Thursday, November 28, 2013

Writing a Conclusion

I'm sure you've noticed, if you do any significant amount of writing (and maybe even if you don't), it's much easier to write a decent beginning than a satisfying ending. Here, I'm talking about short-form nonfiction: blogs, essays, book reports, campaign speeches, and the like. (Wait. Did I say "nonfiction"? Delete campaign speeches.)

Notice I did not say beginnings are easy. If they were, my earlier piece on "How to Write an Opening Sentence" probably wouldn't have gotten 50,000+ page-views. No, my friend, beginnings are tough. But a good ending is harder. Usually. Most always.

Why is that? Why should an ending be any harder than a beginning? Maybe it's because of how the brain works. Thoughts about a subject don't just sudddenly, neatly end. More often than not, you go on rehashing and rethinking things with no clear end. "The end" happens when something else, some more pressing set of thoughts, intercedes. Our lives, our thoughts, are not full of neat resolutions.
G.K. Chesterton had a charming way of
inverting logic to prove the absurdity of things.

The easiest kind of writing to wrestle to the ground is the argumentative essay. Here, you can sum up, recap, return to the beginning, restate the thesis, or say something like "In the end, it all comes down to X. Either we accept X, or we don't. But if we reject X we have to be willing to accept Y. And that's something most people aren't ready to swallow." Or some such nonsense.

It is sometimes (though not as often as you'd think) profitable to begin a piece of nonfiction writing with a famous quotation. In reality, quotations work much better in a conclusion. You could, for example, invoke G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton once said of Christianity, "It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." After quoting Chesterton, you can say: "And so it is with X. For all the well-meaning talk about X, it has yet to be tried." (Or: "Perhaps it is time X is tried in earnest.") Follow with: "If it fails, we'll know soon enough." Or: "If it fails, we will at least have tried something reasonable before going back to business as usual, which we already know doesn't work."

One of the most satisfying endings of all times occurs in the final sentence of Nora Ephron's classic Esquire essay, "A Few Words about Breasts." (Also available in PDF form here.) The essay ends this way:
     After I went into therapy, a process that made it possible for me to tell total strangers at cocktail parties that breasts were the hang-up of my life, I was often told that I was insane to have been bothered by my condition. I was also frequently told, by close friends, that I was extremely boring on the subject. And my girl friends, the ones with nice big breasts, would go on endlessly about how their lives had been far more miserable than mine. Their bra straps were snapped in class. They couldn’t sleep on their stomachs. They were stared at whenever the word “mountain” cropped up in geography. And Evangeline, good God what they went through every time someone had to stand up and recite the Prologue to Longfellow’s Evangeline: “... stand like druids of eld... / With beards that rest on their bosoms.” It was much worse for them, they tell me. They had a terrible time of it, they assure me. I don’t know how lucky I was, they say.
      I have thought about their remarks, tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of shit.
What I like about this ending is not just that it's personal, direct, and honest, but that it tapers down to a single, short, final statement, ending in a hot-button word: shit.

I saw a fine college admission essay recently in which the entire essay read like one of those Dos Equis commercials (The Most Interesting Man in the World), which is to say, it was chock full of self-aggrandizing hyperbole, outrageous stuff like "I once caught a meteor in my bare hand. I taught a unicorn to use the Obamacare website. When I met Chuck Norris, I taught him to curtsy. I have actually identified UFOs.") I've done this ridiculous thing, I've done that ridiculous thing. The final sentence of the essay was: "But I have not yet gone to college."

He got in.

If you're writing something right now and are struggling for an ending, try this: Keep just what you've got, but add a short "knock-out punch" statement, either at the end of the final paragraph, or as its own paragraph. (Note, by the way, that Nora Ephron's final sentence would have worked quite well as its own one-line paragraph.)

It's much harder to find a tidy ending for an open-ended discussion: for example, a book review (or other piece of writing that's not inherently argumentative). One possible strategy is to juxtapose the subject's strengths and weaknesses. "In Death of a Platypus, Frumpenheimer reveals himself to be a master of irony and an erudite student of the history of mime. What he lacks in humility, he makes up for in logic, and charm. He weds the wit of Thurber with the iconoclasm of Stein. The overall effect is arresting, mesmerizing, and sublime." Or "The overall effect is not to be found in any other writer of the late twentieth century," optionally followed up with: "which is why Frumpenheimer will be studied for decades, maybe centuries, to come." (Notice how breaking a sentence with commas near the very end causes the pace to slow, then stop. Compare the effect of ending the Frumpenheimer sentence at "decades.")

Commas are small pauses; they're like tapping the brakes. As you get to the end of your essay, start tapping the brakes.

I have often found it useful, when trying to bring a discussion to a close, to employ the multi-stage retro-rocket approach. This calls for a medium-length paragraph that sets up a short next-to-last paragraph, which in turn sets up a one-sentence final paragraph. It's like the retro-rocket that precedes the parachute that precedes the bouncy-balls on the Martian lander.


Paragraph X (retro-rocket): It's not enough to consider A or to argue B. A and B make for powerful arguments, until you consider Q and R; and then they don't have the same impact.

Paragraph Y (parachute): The fact is, A needs to be reconsidered in the light of S. Then we may find out T.

Paragraph Z (bouncy-ball): The alternative, U, is unthinkable.

Another pattern is to end with an anecdote, then tie it back into the discussion.

Or you can speculate. "History doesn't record whether so-and-so ever thought about the consequences of such-and-such. He/she/they certainly couldn't have foreseen ABC. But here we are, still trying to grapple with the problem of XYZ. No doubt, future generations of experts will continue to grapple with it, for years to come." Optionally: "One can hope the next generation of PQR will [find the progress that has eluded the current generation of PQR] or [see the problem in a new, and more profitable, light] or [not encounter the same stumbling blocks that make ABC such a impasse today] or [whatever]."

Listen to the Rhythm
Learn to recognize when the ball hasn't rolled to a complete stop. Quite often, what you've written, thinking or wishing you've nailed the last sentence, isn't really the last sentence. In my recent essay on The New Weird (The New Weird being an emergingbut fundamentally stillborn, IMHOliterary genre), I had written, toward the end:
It's not enough for fiction to permutate and pervert the past and serve it up again in shocking colors. Serve us up something new.
I so wanted to be able to end it right there. But I could tell, from the cadence, that the ball had not yet stopped rolling. More needed to be said. I could have added: "Something tasty. Something memorable." But it still wouldn't have felt finished. I could have added more: "I want to sup for hours, and be filled for days. As it is now, I feel malnourished." Not working. The ball's still rolling.

