Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2013

How is writing like software development?

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Bjarne Stroustrup

  • The most important single aspect of software development is to be clear about what you are trying to build.
  • Successful software development is a long-term activity.
  • The systems we construct tend to be at the limit of the complexity that we and our tools can handle.
  • There are no “cookbook” methods that can replace intelligence, experience, and good taste in design and programming.
  • Experimentation is essential for all nontrivial software development.
  • Design and programming are iterative activities.
  • The different phases of a software project, such as design, programming, and testing, cannot be strictly separated.
  • Programming and design cannot be considered without also considering the management of these activities.

Bjarne Stroustrup, The C++ Programming Language

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August 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

The end is the beginning is the end

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The Scythian Trilogy

As I’ve noted before, the number three has a magical quality for authors, which may be why so many of us are tempted to write trilogies. If the second installment in a series is about building on the world established by the first and taking it into unexpected directions, the third is generally about coming full circle: it revisits and reimagines the events that brought us here in the first place, often revealing surprising perspectives on the story’s origins. The Dark Knight Rises is a good recent example: in many ways, it’s an attempt to engage Batman Begins through the lens of The Dark Knight, and both of the earlier films are enriched in the process. It doesn’t always work, of course: I may be in the minority here, but to my eyes, a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little mired in backstory when it tries to cast new light on what came before. And as The Bourne Legacy unfortunately demonstrates, once you’ve already attempted that kind of thematic return, it can be very hard to move forward in an interesting way—which is why so many franchises fall apart when they attempt a fourth installment.

In my case, a trilogy wasn’t necessarily a part of the plan—I would have considered myself lucky enough just to get The Icon Thief into print—but once I knew that I’d be writing a set of connected novels, I had to think hard about what this really meant, both in general and for these books in particular. Writing City of Exiles forced me to consider the problem of a sequel, which needs to continue the story established in the previous installment while remaining a satisfying book in its own right, and Eternal Empire, in turn, obliged me to deal with the issue of endings. I knew from the start that this would be the last book in the series, and I wanted to come up with a strong conclusion while I still had the freedom and ability to do so. As a result, when it came time for me to plan out the third book, only a few months after finishing the second, I was thinking as much about destruction as creation. (Years from now, if I ever write a fourth novel with these characters, I may need to eat my words, but for the moment, let’s assume that I stick to my guns.)

The Scythian Trilogy

I decided, in short, that Eternal Empire would be a direct sequel to The Icon Thief to a degree that City of Exiles was not. In a sense, it ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end. I don’t think I was aware of this structural peculiarity while I was writing the book, and if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. It meant a lot of complicated bookkeeping and rebalancing, as I tried to give each character his or her fair share of attention while advancing the story at the same time, and at one point, I worried that the book would become too unwieldy to manage. (In fact, it ended up being exactly the same length as the previous two novels, although not without a lot of cutting and reworking.) Throughout it all, I was encouraged by the fact that the ending was in sight, which allowed me to take greater risks than if I were hoarding material for future books. For better or worse, it’s all here.

And it freed me to do something that I thought I’d never do: bring back Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief. Of all the characters I’ve created, I feel most protective of Maddy, whose inner life, in some ways, is closest to my own. As I recently explained in my author’s commentary for the first book, I felt that I’d resolved her story on an appropriate note of ambiguity, and I didn’t want to bring her back for a sequel, both because I couldn’t think of a plausible way of including her and because I thought she deserved a break. Eventually, though, I found myself curious about what she’d been doing in the intervening years, and I finally hit on a narrative device that would allow me to reintroduce her in a logical way. Sometimes the belated return of an established character can make it seem as if an author is writing fanfic for his own creations—which I’ve hopefully managed to avoid. But the result, at least for me, is the novel that I’ve been building toward all along, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 8:23 am

Quote of the Day

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Srinivasa Ramanujan

I remember once going to see [Ramanujan] when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

G.H. Hardy, on Srinivasa Ramanujan

(On hearing this story, J.E. Littlewood remarked: “Every positive integer is one of Ramanujan’s personal friends.”)

