Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Billington

Goodbye, Kamera

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So as you may have noticed, there have been some significant changes to this blog since last week. My first novel, which is still scheduled to come out in February of next year, will no longer be called Kamera. Instead, you can all look forward to reading The Icon Thief. Why the change? It’s a long story, but the short version is that I don’t think anyone, myself included, was ever entirely satisfied by the title Kamera. On the one hand, I loved its compactness and opacity, and the fact that it had three distinct meanings in the context of the novel. On the other hand, nobody seemed to know what the hell it meant—or even how they were supposed to pronounce it. (I always said it like “camera,” but purists rightly preferred the Russian pronunciation.) And it didn’t give you much of a sense of the genre, tone, or story. For a debut novel that will largely be sold by its title and cover, this was a significant problem.

Things came to a head about two weeks ago, during the cover art meeting at NAL. After the meeting, my excellent editor told me that everyone was enthusiastic about the book, but noted that several attendees had raised some concerns about the title. When he very gently asked if I would consider changing it, after some thought, I agreed. It wasn’t an easy decision, and part of me was reluctant to part with a title that I had been using for more than two years. Truth be told, though, I was a little sick of Kamera as well—as my brother-in-law likes to point out, it’s rather reminiscent of a certain flying turtle—so I welcomed the chance to start with something new.

Which isn’t to say that it was easy. The first two titles I pitched—The Merchant of Salt and The Secret Museum—didn’t exactly set the world on fire. In the end, I did pretty much what you might have expected: I made a mind map. I stared for a long time at the other books on my shelves. And it was the title of James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, which I’ve spoken about here before, that finally pointed me in the right direction. Once I came up with The Icon Thief, it just seemed right—it evokes Russia, crime, and the art world, and also suggests, at least to me, the central figure of Marcel Duchamp, who cheerfully appropriated existing objects and symbols for his own incomparable work.

All in all, then, I’m pleased by new the title. Unless, of course, it ends up changing again. In the meantime, though, you can update your Amazon searches accordingly. (And for more stories of titles that changed at the last minute, check out an amusing article here.)

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

Research as a way of dreaming

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As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

Progress report

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It’s been an eventful week! On Friday, I finally sent a proposal for the contracted sequel to Kamera to my publisher. The proposal, which ended up being about seven double-spaced pages long, is a fairly detailed outline of the novel I have in mind, although much of it will probably change over the next year or so. Hopefully my editor will sign off on the outline with minimal changes, but you never know. More updates soon.

Also, in a nice surprise, I received an acceptance letter yesterday from Analog, which is picking up my novelette “The Boneless One,” making this my second sale to them in less than three months. (The check for “Kawataro,” which Analog is publishing in June, arrived at the same time as the acceptance letter for “The Boneless One,” as well as a delivery and acceptance check for Kamera, making it officially the best mail day ever. It’s all downhill from here…)

I’m especially pleased by this sale, because “The Boneless One” is easily my favorite of all the short fiction I’ve written. It’s sort of a science fiction murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the North Atlantic, part The Life Aquatic, part X-Files, and I’m really glad that it will be coming out in Analog. Based on what I know of their publishing schedule, my best guess is that it will appear sometime before the end of the year, just in time for Kamera’s debut in bookstores, which is very nice timing indeed.

At the moment, though, I need to get back to work on this next novel, which I’m hoping to start writing sometime in March. I’ve been plowing through background reading all this week, mostly focusing on books on Russia—including James Billington’s incredible The Icon and the Axeand I’ve just scheduled a quick trip to the UK for some location research. I’ll be in London (possibly with a day trip to Brussels) from February 6 to 13, which means that I’ll have just under a week to get enough material for a year’s worth of writing. Off we go…

A novel in nine months

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So how do you write a book in nine months? More specifically, how do you write a 100,000-word sequel to a complex novel that took almost two years to write in the first place?

The short answer is that I don’t really know. I do know, however, that it needs to happen, or so my contract tells me. As for the specifics, you’ll be hearing a lot about them between now and this coming September. In the meantime, though, here’s a general sense of what to expect:

On Tuesday of this week, I’m scheduled to deliver a fairly detailed proposal for the sequel to Kamera to my agent for comment and approval. This proposal, which is about seven double-spaced pages long, will then go to my editor at NAL, who will hopefully like what he sees. (Among other things, I receive a third of my advance on acceptance of the outline.) Once I get the green light, I can dive more deeply into the writing process, which so far has consisted mostly of a lot of structured daydreaming.

At that point, the real fun begins. I always try to start the research process by casting my net as wide as possible, so I’m going to begin by mining a few large nonfiction books for inspiration, among them The New Cold War by Edward Lucas, The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, and The Icon and the Axe by James Billington. (These titles may give you a sense of the territory that this new novel will be exploring.) Once I’ve finished my first round of reading, I’ll then begin to drill more deeply into areas that are directly relevant to the story at hand.

My current plan is to spend a couple of months on this preliminary research, which may also include a trip to London, after which I’ll start outlining the first part of the novel. Hopefully I’ll begin the writing itself sometime in March. I’m aiming to have a decent draft ready by early August, at which point it will go out to readers. I’ll then spend two months on revisions before delivering the manuscript to my publisher on September 30. (Since the novel isn’t scheduled to come out until the end of 2012, I expect that there will be quite a few more rewrites in the interim.)

Can I do it? Yes, probably. But it’s going to be an intense and interesting year. Stay tuned for more updates.

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