I decided to add yet another short paragraph. (Try to make paragraphs shorter, near the end. Sentences too. Claues within sentences, also. Give the reader subverbal cues that momentum is—in fact—gradually, gradually, slowing.)

I'm still not 100% happy with the final additional paragraph I came up with:
As a reader of fiction, I want to move beyond Tolkien-in-a-party-dress. I want the next New Weird to come without a rearview mirror. The current New Weird isn't doing it for me.
Arguably, the final sentence could have worked better as its own standalone paragraph. (Possible rewrite: "Call me Old Normal, but the New Weird isn't doing it for me.")

Possibly, I could have added yet another additional final sentence, as its own paragraph:
Then again, maybe I'm just being weird.
I could've used the circle-back technique. How? Add a new starting sentence (as its own paragraph) to the top of the essay: "If I had to sum myself up in one word, as a reader of fiction, I'm fussy." Then end the essay with a one-sentence paragraph (after all the previous bellyaching): "Like I said at the beginning. I'm fussy."

In Short
Some possible ways to end a piece of writing (by no means an all-inclusive list!):
  • Make a statement at the beginning of the piece, with an explicit aim of returning to it at the end. The ending revisits the beginning.
  • End with a question. Make a statement of how things should be, and then ask: Isn't that what most people mean by XYZ? Perhaps add: The question isn't whether we can afford to do XYZ, but whether we can afford not to.
  • End with a warning. "If we don't do XYZ, maybe we deserve what we get." (Or "maybe the so-and-sos will win out after all, and then Archie Bunker will be King, and we'll all be happy and live forever." New paragraph: "Probably not, though.")
  • Suggest a reason for hope. Tell how a situation can be improved, then: "Maybe then we'll have a free society worthy of the name. With liberty and justice for all."
  • Use a quotation, either as the final statement or the beginning of the final paragraph (after which, you explain why it sums up the subject in question).
  • Issue a call for action. "There's no reason the biggest retail corporations in the world should pay less than a subsistence wage. Minimum-wage workers of the world, unite!"
  • Restate the thesis in the light of everything that's been disussed. "Given the fact that XYZ, the question isn't A, but B." Optionally follow up with "And that's a choice that might not sit well with the majority of [people; Americans; voters; politicians; puppeteers]."
  • Use retro-rockets. Instead of a concluding paragraph, write three paragraphs, each one successively shorter. 
  • Tap the brakes. Make your final few sentences short, or (if it's a long sentence) break it up with commas.
When in doubt, write half a dozen endings. Keep the one that deserves to live.

Then come back a day later, club that one to death, and write the real conclusion.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The 2100-Word Paragraph

And so, having just spent 850 words (see previous post) discussing the need for, or at least the usefulness of, verticality in writing (most particularly, screenwriting), I thought I might trot out an example of horizontality: writing that forces the reader to parse word by word by word (never paragraph by paragraph or stanza by stanza) through an extended piece of descriptive text.

The following 2,107-word paragraph (which you can also find here) occurs in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a book that won the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction (and would have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, except for a passage that was deemed coprophilic). Widely considered a postmodern classic, Pynchon's idiosyncratic tribute to wartime paranoia has found a place on more than one list of 100 all-time greatest novels.

The setup: Two characters, Roger and Jessica, have come upon a church in the countryside outside Kent, England on a Sunday evening. World War II is in its final year. During a hymn, Jessica lapses into a dreamlike fugue state. 
Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds' trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew's first horrible touch, which was really the idea—covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin in her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline sea son here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. In the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances—stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneath the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it's not "Giovinezza" but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme—indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songfulness, this lot, is genuine up to a point—but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing "dead"—cioé, conditionally alive—where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there's no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh—no play, for God's sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there'll be time to adjust certainly to that . . . But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness, well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year's toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they're hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christmas game. In the months between—country springs and summers—they played with real Spam tins—tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it's time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay—it happens all by itself. He is the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who've waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue—this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light—like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses' identities against the winter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, attended the Radio Doctor's certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people's swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring's run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It's a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes—gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night's Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the center-lines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipe-smoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. Eia—strange thousand-year sigh—eia, warn wir da! were we but there . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps' clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it's been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn't true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell—or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they're counting the night's take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat—oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn't it swoony, it's still going . . . Everybody you don't suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let's not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty's wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell—what do you think, it's a children's story? There aren't any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it's Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It's a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there's too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody's around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who're naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they're wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping . . . and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it ("You forgot Roosevelt, padre," come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: "Wendell Willkie!" "How about Churchill?" "'Arry Pollitt!") for a baby to come in tippin' those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin' he's gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined . . .
It's hard to know what a modern-day literary agent (or one of their interns) would make of such a passage, so "wordy" by modern standards, so unapologetically given to the use of acronyms, obscure references, bits of Italian. (Note: Unless you're Italian, you probably didn't spot the rare Pynchon slip-up: He said cioé —immediately before "conditionally alive"when he meant cioè, which in Italian means "that is to say," akin to the Latin neologism videlicet, usually shortened to viz.) And the book itself: so steadfastly storyless, interspersed with obtuse bits of half-dialog and soliloquy, characters wandering lazily in and out of flashbacks and reality, no discernible plot per se (other than the implied one of WWII itself), much less any "reversals," twists, or last-minute reveals . . . 300,000 words of meanderingand mostly horizontalprose.

In any case. Not all verticality is good; not all horizontality is bad. Prose can and should go in whichever direction(s) it needs to go. Only, have a regard for the reader. If the road is bumpy, be sure the reader is strapped in tight. Make it impossible for him or her to be left behind. 

Then let it rip.

Friday, November 22, 2013


This post has moved to: Please forgive the inconvenience.

In studying screenwriting, I'm struck time and again by how many tricks of good screenwriting can be carried over to traditional fiction writing (stories, novels, novellas), often to the great benefit of the latter.

A common complaint about bad screenplays is that they're a lot of work to read, because the author spends too much time in flowery descriptive narrative. You can tell when you're reading one of these scripts: It takes you two minutes—instead of 30 or 40 seconds—to get through a page. (Once you've read some really fine scripts, and felt their rhythm, you can sense the snail-like rhythm of a "stinker" script instantly.)
Page 2 of the Alien script (shooting version).

