Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 22nd, 2015

“For a moment, their eyes locked…”

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"Come with me, please..."

Note: This post is the sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 5. You can read the previous installments here.

Back when Eternal Empire was first released, I posted a timeline of the stages in the novel’s composition, from the initial premise—in the form of a single page in my notebook—to the final page proofs. When I wrote it up, the details were still fresh in my mind, although I had to go back to check a few emails and drafts to get the chronology straight. I provided this information because I hadn’t seen a similar breakdown anywhere else, and I thought readers might find it interesting. Looking back now, though, it feels more like a gift to myself. I’ve always been struck by how rapidly a novel that occupied every waking moment for a year or more falls into a kind of fog once you’ve moved on to your next project. While I won’t go as far as Stephen King, who verified a famous article in The Onion by revealing that he barely remembers writing the novel Cujo, I can say that all my novels sometimes feel as if they were written by somebody else. And one of the reasons I’m so glad this blog exists is that is serves as a record of what I was thinking and feeling at the time. I don’t keep much of a diary, and for the most part, the fullest and most accurate record of the last four years of my life is right here.

I tend to think of Eternal Empire as a novel that I wrote fairly quickly, deploying every trick I knew in order to deliver it on deadline, but really, it took up a sizable chunk of time. My first few notes on the subject are dated July 12, 2011, and the final draft of the novel—that is, the version that survived feedback from my publisher, the copy edit, and my own final read of the proofs—was complete on May 14, 2013. That’s close to two years of work, and while it wasn’t continuous, it’s still a big commitment to any one story. The amount of time a writer is willing to spend on a manuscript varies a lot from one author to the next, and this doesn’t compare with literary novelists, like Jonathan Franzen, who might take five to ten years to feel their way into a new voice. But it’s close to the limit of my own attention span: there are just too many stories I feel like telling to invest much more into a single novel. And if I’ve learned one thing about the writing process, it’s that an initial idea on its own is rarely enough to sustain my interest once I’ve lived with it for a year or so. To give the story the time and attention it deserves, I need to create additional challenges for myself that weren’t there when I came up with that rough synopsis.

"For a moment, their eyes locked..."

There are countless ways for a writer to keep his or her manuscript alive, but they tend to fall into one of two categories: conscious omission or conscious addition. Elsewhere, I’ve said that I only outline my novels one section at a time, and that I deliberately build in problems that I don’t know how to resolve. I might have a general destination in mind, or a few big narrative beats I know I need to reach, but I’m not sure how to get there. In some cases, those story points are ones I’ve inherited from a previous book. The fact that Maya Asthana is planning her wedding was originally inserted as a minor character detail in City of Exiles, long before I knew the huge role that Asthana would play in the rest of the series, and I knew that her wedding ceremony would be a major set piece in the third book, even if I had only a vague idea of what would happen there. Conversely, I’ll also introduce details or characters that I have a hunch will pay off later on, although I don’t have any plans for them at the moment. If the former strategy involves laying in problems without a solution, the latter is more like coming up with a solution before I have a problem. And in both cases, I find myself working hard toward the end of the process—which is exactly the point when my attention is likely to flag—to come up with satisfying rationales for elements I intuitively incorporated.

In Chapter 5, for instance, I introduce three important characters, two of whom presented themselves to me without any particular agenda. Tarkovsky, the oligarch whom Maddy is approaching about a possible job, was clearly a major player, and his role in the story was worked out carefully from the start. The others are Elena Usova, Tarkovsky’s assistant, and Nina, his daughter, both of whom were brought on stage on the assumption that they’d come in handy later. Here, they’re introduced as little more than visuals. Elena emerged from a detail I’d stumbled across in a profile of another oligarch—I don’t remember who or where—that noted that his offices were staffed almost entirely by tall, intimidating blondes carrying leather folders. I liked the image, so I stuck in Elena. (She also serves an important functional role early in the story, whenever Maddy needs to talk to someone.) Nina is even less clearly seen: Maddy gets a glimpse of her riding a horse on the grounds of Tarkovsky’s estate, and the placement and tone of that moment implies that she’s a character we need to remember. But I wasn’t sure why. And it wasn’t for another two hundred pages that I figured out the answer, exactly when I was in desperate need of a push to keep myself going. I didn’t know what Elena or Nina were doing there. But in the end, they were right where I needed them…

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2015 at 9:14 am

Quote of the Day

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Anatol Rapoport

The scientist will always seek a description of events which enables him to predict most by assuming least. He thus already prefers a particular form of behavior. If moralities are systems of preferences, here is at least one point at which science cannot be said to be completely without preferences. Science prefers good maps.

Anatol Rapoport

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

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