Friedman ever want to take a meeting. My schedule is pretty packed at the moment, but it frees up considerably in a few months.) But it’s worth asking why the Foundation series has been such a tempting target for so long. It’s clearly a recognizable property, which is valuable in itself, and its highbrow reputation makes it seem like a promising candidate for a prestige adaptation, although even a glance at the originals shows how deeply they remain rooted in the pulp tradition from which they emerged. If I were a producer looking to move into science fiction with a big acquisition, this would be one of the first places that I’d look, even if these stories aren’t exactly what they seem to be—the Deadline article says that they “informed” the Star Wars movies, which is true only in the loosest possible sense. When you combine the apparent value of the material with the practical difficulty of adapting it, you end up with the cycle that we’ve seen for decades. Asimov was the most famous name in science fiction for thirty years, and his works were almost perpetually under option, but apart from a quickie adaptation of Nightfall, he died before seeing any of it on the screen. He was glad to take the money, but he knew that his particular brand of fiction wouldn’t translate well to other media, and he concluded with what he once called Asimov’s First Law of Hollywood: “Whatever happens, nothing happens.”

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 3

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

After I had been working on “The Spires” for about a week, I had what might have seemed at first like a lot of material. I knew that the main character would be a bush pilot in Alaska sometime in the thirties, and I had a decent sense of his backstory. The mystery would revolve around the silent city in the sky that Charles Fort discusses in New Lands, and despite my initial trepidation, I even had an explanation for it, in the form of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program and a mirage that went backward in time. But while this might seem like a fair chunk of story, it really wasn’t much at all—because I didn’t know what would actually happen yet. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman speaks of the range of possibilities that he confronted when he began writing an original story based on his love for red wine:

Now, what kind of tale could I try? Answer: anything. There are no rules when you start in. I could have written a heart-wrenching drama—Ray Milland deux, if you will. A Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, set in Prohibition, about who owns Chicago. I could have made it a George Lucas job, set in the future when scientists have discovered that if you substitute blood for Bordeaux, people will stagger around a lot but they’ll also live forever.

Goldman ended up writing it as a romantic comedy thriller, and the result was The Year of the Comet, a flop so infamous that its male lead, Tim Daly, recently said wistfully to The A.V. Club: “That was my shot, right? That was my shot to be a movie star.” Which might be a warning in itself.

As far as “The Spires” was concerned, though, I found that I could reason my way toward a plot largely from first principles. My protagonist probably wouldn’t fly up to Willoughby Island alone, since it’s usually better to have more than one character, if only so that he could occasionally talk to someone. Like most of my stories, it required that a fair amount of information be fed to the reader, which is usually best handled with dialogue. I didn’t want my main character to be an expert on Charles Fort, mirages, or time travel, since this didn’t fit his background, and by withholding some of the details for as long as possible, I would have more options when it came to structuring the mystery. The obvious conclusion, then, was that my pilot was flying someone else into Glacier Bay. It occurred to me at some point that it could be a woman, which suggested a few angles in itself, and when I added a third man—the woman’s husband—to the equation, the possibilities multiplied. For a while, I considered writing it as an homage to Dead Calm, and there are still a few traces of this in the finished result, although I didn’t take it as far as I might have. This might all sound pretty mechanical, but I hoped to proceed along these lines for as long as possible, simply by following my instincts about what this sort of story needed. I also like to get ideas from the setting, and I spent some time reading about Willoughby Island. Its geography gave me a few story beats, and I learned that at one point it had been a fox farm, which provided me with some useful images. (Remarkably enough, about six months after writing the story, I ended up on a cruise to Alaska, and I had a chance to see Willoughby Island with my own eyes. To my relief, it looked more or less like I’d imagined it.)

It wasn’t until I’d been working in this manner for a while, and maybe not until I started writing, that I realized that I had a problem on my hands. Because I was dealing with HAARP, which still made me uneasy, I decided to stick all of that material at the very end, outside the boundaries of the main plot, which would put some distance between it and the narrative. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it also gave “The Spires” the structure of a setup followed by a punchline. In other words, it was a shaggy dog story. There’s a venerable tradition of this kind of thing in science fiction, so this wasn’t necessarily an issue in itself. The trouble was the tone. In most cases, a plot like this benefits from a light touch that alerts the reader to the fact that the ending is going to pull away the rug, and if not, then it should at least be short. (One of my favorite examples is “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, which is close to my ideal of this sort of story.) “The Spires” was neither of the above. It was moody and atmospheric, with a dynamic between the three main characters that was played more or less straight, and it became clear early on that it was going to be a novelette. Part of this has to do with my own tastes—and limitations—as a writer. My stories vary widely in time period and setting, but their tonal range tends to be relatively narrow. I don’t really do humor, because that’s a specialized skill that only a handful of science fiction writers have ever managed to pull off, and I’ve refined a style over time that works for me. If my touchstone is The X-Files, I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a Darin Morgan episode, but on a good day, I can manage something like “Ice” or maybe even “Pusher.” So I ended up writing “The Spires” in my usual fashion, even if I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And to be honest, a year and a half later and with the story in print, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I still think that the connection between HAARP and the silent city is pretty neat, to the point that it outweighed my other misgivings, and the way that the story is resolved through primary sources turned out to be rather elegant. The human side works well, too. I like the characters, the setting is exactly as evocative as I hoped it would be, and the writing seems fine, although I probably could have pushed the period angle a bit further. The trouble is how these two halves fit together, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if either piece fully serves the other. On the shaggy dog side, the story spends a lot of time developing relationships and conflicts that aren’t strictly necessary for the twist at the end, and while the length is appropriate from the point of view of internal logic, it feels long for a plot that is essentially there to deliver a slightly precious idea. (If a lot of the gimmick stories in Analog have historically suffered from flat characters and dialogue, this might simply be a case of managing the reader’s expectations.) And the fact that the ending unfolds through a series of quotations means that the plot doesn’t really get the conclusion that it deserves. As a result, I deliberately allowed the drama to simmer beneath the surface, because I knew that it wouldn’t receive a traditional resolution, but I wonder now if that was a mistake—if I’d gone with something darker or bloodier, the punchline might have landed harder. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have worked at all. In the end, this was going to be a weird story no matter what, and I did what I could to hold it all together. And maybe that’s how it had to be. As Fort himself once wrote: “The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.”