In the screenwriting world, we say that bogged-down scripts often lack verticality. (Charles Deemer gives an excellent summary in his post on "Making Scripts Vertical.") The idea comes down to this: Your eye spends an awful lot of time, in a slow-moving piece of writing, simply going from left to right (LTR), parsing word by word through one sentence after another after another. (Obviously I'm talking about English and other alphabetic/LTR languages.) This is what one might call horizontality; it's the basis of all alphabetic-LTR writing, because letters and words occur sequentially. But every once in a while, your eye gets to drop down vertically on the page—when there's a new paragraph, a subhead, a section break, a new chapter heading, an inserted block quote, a bulleted list, etc. Anything that makes your eye drop down is verticality.

Your brain keeps track of the ratio of verticality to horizontality. It begins to ache after a while if there's not enough verticality.

Horizontality is tiring. Why? Because it's linear, and that's not how cognition works. Processing linear text requires a highly specialized area of the brain. Perception (involving the senses of the body in conjunction with the whole brain) results from experiences taken in episodically, not always in a particular order, as a collage of disjoint bits that may include memories, ideas, emotions, smells, sounds, what have you.

Many of the great art movements of the early twentieth century can be understood in the context of an escape from the shackles of linearity. A photo, like a reaistic painting, maps one area of light or dark (in the photo) to a similar area in the subject; in fact the verb "map" implies linearity of just this sort. Impressionism attempts to break from linearity so as to allow the brain to do what it does best: assemble meaning from disjoint bits. Likewise, a common stylistic trope of postmodern fiction is the telling of a tale as a pastiche of disconnected and not always time-ordered pieces. This sort of storytelling (think The English Patient) engages the brain in a different way than straight narrative, often to stunning effect, since nonlinear processing centers of the brain are enlisted in the attempt to render the overall meaning.

If you have any doubt as to how hard (cognitively speaking) linear, horizontal writing is for the brain, try reading the scroll version of Kerouac's On the Road (available in the 50th anniversary edition from Viking/Penguin), the version that reflects Kerouac's original rendering of the story as a single long paragraph. Somewhere around ten pages into the 300-page-long paragraph, you'll be wishing for an indent, a section break, or some other "break" from linearity. The single-long-paragraph device takes getting used to.

Screenplays are intrinsically highly verticalized. They're broken up into short pieces that vary a great deal in terms of indents and margins. Thus they tend to be much easier to read quickly than a novel. But (as I said earlier) even among screenplays, there are those that read easily and those that feel like work.

Take, for example, the following bit of narrative, adapted from Alien:
Dallas, Kane and Lambert, each wearing gloves, boots, and jackets, enter the air lock. All three are carrying laser pistols. As Kane touches a button, a servo begins to whine and the inner door quietly slides shut; then the trio pull on their helmets.
That's not how the scene appears in the final version of the script (written by Walter Hill and David Giler, based on an earlier screenplay by Dan O'Bannon). Here's how the script was written:
Dallas, Kane and Lambert enter the lock.
All wear gloves, boots, jackets.
Carry laser pistols.
Kane touches a button.
Then the inner door slides quietly shut.
The trio pull on their helmets.
Telegraphic; staccato; almost poem-like. The "before" version is what you'd read in a novel (or a not-so-great screenplay). The second version, from the Hill-Giler script, is experiential, sensory in its telling. Two entirely different ways of handling the same content; two ways for the brain to process the information.

In your novel (you know, that one you've been working on all month?), before you get too tied up in Proustian 900-word sentences and Pynchonesque paragraphs that ramble on for pages, have a regard for the cognitive load imposed by linearity. Consider introducing a little more verticality.

Lighten the load.

Your reader will thank you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The New Weird

Last night I was looking at The New Weird, a collection of fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and after reading a couple of stories (and some essays in the book) on the New Weird, a variety of thoughts came to me about the state of fiction today (not that anyone can claim to know the "state of fiction today," of course, but that's partly the point). I should mention that my thoughts were also, in part, moved along by a Huffpost review I happened to read last night—by U. Wisc. Green Bay Professor Harvey J. Kaye—of Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline. Professor Kaye, who follows me on Twitter, pointed me to the review. It's an excellent review, although I respectfully disagree with many assumptions in it; and because the review was so excellent, I won't be reading Joffe's book now that I know how absurdly outmoded its assumptions are. (More of which, in a minute.)

What all this got me to thinking about is: Where is fiction headed? Where is it now? Where should new writers of fiction consider going?

My first route to prying the lid off these questions was to try to get to the core of New Weird. Which is an adventure in itself.

What is New Weird? Why does it exist? What audience-need does it serve? This turns out to be a difficult set of questions. There is no New Weird Manifesto, no elevator pitch that reduces it to a neat logline, but the VanderMeers say it's "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy." In terms of signature works, China Tom Miéville's Perdido Street Station is oft-cited as prototypically New Weird, along with works by M. John Harrison and even Clive Barker.

In terms of common elements, New Weird seems to involve, more often than not, an alternate reality or alternate society (optionally on an alternate planet) with new rules of behavior (optionally magical, but more often than not simply cultural and/or state-imposed), with characters that may or may not have special abilities or powers, special body modifications (a la Clive Barker), special quests. Elaborate world-building is thus a mainstay, a la Tolkien. In terms of basic storytelling, all the usual Joseph Campbell tropes (hero's quest, etc.) apply, along with common-sense storytelling best practices.

As I survey the New Weird landscape, I don't see a whole lot new, honestly, so much as a tedious (if admirably elaborate) reskinning of the Old Weird, going back to Poe and Lovecraft, with heavy debts, also, to Aldous Huxley, Kafka (The Metamorphosis), Orwell, Ellison, Dick, and others. The cultural reorganization of society along NewWeirdian lines that one sees in things like Perdido Street Station (or Miéville's story Jack, in The New Weird) feels, on some level, instantly stale to me. But that only makes me more anxious to understand why it feels fresh to others.

The New Weird is clearly an attempt to break out of the thematic tropes of mid-twentieth-century fiction, but it already feels stillborn in its quest to take Tolkien in more phantasmagoric directions, precisely because of its slavish insistence on making characters behave in accordance with elaborate (and supposedly fresh) systems of rules (cultural or state-imposed; less frequently self-imposed) in their "new worlds." The early and mid-twentieth century fascination with the apparatus of bureacracy (Kafka, Orwell, Heller, Pynchon) seems to trudge on, in different clothing and in deeper mud, in The New Weird. In terms of success in breaking away from conventional thematic tropes and techniques, it strikes me that bizarro fiction—with its frequent recourse to absurdism, surrealism, and proto-Dada grotesquerie—comes much closer to missing the dart board (where missing the dartboard is, in fact, the aim).

