Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘New American Library

The timeline of one novel

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A page from the author's notebook

Since it’s Labor Day, I thought I’d mark the occasion by considering an unusual, highly specialized form of labor: the progress of a novel from initial idea to finished book. In particular, I’d like to talk about the timeline. One of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction, at least from the outside, is how long each stage requires. A novelist will sometimes end a book with a statement of how long it took to complete, like the terse “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, but that little number often raises more questions than it answers. How much of that time was spent on a first draft? How much on revision? When a novelist says that a book took about nine months to finish, what does that really mean? With Eternal Empire appearing in stores tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting—at least to me—to look back at my own files to see exactly how and when this novel came into being. Whether or not this will be useful for anyone else is another question, but I don’t think it hurts to share this information, since I haven’t often seen it elsewhere.

I’d been mulling over the prospect of a third installment almost as long as I’d known that this would be a series in the first place, and for years, there was a page devoted to random ideas for a final novel in my writer’s notebook. The first tangible evidence I have of the direction the novel would take is an extended notebook entry dated July 12, 2011, followed by a small text file from September 4, which consists of nothing but a short excerpt from the book by Rachel Polonsky I mentioned here last week, along with a stanza from Alexsandr Blok’s poem “The Scythians.” Three weeks later, while I was still waiting for notes on the final draft of City of Exiles, I finished a seven-page proposal for a novel that was known, at that stage, as The Scythian. Even at this early stage, the synopsis was fairly complete, but my agent and I still waited for almost three months before sending it out, since we wanted to approach my editor after he’d read and approved the final draft of the second novel. On December 12, the proposal was finally emailed to my editor, and by early January, we had a handshake offer, with a deadline of November 1, 2012. (As always, the contract and payment took longer to finalize, but that’s a topic for another post.)

A page from the author's notebook

As usual, I decided to spend the first month or so of the writing process entirely on research, with only a general sense of how the material I found would fit into the final story. Looking back at my own notes, I seem to have focused primarily on the Shambhala angle and putting together a chronology and visual materials on the London riots. By January 30, I felt confident enough to start a detailed outline of the first third of the book, which I finished on March 5—which happened to be the day before The Icon Thief was released. I immediately began work on the manuscript itself, aiming to write a rough version of a chapter each day, and finished up Part I on April 29. This section of the draft ended up being about 59,000 words long. I don’t seem to have wasted any time in getting to work on Part II, and I started research and outlining on April 30. I began writing Part II on June 15, taking a short break to revise the prologue, which would appear as a teaser at the end of City of Exiles. Part II was finished around August 5, amounting to 50,000 words, and outlining for Part III began the next day. I finished this outline within two weeks, and I had a draft of the entire novel by August 30. Total length was about 125,000 words.

At this point, I normally would have taken an extended break, but given my compressed timeline, I ended up waiting only a week or so before diving into the revision. In the meantime, a number of significant events had occurred: my original editor left Penguin, leaving the book in the hands of another, and the title changed from The Scythian to Eternal Empire. (If I’m going to be honest, I do miss the original title, although the new one is still pretty good.) I continued to revise the manuscript over the next couple of months, cutting the draft down to 100,000 words, and delivered a version to my publisher two days before my deadline, on October 30. I then took the long break I’d been craving for months, using the time to write the story that ended up being published as “The Whale God” and doing some tentative work on the manuscript that I hope will be my fourth novel. I also had my first daughter. I got notes back from my editor on February 9; returned a revised version, which included a new chapter and some additional material, on March 1; got the copy edit on April 16 and page proofs on May 9, both of which involved some small changes; and by May 14, I was absolutely, positively done. And tomorrow, you’ll see the result for yourself.

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2013 at 8:47 am

Cover stories

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Most authors have little, if any, control over how the covers of their novels will look—and that’s exactly how it should be. A glance at the covers of any number of self-published books is all you need to understand that this is one part of the process where an author probably shouldn’t have full creative control: knowing how to write a novel isn’t the same thing as knowing how to present and package it, and these days, the front cover and title, combined hopefully with decent bookstore placement, is the only advertising a novel may ever have. Knowing this, I’ve generally been content to leave the packaging of my own books to my publisher’s design team, and I’m always surprised on the upside—I’ve been lucky enough to get some beautiful covers, like the final front cover of City of Exiles pictured here.

