In my Saturday email newsletters, I usually include a little section with links to articles and writing tips I’ve stumbled across in my Internet travels. But sometimes I want to make a comment on one of the articles or highlight a specific quote. So I thought I’d turn that little section into its own blog post today and share five favorite writerly things I found in June.
Let me know if you like this format, and I might write up a second installment next month. Enjoy!
1. The Novella That Wasn’t Meant to Be Read: How Graham Greene Wrote The Third Man
I recently re-watched the 1949 film noir classic The Third Man, one of my favorite movies. Since I was already familiar with the story, I was able to focus on the cinematography and the fantastic acting performances of Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s set in post-war Vienna and follows the adventures of pulp novelist Holly Martins as he investigates the suspicious death of his friend, Harry Lime. I love the atmosphere of the movie, and after this viewing, I went to see if the screenplay had been based on a novel and if it was worth reading.
I discovered that the screenplay had been written by Graham Greene, one of the leading novelists of the 20th century who was shortlisted twice for the Nobel Prize.
But here’s the cool part. The movie wasn’t based on any of Greene’s already written stories. However, he did write a novella in order to write the screenplay.
In a preface to the now published novella, Greene explained,
The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen…To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere, and these it seems to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one need to draw on. The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before it began those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another.
It’s fascinating to get this peek into a writer’s creative process. Most screenwriters probably don’t write a whole novella first before getting down to work on the screenplay, but Greene found that this method worked best for him.
He also described his editing process:
…Carol Reed [the film’s director] and I worked closely together, covering so many feet of carpet a day, acting scenes at each other. No third ever joined our conferences; so much value lies in the clear cut-and-thrust of argument between two people. To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film or a play; but The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.
I love this unusual way that the story came into existence with the director and Greene acting out scenes and deciding what to keep and what to discard. If you’re having difficulty editing a scene in a story or a novel, maybe acting it out with a friend or just talking it out will help you.
Here’s another cool tidbit about Greene’s creative process. The entire idea for the story came from a single paragraph that had been floating in Greene’s head for years:
Most novelists, I suppose, carry round in their heads or in their notebooks the first ideas for stories that have never come to be written. Sometimes one turns them over after many years and thinks regretfully that they would have been good once, in a time now dead. So years back, on the flap of an envelope, I had written an opening paragraph: “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”
Moral of the story: never give up on a story idea! It might take a while before you find the right form in which to tell the story.
If you’ve seen The Third Man and enjoyed it, I’d definitely recommend reading the novella for a behind the scenes look at how the film came to be. We very rarely get the chance to read the first drafts of famous writers.
I haven’t yet read any other Graham Greene novels, but I did write about him in this article where I shared a quote from The End of the Affair that described Greene’s own writing process (and the power of a small daily word count goal — he wrote 24 novels):
Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript.
2. A Strategy to Help You Wright a Gripping Story
Speaking of discovering the creative process that works best for you, I came across an essay by the writer Tom Perrotta in which he shares a strategy that helps him to keep a story’s momentum going. (I haven’t read any of his books so am not familiar with his writing, but I liked this specific piece of advice he shared.)
Perrotta’s first novel was a failure, rejected by forty editors. He admits that the rejections were probably deserved. The narrative of the story had lost energy as it went along, and he hadn’t even been sure how or where to end the book.
I promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I was determined to write something short and tight, a narrative that gathered energy as it went along, and propelled the reader to an exciting conclusion. I didn’t want anyone — especially me! — to be able to say they’d gotten bored in the middle, or had put the book down and forgotten to pick it back up again.
The novel that emerged from this vow was Election, the story of three teenagers…vying to become President of Winwood High School, and the morally compromised teacher who’s advising them. It turned out to be half the length of Lucky Winners and took me less than a year to write.
What was Perrotta’s secret strategy?