Earlier I mentioned Professor Kaye and his incisive review, "Whither America," which speaks to the themes of grotesque nationalism (my term, not his) explored in Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline. The out-of-date sociological metrics by which Joffe analyzes America's "Policeman of the World" and "Default Culture" (my term) status evoke in me the same frustration (and, at times, abhorrence) I feel with NewWeirdian fiction vis-à-vis its slavish dependence on externally supplied (and sometimes quite archaic and baroque) sociological rule-systems. Apparently the Policeman of the World meme (brutally and dangerously archaic as it is) still resonates with certain nonfiction audiences the way Kafka still resonates with fiction audiences, the latter being (from my point of view) far more comprehensible. But in both domains (fiction and soiological nonfiction), readers still harbor the hangover of nationalism, heard in the ever-reverberating echoes of Orwell; and I think it serves modern audiences—and the common literary weal—ill to continue to pay homage to the dead bronze statues that so gravenly mark our progress in literature.

The story of the last thousand years in human history is largely the story of nationalism—the aggregation of peoples and ideologies under "state" banners with messy borders crudely drawn in blood. It's thus in no way surprising that the vagaries of militarism—and (in peacetime) the apparatus of control—have so preoccupied the literary mind over this timeframe, with some of the most famous signposts in all of western literature having names like War and Peace and Gravity's Rainbow (the latter denoting the parabolic arc of the V-2 missile in WWII). To be sure, fiction has also during this time produced significant tonnage of highly personal and psychological works, novels having more to do with issues of character and interpersonal dynamics; and such works will always be relevant, because they cut quickly to the bare-naked core of human existence, stripped of its geopolitical underwear, as it were. But the question is why we cling so lovingly to the cold stiff corpse of State and/or External Authority as the controlling factor in characters' everyday worlds; more particularly, why do we seek refuge in archaic-feeling representations (no matter how lovingly and elaborately permutated) of externally validated rule systems? (Externalism of this kind arguably reached its apotheosis in The Matrix.) How many flavors of Tolkien or Frank Herbert (or Kafka or Orwell) do we need, going forward?

Systems of Control are still relevant, but not (IMHO) as represented in the "world-building" narratives of NewWeirdism or OldWeirdism. The current world is, in fact, much weirder than any of that already. The Systems of Control of today are not explicit manifestations of state nor ideology. They are far more subtle (and dangerous), obtaining legitimacy directly from the suppressed and exploited (that's you, that's me) through their passive assent. No law, no explicit form of coercion, makes you eat at McDonalds (or order, with your Happy Meal, more soda than the human stomach can reasonably process). And yet America the Superpower, America as Default Nation, along with most constitutional democracies in the world (most countries templated on American politics), is happy to allow its citizenry to be obese, diabetic, sclerotic, and cancer-prone. No law explicitly requires you to buy Chinese goods at Walmart (or for that matter to take a minimum-wage job at Walmart). And yet your host nation has you wearing cheap foreign-made clothing, and using foreign-made electronics, while the underlying jobs (not just grunt-labor jobs but "good" jobs in technology) are shipped out of the country. No law requires you to go hungry in the greatest food-exporting nation on earth, yet one in six Americans requires Food Stamps.

To see more clearly the desolate bus stop on history's joyride that we've come to, it might help to roll back the tape and put your mind inside the head of a Thomas Paine, say, or a Rousseau or Voltaire. Suppose, in 1770, as Paine, you were to read a "speculative fiction" novel (supposing such a thing existed at the time) about a future nation-state, the Greatest Country on Earth, in which printing presses have largely disappeared (recall that as late as 1975, printing was the most prolific business type in America), "pamphleteering" has become obsolete, and citizens consume the majority of their reading matter by means of magical devices coupled to the Great Interconnector. Further suppose that although literacy has become universal, citizens of this strange future country spend a good time watching "visual replicas of plays" (films, videos) instead of reading, and the majority of citizens who choose to spend any time writing (hundreds of millions worldwide) are reduced to filing dispatches of only a few hundred characters at a time (Twitter and Facebook updates). Now imagine that in this strange future-world, people live to be 80 instead of 50, and yet a third of the citizenry is sick with obesity-related illnesses (not just diabetes but heart disease and cancer). Fully a quarter of the population takes daily pills for "high blood pressure," diabetes, or melancholia. People are required by Tithe Laws to give a tenth of their income to the state, which spends a good deal of the money on foreign wars devoted to dubious goals (goals that would not have been compehensible in Paine's day). Meanwhile, average citizens incur crushing debt to obtain an education, then are not hired for their knowledge or skills; they obtain degrees in "political science" or philosophy or literature, but go to work for inconcceivably large corporations, doing incredibly menial things; many of the jobs paying an unconscionably low "minimum wage" that has one in six persons dependent on public munificence for food.

These sorts of "future-world" facts would have seemed absurd to anyone of Paine's generation. What would have seemed most preposterous of all to Paine, in particular, is the notion that huge masses of people would not be marching on their governments in revolt!

Paine would have considered deeply troubling the geopolitical yardsticks by which a Josef Joffe measures a nation's stature: military budget, GNP, hegemonic domination of world politics, etc. He would have identified strongly with measures of infant mortality, wellness, general happiness, opportunity (he would have loathed the term "upward mobility," however), poverty rates, hunger, incarceration rate—all areas where America consistently ranks poorly.

To the extent that writers of fiction are envisioners of the future, or at least envisioners of alternate worlds, it seems to me we fail our readers if we tether our worldview to the soggy mire of militarism or nationalism (in any of its guises). Given that the social milieu is an Unseen Main Character in novels that build new worlds, it would seem appropriate to take stock of current Control Structures and build worlds that resonate with the issues that pertain to the modern inhabitants of those structures, many of whom have been brainwashed that slavery is freedom (or vice versa), ignorance is strength, war is peace, etc. By the old measures, America is still the greatest country on earth. By any rational measure it's arguably the most broken country on earth. By buying into old notions we break fiction itself and render it a self-parody. Society is evolving. Nationalism as a concept is fading. The Control Structure conventions of yesteryear are like a once-magnificent cake that's been sitting all day in the rain. Why must we continue to eat from it?

It's not enough for fiction to permutate and pervert the past and serve it up again in shocking colors. Serve us up something new. If weirdness is a necessary ingredient, just look around.

As a reader of fiction, I want to move beyond Tolkien-in-a-party-dress. I want the next New Weird to come without a rearview mirror. The current New Weird isn't doing it for me.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tapping Your Inner Puppet

Lately I've been reading a terrific book called Now Write! Screenwriting (2010, Tarcher/Penguin), edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson. It's a collection of short (one to four pages long) tips from various successful screenwriters, presented in the form of exercises. In addition to practical advice on story construction, the tips and exercises are meant to help with ideation; hence the book is potentially of great help to any writer, in any form or genre.

