Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Did Walter Tevis Do It?

Walter Tevis was one of my favorite novelists, and I like both his science fiction and his mainstream novels equally well.

He wasn't a prolific writer; when his first two books (The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth) made his name and gained him a professorship, he proceded to spend most of the next couple of decades in an alcoholic haze, not writing (although his students remember him as a briliant teacher). In the late 1970s he resigned his teaching job and went back to novel writing full time, producing four novels in four years (Mockingbird, The Steps of the Sun, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money) before dying of lung cancer.

Tevis classed himself as a second-rank novelist (and most critics agreed), but I think he has been undervalued; his books draw me back again and again, and I discover new pleasures in them each time I read them.

But his mainstream novels--The Hustler, Queen's Gambit, and The Color of Money--mystify me from a craft point of view. All three novels are center around games (billiards, chess, and nine-ball pool, respectively), and manage to be absorbing even if you aren't an aficianado of the games. Indeed, they work even if you can't even follow the descriptions of the games.

Now, the games aren't the only stakes in these novels. These are stories about people who undermine themselves, stories about weakness, about character. Hemingway's reification of "grace under pressure" isn't the challenge here. The protagonists in Tevis' novels aren't so much characters who are bad losers as people who can't succeed to their full potential because they are bad winners. They are most likely to crumble when they are scoring major victories.

I understand that part of the stories. What seems magical to me is that Tevis keeps readers mesmerized by the games themselves. Of course, we have to care about the characters to care about the outcome of the games, I understand that part; but I don't comprehend how he manages to inject the tension into the description of a game.

A game seems too simple, too fully in the author's hands. The character dribbles down the court, spins, throws for the basket--it glances off the rim and flies high in the air or maybe The character dribbles down the court, an opposing player blocks him, he stumbles, and, at the last second, in desperation, takes a wild shot that arcs through the air and dops neatly through the basket...It's transparently in the author's power to do both with equal conviction and equal probability.

In the emotional tangle of a relationship, or the plot tangle of a good thriller, certain events seem plausible and certain events are simply ruled out, but in a game this is less the case; whether a ball rolls into a pocket or bounces back has a huge effect, but it isn't really determined by a large number of forces the writer has built up. In short, the writer can do whatever the writer damn well pleases, and the reader knows that, and therefore the outcome is arbitrary.

Yet Tevis holds me transfixed while he describes someone running a series of bank shots or fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of a chess opponent. I can't figure out how he does it.

When he was asked how he did his amazing onstage leaps, Nijinsky said something like, "I jump up, I remain in the air for a time, and then I come down."

I understand those words. But that doesn't mean I can do it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Names, Surnames/His Names, Her Names

I believe that most writers contemplate character names more than they care to admit. They're the one tag we hang on a character that really sticks. The reader might forget that Dirk's eyes are blue, or that Caroline chews the inside corner of her mouth when she is about to say something important; but if the reader forgets whom you mean when you say "Dirk" or "Caroline", we may as well pack up and go home, because the poor reader won't be able to follow the story.

I don't feel that we really invent our characters. Mine sort of manifest, sometimes whole and finished from the outset, sometimes beginning as ghosts and becoming more material as I watch them. The process is more like God, Adam, and the Naming of the Animals: We don't actually create the characters, but we do get to name them as they are paraded before us. It's our little bit. The rest of the time, all we can do is follow them around, scribbing down what they do.

(Nabokov, of course, violently disagreed, stating that all his characters were entirely invented de novo by him with full conscious forethought, and that they were his "galley slaves" who would do whatever he demanded of them. I find this exceedingly unlikely. But, then, I also don't believe that Nabokov truly composed every sentence on its own index card and only later puzzled out how to order these perfect sentences into a perfect narrative. My take is that Vlad liked to test the credibility of interviewers.)