Unlike its predecessor, Election came equipped with a built-in time frame, a central narrative question, and a clear endpoint. It started on the day the candidates submit their nominating petitions, and proceeded from there. They choose their campaign teams and strategies, make their speeches, engage in some low-level skullduggery, and so on, all the way to the disputed vote count and the announcement of the winner. Throughout the entire process, I never had to ask myself where I was going or what I should focus on, even though I was juggling four main characters and six narrators. If I felt lost, I just had to ask myself: What happens next with the election?…
The time frame anchors the narrative and defines the field of play. Anything can happen in that space, and I’m happy to let my characters range freely within its confines, surprising me in any way they can. I don’t mind that kind of uncertainty; at least I know that we’re not lost in the void, drifting through one of those endless, exhausting stories that keeps expanding like the universe, losing shape and energy as it grows.
Perrotta embraces the fact that he doesn’t enjoy writing a long saga. Instead, he found the method that worked for him to tell a gripping story.
Are you having trouble with a rambling plot? You might find it helpful to follow Perrotta’s strategy and give your characters a fixed time frame in which they have to reach a specific goal.
3. Writing Inspiration Is All Around You
Here’s another essay on writing. I stumbled across this lecture by Shirley Jackson, author of the famous 1948 short story “The Lottery”. In this lecture, she mused on various writing topics, sharing how she found time to write as a busy mother and how she drew on everyday experiences for writing material.
I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.
I love a story she recounted of a time when a large porcelain bowl shattered when she was playing cards with her friends. She explained how she would use such a mundane occurrence to help her write vivid descriptions in her stories:
I was playing bridge one evening with a musician, a chemistry teacher, and a painter when, during a particularly tense hand, a large porcelain bowl that we kept on the piano suddenly shattered. After we had all calmed ourselves down, we found four completely individual reactions. Looking at all the tiny scattered pieces, I thought that I had never realized before how final a metaphor a broken bowl could be. The chemistry teacher pointed out that someone had emptied an ashtray into the bowl with a cigarette still burning, and of course the heat had shattered the bowl. The painter said that the green of the bowl was deepened when the light caught the small pieces. The musician said that the sound it made when it broke was a G sharp. Then we went back and finished our bridge hand.
Someday I know that I am going to need that broken bowl. I will keep the recollection of those scattered pieces, lying on the piano, and someday when I want a mental image of utter destruction the bowl will come back to me in one of a dozen ways. Suppose, for instance, that someday I had occasion to describe a house destroyed by an explosion; the manner of destruction would be different, of course, but what I can remember is the way the little pieces of the bowl lay there so quietly after they had been for so long parts of one unbroken whole; now, not one of them could have found its place again, and the compactness that had held them together no longer existed in this world.
Suppose I wanted to describe the effect of a sudden shock—I had just played a jack of spades when the bowl broke, and for what must have been three or four seconds I sat staring at the jack of spades uncomprehendingly before I caught my breath again. Suppose someday I want to describe the sense of loss over a treasured and valuable article—my green bowl was not particularly valuable, or I wouldn’t have let people dump ashtrays into it, but I can remember how I felt when I swept up the pieces and put them in the garbage and how entirely destroyed the pieces looked.
4. A Little Writing Humor
This is just a bit of fun. Did you know that the world’s first customer complaint is almost 4,000 years old?
What could be the world’s first complaint about shoddy service is on a clay tablet that was first sent about 3,800 years ago in southern Mesopotamia from the city of Ur, which is now Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq.
Held in the British Museum in London…the Old Babylonian-era tablet is from a man named Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered, and about misdirection and delay of a further shipment.
You can read the full text of the complaint in this article. Here’s a teaser:
Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:
When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!” …
How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.
Should customer reviews be considered their own art form, haha?
5. Paul Simon’s Writing Process
Finally, here is a video I sent in my last email newsletter, but I thought I’d include it here for anyone who missed it. Watch Paul Simon on the Dick Cavett show sharing his song writing process.
And that’s it! I hope you enjoyed reading and found an article or a quote that inspired you.
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Thank you! Wishing you much success with your writing projects this July! God bless.