I won't (can't) attempt to recap the book's tips here. If you're a fiction writer, go seek out the book, either at a bookstore or the library. You'll thank me later.

After reading a few of the essays in Now Write! Screenwriting, I started ideating. Here (below) is one idea that came to me. Warning: Not fully baked. Intake of half-baked ideas may lead to intestinal and/or intracranial distress. Consume at your own risk.

[ begin weird idea ]

A twenty-something cubicle drone from Cupertino whom we'll call Tyler Schremp, having fallen into a deep existential depression triggered by the sudden passing of Cordelia, his pet chinchilla, decides to seek psychotherapy. He has had depression, episodically, all his life. In terms of therapies and meds, he's been through the mill. Nothing works. It's all palliative, at best.

Schremp gets a tip from a trusted friend of the family, a retired therapist, who recommends the "ultimate last resort," a therapy known as Bosonic Avatar Therapy, or BATTY, practiced by its developer, Dr. Egon Pringle. ("I understand BAT. But what does the 'TY' stand for?" Answer: "It stands for Thank Your lucky stars." "But in that case shouldn't it be BATTYLS?" "Look, do you want the therapy or not? It's just a goddam mnemonic.")

Schremp seeks Pringle out and finds him to be (how shall we say) a tad eccentric. But he comes highly recommended. Diplomas, publications, awards, etc. Pringle hands Schremp a puppet. "This is your starter avatar. It's rough, I know. It'll have to do for now. We'll get you a proper avatar, one that looks like you, soon enough."

Pringle explains that for proper disjunction of the subconscious anti-self, it is crucial that all therapy be conducted via the avatar. In other words, Schremp sits on a rug on the floor next to a couch, and he has to lay the puppet down on the couch and speak through the puppet. Pringle, in turn, produces a Freud puppet (with cigar) and speaks only through the Freud avatar.

"Back me up a second," Schremp says . "What does it mean, this 'Bosonic Avatar' stuff --"

The Freud puppet moves its mouth: "Please state your question through your avatar."

Schremp moves his puppet's mouth: "Okay, sorry. What does Bosonic mean?"

Freud-puppet: "My God, man, did you not take elementary physics in school? What the hell college did you go to? Surely you know that the universe is constructed, broadly speaking, of only two types of particles: leptons and bosons. Light and heavy. Electronics are leptons. That's what makes your brain work, electricity. Bosons are protons and other heavy forms of matter. Solid stuff. That chair. The rug you're sitting on. The air you breathe."

Schremp-puppet: "Air isn't a solid."

Freud-puppet: "This is why you need my help! You're not perceiving reality correctly."

Fast-forward a couple weeks. Schremp is now (under doctor's orders) carrying around with him, 24/7, a Schremp-puppet, 100% Schremp-like down to the Sad-Sacky sunken eyes, complete with a miniature iPhone in its pocket. Coworkers give him odd looks. When he needs to express his true feelings, Schremp has to use the puppet (avatar). The avatar mouths off to people. Schremp's supervisor at work is increasingly annoyed.

Schremp finds himself at a bar after work, wanting to drown his sorrows.

Schremp-avatar: "Do you serve ventriloquists here?"

Bartender: "Yeah, sure."

"Well, I'll have a vodka martini, and my big dummy friend here will have a root beer."

"Sorry, we don't serve root beer."

"Make it a black Russian then."

A short distance away, at the bar, is a sullen-looking, nerdly young woman, sipping a pina colada. Next to her is a puppet replica of her, with a shot glass in front of it containing tequila and a rubber worm.

Schremp-puppet to nerdgirl-avatar: "Does your friend come here often?"

Nerd-girl avatar to Schremp-puppet: "One woodpecker joke and I'm outa here."

Schremp-puppet: "How's the Bosonic Avatar thing working out for you two?"

"We're fucking shit-faced, how do you think it's working out?"

And so on.

When Dr. Pringle has decided individual therapy has gone far enough, he insists that Schremp and his avatar progress to the next phase: group.

Ten patients sit in a circle, each one holding a puppet-clone of him/herself. One of the patients is a Muslim woman with full-body burka. Her puppet also wears a full-body burka.

And so it goes, until months later, Schremp (who has made little progress with his depression except that he has begun to write comedy routines in his spare time; but meanwhile he's increasingly suicidal) hears from Pringle, during a session, that his avatar is deeply disturbed and needs special therapy.

"Wait," Schremp-puppet says. "What are you saying? I'm just speaking through my partner..."

Dr. Pringle's Freud-puppet, to the Schremp-puppet: "Partner schmartner. YOU are now the patient here, your partner is fine. YOU, I'm deeply concerned about. You need intensive therapy, immediamente. ¿Comprende? Don't make me Baker-Act you."

"The Baker Act is only in Florida."

"Nonsense! I can commit you both to an instutition, right now, if that's what you want."

"All right, all right. What are you suggesting, exactly?"

Dr. Pringle, through his puppet, hands Schremp a card.

"I want you to see this man. He's an eminent puppetologist, the best in the city."

"You mean --"

"Yes, your avatar is in serious need of deep Contrabosonic Therapy, CBT. I'll make the appointment for you right now."

Dr. Pringle tries to dial a number with the Freud-puppet. When it doesn't work, he tosses the Freud puppet aside and the puppet's lit cigar starts a fire on the desk.

Eventually, Schremp ends up in the office of a Dr. Yung, who operates a Jung puppet. This time, the Schremp puppet sits on a rug while Schremp lies on a couch. Schremp must pretend that the rug puppet is a ventriloquist making him speak.

[ end of ideation ]

Now obviously, the story needs a lot of work. The nerdy-girl has to figure into Schremp's life in a big way and there need to be additional minor characters (a best friend, someone in the office who's a friend, maybe an ex-) who can help steer Schremp through the madness that's become his life. Maybe at the end, the bartender whips out his bartender puppet and offers some poignant advice, the kind you can only get from a bartender-puppet.

I'll see how far I can take it. For therapy's sake.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

8 Rules for Better Dialog

When I was an undergrad at the University of California, Irvine, I was privileged to take a course in playwriting under William Inge, who won an Oscar for Splendor in the Grass and a Pulitzer for Picnic. For ten weeks, ten of us wrote one-act plays, then listened to Inge read from them.
William Inge

Inge had emphysema (he smoked continuously throughout class), wheezing more than talking. He could barely speak. What I most remember him saying, as he looked up from someone's homework assignment, is: "Do real people talk like this?" 

