Writing “Nikki this Hollywood Life”

Nikki, This Hollywood Life

This is a guest post by Vanessa Gordot, who’s short story “Nikki this Hollywood Life” is available on Amazon here. Her bio appears at the end.

When I began this story I started with the idea of writing  a little exercise using a technique I’d never really explored: the interior monologue, or “internalization” as it’s sometimes called. I had a fragment that I’d written a long time ago, something that had a moment:

The sun was almost down, a swath of neon pink sunset splashed across the western horizon. The tide had turned and the waves were small, little more than a gentle wash that rolled softly up the beach then expired with a sigh.

As she watched, the street lights came on and were reflected from the wet sand where the waves receded. Someone had a window open, their stereo turned up. The cadences of a Mozart concerto floated out upon the evening air, seeming to settle all about her, like a benediction.

I thought I’d try to use the internal monologue because in following my idle curiosity I’d read a couple Daphne du Maurier novels, and in one of them, internal monologue was almost the whole book. The other interesting thing about how DdM did it, and something I simply copied altogether when I wrote this story, thinking it was a good idea, is to simply have the main character say, through the internal monologue, what the problem is. Why mess around, try and be subtle? Just have her come out and say it.

Go ahead, read Frenchman’s Creek for yourself and see how she does it.

Now, I think this is important: the lovely part of the technique is that it lodges the story question right in the reader’s mind, directly from the character to the reader; here’s how it is for me, the character says, and that’s it.

The phrase “story question” might bother you. That kind of nomenclature used to bother me, too. It sounds so cold and manipulative, so artificial and far from what I want my stories to sound like and feel like. I certainly don’t want my reader to feel like she’s being jerked around like a puppet on a string or pushed this way or that way. But it doesn’t bother me anymore; now it feels comfortable. What’s more, now I know in an empirical two-plus-two way what’s going on when I get to the story question, and I think I’m in a better position to mess with it and get it to do the job that, within the context of the story, needs doing. It’s easier and surer to have a bit of empirical knowledge, to think “this is the way they say it needs to work” rather than to rely entirely on your instincts and your feel.

The phrase “story question” is a little misleading, though. The writer doesn’t actually ask a question. What she does is have the main character make a statement or think a thought, and this thought lodges the question in the reader to be worried about. For Nikki, it happens when she thinks:

From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like the person she had become.

I added a couple sentences to try an imply to the reader that if she continued to feel this way, she might very well kill herself. That’s what I wanted the reader worried about. Now (hopefully) I’ve got the reader rooting for this girl, hoping she pulls out of this nosedive.

I think one of the key things about putting the story question into internal monologue is that it is totally bound up with how the character feels about herself. However the character feels, that’s how the reader is going to feel her feeling, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously catch on to other stuff, she still receives the force of the implication.

The implication.

I think that’s so important. That’s what so much of fiction writing is about: putting the implication into the readers sub-mind, that level just a shade below conscious here-and-now.

Is there such a thing, am I making all this up?

Ever pass someone on the street (it happens in Manhattan), catch his eyes and get a creepy feeling, know somehow that things were not right with him, know this without really stopping to consider it? What you saw in that person’s eyes went into what I call your sub-mind. The person behind you, with a little more access to their sub-mind, or perhaps with less to worry about or less distracted might think, that guy is a raging psychopath. That’s how I think the sub-mind works, and that’s where I think a lot of fiction creates its effect. (I recently read an article in the New Yorker that talked about mirror neurons in the brain and it seems to me that’s the mechanism that makes fiction work. Same thing, more scientific.)

Once I got the story question in, I had an idea of where I wanted to get to. In the back of my mind was the core of what takes place at the Ritz Carlton. I had this line of dialogue that I’d heard oh, a long time ago. A friend of mine had told me about a remark made by an actress he knew. She said: “I sucked his cock and I still didn’t get the part.” It’s always seemed to me to be kind of an iconic line, and I’ve always wanted to find a place for it.

Another actress, from the same time in my life, had uttered the line, “Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?” That’s so good, it’s something I could never make up. She was a very tough character actress, and she said the line the day after a guy had broken into her apartment in Hollywood and raped her doggie style. Yes, she was pretty damn tough.

So once I got the story question in, I was thinking that’s where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get there, or if I did get there, I had no idea how in the world I’d write it.

I felt really stuck. What do I do now? I knew I wanted to get to the Ritz Carlton scene and I had an idea of the general shape it would take (they have drinks, they go up to his room, etc.). But I didn’t want to start out they meet they order drinks they sit down they chit-chat, blah blah blah. It was all a vague blur to me, a lot of non-dramatic folderol that isn’t going to be very interesting. It’s all stereotyped and clichéd.

