Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Popular Fiction

The novel with a key

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The Royal We

As I write this post, my wife is about fifty pages away from finishing The Royal We, a novel that she devoured over the course of the last few days like a bottomless bag of popcorn. I’ve only glanced at the book, but I’ve been impressed by what little of it I’ve seen, starting with the title, which is the kind of clever play on words—while also telling you exactly what the story is about—that could sell a hundred thousand copies in itself. It’s about a college student who meets, falls in love with, and finally marries the Prince of Wales, and if the plot sounds a touch familiar, that’s precisely the point. The Royal We isn’t exactly about Kate Middleton: its protagonist is American, for one thing, and the story diverges from the facts of the most famous public courtship in recent memory in small but meaningful ways. But like Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, another book my wife loved, it’s a novel that all but begs us to fill in the blanks. And although it’s clearly written with taste and skill, it’s also a marketer’s dream. At a time when publishers are struggling to create new brands, the equivalent of high-class celebrity fanfic is as good a way as any to catch a reader’s eye. (Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be especially high class: an erotic fan novel about Harry Stiles of One Direction is being made into a movie as we speak.)

But what sets such recent books apart from prior efforts in the same line is how cheerfully they disclose their sources of inspiration. The roman à clef is as old, in one form or another, as the novel itself, but it really came into its own with the works of writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann—”The giants,” as Spock calls them in The Voyage Home—whose novels were explicitly designed to encourage readers to put famous faces to lightly fictionalized names. As Dean Koontz said years ago in Writing Popular Fiction:

[A roman à clef is] a story in which all the characters seem to be allusions to real people—preferably quite famous people—and to real events the reader may have read of in newspapers and magazines; this establishes a celebrity guessing game among readers and reviewers that strengthens the illusion that you are telling of genuine events and, not incidentally, increases the book’s sales…In actuality, the [novel] bears only passing resemblance to the real lives of the personalities mentioned, but the reader likes to feel that he is getting the whole, ugly story firsthand.

American Wife

And it’s worth noting how hard the novel, like a con artist “accidentally” displaying a briefcase full of cash to a mark, has to work to give the reader a winking nudge about how it should be read, while superficially acting as if it’s trying to keep a secret. The book needs to insist that names have been changed to protect the innocent, even as it makes its reference points obvious, and it demands a tricky balance. Too obscure, and we won’t make the connection at all; too transparent, and we’ll reject it as fantasy. (I’ll leave aside the example of Irving Wallace, one of Robbins and Susann’s contemporaries, who wasn’t above explicitly stating his sources in the text. In The Plot, a scandal involving a character clearly based on Christine Keeler is described as “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair,” while in The Fan Club, a pulpy novel about the kidnapping of a famous movie star, a character comes right out and says: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.”) The Royal We and American Wife, although less coy, pull off much the same feat by selectively altering a few recognizable elements, as if industriously disguising their source material while implicitly keeping the spirit unchanged.

The result, if done correctly, offers an easy form of subtext, making the novel somewhat more interesting in ways that have little to do with craft. It’s a temptation to which I haven’t been entirely immune: City of Exiles includes a character so manifestly based on Garry Kasparov that I seriously considered just putting him in the story outright, as Frederick Forsyth did with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Simon Wiesenthal. (If I chickened out in the end, it was mostly because I felt queasy about making the real Kasparov the target of an assassination attempt.) And it’s such a powerful trick that it gives pause to some novelists. In the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that if he’d given us, say, Howard Hunt under an assumed name, the reader would think: “This is obviously Howard Hunt. Now I’ll get to see what made him tick.” By giving us Hunt without a mask, the reader is free to say: “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And that might even be the most honorable approach, even if it isn’t likely to thrill publishers, or their lawyers.

The old pornographers

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Spaceways by John Cleve

“Dad typed swiftly and with great passion,” Chris Offutt writes in “My Dad, the Pornographer,” his compelling essay from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine. “In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books. Two were science fiction and twenty-four were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using seventeen pseudonyms.” Offutt’s reflections on his father, who wrote predominantly under the name John Cleve, make for a gripping read, and he doesn’t shy away from some of the story’s darker elements. Yet he touches only briefly on a fascinating chapter in the history of American popular fiction. Cleve plunged into the world of paperback pornography and never left, but other writers in the middle third of the last century used it as a kind of paid apprenticeship, cranking out an anonymous novel a month, learning a few useful tricks, and moving on once they had established a name for themselves in other genres. And they included Dean Koontz, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Anne Rice, as well as undoubtedly many more who haven’t acknowledged their work in public.