Good dialog is hard. Finding out how bad a piece of written dialog is usually requires nothing more than reading it aloud. (Actors are a help. But in a pinch, you can just stand in front of the mirror.) Still, it's surprising how much bad dialog you can find in novels, stage plays, screenplays—not only amateur-written material but a lot of professionally written stuff as well. For me, bad dialog always stands right out: Wooden characters who speak in complete sentences, never using contractions, never interrupting each other, always spewing bland phrases that reinforce their predictable (and undifferentiated) personalities; characters whose swear words don't even sound right.

I don't claim to be an expert here, but I do believe (based on reading as much awkward, wooden, silly dialog as I've read) there are rules you can follow to keep yourself from writing the Worst Dialog Ever. In that spirit, I present the following eight easy rules for writing better dialog:

  1. People use contractions (don't, I'm, you're, etc.) when they speak. Only prigs and ESL students use fully expanded forms.
  2. People swear in normal conversation, but not as often as you think.
  3. Characters should interrupt each other. Because that's how most conversation is.
  4. Write for low syllable count.
  5. Use many periods, few commas.
  6. Avoid patois unless you're Mark Twain, which you're not.
  7. Let subtext (not the actual spoken words) carry the scene, when possible.
  8. Don't be boring.
I'm tempted to add one more rule (for screenwriters): Don't insert explicit beats in dialog. Years ago, it was common to insert "(beat)" here or there to control tempo. You'll find opinions divided on whether this is still an acceptable thing to do. My advice? Play it smart and refuse to resort to "(beat)" in your script. Control tempo with sentence length, punctuation (including ellipses where necessary), the (very) occasional wryly, action description, and so forth. Can you imagine Hemingway or Fitzgerald inserting "(beat)" in the middle of a conversation? Think how comical and intrusive it would be if novelists inserted explicit beats in dialog to control tempo. You wouldn't do that in a novel, because it would make for a patently awful reading experience. Why should your screenplay read that way?

The enter-a-scene-late/leave-early rule applies to dialog. We don't need to hear characters greet each other, except maybe at the start of a phone conversation. Likewise we don't need to see/hear them say good-bye, unless the whole scene is about parting.

In one scene of my screenplay Greeners, two characters (principals in an investment firm; a father and a son) are about to discuss the day's dismal results. I can think of a million boring, straightforward ways to begin the discussion. (E.g.: The son says: "My God, what a day," or "How was your day?" or something equally banal.) What I ended up with is this: The father, sitting at his desk, collar loosened, disheveled and dejected, pushes a few papers away. As the son (standing nearby) points a finger at the papers, the old man pulls a bottle of Scotch out of his desk and says: "Don't even ask."

"Don't be boring" is probably the most important rule you can follow. Even when characters have to say ordinary things, try to spice it up. When my main character, Dylan, has to talk to a fast-food drive-up menu box, I could have had him say "I'll have a sausage-egg biscuit and a large coffee." Instead, he says: "I'll have a sausage-egg biscuit and a large, black, coffee. Black. With extra coffee." A few seconds later, when the cashier recognizes him and starts motor-mouthing (because she's so excited to see him), he answers her over-animated "How are you??" with "Sixty-forty"
and then she goes on talking. The fact that she doesn't stop to ask what "sixty-forty" means is, in itself, a subtextual clue that she's more interested in hearing herself talk than in what he might have to say. Likewise, the fact that he chose to say "sixty-forty" (instead of "so-so" or "can't complain," or something equally vapid) suggests that maybe he already knows she's not going to pay attention to whatever he has to say. Plus, it gives the audience something to chew on. Is he saying things are sixty percent good and forty percent crappy, or the other way around? What, exactly, does he mean by "sixty-forty"?

When you write dialog, consider what I call orthogonality. Two characters, when talking about their conflicting needs/desires, will tend to speak to their own individual concerns more than to the other person's concerns. (Joe wants to talk about the raise he didn't get at work; Mary wants to talk about Joe Junior's bad day at school.) This is what I call orthogonality. You can use it to build realistic-sounding dialog that accentuates (rather than amalgamates) the characters' differences. You've seen this technique used a million times in TV shows and movies. David storms into Tyler's office and says: "Why the hell didn't you tell me we lost the Frankenhammer account?!" Tyler takes a sip of coffee and says: "I'm fine, thanks for asking. How about yourself?" That's orthogonality.

So, to the foregoing list of 8 items, you can add two more:

9. Don't use explicit beats.

10. Exploit orthogonality.

There's more to good dialog than just following these rules. But if you follow them, chances are you'll at least avoid having someone ask you (after reading something you labored over for hours, days, or weeks) "Do real people talk like this?" 

If you'd like to take a look at my WGA-registered screenplay, Greeners, write to me. (Tell me something about yourself.) My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas.

Friday, November 08, 2013

A Million Page-Views in Ten Months

Three weeks ago, while I wasn't paying attention, my blog (this blog) surpassed the one-million-page-views-YTD mark. I can't be 100% sure where the traffic is coming from, since I refuse to click the "Don't track your own page-views" link in Google Analytics. It could still be mostly me hitting Refresh. Or someone with Anonymous perfecting a really, really slow denial-of-service attack. Or maybe my (deceased) mother discovered a time machine 50 years ago, only she didn't tell me about it and she traveled to the future just to pay some dweeb in Milwaukee to unleash a Reddit clickbot that messes with me, then headed back to 1963 to cook dinner. It almost has to be one of those things.

Here are the top posts of the year, so far:

Jan 1, 2013, 136 comments
Jan 15, 2013, 19 comments
Jan 30, 2013, 40 comments
Jan 18, 2013, 32 comments
May 18, 2013, 2 comments

Now for some really interesting (to me) summary info, looking back at this year's posts:
  • Five posts accounted for 23% of the year's traffic.
  • Four out of the top five posts were written in January.
  • The top two most-trafficked posts had titles that begin with "How," but beyond that there's no thematic pattern whatsoever to the top posts. (Nor could I have predicted the popularity of any of them in advance.)
  • This year's posts account for only 60% of total YTD traffic; the other 40% of visits went to prior-years' posts. But note well, prior-year posts were never as popular as they are this year. The 60-40 split is new, in other words. It used to be more like 90-10.
My blog got a certain amount of extra traction after April 2013, when I signed on as a regular blogger at (thank you, Dan!), but honestly, the crossover traffic from BigThink has been quite modest.