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

Writing a thriller in the real world

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The 2011 London riots

When I began researching The Icon Thief in March of 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 12,500 points, and it was about to go much higher. Exactly one year later, while I was revising the rough draft, it had plunged to 6,600, and although it slowly recovered from there, it remained far below its previous heights even after the novel was released. (In fact, it wasn’t until after the release of my second novel that the market earned back its losses from the crash.) For most books, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but it presented me with a peculiar problem: my book was set in the New York art world, which was hit especially hard by the downturn, and many of my assumptions about the art market and art investing—not to mention that state of Russia—were no longer correct. I could have tried to revise the entire manuscript to take these events into account, but I chose a different strategy: I recast the novel to take place explicitly in the months before the financial crisis, which I’d address directly only in the epilogue. That way, I’d be able to retain most of the story I’d written, and setting it in a specific period would lend the plot a useful degree of historical irony.

In retrospect, I needn’t have worried: by the time The Icon Thief was finally released in early 2012, the markets had largely recovered, and the art world—especially on the auction side—had returned to business as usual. Still, it made for a better novel, and it also set a template for the installments that followed, which, for the sake of consistency, I decided to also set on specific dates in the recent past. Of course, this approach has pitfalls of its own. A casual reader isn’t likely to pick up on any chronological inconsistencies, but I’ve always been mindful of the example of obsessive Sherlock Holmes fans, who argue endlessly over the date on which the stories take place and ruthlessly pick apart Arthur Conan Doyle for his “mistakes”—which can be as minor as incorrectly describing the London weather or train schedule for a particular weekend in 1895. As a result, I resolved early on to make the details as accurate as I could. For each of these novels, I’ve put together a calendar to make sure that the action unfolds in a logical way, and I’ve tried to account for things like railway schedules, weekends, and holidays. (Occasionally, there will be a small discrepancy, such as the fact that July 4 comes and goes in The Icon Thief without anyone taking notice of it.)

2011 Russia Protests

This becomes particularly difficult whenever I make use of real historical events. For City of Exiles, this was a minor consideration: the only real limiting factor was the timing of the annual London Chess Classic, which ended up being the event around which the chronology of the rest of the novel was structured. Things got a little more complicated for the third book. Shortly after I returned from a research trip to London for the second novel, the country erupted in riots, and I knew at once that they were something I wanted to incorporate into a future book. Ultimately, I conceived a lengthy sequence covering several chapters in Eternal Empire that unfolds against the backdrop of the riots. When I sat down to write it, however, I found that keeping the action accurate would be a real challenge. I went back and worked out the chronology of the riots as thoroughly as I could, going hour by hour when necessary, and I tried to make the description of the events as close to the facts as possible, although I ended up fudging a few details here and there for the sake of the story. And I’m very proud of the result, which I think is one of the strongest set pieces in the entire trilogy.

The second major historical event that I wanted to include was the series of demonstrations against the Putin regime that occurred in Russia at the end of 2011. Here, my task was a little easier, since the protests took place outside of the main timeframe of the action, and I could hold off on addressing them until the end of the novel. All the same, the novel builds toward these events in many ways, both subtle and unsubtle, and they provided me with a pivotal historical moment that, in retrospect, the entire series seems to anticipate. In the end, of course, the demonstrations didn’t achieve much, and their ultimate significance is more symbolic than real. But having a factual event waiting for me at the conclusion of the novel guided my choices and shaped the characters in ways that wouldn’t have happened if I’d set the story at some indefinite time in the present, and there’s no question that all three novels have been enriched by the historical context in which they were set and written. Like many aspects of this series, this quality began as an accident, then became central to my ambitions for these books. And although I’m not sure I’ll ever try anything quite like it again, I can’t imagine these novels in any other way.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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August 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Wealth, power, and the ship of fools

