Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thoughts on finishing a novel

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In a few hours, if all goes according to plan, I’ll deliver the final draft of Eternal Empire to my publisher. (Whether or not anyone will be on the other end to receive it is another question entirely—the power situation in downtown New York is still pretty dicey, and in any case, Penguin has a lot of other things on its mind.) The funny thing, of course, is that it doesn’t really seem like I’m done. It doesn’t feel anticlimactic, exactly, but there’s never just one moment when you can look at a novel and know you’re finished. This manuscript has been more or less in its final form for about a week, and although I’ve continued to make small revisions up to the last minute, there haven’t been any major structural changes since earlier this month. I also know that I’ll do at least one more rewrite before the end of the year in response to notes from my editor, along with a second set of revisions after the copy edit, and yet another when I receive the page proofs. So even apart from Valéry’s observation that a work of art is never finished, but abandoned, I know that this isn’t really the end of anything.

All the same, it feels good, because this was a challenging novel in more ways than one. The timeline wasn’t quite as compressed as that for City of Exiles: that book was taken from initial synopsis to delivery in about nine months, and Eternal Empire benefited from an extra four weeks or so—which may not sound like a lot, but it went a long way toward preserving my sanity in what was already a very eventful year. Writing it was also tricky given its status as the conclusion of a trilogy. The story had to be accessible to readers who hadn’t read one or both of the previous books, but also had to revisit themes and characters in a way that would be satisfying to those who had followed the series from the beginning. I had a lot of unfinished business from the first two books to resolve, with numerous important players returning alongside entirely new characters. Finally, I wanted to raise the stakes, with heightened suspense and consequences, which meant writing more action, on a page by page basis, than the first two books combined. As a result, it ended up being a very crowded novel, and although I think I’ve managed to find a shape for the story that works, it wasn’t easy.

And there’s another sense in which this novel, like the others, will never really be finished. A first novel is a fluke, but two establish a pattern, and one of the most fascinating and difficult things about writing a third book is navigating the lessons and expectations that the previous ones have established. Each of my first two novels had elements that I wanted to preserve: The Icon Thief is denser and more complicated, City of Exiles faster and more streamlined, and my goal for the third installment was to combine the complexity of the first with the momentum of the second. The result was a kind of ongoing triangulation, as I found myself steering the narrative along a winding channel with the previous two books as markers. And I suspect that this is a process that will repeat itself with every book I write. I’m always going to be looking back at my old stuff, keeping what I like, discarding what I don’t, and trying to put together a body of work that makes sense when you stand back and look at it as a whole. Books talk to one another and shed light on their predecessors in surprising ways, and there’s a sense in which my first novel, for instance, will never read in quite the same way, now that it has two others lined up behind it.

As to where things go from here, I’m not entirely sure. After delivering the draft, I expect to spend the rest of the day handing out candy—we got something like two hundred trick-or-treaters last year. Certainly I’m hoping to take a couple of days off to read some good books, take care of a few projects around the house that I’ve been postponing for a while, and do my best to avoid obsessing over the polls. But I expect that I’ll get back to work on something soon—I feel nervous whenever I’m not writing, and as enticing as it sounds to do nothing, the appeal wears off pretty quickly. I have a general idea of what I’d like to do next, although for the first time in more than two years, I find myself without a book under contract. It’s a slightly precarious position, but it’s also liberating: I’ve been writing about the same ideas and characters for a long time, and as much as I’ll miss Maddy, Wolfe, Ilya, and the rest, I’m looking forward to trying something new. That’s the thing about writing: for all its constraints and pitfalls and frustrations, it really does allow for limitless possibilities. And the idea of pursuing these possibilities in a new direction, wherever they end up taking me, is very exciting.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2012 at 9:40 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

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