There are certain unstated rules about how we use character names in narrative. In the mouths of other characters, of course, character Jeremy Brooks may be anything from "Jeremy" to "Brooks" to "Jer" to "Snooky-Ookums," but the narrative voice has to settle on something and stay consistent. (Unless, of course, the narrative voice is deeply in rotating POV, in which case Jeremy's naming will change depending on whose POV is invoked.)

True, when you first introduce the the character, you may call him "Jeremy Brooks" in full. If the narrative voice continues to call him "Jeremy Brooks," though, it will have a strong distancing effect on the narrative, keeping us at armslength. (Even more distancing are pseudo-pronoun constructions, where the narrative voice refers to a major character as "the dapper detective" or "the burly prizefighter." Tossing in titles as part of the name, such as "Mrs. Carruthers" or "Professor Smythe" has the same distancing effect, assigning a role and often pushing the character toward caricature or stereotype )

Jumping back and forth, calling our character "Jeremy" at one moment and "Brooks" at another, serves only to make the reader's work more difficult. Do this with very many of your characters and it will seem to the reader that the number of players is multiplying out of control, and three people in a scene can feel like like a throng.

For some reason, using first names in the narrative increases the degree of intimacy and tends to soften the character. Jeremy leaned forward or Jeremy wondered is automatically closer and more kindly disposed than Brooks leaned forward or Brooks wondered. I'm not sure why this should be the case. To some extent it may come from formal manners, where traditionally we must be at a certain level of intimacy with someone before we call them by their first name. But the use of first names also automatically connotes diminutization in the backs of our minds; anyone is allowed, and even expected, to call a child by their first name, even upon first acquaintance.

And this, alas, leads us into linguistic politics, and, even worse, linguistic sexual politics. With Jeremy Brooks, we can choose from the outset that he will be "Jeremy" in the narrative (and, ceteris paribus, closer and more vulnerable) or be "Brooks" (and therefore slightly more distant and also tougher). This is only a nuance, and a thousand things we do in the writing beyond the choice of narrative naming will affect our closeness to, and perception of, Jeremy Brooks; but it is one of our earliest and most permanent choices (and probably says something about how our subconscious feels about the character at the outset). But if the major character in question is, say, "Elaine Carver"...

Well, sorry. She's going to be "Elaine." Refer to her in the narration as "Carver," and you don't just toughen and distance her, you start changing her gender. Reference by surname connotes maleness in our reading and writing conventions--and, for that matter, in most of our conversational style. Women will sometimes refer to other women by surnames, especially in direct address or when the context is chummy, but it's usually kept with a circle of girl-chums. (I had to ponder this problem in Shock and Awe, where Carla Smukowski is, in fact, pretty tough, and, being surrounded by military folk, is often referred to in dialogue as "Smukowski." But she has to be "Carla" in the narrative. [And "Carla" itself is of course a feminization of a masculine name.])

Is this because the language inherently speaks down to women? Is this a way of ensuring that women remain forever girls? Is it tied up with feudalism, where the master of the estate is referred to by the name of his property (his wife being one of those properties)? (This latter aspect lingers on in the fact that, formally speaking, there is such a person as "Michelle Obama," but no such person as "Mrs. Michelle Obama;" she is, properly, "Mrs. Barack Obama.")

I suppose it's a mix of all the above. But if you expect me to take a stand against this convention of our language, don't look for it to happen in my fiction. It's hard enough to keep the tissue of the dream intact without constantly having the reader struggle to keep in mind that the character I keep calling "Carver" is a woman.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Comments from Stephen Kelner

A while back I chatted about Stephen P. Kelner's Motivate Your Writing! (Two posts: here and here.) He dropped through the comment trail, and I thought what he had to say was entertaining enough to share. So, without further commentary from me:

Hi, folks --

happened to Google myself (probably a side effect of too much Power motive) and found a recent reference to my several-year-old book, which was a nice surprise. Thanks for the shout-out, David, and a pretty pithy summary of the motives, too. For the record, it was a working title (exclamation point and all), and my editor kept it. I expected him to change it, to be honest. Who am I to question?

