Tag Archives: Jennifer Egan

Blockbuster Implosion: Formulas Fail Writers

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about movie scripts. The noted script doctor described this summer’s cinematic fare as “summer disaster porn flicks.” This prescient observation followed comments by Steven Spielberg, who predicted in June that Hollywood was headed for an “implosion” because an industry that only makes mega-movies cannot sustain itself.

Lindelof’s insights, given in an interview with Vulture, were right on target. “We live in a commercial world where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct. But ultimate I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer,” he said.

“And, again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

One could substitute the word “ book” for “movie” in this commentary. Lindelof went on to say, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

This is evident in literature, when one looks at the best-seller list. It’s filled with proven commodities and genre fiction. It can feel formulaic, just as in screenwriting some claim the movie formula was laid out in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat.

Nathan Bransford blogged about this trend recently in this post.

As usual, Bransford has nailed it. I would urge writers to resist the temptation to follow a proven formula. That doesn’t mean a writer should not learn about formulas. Formulas are really story structures and there are many that are tried and true. The three-act structure is as reliable and sturdy a formula as there is out there. Structure is fine and necessary, but when the story becomes a slave to a formula, the writer is robbed of the creative tools to shape it to its unique potential. If a writer envisions a story in which the inevitable conclusion is for the main character to die due to his own sins or weaknesses, it makes no sense to change the ending on the mistaken belief that readers want a happy ending.

So what is a writer to do, when there are formulas that enhance the chances of success? Here are a few ideas:

• Know the rules and then don’t be afraid to break them. The old adage, “You have to know the rules before you can break them” is true. Learn about the different types of story structures and the craft of fiction. Understand the importance of character development to the overall story.
• Own your story. A story is the writer’s creation. It belongs to the writer. The arc should be determined by the writer’s vision and execution, not by some arbitrary rule that dictates a particular event must happen by page 75.
• Read unconventional novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and watch cutting-edge programs like Breaking Bad, which takes the tired “send ‘em home happy” dictum and gives it a swift kick in the butt.
• Write from the heart. If the writer doesn’t feel passionate about the story, the reader won’t, either.

Are you tired of movies or novels that follow a formula? What examples of unconventional stories can you name?

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Author Spotlight: Michael Chabon

Simply put, Michael Chabon is a writer’s writer. When I read his work, there are passages on every page that make me want to stand up and applaud. His gifts are prodigious. Reading popular fiction is like enjoying a snack compared to Michael Chabon’s novels, which are full seven-course meals that leave the reader fully sated.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1963, Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his 1988 “coming of age” novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It was much more than a coming of age novel. It explored the relationship between a distant, but powerful father and his confused post-college son, in which the father provided everything but love and understanding. It delved into sexual identity and the main character’s confusion about his sexual orientation. The main character skirted the line between the post-graduate world and the murky terrain of low-life criminals. And the prose was typical Chabon—brilliant and compelling.

There followed a five-year period in which Chabon worked on a novel that was never published. Fountain City was planned as the follow-up to his debut novel. It was the story of an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball park in Miami. Working under deadline pressure, Chabon eventually abandoned the project, then turned around and finished his second novel, Wonder Boys, in an astonishing seven months.

Wonder Boys, published in 1995, focuses on college professor and doomed author Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). Tripp is laboring over a weighty manuscript that he cannot seem to get into shape for publication. Meanwhile he is having an affair with the wife of a senior official at the college where he works. And he is mentoring a troubled young student.

Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavaler & Clay, saw the author at the peak of his powers. Published in 2000, the novel won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The story builds on Chabon’s fascination with comic books as it follows two cousins who meet during the throes of the Depression in the late 1930s, but lose touch during World War II. Comic books provide a backdrop for a dark story in which each man struggles to find his soul in a world that is at once welcoming and hostile.

He next published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. This is a fine novel that works both as a hardboiled detective story and as a commentary on geopolitics in the Mideast. Set in a fictional Jewish post-war settlement in Alaska, the novel centers on a down-and-out detective who must solve a complex murder.

Chabon’s literary influences include many noted writers of the 20th Century, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, can take its place among his best work. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Egan (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), said of Telegraph Avenue, “The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarrantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: Kung Fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in the African-American characters and experience.”

It centers on two business partners and dreamers, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records, in a section of Oakland that borders Berkeley, a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities and political beliefs. The store is threatened by a megamall development (including a used record store) proposed by a former NFL star named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile Archy faces major problems on the home front as his teen-age son whom he hasn’t acknowledged returns from Texas to the surprise of his wife, seven months pregnant. Gwen Shanks has problems of her own as the midwife practice she shares with Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, faces a lawsuit and possible revocation of hospital privileges from a birth gone wrong. As if that’s not enough, Archy’s wayward dad, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town after a stint in prison and is looking to shake down a prominent Oakland City Councilman who is the key to the development deal.

In one passage, the reader sees Archy at his lowest: “Archy was tired of Nat, and he was tired of Gwen and her pregnancy, with all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal. He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue  is pure Chabon—robust, scintillating and thoroughly satisfying—but I will review it soon on this blog.

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Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?

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The Arc of the Story

Read any popular novel and you are likely to find similarities in story structure. The classic story arc adheres to this structure:

  • The main character is introduced in her normal world. The author describes the character’s attributes, goals, needs and dreams.
  • The story takes shape through a disruptive event or inciting incident that stands in the way of the character achieving her dream or goal.
  • This leads to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character, growing more serious in nature. This is referred to as “rising action.”
  • Tension is a key element in moving a story along. The tension will rise and fall in intensity as the story progresses.
  • The main character faces a series of increasingly difficult choices as the tension builds.
  • The story’s climax is the point where the main character faces her most serious challenge.
  • The final elements are the denouement and resolution, where the main character meets her challenges, overcomes her fears and obstacles, and achieves her goal.

There are numerous variations on this arc. The thing to keep in mind is that, whatever structure you choose, the story must move the character forward. The character must emerge as a transformed or changed individual. She must discover some truths about herself and act on them. Otherwise, why bother?

Let’s look at the story arc of a classic novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is about to enter the first grade when the story begins. She is a true innocent who thirsts for knowledge. She will discover some hard truths during this story. At first the tension level is low. Scout teams with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, to engage in some harmless pranks. They make several futile attempts to draw out Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor, with comical results.

The story takes a serious turn when a judge assigns Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, to defend a black man who is accused of raping a young white woman in Alabama during the early years of the Great Depression. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and Scout unwittingly deters
an angry mob that descends upon Atticus Finch as he sits outside the cell where Tom Robinson is held. The children later slip into the courthouse to witness Tom Robinson’s trial and their father’s heroic, but unsuccessful, defense of him. The story culminates in a shocking incident resulting in the death of Bob Ewell and the end of the children’s innocence forever.

The arc of the story described above is popular because it is a reliable and logical way to structure a story. However, it’s not the only way to tell a story. Let’s take a look at Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan breaks all the rules of story structure. There is no main character. There is no central story. The novel progresses as a series of short stories with different characters, some of whom show up in later sections of the book. The glue that holds it together is the characters’ interest and involvement in rock and roll music. The novel explores the ideals of rock and roll music (and youth itself) and how the passage of time erodes the passion and dreams of youth. The novel divided critics, but it was such a brilliant piece of writing that it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

As Egan’s novel proves, there are no rules for story structure. What counts is to choose a structure that not only you as a writer can work with, but one that engages the reader.

What story structure works best for you?

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