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Paul Allen's Octopus

There was a period in my life when I was pretty sure I was going to be rich. Shortly after college, I got a job at a hedge fund in Manhattan that had an unusual hiring philosophy: it was eager to recruit recent Ivy League graduates with no previous financial experience—including those, like me, whose primary area of interest was the humanities—into roles that might seem, at first, like a strange fit. In particular, it placed a lot of writers, artists, and other creative types into operational and research positions, reasoning that they’d be able to attract smart, talented people if they offered them a good salary and the promise of being able to finish one’s play or opera outside of work. In the end, I spent close to four years there, trying to write fiction while also moving deeper into the financial world, first on the investor relations side and later in researching potential new funds and businesses. Eventually, I noticed that the ideal held out by the firm—of being an artist and a financial professional—didn’t really pan out: people tended to either put their creative dreams on hold to focus on their careers, or they quit. And as I’ve explained before, I ultimately chose the latter.

Needless to say, the situation at my old firm didn’t remain quite as rosy after my departure: the market crashed, the fund lost a fair amount of money, and it laid off many of the creative types it had hired in happier times. I’m not sure I could get a job there again now. And I have no regrets—although I’m still feeling the effects of the experience more than seven years later. Among other things, it gave me a sense of how money really works for the first time, and it quickly accustomed me to thinking of enormous sums of cash in casual ways, although there were still times when the amount of capital flowing in and out seemed absurd. (I’ll never forget the day when one of the firm’s partners paid for a personal investment in the fund with a handwritten personal check, drawn on a regular checking account, for a million dollars.) Not surprisingly, you can see the influence on my fiction, which returns repeatedly to financial themes. The Icon Thief largely takes place at an art hedge fund modeled in part on my former employer; in City of Exiles, we briefly glimpse an activist fund that will play a much larger role later in the series; and in Eternal Empire, we spend more time among the very wealthy themselves. Because this is a book about oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich's Eclipse

For me, the most fascinating symbol of the new form of wealth, which concentrates staggering amounts of money in the hands of very few, is the megayacht. A yacht on the order of Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun or Paul Allen’s Octopus is literally the most expensive thing a private citizen can own: with price tags exceeding $200 million or more, they’re more costly than any form of real estate, and they can cost upward of $20 million per year simply to operate. I’ve had a curious fascination with these yachts for a long time, and once I realized that Eternal Empire was going to center on the figure of a Russian oligarch, I knew I’d have to put such a yacht into the story. Much of the second half of the novel takes place on a fictional yacht, the Rigden, whose dimensions would put it “not quite in the top ten of the largest yachts ever built,” as one of my characters puts it. Researching this material was a pleasure, and I spent many hours paging through yacht plans and specifications to build my massive ship in a bottle. But as seductive as the surface elements can be, I soon found that the Rigden, like any ship, was a natural focal point for larger symbolic and thematic concerns. A ship, whether it’s the Pequod or Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, always seems to stand for something more, and mine was no exception.

In this case, it inevitably evolved into a symbol of one of my favorite themes: the limits of control. There’s a reason why so many suspense novels take place in environments of extreme wealth. Part of this is escapism, devolving at times into lifestyle porn; part of it is the sense that, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune lies a crime. Most of all, though, it simply takes one of the central precepts of the thriller—that for all the bulwarks we erect against danger and risk, we’re rarely in control of our own lives—to its logical conclusion. As examples from fiction and the daily news remind us, wealth alone is no barrier to misfortune, as both Anzor Archvadze in The Icon Thief and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in real life have discovered. And I think the reason I’m fascinated by the yachts of the wealthy is that they stand for the same thing as all ships: the human impulse to set our own resources against the unknown. Sometimes the result is the Eclipse; sometimes it’s the Titanic or the Costa Concordia. I won’t say what happens to the Rigden. But a megayacht, for all its glamor and power, is still insignificant compared to the ocean around it, or, as I put it at a crucial point in Eternal Empire: “A masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

Quote of the Day

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Lou Gehrig

In the beginning I used to make one terrible play a game. Then I got so I’d make one a week and finally I’d pull a bad one about once a month. Now, I’m trying to keep it down to one a season.

Lou Gehrig

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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