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

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 lives of the robots

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the Westworld episode “The Stray.”

There’s a clever moment in the third episode of Westworld when Teddy, the clean-cut gunslinger played by James Marsden, is finally given a backstory. Teddy has spoken vaguely of a guilty secret in his past, but when he’s pressed for the details, he doesn’t elaborate. That’s the mark of a good hero. As William Goldman points out in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, protagonists need to have mystery, and when you give them a sob story, here’s what happens:

They make [him] a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what—they play it as it lays.

Of course, we know that Teddy is really an android, and if he doesn’t talk about his past, it’s for good reason: as Dr. Ford, his creator, gently explains, the writers never bothered to give him one. With a few commands on a touchscreen, a complete backstory is uploaded into his system, and Teddy sets off on a doomed quest in pursuit of his old enemy, Wyatt, against whom he has sworn undying revenge. We don’t know how this plot thread ties into the rest of Dr. Ford’s plan, but we can only assume that it’s going somewhere—and it’s lucky for him that he had a convenient hero available to fill that role.

There are several levels of sly commentary here. When you’re writing a television show—or a series of novels—you want to avoid filling in anybody’s backstory for as long as possible. Part of the reason, as Goldman notes above, is to maintain a sense of mystery, and for the sake of narrative momentum, it makes sense to avoid dwelling on what happened before the story began. But it’s also a good idea to keep this information in your back pocket for when you really need it. If you know how to deploy it strategically, backstory can be very useful, and it can get you out of trouble or provide a targeted nudge when you need to push the plot in a particular direction. If you’re too explicit about it too soon, you narrow your range of options. (You also make it harder for viewers to project their own notions onto the characters, which is what Westworld, the theme park, is all about.) I almost wish that Westworld had saved this moment with Teddy for later in the show’s run, which would underline its narrative point. We’re only a third of the way through the first season, but within the world of the show itself, the park has been running for decades with the same generic storylines. Dr. Ford has a few ideas about how to shake things up, and Teddy is a handy blank slate. Television showrunners make that sort of judgment call all the time. In the internal logic of the park, this isn’t the first season, but more like its fifth or sixth, when a scripted drama tends to go off the rails, and the accumulation of years of backstory starts to feel like a burden.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

“The Stray,” in fact, is essentially about backstory, on the level both of the park and of the humans who are running it. Shortly after filling in the details of Teddy’s past, Dr. Ford does exactly the same thing for himself: he delivers a long, not entirely convincing monologue about a mysterious business partner, Arnold, who died in the park and was later removed from its corporate history. At the end of the speech, he looks at Bernard, his head of programming, and tells him that he knows how much his son’s death still haunts him. It’s a little on the nose, but I think it’s supposed to be. It makes us wonder if Bernard might unknowingly be a robot himself, a la Blade Runner, and whether his flashbacks of his son are just as artificial as Teddy’s memories of Wyatt. I hope that this isn’t the big twist, if only because it seems too obvious, but in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Bernard may or may not be a robot, but there’s no question that Bernard, Dr. Ford, and all the other humans in sight are characters on a show called Westworld, and whatever backstories they’ve been given by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are as calculated as the ones that the androids have received. Even if Bernard’s memories are “real,” we’re being shown them for a reason. (It helps that Dr. Ford and Bernard are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, two actors who are good at giving technically exquisite performances that draw subtle attention to their own artifice. Wright’s trademark whisper—he’s like a man of great passion who refuses to raise his voice—draws the viewer into a conspiracy with the actor, as if he’s letting us in on a secret.)