These cheap little novels were the product of a unique cultural moment, spanning the forty years between the introduction of the paperback after World War II and the widespread availability of videocassettes in the early eighties, and we aren’t likely to see their like again—although the proliferation of erotic short stories for the Kindle and other formats points to a possible resurgence. And although in a few cases, like that of Marion Zimmer Bradley, those detours into erotica cast a troubling light on other aspects of the writer’s life, for many authors, it was just another job, in the way a contemporary novelist might dabble in corporate or technical writing. Block—whose first published book was a “lesbian novel,” mostly because he knew it was something he could sell—wrote erotic paperbacks at the rate of twelve or more a year, spending exactly two weeks on each one, including a weekend off. He says:

There was one time I well remember when, checking the pages at the end of the day’s work, I discovered that I’d written pages 31 through 45 but had somehow jumped in my page numbering from 38 to 40. Rather than renumber the pages, I simply sat down and wrote page 39 to fit. Since page 38 ended in the middle of a sentence, a sentence which then resumed on page 40, it took a little fancy footwork to slide page 39 in there, but the brash self-confidence of youth was evidently up to the challenge.

The Crusader by John Cleve

To be fair, it’s tempting to romanticize the life of a hack pornographer, as much as it is for any kind of pulp fiction: most of these novels are terrible, and even for writers with talent, the danger of creative burnout or cynicism was a real one. (Westlake describes this at length in his very funny novel Adios Scheherazade, a thinly veiled account of his own days in the smut mines.) But it’s hard not to feel at least a little nostalgic for a time when it was possible for writers to literally prostitute their talent, while hopefully emerging with some valuable experience. In Writing Popular Fiction, which dates from around the same period, Koontz outlines a few of the potential benefits:

For one thing, since virtually all Rough Sexy Novels are published under pen names, you can learn to polish your writing while getting paid for the pleasure, and have no fear of damaging your creative reputation. Also, because [erotica] puts absolutely no restrictions on the writer besides the requirement of regular sex scenes, one after the other, you can experiment with style, try stream of consciousness, present tense narrative, and other stylistic tricks, to learn if you can make them work.

Pornography and literary modernism have always had a curiously intimate relationship: Grove Press, which published Cleve’s most successful titles, was both a landmark defender of free speech in fiction—it released the first American editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—and a prolific producer of paperback smut. Erotica, both in written form and elsewhere, has often been used to sneak in subversive material that would be rejected outright in more conventional works. For evidence, we need look no further than the career of Russ Meyer, or even of Robert Anton Wilson, who tells the following story about The Book of the Breast:

This book, frankly, got written originally because an editor at Playboy Press asked me if I could write a whole book on the female breast. “Sure,” I said at once. I would have said the same if he had asked me if I could write a book on the bull elephant’s toenails. I was broke that month and would have tried to write anything, if somebody would pay me for it. When I got the contract and the first half of the advance money, I sat down and asked myself what the hell I would put in the damned book.

Wilson eventually ended up structuring the book around an introduction to Taoist philosophy, “to keep myself amused, and thereby speed the writing so I could get the second half of the advance quickly.” Regardless of how we feel about the result, that’s a sentiment that all working writers can cheer. These days, a novelist in need of a paycheck is more likely to go into public relations. But I don’t know if that makes us any better off.

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

“The police already have your picture…”

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"The police already have your picture..."

Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his invaluable book Writing Popular Fiction—now out of print, although used copies are readily available online—Dean Koontz notes that there are three reliable methods of producing suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. Obviously, there’s some overlap here, and many of the best suspense novels, like The Day of the Jackal or the early works of Thomas Harris, deploy all three at once. And it’s also worth taking a closer look at these formulas to see what they have in common. All are about anticipation, or about giving the reader a clearly defined end point toward which the events of the story are converging. As such, they also serve to organize the intervening narrative material, which is arguably their most valuable function. Exposition, character development, atmosphere, theme, and all of the less tangible elements of fiction acquire greater shape and urgency when delivered via the throughline of a plot with a specific destination. In practice, this throughline can take the form of any concrete objective on the part of the protagonist, which is an essential part of most stories, but these three building blocks of suspense have the advantage of having been tested by time.