That said, I’ve never hesitated to give plenty of advice. As I’ve noted before, for The Icon Thief, I sent my publisher a nine-paragraph email, complete with sample images and comparable covers, when asked for my ideas about cover art. That kind of detailed memo is an outlier, though: at the time, the look for the series was still up in the air, and I didn’t know how much guidance I was expected to give. The resulting cover not only eased all my fears, but it also provided a useful template for future books. The basic design—a cityscape with a few evocative images in the sky above—is a very flexible one, so the process ever since has been more streamlined, with most of the attention focusing on which locations and symbols best reflect the novel’s plot and themes.

As a result, when the time came to talk about the cover for City of Exiles, the memo I sent was only three paragraphs long, and my primary image reference was a page from the Book of Kells. Here are some of the highlights:

[W]hile The Icon Thief cover is built around a palette of red and orange, given the wintry setting of City of Exiles, it might be nice to cool down the colors a bit: a nearly white cover, say, with touches of gray or blue…In light of the novel’s title, my first impulse is to build the cover around the image of a city, probably London…As for other symbols, our obvious resource here is Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot…Alternatively, we could do something with the golden calf or celestial ox.

Needless to say, they nailed it: the final image is startlingly close to what I suggested, down to the wintry color palette, and I couldn’t be happier. Not surprisingly, then, when the time came earlier this week to submit some ideas for Eternal Empire, I kept it simpler—just a couple of paragraphs. And while the final result won’t be available for a while, I’m very excited to see it.

So what should you do if your publisher asks what kind of cover you want? In my experience, specific images are much less important than the overall feel of the book, which is why comparable covers can be so useful. As far as imagery itself is concerned, many covers these days tend to be assembled from existing images or stock photos, so the more easily obtainable the source, the better. (Personally, I prefer it when they put together a cover from existing sources, because original illustrations, unless you’re lucky enough to be writing for Hard Case Crime, seem like much more of a crapshoot.) Finally, don’t, as I was briefly tempted to do, put together your own version in Photoshop as a sample of what you might like. The design team won’t tell you how to write your novel, so if you’re smart, you’ll grant them the same freedom. If you do, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2012 at 9:37 am

The digital time machine

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The funny thing about living in a digital age is that it makes it increasingly easy to go back in time. I may not remember offhand what I was doing a year ago this week, but thanks to searchable email, this blog, and the dreaded Facebook timeline, the answer is only a few clicks away. Part of me worries about this, because it feels increasingly like I’ve outsourced my memory—along with my institutional knowledge and most of my common sense—to Google. Still, there’s something nice about being able to look back with such precision. Revisiting some of the earlier entries on this blog, in particular, fills me with mingled nostalgia and relief. For instance, I can see that on May 5 of last year, I had just finished an outline for the second half of the novel that eventually became City of Exiles, with an ungodly amount of work still remaining. (At the time, the novel was untitled, and I wrote: “If you have any title suggestions, please let me know—I’m feeling pretty stuck right now.”)

So it’s with a great deal of satisfaction that I can say, a year later, that not only did I finish City of Exiles, but it looks like it’s really going to be published. The proof arrived in the mail the other day, when I came home to find uncorrected advance copies from NAL waiting on my doorstep. I’m the last person in the world to look at this novel objectively, of course, but to my eyes, it looks gorgeous, even better than the advance copies of The Icon Thief. It’s especially surreal to see it in print now, given this book’s rapid journey from conception to publication—eighteen months ago, I didn’t even know that I was writing a series. And it’s a good boost for my morale, given that my third novel has just entered the most dangerous phase for any writing project, the halfway point, with only six months to delivery and no end in sight. All the same, if history is any indication, I’ll look back on this post a year from now and be glad that it all turned out fine. I hope.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Entering the City of Exiles

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When I began planning the sequel to The Icon Thief, the challenge was to find a story that would feel like an organic, exciting extension of my first novel—which had been conceived as a self-contained work—while also expanding the scope of the narrative and going more deeply into themes that had only been touched upon by the original. I was guided in the process by two ideas. The first was that the action of these books would gradually move east, drawing ever closer to the enigma of Russia, which meant that the logical setting for the sequel was London. My second idea was that the underlying theme of the series was how we impose order on our understanding of the world, especially of the past. The first novel explored the historical mystery of Étant Donnés and the Rosicrucians, but I knew I couldn’t just repeat that. And I ultimately decided that the second novel would focus on one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Russian history: the unexplained deaths of nine mountaineers on February 2, 1959, in the Dyatlov Pass.

