Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sleight of Verb


Specifically The Amateur Magician's Handbook, by Henry Hay, Harper & Row, 4th Ed., 1982 ( now, sadly, out of print).

It sat, trembling expectantly, on the bookstore shelf, its red-and-black dust jacket crying "Pick me, pick me!"

So I did. My library now contains many volumes on the ancient and noble Art of Fooling People Badly with the Cunning Use of Tricks (i.e. magic, sleight of hand, legerdemain...), but Hay's marvellous 400 page tome is still my favorite, and in many ways, the best. Of course memory embellishes and romanticizes first loves, on which more later.

His first chapter is called The Magic State of Mind, a perfectly felicitous phrase, and it contains some of the best advice concerning the performance of magic I have ever read. It also, strangely enough, contains some of the best advice on writing I have ever read, though I didn't know it at the time, and neither, probably, did Hay.

What he says is this:

"And how do we go about tempting our audience?"

-Already we know he's on to something, don't we...

"The central secret of conjuring (and of art and literature and politics and economics) is a manipulation of interest. (Not just of attention, as we shall see in a moment).
"What, in turn, is interest? Interest is a sense of being involved in some process, actual or potential."

-Italics here, and in all these quotes, are his. Well, he sure had my full and undivided. Now that I look back on it, Hay should perhaps have considered moonlighting as a political campaign manager, or Fed Chairman. He obviously understands the basics.

-Potential process? Well, will the protagonist find the sword/ring/amulet? Whodunnit? First, readers have to care about what happens to your characters, which is another way of saying 'plot'. Twice during the writing of my first novel (as yet unpublished, as I think I told you before) I tried to kill off, in true Shogun style, my main female character. Two of my beta readers, both female, threatened me instantly with grievous bodily harm. Apart from the blinding flash of revelatory insight, and perspective, into life in general provided by this near-death experience, I realized I had created at least one character with whom those readers had bonded emotionally, and it felt...pretty darn good. I had Fooled them into suspending disbelief in the actual unreality of the character. That's a magical effect.

Hay goes on to say:

"Processes too big, too small, too fast, too confused, or too slow for you to take in can't give any sense of involvement; they aren't interesting. That much is obvious."

-He obviously must have worked as a Literary Agent. What better description of the average slush pile could one want? In one incredibly concise statement he has addressed scope, pace, clarity, and detail. And it's obvious that the above statement isn't obvious to every writer, otherwise the slush pile would be smaller, or the request-for-partials stack bigger.

He next addresses something that isn't quite so obvious:

"Interest is not the same as attention. Attention is a simple response to a stimulus - either to a loud bang or (much more powerful) to a feeling of interest.
"Interest is selective, an expediture of energy by the interested party. You, the performer, can never command it, only invite it."

-In other words, you can lead a horse to water, but if you want him to drink you have to rub his gums with salt. Any poor sod who has been forcibly fed Shakespeare or Jane Austen by-the-numbers and by a check-collecting excuse for a teacher knows that enforced attention is the mother of after-school detention. It's like racing an engine without putting it into gear. For magic this means, among other things, that an effect must have a logical unity or theme, which is why you don't often see mentalists producing or vanishing cards; one effect undermines the other...

If you gain the spectator's (reader's) attention, how do you lose it? Again Hay comes to our aid:

"...this means a trick must hang together; that it must not be scrambled by irrelevant objects, motions, or even surprises."

-Repeat after me: if it doesn't advance the story, cut it out.

"Memory is an internally edited record of interest (not of attention, much less of 'events')."

If we have led the suckers - excuse me, the audience - through a realistic enough process, and then by devious and sneakful means and misdirection produce the effect, impossibilities erupt, followed by the inevitable "How did you do that??" To which I usually answer, "Very well, thank you." Perceiving, they think, a certain process, people tend to follow it through to their own logical conclusion. Successful misdirection helps them to wrongly perceive the process because the mind cannot help but make associations based on past experience. Perception becomes reality, which Hay also tackles.

"Perception, too, originates with the perceiver, not with the object."

Although what the perceiver sees is guided, manipulated, and controlled to a degree by the performer (writer). Wonderfully diabolical, isn't it? The performer controls what the audience shall pay attention to, and what it shall not pay attention to, and the way in which each individual can, or cannot, record a personal memory CD.

"In other words, the magic show takes place ultimately in the spectator's head."

-When I read a really good book, I don't see the words on the page; I see Frodo and Gollum through waves of heat, scrabbling in the dust on the edge of Orodruin's pit. I see Paul Atreides, frozen in fear, droplets of sweat trickling down his face while the hunter-seeker hovers above his bed. Don't you?


"You let the audience perform their own magic, with coaching from you."

The story is everything. It's very difficult for me to sound clever and the story to be great at the same time.

What I learned about writing from Henry Hay, who had no idea he was teaching it to me:

-A writer may command attention, but must invite interest.
-Reader's interest may be manipulated to follow a process.
-The process (plot, story) must all hang together.
-The reader's perception may be controlled and restricted to a degree.
-A writer must gain the reader's attention, invite his interest, direct his perceptions, and win his involvement.

One last word from my old friend:

"Suppose you vanish four or five small oranges, and then catch them from empty air - a modest little trick that you can do before you are half-way through the section on hand magic. If you are any showman at all, ten to one that people will quite honestly remember that you caught half a bushel of grapefruit, and piled them up on the stage."

The literary equivalent of that memory is what writers salivate after.

1 comment:

Shwebb said...

Oh, that was a lovely post, Zonk. Well-crafted--and it makes me feel positive that it's only a matter of time for your work to be in print, where it belongs.