Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The rest of the wedding was a blur…”

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"Wolfe walked gingerly down the aisle..."

Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 42. You can read the previous installments here.

I’ve frequently written here about the theory that you can classify any given writer as either a gardener or an architect. George R.R. Martin, who obviously places himself in the former category, returns to that premise repeatedly in discussing his work, and it’s been picked up by other writers of speculative fiction: when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago a few years back, it came up at nearly every panel I saw. And like most such categorizations, it’s most illuminating when we look at the places where it falls short. A good gardener, for instance, doesn’t just put words down on paper and hope for the best: to keep the process from spiraling out of control, he or she soon develops a set of tactics for managing the resulting pages. If there’s a hidden architecture here, it’s the vernacular kind, which emerges out of the constraints of the landscape, the materials, and the needs of the people who live there. It doesn’t arise from a blueprint, but it depends nonetheless on experience and good tricks. And the self-described gardeners of literature—the published ones, anyway—tend to be exceptionally capable at controlling structure at the level of the sentence or paragraph. If they weren’t, the story wouldn’t get written at all. (Or if you’d prefer to keep the gardening metaphor alive, it’s also a little like the parable of the sower: ideas that fall on rocky soil or among thorns are unlikely to grow, but they yield a hundredfold when sown on good ground. And even if this isn’t architecture, it’s at least a kind of horticulture.)

In a similar way, one of the most counterintuitive aspects of the architectural approach is that all of its careful planning and analysis really exists to enable a handful of moments in which the plan goes away. Making an outline is less about laying down the proper path for the story—which is likely to change in the rewrite anyway—than about keeping on task and maintaining a necessary discipline over many weeks and months. This routine exists both to generate pages and to make sure you’re physically there when an organic, unplanned insight occurs: it’s a kind of precipitate from the solution that the writer has prepared beforehand in the lab. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering time, in which you need to stick yourself behind a desk for a certain number of hours or days before good ideas can emerge. Outlining and writing a logical first draft happens to be a pretty great use of the time between inspirations, and it can be hard to tell whether an idea emerged from the preparatory stage or if the latter was just an excuse to keep working until the former appeared. But it still works, and the fact that useful insights tend to appear only after a stretch of systematic, sometimes tedious effort is the best argument I know for writing like an architect. The idea that you need to prepare obsessively to allow for the unexpected isn’t exactly new: in fact, it’s so familiar that it has inspired some of creativity’s great clichés, from Louis Pasteur’s “Chance favors the prepared mind” to Branch Rickey’s “Luck is the residue of design.” But like a lot of clichés, they’re true.

"The rest of the wedding was a blur..."

For the most part, The Icon Thief and its successors were meticulously planned novels: they all called for a lot of research, and their outlines, in some cases, approached the lengths of the finished chapters themselves. But that planning was meaningful mostly to the extent that it enabled about ten minutes of real insight, spread unevenly over the course of three years of work. I don’t know of any better example than that of Maya Asthana. When I started writing City of Exiles, the second book in the series, I was working toward what I thought would be a neat twist: Alan Powell, the hero of the first installment, would turn out to be the mole in his own agency. I wasn’t exactly sure how this would work, but I trusted that I’d be able to figure it out, and I wrote about half the book with that revelation in mind. When it came time to outline the second half, however, I froze up: I just couldn’t see how to do it. Yet I’d already baked the idea of a mole into the story, and I couldn’t bear the thought of discarding those pages. Out of desperation, I cast around for another character who could assume that role. And to my surprise, I found that the only plausible candidate was Asthana, the smart, slightly conceited, but warmhearted agent I’d introduced into the story solely as a sounding board for Rachel Wolfe, my protagonist. But once I recognized Asthana’s potential, I realized that her origins as a purely functional supporting character were a real asset: the reader would be unlikely to see the twist coming—and I think the surprise works—because I hadn’t seen it, either.

And one of the unanticipated dividends of that decision was the wealth of small, almost arbitrary character details that I’d unwittingly bequeathed to myself. Like Wolfe, who was originally a minor character whom I made into a Mormon just to make her a little more distinctive, Asthana had acquired traits and bits of business nearly at random, and now I had a chance to put them to good use. In City of Exiles, for example, I’d established the fact that she was planning her wedding, mostly because it was a thread I could write without much effort—I’d gotten married just a couple of years earlier—and because it seemed consistent with her personality. Once Asthana became the villain of the series, though, and after it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to resolve her story in the second book, it seemed obvious that her wedding day was going to be a major set piece in Eternal Empire. Again, I could have simply ignored the clue that had been planted, but it felt right, like using every part of the buffalo, and I had a hunch that it would be a good scene. And it was. In fact, the sequence that reaches its climax here, in Chapter 41, as Wolfe realizes that Asthana is the mole while standing up as a bridesmaid during the wedding ceremony, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole novel. (A big part of the challenge was figuring out how Wolfe could stumble across the truth at the wedding itself. The solution, which involves a surprise poetry reading and a clue from John Donne, manages to be tidy and contrived at the same time.) It’s a scene that never would have occurred to me if the pieces hadn’t fallen into place almost by accident. And while I’d never call myself a gardener, it was nice to see one idea finally bear fruit…

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2016 at 8:46 am

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