“The autopsy will be difficult…”
Sometimes it takes a crisis of storytelling to show you what really matters. As I’ve said before, when I first began writing The Icon Thief, I was drawn to the project not only by the story itself, but by the structure I had envisioned—three parallel narratives, intersecting at various points, that would converge at the very end of the novel. My first draft closely followed this original plan, with equal amounts of time being allocated to the characters of Maddy, Powell, and Ilya, and from a structural perspective, it was quite elegant. Unfortunately, what looks good in outline form, viewed from above, doesn’t always work from the point of view of someone experiencing the material for the first time, and I soon found out that for many readers, I’d done too good a job of dividing the story among its three leads, to the point where the focus of the novel was lost. Even highly elaborate narratives work best when there’s one clear protagonist for the reader to follow, and by allocating pages so evenly, I was robbing myself—and the book—of the kind of thread that was necessary to guide the reader through this very complicated story.
The solution, as I noted in my commentary for Chapter 3, was to make Maddy the main character, with the novel repeatedly returning to her story as a sort of home base—an approach I’ve since followed in the two forthcoming sequels. This involved writing new material for Maddy’s story, but even more significantly, it required cutting scenes from the other characters in order to preserve the novel’s overall structure. This wasn’t much of a problem for Ilya, who was deliberately kept offstage for much of Part I, but it was a big problem for Powell, my British investigator, who in the first draft of the novel had almost as much screen time as Maddy. In particular, there was one sequence of chapters near the beginning that clearly had to be cut in some way. In the first chapter, Powell delivers a deposition, confers with his supervisor, Louis Barlow, and attends the forensic examination of the dead girl found under the boardwalk; in the second chapter, he’s told by Barlow that he’ll be denied access to much of the investigation; and in the third, he and Wolfe stake out the bathhouse in Brighton Beach where Sharkovsky and Ilya are meeting.
If you compare this draft with the final version, you’ll find that nearly all this material is gone. Structurally, when I looked at the new plan of the novel, I saw that I only had room here for two chapters, not three. I also found that a lot of what I’d written wasn’t especially interesting. The existing scenes amounted to three or four long expository conversations that don’t give Powell much of a chance to shine—indeed, he comes off as rather adrift. As painful as it was, I realized that I had to scrap much of this material and start over, more than a year after I’d finished what I thought was a solid draft of the entire novel. But once I came to terms with this, the effect was strangely liberating. The challenge, I saw, was to compress this material into a smaller space and to deliver it in a more engaging way. And the only way to do this was to write new scenes when necessary and to pare down the rest to what was most interesting, most readable, and most important—in short, to find the heart of the story.
When I looked over the chapters I had, I found that the most interesting material took place at the scan of the dead girl, who, because she had been mummified in the sand under the boardwalk, had to be examined using advanced medical imaging. As soon as I realized this, the solution became clear: I would set all of Chapter 8 at the scan of the dead girl—which had originally amounted to only a third of the chapter—and provide whatever other information I needed in flashback. Gone was Powell’s lengthy deposition; gone was his meeting with Barlow, who now didn’t appear at all until much later in the story. All that remained was the scan of the girl’s body, which I expanded with some additional research and polished until it stood as a strong chapter on its own. What I found, not surprisingly, was that once the old material was gone, I didn’t miss it at all, although it originally amounted to thousands of words. And that’s the kind of change that’s always worth making—even if it means performing an autopsy on your own book.
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