Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Penguin Books

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

Entering the Eternal Empire

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Eternal Empire

A few months ago, my editor asked if I had any thoughts on the cover art for Eternal Empire, the third and final novel in the series begun by The Icon Thief. I responded, as always, with a detailed memo on possible images and symbols, complete with attached reference photos for convenience. (For The Icon Thief, I even briefly weighed the possibility of putting together a mockup in Photoshop, before rightly discarding the idea as obnoxious even by the standards of overprotective authors.) Several weeks later, I was sent the proposed cover, and when I opened the file, I saw that the design team had essentially ignored all my suggestions—and I couldn’t have been happier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the publishing process, it’s that the players at every stage are much more qualified to do their own jobs than I would ever be, and it’s best to leave them alone. The result is probably the handsomest cover for any novel in the series, although I’d put City of Exiles at a close second, and I’m pleased to finally have the chance to unveil it here and on its official page.

This isn’t quite the final version, however. When the time came for us to go out to other authors for blurbs, one of the first writers who came to mind was Katherine Neville, the author of the classic bestseller The Eight. I owe Neville a great deal: I first read The Eight many years ago, and in terms of pure entertainment, I think it’s probably still the best of all historical conspiracy thrillers, assuming that we put Foucault’s Pendulum in a peculiar category of its own. It’s one of those books that influenced me in ways that I’ve only belatedly begun to realize: the appearance of David’s Death of Marat in the epilogue of The Icon Thief, for instance, was prompted by a discussion of the painting in James Elkins’s Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, but it was also subconsciously inspired by the role of Marat and Charlotte Corday in Neville’s novel, and my decision to set a crucial section of City of Exiles at a chess tournament in London was an undeniable homage to the single most memorable sequence in The Eight.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

For this reason, among others, Neville had long been on my dream list of potential blurbers, and we’d actually gone out to her for City of Exiles, although a miscommunication prevented her from reading the novel in time. She expressed an interest in seeing the next book in the series, however, so as soon as Eternal Empire was ready, we sent her a copy in manuscript form—and to my delight, she responded with an incredibly generous blurb that you can read on the novel’s Amazon page, and which will appear on the final version of the cover. As I’ve noted here before, going out for blurbs is a funny business, and the result depends as much on luck as on the book’s quality. But on a personal level, I find it fundamentally satisfying that Neville’s name will appear on the last book in the series. If it hadn’t been for The Eight, it’s possible that these books wouldn’t exist at all, at least not in their current form, and it makes me feel as if a circle—or an infinite loop—has closed.

And it also feels like the end of a journey. Eternal Empire won’t be released for another four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime—I just finished going over the copy edit, which was staggeringly thorough, with page proofs and advance copies still to come. At this point, however, the text is pretty much locked, and it marks the conclusion of a process that began more than five years ago, when I started doing research for The Icon Thief. The resulting novels have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably things I’d do differently if I had the chance to write them over again. Still, as they stand, these books are inseparable from my own story as a writer, as I’ve continued to figure out, sometimes in public, the best way of turning the ideas and influences I love into something individual and personal. At the moment, the next step remains excitingly unclear, although I hope to have an update here soon. And I’m grateful for the chance to have come this far.

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2013 at 9:07 am

One year later

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My author's copies

The Icon Thief, my first novel, arrived in stores exactly a year ago today, and like most debut novelists, I had a vague idea that being published would change my life, even if I wasn’t entirely sure how. I was pretty sure that it would feel like a form of validation, a way of proving to myself, if not to others, that the time I’d spent learning to write—with all the opportunity costs it represented—hadn’t been wasted. I was fairly confident that it would allow me to describe myself more comfortably as an author at cocktail parties. I hoped it would give me a chance to connect with other writers and readers—which, as it happened, is true. Above all, I secretly hoped that having a published novel would allow me to relax. The last six years of my life, not to mention most of the previous two decades, had been spent in a state of restless ambition, and I was looking forward to a chance to pause and take satisfaction in what I’d accomplished.

A year later, my life has changed surprisingly little, at least on the professional side. (On a personal level, it has changed in fundamental ways that have little to do with writing.) I still write at least five days a week. My routine has remained largely intact, aside from the inevitable adjustments that a newborn baby requires. This blog still takes up a lot of my time. I’m even working on the same novel I was a year ago—I turned in the latest draft of Eternal Empire to my editor at Penguin only last week. And my inner life is what it always was. I’m still competitive, conscious of my flaws as a writer, and hopeful that the next book will be the one where I finally get everything right. The validation I was hoping to achieve is certainly there, but I should have known better than to think that one novel would be enough. Part of this is simply the natural human tendency to take whatever we have for granted, but there are still times when I look around and marvel at how much is basically the same.

