Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How I reverse-engineered my own novel

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“The conditions of writing change absolutely between the first novel and the second,” Graham Greene observes. “The first is an adventure, the second a duty.” Or at least it’s an adventure of a markedly different kind. A first novel is essentially a series of incursions into uncharted territory: the writing process is full of wrong turns, experiments in tone and structure that later need to be abandoned, and thematic elements introduced on the fly that turn out to be crucial to the entire conception, while others are discarded or transformed into something unrecognizable. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once the manuscript is complete, what used to be a creature shaped by chance and improvisation is now something else entirely—a template. A story that was originally constructed in response to specific, unpredictable narrative problems is now, weirdly enough, the model for its successor, at least when the second novel is designed to follow narratively and thematically from the one that came before it. And the situation is especially peculiar for an author who suddenly finds himself in the position of writing a sequel to a novel that was intended to stand on its own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first wrote The Icon Thief, I had no intention of writing a sequel to a book I’d conceived as a self-contained story, but when I finally sold the manuscript to Penguin, a second novel was part of the deal. When it came time to plot out the next installment, I found myself doing what Frederick Forsyth claims he did while figuring out his own second novel: he went back to his first book and reverse-engineered it, reading it again to see what he’d done intuitively and breaking it down to its basic components. In my own case, there were a number of elements in the first book that I knew I wanted to keep. I liked the underlying structure, which followed three distinct narrative threads that would overlap at various points and finally come together in the climax, and I’d learned few tricks in the meantime that would help me organize this material without a lot of the mistakes that I’d made in earlier drafts. One of these threads, as before, would be a straightforward crime procedural that would provide a useful narrative line for the reader to follow through the thickets of the plot. And I wanted to include some combination of the historical, financial, and religious elements that I’d enjoyed incorporating into the first book.

Most of all, I had to ask myself what the first novel had really been about. The answer, not surprisingly, was one that I’ve mentioned many times before: The Icon Thief turned out to be a book about how we impose meaning on the world and the events of our own lives, even in the absence of real information, or in the face of information overload. In my first book, these themes had arisen from an enigmatic work of art, but I didn’t want to go back to that well again. (Frankly, after two years spent reading about Duchamp, I was feeling a little burned out on art history.) Better, I thought, to focus on the competing interpretations of an enigmatic event, an approach that would ground the novel in a mystery from the real world—which I thought was one of the most appealing aspects of the first novel—and give the characters a chance to indulge in the kind of historical detective work that I relish writing. And it seemed fairly clear that this mystery, whatever it was, would come from the history of Russia. As I’ve explained before, I stumbled into Russia as a subject almost by accident, but now that the rules of the game had been laid down, I knew that I had to start exploring this material in a more systematic way.

Throughout the initial stages of the process, I kept asking myself a simple question: what expectations would my first novel have raised in the mind of a reasonable reader? Looking back over the story I had so far, I saw that it hinted at a larger picture involving the workings of Russian intelligence, but only in very general terms. For the sequel to build logically from the first book, I needed to drill more deeply into this shadow world, and give a clearer sense of its rules and operations. Consequently, I began by reading everything I could about Russia and its intelligence services, always keeping an eye out for the kind of enigmatic incident that could provide the germ of a story. And that’s how I stumbled across the Dyatlov Pass. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what it means and what I found there, but for now, I’ll only say that as soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d found the narrative heart of what would eventually become City of Exiles. I don’t recall the exact words I said at that moment. But I believe they were something like this: “That’s it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

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