Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Writing the Novel

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

“From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see…”

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"From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve never concealed the fact that I love to outline, although there are times when this feels like I’m admitting to a shameful secret. At a moment when literary gardeners seem to outnumber architects, when you say that you not only outline everything you write, but actively enjoy it, it’s a little like confessing to some harmless but suspect deviancy, like being into latex or voting Republican. But although I’ve discussed my outlining process in detail, I’m not sure I’ve ever conveyed how liberating it can be, and how, far from making it hard to lose yourself in a scene, it actually makes it easier to enter it. When I’m outlining, I start with a handful of plot points that I know I need to cover, but after a few minutes have gone by, I’m just riffing on the page. I’m not thinking about good prose, proper grammar, or even complete sentences—I’m putting down each moment as it occurs to me, almost in real time, and before long, I’m more deeply involved in the events I’m describing than if I were worrying about the shape of my sentences, until I’m often surprised by the result. (Lawrence Block describes a similar phenomenon in his classic Writing the Novel.)

Which isn’t to say that outlining doesn’t have its pitfalls. In particular, if you’ve outlined too far in advance, when the time comes to actually write the chapter, you’ll discover that you’re already bored with it. My own solution, which I think is a pretty good one, is to outline only one section of a novel at a time. Originally, this was an intuitive approach that arose from my impatience to dive into the writing itself, but it also has practical benefits. When I sit down to write Part I, which has been outlined down to the paragraph level, it’s often with only a general sense of what happens in Part II. This introduces a welcome element of risk, and also makes my sense of the first section more flexible. No matter how throughly I’ve outlined the sequence of events, I know there’s a good chance that I’ll need to go back and change it radically based on a development that I haven’t yet anticipated. In both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, this sort of uncertainty meant, among other things, that I wrote scenes for important characters who later, to my surprise, turned out to be murderers—which I hope misleads the reader as much as it did me.

"All right. I'll talk to the girl first..."

The tricky thing about this strategy is that it means a great deal of time will elapse between writing different sections. Ideally, this won’t be obvious to a reader after the necessary revisions have taken place, but it can be psychologically challenging for an author returning to the story after a long absence. For The Icon Thief, close to three months went by between my writing the last sentence of Part I and the first sentence of Part II, which are separated by less than ninety minutes in narrative time. In this case, the long gap was made necessary by the fact that although I knew I had to introduce an elaborate conspiracy theory in the second part of the novel, I had only a vague idea of what this theory would be. That aspect of the plot alone took several weeks to figure out, a process I hope to describe further in a future post. And this doesn’t even take into account the machinery of the story itself, which had to be conceived, plotted, and in some cases researched on location. Not surprisingly, when I finally got around to starting Part II, my head was in a very different place than it was when I left Ilya in that vineyard.

As a result, I have an unusually strong memory of writing the first few sentences of Chapter 26. In many ways, it felt as if I were starting the novel all over again, which is why it begins, atypically, with a scene described from a distance, as Powell and Wolfe approach a burning car in the vineyard parking lot. Looking back at it now, I see that their situation was a reflection of my own. I was coming back to my own story after being away for a long time, with my head full of Rosicrucianism and Duchamp and who knows what else, so it took a lot of effort to focus again on the nuts and bolts of this particular crime scene. Similarly, when Powell returns to the mansion to interrogate its occupants about what has just taken place, I’m standing alongside him, curious to see how my characters have dealt with the situation while I was gone. And it was with a sense of great satisfaction that I turned to the following chapter, which brings all the threads of the story together at last. When the next chapter opens, Maddy is sitting alone in a room, waiting to be questioned by Powell, and if she seems nervous, it’s not hard to understand why. She’s been waiting there for months…

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

“Insert brilliant idea here”

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One of the most frustrating and challenging moments in any writer’s life is when you know where you are and where you want to be going, but have no idea how to get there. In fact, there are times when I feel like one of the gnomes in the celebrated episode of South Park from which the above image is taken. You’re writing a story, and you have some good ideas for the beginning and the end, but the part in the middle is a mystery. This unknown element can be as small as the distance between two minor plot points or as large as the entire second act, but in all cases, the essential problem is the same. All you need is something to get from point A to point C, and, ideally, it should be brilliant.

This situation is a familiar one for writers of mystery and suspense fiction. A good mystery novel should come off as a perfect puzzle, in which every element was carefully premeditated and laid in beforehand, but in practice, large gaps are often left by the author to be filled in later. In Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block relates that while writing the first installment in his popular series of Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, he got within two or three chapters of the ending before finally figuring out who the villain was, thanks to a chance remark by a friend. “I had to do some rewriting to tie off all the loose ends,” Block notes, “but the book worked out fine.” I have a feeling that most mystery novelists could tell similar stories. And as long as the result looks preordained, it’s perfectly okay.

I’ve encountered similar issues all the time in my own writing, even though I outline like crazy. With The Icon Thief, I knew from early on in the process where the story would end: in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with my main character standing before the closed door leading into Étant Donnés. How to get her there, however, remained a problem for a long time, and it wasn’t until I had written more than a third of the novel that I managed to come up with a solution. Similarly, in House of Passages, there’s a moment when I knew that a character had to make a series of brilliant deductions to advance to the next stage of the plot. But what? I could see the blank space where they would go, but not the deductions themselves, and like Block, I ended up going back and laying in most of my clues after the fact.

And yet this is one of the great pleasures of writing. I’ve previously quoted Walter Murch on the fact that you don’t want to answer all of the questions posed by a work of art at its earliest stages. In fact, you should hope that serious questions remain unanswered until the very end. In any artistic pursuit, once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, there’s always the risk that you’ll become bored or complacent. The best way to avoid this is by deliberately leaving problems for yourself to solve, trusting that luck, intuition and skill will carry you through. Almost invariably, they do—or at least well enough so that, with the proper adjustments, nobody will ever notice the seams. In the process, you’ll grow as a writer. And maybe, in the end, you’ll even profit.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

The making of a novelette (part 3)

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In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:

I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.

Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.

The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).

My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)

Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.

In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

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