A few of my novels

But the real reason not much has changed has more to do with a choice I made more than six years ago. When I decided to quit my job to write, it was partially because I suspected I’d never finish a novel otherwise, but also because this was the version of my life I wanted to pursue. My physical needs have always been fairly modest, aside from a place to write and a steady supply of new reading material, but what I wanted, more than anything else, was time—time to read, to write, to think at length about what interested me, and to spend as many of my waking hours doing so as possible. Writing, really, is a means to an end, a way for me to structure each day in the way I prefer. Doing so, in the beginning, required a lot of sacrifices and a drastic change of lifestyle; it meant walking a way from a job I liked and accepting a greater degree of uncertainty. If there was a turning point in my life as a writer, it took place long before I ever had a chance at making a living at it.

And if it still feels much the same now, it’s because it’s basically of a piece with the life I decided to make for myself. In the years since, I’ve gotten married, moved to new city, and became a father, but throughout it all, there’s been a strange sense of continuity: the shift in my inner life that began when I decided, once and for all, to really be a writer—rather than spend all my time dreaming about it—has persisted with every change in my outward circumstances. It isn’t a perfect life by any means, but it’s one that I’ve chosen for myself. This isn’t something that being published can validate or determine; it’s the result of the countless small choices and compromises that I’ve had to make to sit at this desk every day. Without it, my novels wouldn’t exist, but they’re less the goal than a part of the fabric. My life hasn’t changed much by being published, but then, it was already more or less where I wanted it to be.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

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Does a writer really need an agent?

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The slush pile

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that while we’re living in a time in which writers have a dizzying range of options for releasing their work outside the traditional system, from independent presses to self-publishing to online, there are still strong reasons to try to get an agent first. None of the major houses, to my knowledge, will even consider unagented manuscripts these days, and although they’re far from the only game in town, they have undeniable advantages in promoting and placing the work of unproven writers—so it makes sense to try to land your book at one of the big six if you think you possibly can. Even if you decide that a small or independent press is better suited to your needs, the process of looking for an agent anyway will tell you a great deal about the quality of your work and the realities of your chosen profession. It can be long and frustrating, and every writer has experienced setbacks and rejection. But even if you feel that a writer’s life has frustration enough already, there’s nothing like systematically seeking representation from objective, overworked, but usually intelligent strangers to clarify certain important truths about how ready you really are.

My own career is a good example. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after writing my first novel, I landed an excellent agent in what seemed like record time, only to spend the next year on a series of frustrating rewrites, which finally ended with our parting ways without ever showing the book to publishers. It isn’t an experience I’d want to go through again. But the uncomfortable fact, now that I can look back on the episode with something like a cool head, is that my agent, damn it, was right. The book wasn’t ready. I recently had the chance to read it over again for the first time in years—and in fact I’m revising it as we speak—and it’s clear now that it just wasn’t good enough, at least not for publishers we wanted. There’s a lot of potential there, and at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will eventually find an audience. But at the time, I wasn’t experienced enough to tell the difference between a precocious first draft and a novel that people would actually want to buy and read. My agent was. More to the point, he was willing to tell me this repeatedly, and to walk away after it became clear that it wasn’t going to get there.

The slush pile

Obviously, I wish it had gone some other way, but on balance, I’m grateful. If I hadn’t been so determined to find an agent and place the book with a major publisher, I might well have decided to release it myself, which would have been a huge mistake: I’d be embarrassed today if that novel, in its earlier form, had been the first book I presented to the world. A good agent has the kind of objectivity that an author, and even friends and early readers, aren’t always capable of providing. All he wants is a book he can sell, or at least one that he can show to editors without violating their trust in the quality of his submissions, which, in the long run, is the only thing that matters. And although it might seem as if agents would encourage writers to compromise or make their work more commercial, in my experience, this isn’t the case: they’re only concerned that the book realize its potential, whether as a thriller, a literary novel, or a collection of short stories. (It’s also worth pointing out that most major publishers have essentially outsourced the editing process to agents: with editors themselves more concerned with packaging and marketing, your agent may be the only real editor you’ll ever have.)

