Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“What exactly are you implying?”

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"We're looking into it..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 33. You can read the earlier installments here. Be advised that major spoilers follow.

It’s easy to assume that by preparing a detailed outline before writing the first draft of a novel, you’re closing yourself off from any surprises, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, I’ve come to think of an outline as a matrix in which surprises are more likely to happen. Inspiration is a hard thing to pin down, and like every author, I wish that I could draw on it at will. Over time, though, I’ve found that good ideas tend to come in two related ways: 1. When you already have an abundance of material that you’ve gathered and sifted in a relatively mechanical fashion. 2. When the nature of the story itself has imposed certain constraints on the universe of possible alternatives. Really, though, these two factors are different aspects of the same process. Inspiration doesn’t come up out of the rocks; it needs a mass of raw material on which it can do its work. And when a writer’s imagination can go everywhere and do everything, it often ends up doing nothing at all, which is why self-imposed limits can be so valuable. Once you’ve set down rough boundaries for what your story will be, you’re free to wander within the constraints you’ve established, and this almost always turns out to be more productive than brainstorming without any guidelines at all.

An outline, then, becomes a sort of map or prototype that allows you to explore freely inside the grid it lays down, as well as pointing at possible directions beyond it. This is why I usually outline only one major section of the story at a time, while leaving the rest in broad strokes, and I write a complete rough draft of the first part before moving on to the next. Once you’ve got the first hundred pages or so in hand—as happens to be the case right now with my current project—it naturally closes off certain options for the remainder of the story, while hinting strongly at potential paths forward. Expectations have been raised; elements of the narrative have been introduced that need to pay off later; and the pleasure of constructing the back half of the story lies largely in finding organic but unexpected ways of developing what came before. It’s a compromise, in other words, between proceeding without a plan at all and laying out the shape of the story too rigorously, and it’s an approach that has served me well through three novels. And if the material you have so far turns out to resist your initial plans, it’ll frequently take you into places you never would have explored if you’d granted yourself complete freedom.

"What exactly are you implying?"

When I first began sketching out the plot for City of Exiles, for instance, I knew that there was going to be a traitor in the Serious Organised Crime Agency. This is a trope that has been wrung dry by the likes of 24, of course, so in order for it to work, I needed the identity of my mole to be especially surprising. My first thought was to have it be Powell, the protagonist of The Icon Thief and one of my most important characters, which I figured would be suitably unexpected. His motivations would be complicated, and it would require some difficult sleight of hand, since many chapters in the first half the story were written from his point of view. Still, I was confident that I could pull it off somehow, so Part I of the novel was all written with this revelation in mind. When it came time to actually write it, however, I found myself stuck: try as I might, I just couldn’t make it work. I still needed a mole, however, and I was essentially limited to the handful of characters I’d already introduced. And the only person who made sense, much to my surprise, was Maya Asthana, a likable supporting character I’d introduced primarily to give Wolfe a friend and confidant.

If the revelation of Asthana’s treachery works—and based on anecdotal responses from readers, I think it works very well—I think it’s partially because all of her material in the first half of the novel was written before I knew she was the mole, and in the rewrite, I didn’t change a word. The big reveal won’t come for another couple of chapters, but Chapter 33 is the first in which a shrewd reader might be able to deduce that Asthana is up to no good. Wolfe has nearly been blown up by a botched car bomb, and since she was driving Asthana’s car at the time, it’s clear, in retrospect, that only one character would have had the means and opportunity to plant the explosive. As it stands, I do a decent job of deflecting suspicion, but only because the characters are still colored by their portrayal in the novel so far. If Wolfe, or the reader, doesn’t suspect Asthana, it’s because I didn’t suspect her either. Later, in both this story and its sequel, her character became all the more interesting because I was forced to find ways of harmonizing it with what I’d written before. The fact that Asthana is planning her wedding, for instance, was originally introduced as a random character trait, and I had no idea that the wedding itself would become a major set piece in Eternal Empire. And as both my characters and I have often discovered, a plan never goes quite the way you expect…

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2014 at 9:35 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

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