Here’s how we play: Sometimes I need to talk to myself in the form of essays about technique–a long time ago I discovered that all my best thinking involves a degree of explaining. Thus this post is primarily for myself, but as always, you’re welcome to eavesdrop.
Over the past year or so, I’ve occasionally posted excerpts from a work in seemingly endless progress. They were shards deemed sufficiently finalized for placement in an online window because–on a number of levels–they really were like still-warm pies. And I have to admit I’ve been both surprised and flattered by the variety of visitors they’ve attracted.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about limitations of such excerpts. Their successful selection for optimal stand-alone scrutiny ensures the complete absence of original context. In effect, a highlight from a much larger work has been wrested and severed and retrofitted to vaguely operate as a short story.
For instance, here’s a paragraph carefully chosen because it contains a miniature backstory arc:
Big, Deep Breath
Third try, then. Big, deep breath. You’re the guy who wrote “Not Really Green Eyes.” Yes, that one–the one on the radio; the one inescapable all that summer; the one that was stately and progressive and about the woman you were living with at the time. So obviously you’ve got The Touch, and, well, any label needs artists with that. Which makes the deal you’re discussing now that much more attractive–and also cost-effective because these days there’s only you. Back when you had topped the charts, there had been a band–though, in truth, Dark Victory’s revolving members had made it more of a conceptual group. But nevertheless, you’re solo now; militantly single after a bad marriage. And to keep yourself from wincing here, you light another Gauloise.
Here also, is the attendant vocal test, because yes, I’m still writing this book that way; in every instance a final-draft passage is the one that works best when read aloud–by design, Best Vocalization even trumps technically better “page writing.”
[restore audio link]
“Big, Deep Breath” is not necessarily the best piece of writing I could have chosen, but it is, however, perfectly suited as a bite-sized bit of meaning–its tiny “story” neatly ends with an equally minuscule “closure” (or, rather, something that out of context can be made to function that way).
But here’s the thing: “Big, Deep Breath,” while not the book’s stellar passage, is a far better piece of writing than its excerpt-context suggests. Things are happening in the paragraph that can only properly resonate within the larger work. Sometimes it’s not so much the struck orchestral triangle as it is the interplay of the surrounding acoustics: the book quite literally can be seen as the missing concert hall.
It’s no wonder, then, that these days I’ve been wondering if a better way might be possible–one that doesn’t involve a work becoming its own weird set of Cliff Notes. And then this morning it suddenly struck me that what I wanted was a kind of film trailer.
Coming Attractions have always fascinated me because the best ones rise above the obligation to simply intrigue an audience. A world-class trailer captures the film’s quintessence without necessarily telling its story–or, and this is significant, even adhering to its timeline. In fact, a great trailer frequently conveys a movie’s emotional resonance by significantly rethinking its structure. While the logic of this is obvious (no one–not filmmaker, studio, theater or audience–is best-served by a two-minute Classics Illustrated version), the odd Is / Not-Is of a great trailer is magical in the same way a 20-minute John Coltrane deconstruction of “My Favorite Things” nevertheless remains emotionally true to the vastly different original song.
Since this morning, I’ve been wondering if a collection of excerpts from the book could be cut together and made to function in the manner of an artful film trailer–as a meditation on its essential themes, but not necessarily a mirror.
What I envision is something luxuriously long, at least by the standard of conventional excerpts–perhaps as many as 10,000 words–something with no obligation to match the event-arc of the book.
Given that part of the novel is concerned with the remixing of songs in a recording studio, let me try to put this another way: imagine an instance where the dance mixes of a song collection–which are usually after-the-fact exercises–function instead as its pre-release singes. Imagine getting to know these artful mutations before you meet the real thing.
I’m not claiming that this is breakthrough thinking, but I also can’t recall any instances of book-excerpt-as-film-trailer. So if this has been done, it’s happened only rarely, and–flashing amber light here–possibly for good reason . . .
Despite the lack of other examples, I’m still inclined to see what I can do with this concept. If a book proposal conveys what happens in a story, then film-trailer excerpts could demonstrate how it feels. It goes back to the aforementioned Is / Not-Is of all the best Coming Attractions–just as fiction is a true lie about the world, a further fictionalizing of the relationship of its excerpts might hew truer to the larger, imminent work.