The trouble with this reading, of course, is that it allows us to excuse instances of narrative sloppiness under the assumption that the series is deliberately commenting on itself. I’m willing to see Dr. Ford’s speech about Arnold as a winking nod to the tendency of television shows to dispense backstory in big infodumps, but I’m less sure about the moment in which he berates a lab technician for covering up a robot’s naked body and slashes at the android’s face. It’s doesn’t seem like the Dr. Ford of the pilot, talking nostalgically to Old Bill in storage, and while we’re presumably supposed to see him as a man of contradictions, it feels more like a juxtaposition of two character beats that weren’t meant to be so close together. (I have a hunch that it also reflects Hopkins’s availability: the show seems to have him for about two scenes per episode, which means that it has to do in five minutes what might have been better done in ten.) Westworld, as you might expect from a show from one of the Nolan brothers, has more ideas than it knows how handle: it hurries past a reference to Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind so quickly that it’s as if the writers just want to let us know that they’ve read the book. But I still have faith in this show’s potential. When Teddy is ignominiously killed yet again by Wyatt’s henchmen, it forces Dolores to face the familiar attackers in her own storyline by herself—an ingenious way of getting her to where she needs to be, but also a reminder, I think, of how the choices that a storyteller makes in one place can have unexpected consequences somewhere else. It’s a risk that all writers take. And Westworld is playing the same tricky game as the characters whose stories it tells.

“Yet she was still a woman…”

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"More curiosity than respect..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 48. You can read the previous installments here.

“When I start a play, I’ll think, does it matter if this character is a man or a woman?” David Lindsay-Abaire once said. “And if it doesn’t, I make it a woman.” I do pretty much the same thing. And I’d like to think that we both take this approach for an utterly unsentimental reason: it results in better stories. There’s a tendency for writers, male and female alike, to use male characters as default placeholders, especially in genres that have traditionally been dominated by men. By systematically visualizing women instead—even if it’s nothing more than an initial sketch—you’ve already redirected your thought processes at a slightly different angle, which can only be good for the outcome. Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half of the men into women, without any other revisions aside from the relevant pronouns, as was done, much later, with Ripley in Alien. And I would have addressed this advice squarely to those pragmatic hacks who were only interested in making a living. There are so few writing rules of any value that a professional ought to utilize anything that works on a consistent basis, and the fact that so many of the women we see in these stories are either love interests or secretaries, even in the far future, feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s even a handy empirical test that you can use to verify this. Take a story from any genre in which the genders of the main characters are mostly irrelevant—that is, in which you could rewrite most of the men as women, or vice versa, while leaving the overall plot unchanged. Now mentally change a few of the men into women. The result, in most cases, is more interesting: it generates registers of meaning that weren’t there before. Now mentally turn some of the women in the original story into men. I’m willing to bet that it has the net opposite result: it actually saps the narrative of interest, and makes the whole thing flatter and duller. If you don’t believe me, just try it a few times. Even better, do it when you’re constructing a story, and see which version you like better. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman writes:

I remember once being in an office with a studio guy and a couple of people were sitting around, fighting the story. And once of the people said this: “What if they’re all women?” Now the story, as I remember, was a male adventure flick. And the studio guy commented on that—“This is an adventure movie here, how stupid a suggestion is that?” Naturally the writer was finished for that day.

The truth, as Goldman points out, is that it was an excellent idea: “Making them all women opened up the world. I use it a lot myself now.” And that’s all the more reason to do it automatically at the earliest possible stage.

"Yet she was still a woman..."

Which isn’t to say that you can just change the names and pronouns and be done with it. This exercise is only useful if you follow through on the implications that come with making a character a woman, especially in a genre like suspense, which defines itself so casually in terms of action and violence. In my novels, you could change most of the women to men without affecting the main outlines of the plot, but there would be a real loss of meaning. In part, this is because I unconsciously situated these characters in worlds in which women face particular challenges. For Maddy, it was the world of art and finance; for Wolfe, of law enforcement; and for Asthana, of thieves and criminals. These tensions are mostly just implied, but I’d like to think that they quietly affect the way we see these characters, who are enriched by the choices they must have made before the story began. In retrospect, this explains, for instance, why Wolfe is so much more interesting than Alan Powell, to whom I devoted a third of The Icon Thief before mostly shelving him in Eternal Empire. Wolfe would have had to prove herself in ways that someone like Powell never would, and it shows, even if it’s unstated. And I have a hunch that my endless struggles with Powell as a character might have been avoided entirely if I’d done the logical thing and made him a woman as well.

There’s another missed chance in this series, and it involves the character of Asthana. The only time I come close to exploring the peculiar position she holds—as a woman of color in a criminal world—is in Chapter 48 of Eternal Empire, in which she enters a house in Sochi occupied entirely by Russian thieves. Her thoughts turn briefly to the fact that she’ll always be regarded as an outsider, and I try to show how she establishes herself in the pecking order by being a little smarter than the men around her. But I don’t do nearly enough. Part of this is simply due to a lack of space, and to the fact that it felt more important to define Asthana in relation to Wolfe. Still, her presence here raises a lot of questions that go mostly unanswered, and I can’t help but feel that I could have touched on them more. (If I were doing it all over again today, I would have remembered what Christopher McQuarrie says about Rebecca Ferguson’s character in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: “They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…You’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?”) If anything, the result would have made Asthana an even more formidable antagonist for Wolfe. And although there’s a showdown coming soon between these two women, the most interesting parts of this story will mostly remain unspoken…

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