Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see…”

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"From a distance, when darkness still made it difficult to see..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’ve never concealed the fact that I love to outline, although there are times when this feels like I’m admitting to a shameful secret. At a moment when literary gardeners seem to outnumber architects, when you say that you not only outline everything you write, but actively enjoy it, it’s a little like confessing to some harmless but suspect deviancy, like being into latex or voting Republican. But although I’ve discussed my outlining process in detail, I’m not sure I’ve ever conveyed how liberating it can be, and how, far from making it hard to lose yourself in a scene, it actually makes it easier to enter it. When I’m outlining, I start with a handful of plot points that I know I need to cover, but after a few minutes have gone by, I’m just riffing on the page. I’m not thinking about good prose, proper grammar, or even complete sentences—I’m putting down each moment as it occurs to me, almost in real time, and before long, I’m more deeply involved in the events I’m describing than if I were worrying about the shape of my sentences, until I’m often surprised by the result. (Lawrence Block describes a similar phenomenon in his classic Writing the Novel.)

Which isn’t to say that outlining doesn’t have its pitfalls. In particular, if you’ve outlined too far in advance, when the time comes to actually write the chapter, you’ll discover that you’re already bored with it. My own solution, which I think is a pretty good one, is to outline only one section of a novel at a time. Originally, this was an intuitive approach that arose from my impatience to dive into the writing itself, but it also has practical benefits. When I sit down to write Part I, which has been outlined down to the paragraph level, it’s often with only a general sense of what happens in Part II. This introduces a welcome element of risk, and also makes my sense of the first section more flexible. No matter how throughly I’ve outlined the sequence of events, I know there’s a good chance that I’ll need to go back and change it radically based on a development that I haven’t yet anticipated. In both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, this sort of uncertainty meant, among other things, that I wrote scenes for important characters who later, to my surprise, turned out to be murderers—which I hope misleads the reader as much as it did me.

"All right. I'll talk to the girl first..."

The tricky thing about this strategy is that it means a great deal of time will elapse between writing different sections. Ideally, this won’t be obvious to a reader after the necessary revisions have taken place, but it can be psychologically challenging for an author returning to the story after a long absence. For The Icon Thief, close to three months went by between my writing the last sentence of Part I and the first sentence of Part II, which are separated by less than ninety minutes in narrative time. In this case, the long gap was made necessary by the fact that although I knew I had to introduce an elaborate conspiracy theory in the second part of the novel, I had only a vague idea of what this theory would be. That aspect of the plot alone took several weeks to figure out, a process I hope to describe further in a future post. And this doesn’t even take into account the machinery of the story itself, which had to be conceived, plotted, and in some cases researched on location. Not surprisingly, when I finally got around to starting Part II, my head was in a very different place than it was when I left Ilya in that vineyard.

As a result, I have an unusually strong memory of writing the first few sentences of Chapter 26. In many ways, it felt as if I were starting the novel all over again, which is why it begins, atypically, with a scene described from a distance, as Powell and Wolfe approach a burning car in the vineyard parking lot. Looking back at it now, I see that their situation was a reflection of my own. I was coming back to my own story after being away for a long time, with my head full of Rosicrucianism and Duchamp and who knows what else, so it took a lot of effort to focus again on the nuts and bolts of this particular crime scene. Similarly, when Powell returns to the mansion to interrogate its occupants about what has just taken place, I’m standing alongside him, curious to see how my characters have dealt with the situation while I was gone. And it was with a sense of great satisfaction that I turned to the following chapter, which brings all the threads of the story together at last. When the next chapter opens, Maddy is sitting alone in a room, waiting to be questioned by Powell, and if she seems nervous, it’s not hard to understand why. She’s been waiting there for months…

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2012 at 9:50 am

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