My traffic really started to pick up in January, when I began blogging almost daily. Prior to that, when I was blogging only a few times a month, 200 to 300 hits a day was pretty typical. It slowly built, over a period of four months or so, to a couple thousand visitors a day, peaking at 3K hits/day in early summer. It's eased off a bit since then. I now count 2200 page-views a day as typical. (But I should stress, that's total site visits, spread across 600+ posts.)

The other thing that's different now is that I have 200,000 followers on Twitter, up from about 140,000 a year ago. The numbers are deceptive, though. It wasn't until this year that I began devoting an hour or more a day to interacting with my Tweeps (rather than just dumping curated links in their laps all the time). But Twitter is another story, worth its own discussion. I'll save that for a future post.

What have I learned? Not a whole lot, actually. The main thing I've learned is that if you want traffic to increase, blog more often. And don't be afraid to write some fairly long posts, if the subject matter warrants it. (My No. 1 most-visited post this year weighed in at 2618 words.)

I hardly touch Facebook, I hate Google Circles, I don't do Instagram, I ignore StumbleUpon. I have a PInterest account that's growing mold somewhere. Oh, and I pay no heed whatsoever to SEO. (I operate on the assumption that good content is its own SEO.)

I never spend money, by the way, promoting anything I do. No Google ad campaigns, no paid slots anywhere.

In short, if someone came to me with a bunch of money and said "Tell me your best secrets for getting more blog traffic," I'd say: Go write the very best content you know how to write, and do it every day if possible; otherwise, several times  week. Try to achieve synergy by contributing in more than one space. (I blog here and at, plus I tweet a lot; I post updates at LinkedIn every week even though it feels like hollering into a cardboard box; and I spend an hour a week commenting on other people's stuff around the Web.) Beyond that, there ain't any magic. Just blow a lot of smoke and keep the mirrors shiny.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Meetings Are Bullshit

Jason Fried explains very nicely, in his TED talk, why the modern office is a singularly poor place in which to get work done. Bottom line: It's an atmosphere specifically tailored to facilitate interruptions—what one might call a high-interruptivity environment (by design).

Fried implies, but does not go so far as to elaborate, a theory that productivity—like sleep—occurs in sequential stages. The stages of sleep proceed one to the other, each one dependent on the previous one's successful conclusion. When sleep is interrupted, you have to start over and proceed through the various stages before you can arrive at REM sleep. For this reason, eight one-hour naps interspersed with five minutes of wakefulness do not add up to a full night's sleep. Similarly, a succession of 15- and 20-minute periods of work (in an office environment where you've constantly interrupted by texts, phone calls, e-mails, IM, meetings, coworkers coming in to see you, bosses checking on you, and so forth) seldom adds up to a day's work. To get serious work done requires long periods of no interruptions. This is why so many people say that their favorite place to get serious work done is the back porch, the basement, the attic, the shower, the library, Starbucks, etc., or (if it's indeed the office) the office after everyone leaves to go home, or before everyone arrives in the morning. No one counts as their most productive environment the office during working hours!

Fried is rightfully critical of meetings as the number one source of lost productivity in a modern office setting. Through technologies like Webex and Go-to-Meeting, we're able to introduce productivity losses even to people working from home.

If I were to criticize Fried's presentation, I would only say that he has not gone far enough in his views, particularly his condemnation of meetings. Toward the end of his talk, he suggests, as an exercise, that any manager who has a meeting planned for Monday simply cancel (and not reschedule) the meeting and see what happens. Does the world come to an end? Do sales drop? Do people stop getting work done? Or, to the contrary, does the cancellation of a one-hour meeting involving ten people result in ten additional person-hours of productivity, reclaimed for free?

I wish Fried would have taken his own logic to the ultimate conclusion, which is that all meetings should simply be outlawed. Which they certainly should be, in my opinion.

I have worked for small, medium, and large-size companies, mostly in software development, both as an individual contributor and as a manager. In my seven years at Novell (two as a line employee, five as a manager), I estimate I attended three meetings a week, or about 1000 meetings total. At Adobe, I attended a weekly status meeting (which was often cancelled, to no ill effect whatever) plus one or two division-level all-hands meetings per quarter, and one to two company-level all-hands meetings per quarter. I can say without reservation that all meetings I attended at Novell and Adobe, except for one-on-one meetings, were utterly without effect aside from the undeniable effect of resetting everyone's productivity to zero on the occasion of the meeting.

You might ask yourself, if you're the habit of setting up meetings, what it says about the fragility of your company and/or the ineffectuality of your organization (or your management style) if the success of the enterprise is somehow compromised by not holding that weekly status meeting or that monthly planning meeting or that quarterly all-hands meeting that you think (stupidly) is so necessary to inspiring team spirit and getting everyone "on the same page." In all my time at big companies (and smaller ones too) I can't remember a single meeting being indispensible, or in fact doing anything except distract me from getting real work done. Invariably, when I missed a meeting, I found out later that I either missed nothing substantive whatsoever, or I could easily (and in a few minutes' time) catch up on whatever I'd missed simply by reading a transcript, a key memo, or a followup note somewhere on the intranet.

Are there exceptions? Sure. I count as meaningful one-on-one meetings with a clear agenda, and scrum-style meetings in which participants stand the whole time (for ten minutes or so). The rest, you can e-mail me. I have no tolerance for larger meetings (especially those at which "minutes" are taken). Mail me the freakin' minutes. I'll decide if they're useful. On my schedule.

Meetings are a classic example of a non-optional push technology that should be replaced by an opt-in/pull technology. Post what I need to know somewhere. I'll look at it when it's time for me to look at it. When it's time for me to be nonproductive.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Fixing a Mediocre Movie

If ever it were possible (which it seldom is) for sublime acting to elevate an otherwise unremarkable film to the status of a minor classic, it surely would have happened in the case of The Last Station, the well-intentioned 2009 Tolstoy biopic that brought Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (but no wins) to Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren for their commanding portrayals of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. The performances were genuinely excellent. Alas, the movie was not. It's fair to ask why not, because on the surface, you'd think any movie about the life of the greatest international celebrity of the 19th century (which Tolstoy surely was) couldn't fail to be a compelling tale. But sadly, like Tolstoy's own final journey by rail, The Last Station falls far short of its ultimate destination, leaving the passenger (the moviegoer) stranded and wanting for a place to hang his or her shapka, so to speak.