As with any good device, though, there’s the danger of taking anticipation too far. Narrative of any sort amounts to a balancing act between the reader’s interest in what is happening now, what will happen next, and the real meaning of what has happened already. What we call structure is essentially a series of strategies for modulating between these focal points, allowing the reader to look ahead to the next development while still paying attention to the events on the current page. We’ve all had the experience of reading a thriller that kept us turning pages until the end, only to leave us curiously unsatisfied, mostly because we were so eager to get to the climax that we barely saw the words in front of us. Even experienced writers can fall into this trap. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, there’s a moment in which the lead character seems to have suffered a grievous injury to the most delicate part of his anatomy. McEwan, cunning as he is, delays the revelation of what exactly happened for several pages, and while our sheer curiosity moves us forward at a fast clip, I have a feeling that most male readers only take in those paragraphs with one eye, impatient for the author to get back to the point. It’s a disservice to the story itself, and it’s one instance in which McEwan may have been a little too clever for his own good.

"He swung inside..."

Of the three major suspense strategies, I’ve found that the chase is the most versatile and useful, at least when it comes to extended chunks of plot. The race against time has become a cliché in itself, and I’m getting tired of thrillers that arbitrarily give the heroes forty-eight hours to stop the bad guys simply to give the action a little more juice. (Used more subtly, as in Red Dragon, in which Will Graham needs to track the killer down before the next full moon, it can still be very effective.) Anticipation of a violent event can be great for a story’s third act, but over the course of an entire novel, it can grow monotonous, which is which most thrillers offer up a sequence of escalating crises for the protagonist to confront. The chase, by contrast, is infinitely flexible, encompassing a wide range of locations, confrontations, and complications. It can take the form of the hunt for an unknown killer or an actual pursuit across an immense expanse of geography, and unlike the other two formulas, it designates a clear interpersonal conflict between the hunter and the hunted—as well as the possibility that the two players will occasionally exchange roles. And it’s no accident that City of Exiles, which in some ways has the most straightforward and propulsive plot of any of my novels, takes the form of an extended chase, especially in its second half.

Chapter 24 is where the chase begins in earnest, with Karvonen on the run from the killings at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, his face known to the authorities and police. For the rest of Part II, he’s going to be on the move, drawing ever closer to his appointment in Helsinki, and from a novelist’s point of view, this kind of narrative structure is a dream come true—it offers a clear objective, a series of intermediate steps, a lot of interesting locations and paraphernalia, and the sense that there’s a destination on the horizon. (You could write an entire essay on how geographical and narrative movement are really one, which is why the road movie provides such a convenient structure for telling an otherwise episodic story.) Here, Karvonen gets in touch with his handler, retrieves a few useful items from his apartment, and destroys some incriminating evidence, keeping his eye out all the while for both the police and his employers. It may not seem like much, but in a novel where motivations are often deliberately complex and the true significance of the action may not become clear for hundreds of pages, this kind of thing is glorious, and it provides some necessary moments of clarity within an increasingly convoluted plot. Karvonen may be the novel’s most engaging character, because with him, we always know where we stand. And although we aren’t sure where he’s going yet, or why, we know it can’t be good…

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

My essential writing books

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The Elements of Style

1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. If I were putting together an essential library of books for an aspiring writer of any kind, The Elements of Style would be first on the list. In recent years, there’s been something of a backlash against Struck and White’s perceived purism and dogmatism, but the book is still a joy to read, and provides an indispensable baseline for most good writing. It’s true that literature as a whole would be poorer if every writer slavishly followed their advice, say, to omit needless words, as Elif Batuman says in The Possessed: “As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.” Yet much of creative writing does boil down to overcoming bad habits, or at least establishing a foundation of tested usage from which the writer only consciously departs. More than fifty years after it was first published, The Elements of Style is still the best foundation we have.

2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I bought this book more than fifteen years ago at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, shortly before starting my freshman year in high school. Since then, I’ve reread it, in pieces, a dozen or more times, and I still know much of it by heart. Writing books tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, but he’s equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul”—frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism—and reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with Gardner’s high standards in mind.

