Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Louis Barlow, the assistant special agent in charge…”

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(Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Nearly every filmmaker can tell you stories about a great performance that was cut, for various reasons, from the final version of a movie. William Goldman gives a nice account in Which Lie Did I Tell? of Linda Hunt’s lost supporting turn in Maverick; the editor Ralph Rosenblum has a heartbreaking anecdote in When The Shooting Stops about actor Monroe Arnold, whose brilliant performance was cut entirely from Goodbye Columbus; and you can hear similar stories from half the cast of The Thin Red Line. (The A.V. Club has an nice list of other examples.) And if this happens frequently in movies, it’s even more common in novels, where it’s much easier to cut, condense, or even scrap characters entirely. A handful of writers have spoken about this, and at least one—Stephen King in the uncut edition of The Stand—has even restored a missing character. But I’d guess that nearly every novel of any length probably includes characters whose original roles were considerably more extensive than what eventually ended up in print.

In The Icon Thief, the greatest casualty was the character of Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge. Barlow originated as a convenient foil for Powell, my British investigator, and when I conceived the character, I didn’t have much more in mind than a cross between Landsman from The Wire and Alec Baldwin in The Departed. In writing the first draft, however, I got to like Barlow a lot—he was an amusing character, outwardly crude but much smarter than he seemed, who injected some welcome humor into an essentially serious novel. Unfortunately, a lot of it didn’t survive. As I’ve mentioned before, when I restructured the novel, I was forced to condense much of Powell’s material, and the real casualty here was Barlow—in the original draft, he first appears in a big scene in the fifth chapter, and in the final version, he doesn’t show up until we’re past the first hundred pages. As a result, he’s the one character in this book whose image, in my own mind, is much different than what the reader sees.

Chapter 15 is my attempt to salvage as much of Barlow’s material from the first draft as I could, while also conveying a lot of essential information as efficiently as possible. The result is almost comically condensed. Over the course of a single chapter, Powell needs to hear about a mysterious language on a wiretap; convince Barlow to give him an audio sample; bring in a graduate student to translate, and get him security clearance; explain to Wolfe how he figured out that the language was Assyrian, and how bringing in the translator has given him a source inside the wire team; and use the resulting translation to determine that the men under surveillance are planning to attend a party in Southampton. We’re introduced to a handful of new characters and given additional background material on several more. This is a lot of material, and it’s all essentially designed to get us to a single plot point: Powell and Wolfe are going to stake out the house in the Hamptons. And I’ve only got five pages to cover it.

The challenge was to get through all this material in a way that was light on its feet without feeling overly rushed, and I think it sort of works, although I had to use a lot of tricks to get there. For instance, there were originally two agents listening to the wire, but I combined them into one character to save room—a nice novelistic illustration of Occam’s Razor, which says that you never want more moving parts than you need. I made good use of First Blood author David Morrell’s tip to cut the first and last paragraphs of a scene that isn’t working, which gets me into and out of the heart of the chapter without any delay. And the result, I think, is a nice example of an expository chapter that reads well in its own right—and I doubt I would have zipped through this information quite as efficiently if I hadn’t been forced to do so by structural constraints. When you have ten pages worth of material to convey in half the space, you find ways of doing it in less time. And that’s the moral here: I miss Barlow and the scenes that he lost, but in the end, I didn’t really need him.

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