The question of how to find an agent is another topic entirely, and one I don’t have room to fully discuss here, although there are plenty of other resources available online. Every author has a different story about how he or she sought representation, which, for most of us, largely comes down to research, carefully reading the acknowledgments sections of authors we admire, and living as much as possible among other writers. (I got my current agent through a friend from college, whom I never would have met if we hadn’t both been involved with my undergraduate literary magazine.) Above all, it requires persistence and luck. I got my first agent in five days, while finding my second agent—the one who actually sold The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and their successors to Penguin—took years. But the experience itself is worth it, if only for the other rewards it brings. It’s possible that I would have grown into a better writer in any case, but in looking for an agent, I was forced to grow, and get better, and teach myself how to survive in a game where the odds are never in your favor. Most good writers eventually find an agent. But it was often the search that made them good in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

How I reverse-engineered my own novel

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“The conditions of writing change absolutely between the first novel and the second,” Graham Greene observes. “The first is an adventure, the second a duty.” Or at least it’s an adventure of a markedly different kind. A first novel is essentially a series of incursions into uncharted territory: the writing process is full of wrong turns, experiments in tone and structure that later need to be abandoned, and thematic elements introduced on the fly that turn out to be crucial to the entire conception, while others are discarded or transformed into something unrecognizable. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once the manuscript is complete, what used to be a creature shaped by chance and improvisation is now something else entirely—a template. A story that was originally constructed in response to specific, unpredictable narrative problems is now, weirdly enough, the model for its successor, at least when the second novel is designed to follow narratively and thematically from the one that came before it. And the situation is especially peculiar for an author who suddenly finds himself in the position of writing a sequel to a novel that was intended to stand on its own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first wrote The Icon Thief, I had no intention of writing a sequel to a book I’d conceived as a self-contained story, but when I finally sold the manuscript to Penguin, a second novel was part of the deal. When it came time to plot out the next installment, I found myself doing what Frederick Forsyth claims he did while figuring out his own second novel: he went back to his first book and reverse-engineered it, reading it again to see what he’d done intuitively and breaking it down to its basic components. In my own case, there were a number of elements in the first book that I knew I wanted to keep. I liked the underlying structure, which followed three distinct narrative threads that would overlap at various points and finally come together in the climax, and I’d learned few tricks in the meantime that would help me organize this material without a lot of the mistakes that I’d made in earlier drafts. One of these threads, as before, would be a straightforward crime procedural that would provide a useful narrative line for the reader to follow through the thickets of the plot. And I wanted to include some combination of the historical, financial, and religious elements that I’d enjoyed incorporating into the first book.

Most of all, I had to ask myself what the first novel had really been about. The answer, not surprisingly, was one that I’ve mentioned many times before: The Icon Thief turned out to be a book about how we impose meaning on the world and the events of our own lives, even in the absence of real information, or in the face of information overload. In my first book, these themes had arisen from an enigmatic work of art, but I didn’t want to go back to that well again. (Frankly, after two years spent reading about Duchamp, I was feeling a little burned out on art history.) Better, I thought, to focus on the competing interpretations of an enigmatic event, an approach that would ground the novel in a mystery from the real world—which I thought was one of the most appealing aspects of the first novel—and give the characters a chance to indulge in the kind of historical detective work that I relish writing. And it seemed fairly clear that this mystery, whatever it was, would come from the history of Russia. As I’ve explained before, I stumbled into Russia as a subject almost by accident, but now that the rules of the game had been laid down, I knew that I had to start exploring this material in a more systematic way.

Throughout the initial stages of the process, I kept asking myself a simple question: what expectations would my first novel have raised in the mind of a reasonable reader? Looking back over the story I had so far, I saw that it hinted at a larger picture involving the workings of Russian intelligence, but only in very general terms. For the sequel to build logically from the first book, I needed to drill more deeply into this shadow world, and give a clearer sense of its rules and operations. Consequently, I began by reading everything I could about Russia and its intelligence services, always keeping an eye out for the kind of enigmatic incident that could provide the germ of a story. And that’s how I stumbled across the Dyatlov Pass. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what it means and what I found there, but for now, I’ll only say that as soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d found the narrative heart of what would eventually become City of Exiles. I don’t recall the exact words I said at that moment. But I believe they were something like this: “That’s it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