All this is a preamble to saying that I’ve finally added a page to this blog for my second novel, City of Exiles, which will be released on December 4. The new page gives you a sense of the plot and introduces you to the novel’s lead, FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe, who appears in a crucial secondary role in The Icon Thief but now moves to center stage. I’m also pleased to be able to share the novel’s cover, prepared by the stellar team at New American Library, which has always listened attentively to my suggestions and invariably blown me away with the result. The design closely tracks my own vision, with a wintry palette that mirrors the novel’s often frigid setting and a melancholy view of London’s Trafalgar Square. (And if you’re curious, the image faintly visible in the sky above the city is the ox from Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot, otherwise known as the merkabah—and that’s all I have to say about that for now…)

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

A mail call to remember

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For the past few days, I’ve been waiting impatiently for the mail every afternoon, ever since my editor told me that my author’s copies of The Icon Thief were finally on their way. (The first printing is hot off the presses, and as the writer, I get twenty-five contractual copies, as well as a couple of bonus ones.) In the end, however, instead of the books, I got a postcard from UPS notifying me that the package had inexplicably been delivered to my old address. On Monday, then, I drove out in my Honda Fit, the official car of all tough suspense writers, to pick up my copies at the charming UPS Customer Service Center in Chicago, pictured here:

It may not have been the most romantic setting, but the books themselves are gorgeous. Obviously, I’m the last person in the world to regard them objectively, but to my eyes, they’re close to perfect: sleek, glossy, with just the right amount of heft in the reader’s hand, making them a real physical pleasure to read. The cover, in particular, with the title embossed in red, is beautifully printed. Over the past eighteen months, I’ve been impressed throughout by the level of attention and care that New American Library has put into every step of the process, and the result is a book that just plain looks like something that people would buy—right? Either way, in less than four weeks, we’ll find out.

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2012 at 10:37 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

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The Year of the Scythian

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A year and a half ago, as I was finishing up The Icon Thief and preparing to go out to publishers, I had no intention of writing a sequel. When the possibility of a second book was raised by New American Library, I said “Sure,” mostly for reasons of sheer pragmatism: it was the only way I saw to get the first novel into print. As time went on, however, and I dove into the writing of what became City of Exiles, I became much more excited about the idea of continuing and deepening this story and its characters, and the result is a second novel of which I’m extremely proud—I think it’s as good, if not better, than the first book. There also came a point, inevitably, when it occurred to me that I might be writing a trilogy. Three, after all, is a nice round number. But although I quietly laid the groundwork for a third installment, and even prepared a short synopsis, there was no guarantee it would happen.

I’m very pleased, then, to announce that my publisher has signed off on a third, and presumably final, novel in the series. The details are still being worked out, and we’re holding off on the official announcement until closer to the release of The Icon Thief, but it’s definitely on. And although regular readers of this blog know that my novels tend to change their titles with surprising frequency, I think the working title for this novel is pretty solid: The Scythian. The release date will likely be in the summer of 2013, which means that, once again, I have about nine months to take a very complicated novel from outline to final draft. Can I do it? Well, I’ve done it before. But it’s going to be intense. As always, though, I look forward to sharing regular updates here, as part of what promises to be, by any measure, the most interesting year of my life.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

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An ALL CAPS update

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After a relatively slow month on the writing front, things are about to get hectic again. Yesterday, I received a ten-page letter from my excellent editor at NAL, detailing his notes for City of Exiles. Despite the letter’s rather daunting length, he’s clearly very enthusiastic about the novel, and the comments themselves—which mostly involve clarifying or expanding upon existing material—are quite reasonable. At this point, I expect to have the next draft turned around in a couple of weeks, just in time for Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Hong Kong and China, although I may need to push myself a bit to get there.

In other news, since it always pays to advertise, I recently received a shipment of gorgeous knit caps with the logo for The Icon Thief, modeled here by my lovely wife. (She’s a good sport, even if she briefly compared herself, while we were taking this picture, to the poor guys on this site.) I’m not quite sure what to do with these hats, aside from handing them out to my in-laws, but here’s a start: the next three people to click the “Like” button on my Facebook author page will receive a free cap. They’re stylish and warm, perfect for winter, and I can only assume that they’d be a great conversation starter. (Especially if the conversation ends with a visit here.) Supplies are limited, so why not get yours now?

Update: All three caps have been claimed—and thanks so much to those who played along. But stay tuned for more giveaways soon!

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2011 at 9:56 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

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