Just FYI, the standard deviation -- average variation around the mean -- for Activity Inhibition is 0.25, which means anyone with 18 is beyond the beyond as far as the ability to channel or manage their motives, even if you are teddibly British. (I've had opportunities to work with a lot of Brits over the years, and having 18 would still qualify you by a mammoth margin, I think.)

One reason I wrote this, David, was because even experienced award-winning writers get stuck sometimes, and because motives are nonconscious, they may not know what to do about it or why it happened. (It's all in the book, as you know.) One writer who was already pretty productive told me she got more so after I advised her on her motives, so that's not bad either. (She tweaked her writing group practices.)

By the way, I finally broke academic habit and started referring to the Power motive as the Influence motive, which is much more neutral. All three names really suck, and David McClelland, the genius who really made this research live, used to complain about that all the time. Such is academia.

Steve Kelner (still on LiveJournal, LinkedIn)

Thanks, Steve.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Explosive Radiating Growth

No, I'm not talking about nuclear bombs. Explosive radiating growth refers to the sudden appearance of species at certain periods in the fossil record (we mammals did this once the dinosaurs were kind enough to disappear).

I was sitting here contemplating the rows (now two shelves) of Macmillan New Writing books and contemplating how the format has changed.

Back when Mike Barnard and the gang were considering launching the imprint, there was some consideration of putting them out in a highly standardized form, with the covers differing only in the title. Arguments in favor were lower costs, and a uniformity that would let both the publishing world and the public know there was a new kid on the block.

The idea about identical covers was scrapped (thankfully), but a very specific format was adopted—black spine with white title lettering (though the author’s name varied in color) in what I believe is known as “B” format height and width. The MNW logo began as black on white and switched to white on black for the 15th book, Matt’s The Secret War. (It jumped back to black on white once for Shock and Awe, probably by mistake, but possibly for reasons having to do with Freemasonry and the Illuminati.)

The design stayed basically the same for the first 38 books. Okay, they used a cursive font and (gasp!) a colored font on the spine title of Ann’s A Personal History of Rachel DuPree, and on Gavin Smith’s Dogfellow’s Ghost they introduced the new MNW logo. But they remained black-spined B-format books, all in a neat little row.

Until the 39th in the series, however. Matt’s Hoard of Mhorrer jumped up in height and width, and though it kept a black spine, the spine sported a pair of baleful red eyes and a calligraphed title in scarlet.

Since then, there is no telling what will happen. Doug's Thin Blue Smoke and Terri Wiltshire's Carry Me Home are both the same whopping size as Hoard of Mhorrer, and drop the traditional black spine, wrapping the cover color all around the dustjacket. (Truth is, they might have done that with Matt’s book, too. Since the cover itself is black, it’s hard to tell if it has a black spine.)

Len’s Very Persistent Illusion, sandwiched in between Smoke and Carry Me Home, reverts to Standard MNW Format (though they did go a bit wild and put a box around the title and author’s name on the spine). But Illusion might be the last we see of that format.

Indeed, there haven’t been two books in a row with the same design concept since Hoard of Mhorrer broke the mold. (Come to think of it, it was Matt’s first book where they decided to change the logo. Matt must have a mutagenic effect.) James McCreet's The Incendiary’s Trail is unusually tall and thin. Maggie's Beachcombing is the first paperback original; Faye's Trades of the Flesh is a paperback original, but a different size from Beachcombing, and Ryan's Acts of Violence is back to something like B format but is a laminated hardcover.

I’m neither approving nor condemning these changes, just noticing. If you line up all the MNW books in publication order, it is a smooth file of soldiers, differing only in girth, until you reach the last eight titles. Those eight look like—well, like the most of the rest of the bookshelves in my house.

I suppose it's very much like what one would get by lining up all the books of any other imprint by publication date (an exercise I’ve never undertaken). I guess this, plus moving out of the one-per-month mode, are the best signs that MNW is now an established imprint--with different methods than the mainstream, perhaps, but without a need to pointedly establish an identity through idiosyncratic dressing habits.