I had just advised a writing friend to cut out a bunch of stuff and start the scene as deeply into it as possible. That thought came back to me: why not start the scene way deep into it? Hell, I said to myself, I’ll just start this scene as deeply into it as humanly possible! So I started it with the only clear image I had in my mind: the hotel room door closing behind her as she leaves the room and the scene is over. I think it’s quite amusing in a bizarre, writerly way, to start a scene “deep in” with the last thing that happens when the scene ends. You can’t start any further in than that.

And yet it works. As soon as I closed the door behind her, since I was in internal monologue, I had to write her reaction to the situation she’d just been involved in (though, of course, I didn’t know at that point in any detail what had happened because I hadn’t worked it out). But I knew she wasn’t going to feel good during the scene itself, so I went for the opposite: I made her feel a sense of half-assed achievement after the hotel room door closes.

And it makes logical sense. What do you say when you leave the dentist’s office after having a tooth pulled? You say hell, that wasn’t so bad. You say that because the anticipation of having a tooth pulled is often worse than actually going through it with a hefty dose of Novocain, and you say it because the Novocain hasn’t worn off yet.

At this point I should mention that my first inclination in writing something is a tendency to do the opposite. The opposite of where the characters are, the opposite of what the reader expects. So if the character is happy at the beginning (Oedipus is crowned king) he will be unhappy at the end (he finds out he’s been sleeping with his mom and gets his eyes poked out). Why do the opposite? It makes it interesting. Cast against type: make the heroine morally challenged. It’s more fun that way. I don’t know what you need for a reason, but that does it for me.

Once I got the door closed and her reacting, the rest was easy: Her internal monologue giving an overview of what happened, all from her tight personal point of view. It’s easy because she gets to characterize things and to give the highlights. It’s an announcer’s play by play. All I had to do was watch the pace, stay just ahead of the reader and pay attention to the sentence variety.

It does contain my most favorite line from the story:

She washed her face where her eyes had watered,

That’s it, no embellishment necessary. I like to think the reader winces.

The next scene transition, from the phone call and the reaction back to sitting there thinking about how she doesn’t like herself anymore, that was easy. You can take your character as far away as you want, in space or time, and when you bring her back, all you have to do is have her feel the same as she felt before, and you’re home free. Once again, it’s nice to know there’s a technique for this and you don’t really have to figure anything out; follow the dotted lines.

The dialogue between the two of them was fun to write. I love that stuff; I wish I’d been writing movies back in the 30s and 40s, I would have loved it I’m such a romantic fool.

The really good thing about having the clean-cut guy show up when he does is that it is a surprise to the reader when it happens, and then it clicks in as inevitable. Granted, it’s not a big surprise; it’s just a small one. It also helps keep the story tight; the character is already there in the beginning, so it’s “oh, yeah, of course, he likes her, she left her purse . . .”

The tone of the story changes so much from where her feelings are at and then to her transition into being an actress that I’m still not entirely sure I’m finished with that. I’ve done some work on it.

The ending was hard. Well, some of it was easy, but I got the first part of it, and thought I was at the ending with her happy. But just a plain old happy ending didn’t get it for me; I wanted it to be ambiguous, uncertain, and then, going back and forth with the writer Patricia DeLois (Bufflehead Sisters), I hit on the idea that she snaps out of actress mode back into the reality of what she’s doing. So I thought I’d change the physical setting (the turn into the side street) to give a setting and tonal change to provide a clue to her change in perspective. It’s not great but it’s the best I could do. As Picasso once said, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get the idea across.

I did that and then, in a later version, the turn into the side street is no longer there. The story was basically over.

Let me mention one other thing. Writers use the “cut” change of scene device. This is double space, a couple asterisks, double space, change of scene. I wanted to do this story without that device, which is, if you think about it, maybe over-used. So I wrote transitions that don’t do that.

I did take wrong turns during the writing. I think the major one was I gave Nikki a roommate, and the day after the Ritz scene Nikki tells her and they talk. Then, I don’t know, I guess God reached down and tapped me on the shoulder and told me I didn’t need it. No, actually the roommate turned into a very strong character and the whole story started to go off into another direction. So the roomy came out.

That’s more or less how the story came about. Roughly.

About Vanessa Gordot

Born in Paris, I speak French, English and Russian because I was a schoolgirl in Moscow where I lived for several years while accompanying my parents who were attached to a diplomatic mission. Both of my parents died in a tragic accident in 1996, when a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76, collided in mid-air near New Delhi, India with a Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747, resulting in the loss of all 349 lives. The accident was ruled pilot error, with the Ilyushin aircraft failing to follow air-traffic controller instructions.

As a writer I have achieved nothing,  for I am as they say a complete beginning person. So I have everything to learn and nothing to lose except perhaps some innocence. And isn’t having innocence always the prelude to becoming more worldly? I should like to learn to write about some of the things I have seen happen to others and experienced myself, but making them into stories others can read and hopefully enjoy. All this sounds stupid to me now as I put it down, but I shall leave it as it is, for it is a true expression of some part of me that seems to want to go out into the world.

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