The Art of Fiction

3. Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. I hesitated between this book and Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, which I reread endlessly while I was teaching myself how to write, but I’ve since discovered that it cribs much of its practical material from Meredith. Scott Meredith was a legendary literary agent—his clients included Norman Mailer, Arthur C. Clarke, and P.G. Wodehouse—and his approach to writing is diametrically opposed to Gardner’s: his book is basically a practical cookbook on how to write mainstream fiction for a wide audience, with an emphasis on plot, conflict, and readability. The tone can be a little mercenary at times, but it’s all great advice, and it’s more likely than any book I know to teach an author how to write a novel that the reader will finish. (One warning: Meredith’s chapter on literary agents, and in particular his endorsement of the use of reading fees, should be approached with caution.)

4. On Directing Film by David Mamet. I’ve spoken about this book at length before, but if I seem awed by it, it’s because I encountered it a time in my life when I already thought I’d figured out how to write a novel. At that point, I’d already sold The Icon Thief and a handful of short stories, so reading Mamet’s advice for the first time was a little like a professional baseball player realizing that he could raise his batting average just by making a few minor adjustments to his stance. Mamet’s insistence that every scene be structured around a series of clear objectives for the protagonist may be common sense, but his way of laying it out—notably in a sensational class session at Columbia in which a scene is broken down beat by beat—rocked my world, and I’ve since followed his approach in everything I’ve done. At times, his philosophy of storytelling can be a little arid: any work produced using his rules needs revision, and a touch of John Gardner, to bring it to life. But my first drafts have never been better. It’s so helpful, in fact, that I sometimes hesitate before recommending it, as if I’m giving away a trade secret—but anyway, now you know.

“Tell Sharkovsky that I’m coming…”

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"In the early morning..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his very useful book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz points out that there are three basic narrative techniques used to generate suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The best thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, often use all three elements at once, and it’s rare to find a good suspense novel that doesn’t draw on each one at some point or another. Of the three, the chase may be the most straightforward, simply because it lends itself so organically to an exciting sequence of events. As Koontz writes:

Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero’s hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero’s options should be narrowed until, at least, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it.

I may as well note here again that I’ve never been a fan of the innocent man wrongfully accused. It lends itself too easily to victim stories and idiot plots, with their endless string of misunderstandings, and when I see this kind of story locking into place, I tend to get impatient. If you’re Hitchcock, you might be able to make it work; otherwise, I’d much rather see a movie, or read a book, about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.

That said, I love chase stories, and my second novel, City of Exiles, is largely one long chase, as Rachel Wolfe works to track down Lasse Karvonen before he can put his violent plan into action. (Note that the story also includes a race against time and an anticipation of a violent event, a structure that was entirely conscious on my part. Even more than the novels that came before or after it, City of Exiles was my attempt to build a thriller essentially on first principles, and it was planned as such from the ground up.) The Icon Thief is a more curious hybrid, with elements of a conspiracy thriller and police procedural that don’t fit neatly into the suspense category, but a chase occupies much of the second half of the novel, as my thief and assassin Ilya Severin tries to keep one step ahead of the police, while also taking out his revenge on the men who betrayed him. And the result is a structure that carries the reader neatly through the complicated developments of Part II, which otherwise might start to seem a little shapeless.

"Tell Sharkovsky that I'm coming..."

The chase story really begins here, in Chapter 28, as Ilya makes his way through a quiet neighborhood in the Hamptons and breaks into a deserted home to acquire the tools he needs. This sort of scene is the meat and potatoes of a novel like this, and I had a lot of fun imagining it, as well as the ensuing chapters in which Ilya obtains identification and begins to lay the groundwork for his next move. And it’s important to note that he isn’t a victim. He’s on the run, yes, and he doesn’t have a lot of resources, but he’s still the one driving the story: he knows that his survival, over the long term, depends on figuring out why he was betrayed, which means he needs to seek out the very antagonists he might otherwise want to elude. This kind of reversal, in which the hunted becomes the hunter, is crucial in this kind of plot, which otherwise tends to degenerate into a long series of close calls and narrow escapes. It’s because the structure of a chase is so intuitive that you need to be careful here: the temptation to deal your hero one setback after another is hard to resist, but it isn’t interesting unless he can also take matters into his own hands.

