Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Maddy arrived ten minutes early…”

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(Note: This post is the fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 3. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I knew from early on that The Icon Thief would follow three parallel stories, each unfolding more or less independently until they converged at the end of the novel. Once I’d identified my three main characters—Maddy Blume, Alan Powell, and Ilya Severin—the problem became one of structuring the novel so that the narrative transitions made sense. I quickly discovered that there’s a reason why most books and movies, with the occasional exception, focus so clearly on one protagonist: not only does it give the audience someone to root for, but it allows for a kind of narrative clarity that can be hard to achieve with more than one main character. I finished the first draft of the novel thinking that I’d solved this structural problem fairly well, but one of the earliest comments I got back from readers was that I’d done almost too good a job of cutting between the three strands: I’d given Maddy, Powell, and Ilya roughly the same number and distribution of scenes, so it was hard to figure out what the novel’s true center of interest was supposed to be. And I soon found that fixing this problem would require some radical restructuring, at a point when the entire novel had already been written.

In the end, I was forced to conclude that, while it might not be as elegant as the perfectly balanced structure I’d initially conceived, I had to pick a main protagonist, both in terms of narrative screen time and emotional emphasis. The obvious choice was Maddy: she was arguably the most complex, interesting character, as well as the most relatable, and the one I’d conceived first. (In some ways, Ilya was the real heart of the book, but for reasons I’ll explain later, it was important not to overexpose him.) Once I’d decided to focus on Maddy, the book’s structural problems came clear: in the original draft, Maddy first appeared in Chapter 1, but wasn’t seen again until Chapter 4, after the two other main characters had been introduced, and her scenes were similarly parceled out throughout the first half of the novel, which made it hard for the reader to get involved in her situation. To make her the obvious lead, I saw that I had to keep cutting back to her end of the plot. Chapter 1 would still be about Maddy, but after introducing Powell in Chapter 2, I’d cut back to Maddy again, and continue focusing on her in alternate chapters for the first eighty pages or so. When in doubt, Maddy’s story would be my home base, and the reader, I hoped, would respond accordingly.

When I looked at the novel in this light, I realized, with a sinking feeling, that it would require some radical surgery. The number of chapters allocated to Powell had to be reduced, which required cutting and combining several of his scenes. Even more problematic was the realization, after I’d reshuffled the pieces, that I needed a new scene for Maddy, one that would come right after Powell’s introduction, to lock in the impression that she was the main character. None of the scenes I’d written so far fit the bill, which placed me in the somewhat awkward position of having to write a crucial early chapter from scratch, several months after I’d finished what I thought was the final draft of the novel. Because of its placement, it had to be a strong, interesting scene, but it couldn’t upset the sequence of chapters that had already been written. This presented me with a rather challenging puzzle to solve, much as a director might request a reshoot to fill in a plot hole revealed in the editing room. Luckily, as a writer, my budget is unlimited, so it wasn’t hard to reassemble the cast for a new scene in which Maddy meets a couple of friends in a New York restaurant for a drink—and some information.

Looking back at Chapter 3, I can’t say it’s one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, but it’s a nice, cleanly written chapter that does more or less what I needed it to do. By the time I wrote it, I’d been living with Maddy for well over a year, so I understood aspects of her character—her ambition, her relative destitution, her willingness to use others, and her underlying loneliness—better than I had before, so I was able to bring these out more clearly. (It also allowed me to describe her appearance more fully, which was another common request from readers.) I also solved another problem almost by accident. In the first draft, and this was nothing but a dumb mistake on my part, I didn’t fully explain the art world mystery behind Étant Donnés until much later, when Maddy goes to meet Alexey Lermontov, her former employer. Reading the novel over again, I realized that by withholding these details for no good reason, I was failing to play one of my strongest cards, and that this new scene provided a convenient way of putting this information up front. In short, by adding one fairly straightforward chapter toward the end of the writing process, I addressed the novel’s structural problems, gave more insight into a difficult main character, and foregrounded some of the most interesting material in the entire book. Now that’s a good fix!

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

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