The ingredients are there: strong characters, conflict, intrigue, deception, drama. Leo Tolstoy, at age 81, was trying desperately to simplify his increasingly complex professional and family life. He had long since signed over his worldly possessions (including the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana) to the care of his wife. But he also secretly conspired, with the aid of his devoted disciple, Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov, to concoct a secret will that would have his literary properties go to the public domain. Of course, Sofya was no fool and saw through her husband's multiple attempts to write her out of the literary inheritance. The Last Station is the story of Sonya's descent into near-madness (and Leo's final, abortive attempt to escape the madness) as Chertkov wrests control of the Tolstoy literary legacy from Sonya. Leo boards a train, at the end, seeking to put physical distance (as much of it as possible) between himself and his wife. By the time he reaches Astapovo, the last station on the rail line, he is deathly ill with pneumonia. His wife arrives at Astapovo just in time to see him die.

The problem with The Last Station, as a movie, is that writer-director Michael Hoffman (working from Jay Parini's novel) chose to give us an extremely narrow snapshot of an enormous subject, more or less like trying to capture the Grand Canyon with a 1952 Brownie camera. The movie not only doesn't try to give us a significant slice of Tolstoy's life, it's actually happy to focus in on just a few weeks (the final weeks) of the great man's story. What's worse, the story is told through the eyes of a rather insignificant character, Tolstoy's replacement secretary (replacing N. N. Gusev, who was for a short time imprisoned), the young Valentin Bulgakov. Along the way, we're made to suffer through Bulgakov's own irrelevant romance with a young woman who's in no way related to Tolstoy (nor any other real-world character).

The movie thus fails on several levels. It fails, first, in not giving us a significant slice of Tolstoy's life. It merely presents the 81-year-old master to us as a world celebrity, ready-made, and expects us to bring significant knowledge of Tolstoy's backstory with us. The movie also distracts us from the main story by (as I said) forcing us to watch an utterly forgettable romantic side-plot that never intersects the main plot. But the movie also fails to show off the true main character of any movie (of whatever scope) about any great Russian writer: namely, Mother Russia herself.

It may be unfair to compare a movie of The Last Station's modest aspirations (and equally modest budget: $17 million) with David Lean's unforgettable cinematic rendition of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (which cost $11 million in 1965 dollars), but the fact is, no one who has seen Doctor Zhivago will fail, consciously or unconsciously, to make the comparison in his or her mind between the Lean movie and any subsequent movie involving an iconic Russian figure. The striking thing (one of many) about Doctor Zhivago is that at no time in the movie can the viewer be unaware of the looming presence of that "other main character," bigger than life, Russia herself. Unfortunately, and crucially, we lose that essential character in The Last Station, and without it, the story of Tolstoy's final weeks seems like little more than thin domestic farce.

It's easy to spew out criticism. How to fix it? What could the writer-director have done to rescue The Last Station from the clutches of mediocrity (aside from rewriting it as a stage play)? In particular, how could it have been improved without expanding the story into a Zhivago-like epic spanning the whole of Tolstoy's life?

I think first of all it's necessary (and sufficient, for this limited-budget film) to tell the story of Tolstoy's last ten years, rather than his final year. By dispensing with the trivial Bulgakov character (and his meaningless romance) we save many feet of film that could be better put to use telling the story through the eyes of Tolstoy's personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, a decidedly pivotal figure in the drama.

The (rewritten) story opens 24 February 1901, at a train station in St. Petersburg, where nameless nobodies come and go, among them a young nobody who, while waiting for his train, carefully (which is to say, first looking to see that no one is watching him) slides a book out of his coat and begins to read it. The book: a copy of Tolstoy's banned The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

A nearby church bell tolls. We cut to the interior of the Cathedral of Our Lady (St. Petersburg) where a grave-looking Metropolitan Anthony ascends the pulpit to read the document officially excommunicating Count Lev Nickolayevich Tolstoy from the Orthodox Church.

Cut to a villa at Gaspra, on the Black Sea. It's September 1901. At the insistence of his physician, Tolstoy has come to Crimea to recuperate from malaria. He's joined at the seaside villa not only by his family but by Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. (All of this is true, by the way.)

Chekhov, shaking his head, looks up from his newspaper. "It's been seven months,
Lev Nickolayevich, and they're still writing about the excommunication!"

At the time of his death in 1910, Tolstoy was arguably the
best-known celebrity in the world.

At this point, there is ample room to discuss the reasons for the excommunication. Tolstoy has been writing books and tracts (most famously, The Kingdom of God Is Within You) blasting the church's version of Christianity, putting forth his own no-nonsense, no-miracles, no-hocus-pocus version of the Gospels, emphasizing the Sermon on the Mount and its call for turning the other cheek and repudiating violence. Tolstoy has turned Jesus's teachings against the church, by pointing out that no one who advocates violence (even in a just cause) is adhering to Jesus's teachings.

Tolstoy's own fundamentalism has not only gotten him in hot water with the Church (and the Tsar), it has spawned a Christian anarchism movement that has, by 1901, circled the globe. In Russia, believers in Tolstoy's version of Christianity are refusing military service in significant numbers. In England and elsewhere, acolytes have formed "Tolstoyan colonies." One of Tolstoy's most ardent followers, at home, is (of course) Vladimir Chertkov, who will remain a lifelong disciple, creating the first English-language editions of Tolstoy's works and publishing inexpensive editions of his books both in England and in Russia (resulting in ten years of exile for Chertkov).

Tolstoy's religious fervor, seen by his wife as incomprehensible, is ultimately what powers the bond with Chertkov, the rift with Sofya, and Tolstoy's own mad quest to shed worldly belongings before he dies. By making this aspect of Tolstoy's life clear, The Last Station (properly remade) could give life to the motivations of its characters and make clear why so many Russians considered Tolstoy a living saint.

As part of his creed, Tolstoy advocated celibacy, vegetarianism, and repudiation of worldly goods. He strongly agreed with Proudhon that "property is theft." Once this fact is known, it becomes possible, in a remake of The Last Station, to put Tolstoy's philosophy in historical context. Thus it becomes relevant to include in such a movie a scene (for example) of the 150,000 people who marched on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January 1905. These were not card-carrying Bolsheviks but ordinary people, many of whom had been inspired by Tolstoy's (not just Marx's) philosophy.

I can think of many powerful scenes that would make sense in a film that attempts to capture Tolstoy's final decade rather than his final six months of life. By slavishly adhering to Parini's novel, screenwriter-director Hoffman reinquished any opportunity he might have had to do the Tolstoy story justice in The Last Station. We end up with melodrama instead of drama, narrow provinciality instead of sweeping grandeur, and poor Mother Russia herself reduced to a forgotten stepsister, when in fact the stage—like the characters—could not, in this case, have
possibly been any bigger.