Another issue with chase stories is that after a certain point, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Koontz ticks off a handful of possible variations, all of which have been done to death: a spy chased by enemy agents, a killer pursued by a detective, or, if you must, an innocent man eluding the authorities. After you’ve written this kind of story once, it can be hard to find reasons to do it again. We see this in a movie like The Bourne Legacy, which fluently copies the chase structure of its predecessors to no real purpose: in the end, the chase serves only as an end in itself, with nothing of interest revealed along the way, which is why the air ultimately goes out of the movie like a deflated balloon. This is also why I decided, while writing City of Exiles, to abruptly switch gears halfway through. I’d already written about Ilya on the run for what seemed like hundreds of pages, and I didn’t feel like writing that novel again, so I finally upended the stakes in the only way I could. Those of you who have read that book will know what I mean. At this point in The Icon Thief, though, the story was still fresh, and I was having a good time. But things are going to get much harder for Ilya soon…

“How are we supposed to watch a house like this?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Last week, I received the first batch of notes from my agent and other readers on the rough draft of Eternal Empire. This kind of detailed feedback is always essential, but this round was especially interesting, because it included comments from people who hadn’t read the first two books in the series. Overall, the response was very positive, and it pointed to a number of possible avenues for further tightening and clarification. But I was most interested in one recurring theme in the comments, which was that I ought to include additional backstory. A number of readers without previous knowledge of the series thought that I should provide a little more background on returning characters, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read The Icon Thief or City of Exiles, which is a perfectly valid point. But I also noticed something strange: in several cases, they wanted more background on characters they assumed had been more fully fleshed out in previous books—when, in fact, they were appearing here for the first time ever.

In other words, readers assumed that they were being deprived of information that had appeared somewhere in the first two installments, when it was really just a reflection of my natural tendency, as a writer, to give as little backstory as possible. I’m not going to go into my feelings on this topic again, since these have been adequately covered elsewhere on this blog. And from experience, I know that when you go out for comments, you’ll often get requests for this kind of background material—requests, I’m convinced, that you should push back against whenever possible. When readers want more backstory, it’s often a sign that things in the present tense of the story aren’t as clear as they should be, and there are ways of addressing this without cutting away from the action. A perceived lack of backstory may be a symptom of certain problems, but the solution often lies elsewhere, at least in the majority of cases. That said, there are times when backstory and exposition are genuinely necessary. And one of the greatest challenges for any writer lies in integrating this material in a way that seems natural, or at least minimally disruptive.

The best way to introduce verbal backstory and exposition is through action. This is why Dean Koontz, in his invaluable Writing Popular Fiction, notes that the long, dry summation of the mystery that we find at the end of most Agatha Christie novels would often work better in the context of a suspenseful sequence—with the protagonist, for instance, cornered by the villain, which provides an opening for our hero to explain how he figured out the evil plan. (Hence the frequently mocked monologues by the villains in the James Bond movies, which actually make perfect dramatic sense.) Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option: action scenes, if properly done, tend to be tightly structured, with only the essential number of moving parts, and can’t always handle the burden of extra information at a time when the plot should be moving forward as quickly as possible. A better solution, perhaps, is to insert exposition into a natural pause within a larger sequence of suspense. The best kind of suspense, after all, is about waiting for something to happen, and while a couple of your characters are waiting, you can have them talk about whatever you want, within reason.

The result is often something like Chapter 20 of The Icon Thief, which is a sort of portmanteau chapter in which I cover as much expository material in as little space as possible. Powell and Wolfe are on stakeout, seated in a car outside Archvadze’s mansion, at a point when I’ve already established that two other important characters are there for reasons of their own—and that a heist is unfolding even as we speak. As a result, I felt free to let Powell and Wolfe talk about a range of topics I hadn’t yet covered: the background of the case, additional developments on the murder at Brighton Beach, and, most unusually for me, Powell’s own backstory, notably the influence of his father, a former diplomat and intelligence officer now suffering from dementia. This is the kind of information I wouldn’t be able to include anywhere else, given my own rules for advancing the narrative with only the minimal amount of retrospection, but here, it’s borderline permissible, because the story has been structured in such a way as to allow for an organic pause. Moments like this, which naturally emerge from the flow of the narrative, are where backstory and exposition belong, so it’s no surprise that I try to pack in as much as possible. And fortunately for the reader, there’s a lot of action right around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2012 at 9:53 am

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