A brief commercial

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I don’t normally make direct appeals on the blog like this, but since it’s Black Friday, I thought it might be worth pointing out that if you haven’t yet picked up a copy of The Icon Thief, this would be a good time to do so: its sequel, City of Exiles, is being released by Penguin on December 4, and although each book stands on its own, they’re even better when read as a series. (Needless to say, reading both would also be a great way to prepare for the release of Eternal Empire, which, in case you missed my earlier announcement, is now scheduled to be published on September 3, 2013). Starting on Monday, I’ll be doing a number of posts leading up to the release of the new novel, in which I’ll discuss its influences and historical background, including the mysterious episode of the Dyatlov Pass. All in all, it’s going to be an exciting month, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you here!

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

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Thoughts on finishing a novel

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In a few hours, if all goes according to plan, I’ll deliver the final draft of Eternal Empire to my publisher. (Whether or not anyone will be on the other end to receive it is another question entirely—the power situation in downtown New York is still pretty dicey, and in any case, Penguin has a lot of other things on its mind.) The funny thing, of course, is that it doesn’t really seem like I’m done. It doesn’t feel anticlimactic, exactly, but there’s never just one moment when you can look at a novel and know you’re finished. This manuscript has been more or less in its final form for about a week, and although I’ve continued to make small revisions up to the last minute, there haven’t been any major structural changes since earlier this month. I also know that I’ll do at least one more rewrite before the end of the year in response to notes from my editor, along with a second set of revisions after the copy edit, and yet another when I receive the page proofs. So even apart from Valéry’s observation that a work of art is never finished, but abandoned, I know that this isn’t really the end of anything.

All the same, it feels good, because this was a challenging novel in more ways than one. The timeline wasn’t quite as compressed as that for City of Exiles: that book was taken from initial synopsis to delivery in about nine months, and Eternal Empire benefited from an extra four weeks or so—which may not sound like a lot, but it went a long way toward preserving my sanity in what was already a very eventful year. Writing it was also tricky given its status as the conclusion of a trilogy. The story had to be accessible to readers who hadn’t read one or both of the previous books, but also had to revisit themes and characters in a way that would be satisfying to those who had followed the series from the beginning. I had a lot of unfinished business from the first two books to resolve, with numerous important players returning alongside entirely new characters. Finally, I wanted to raise the stakes, with heightened suspense and consequences, which meant writing more action, on a page by page basis, than the first two books combined. As a result, it ended up being a very crowded novel, and although I think I’ve managed to find a shape for the story that works, it wasn’t easy.

And there’s another sense in which this novel, like the others, will never really be finished. A first novel is a fluke, but two establish a pattern, and one of the most fascinating and difficult things about writing a third book is navigating the lessons and expectations that the previous ones have established. Each of my first two novels had elements that I wanted to preserve: The Icon Thief is denser and more complicated, City of Exiles faster and more streamlined, and my goal for the third installment was to combine the complexity of the first with the momentum of the second. The result was a kind of ongoing triangulation, as I found myself steering the narrative along a winding channel with the previous two books as markers. And I suspect that this is a process that will repeat itself with every book I write. I’m always going to be looking back at my old stuff, keeping what I like, discarding what I don’t, and trying to put together a body of work that makes sense when you stand back and look at it as a whole. Books talk to one another and shed light on their predecessors in surprising ways, and there’s a sense in which my first novel, for instance, will never read in quite the same way, now that it has two others lined up behind it.

As to where things go from here, I’m not entirely sure. After delivering the draft, I expect to spend the rest of the day handing out candy—we got something like two hundred trick-or-treaters last year. Certainly I’m hoping to take a couple of days off to read some good books, take care of a few projects around the house that I’ve been postponing for a while, and do my best to avoid obsessing over the polls. But I expect that I’ll get back to work on something soon—I feel nervous whenever I’m not writing, and as enticing as it sounds to do nothing, the appeal wears off pretty quickly. I have a general idea of what I’d like to do next, although for the first time in more than two years, I find myself without a book under contract. It’s a slightly precarious position, but it’s also liberating: I’ve been writing about the same ideas and characters for a long time, and as much as I’ll miss Maddy, Wolfe, Ilya, and the rest, I’m looking forward to trying something new. That’s the thing about writing: for all its constraints and pitfalls and frustrations, it really does allow for limitless possibilities. And the idea of pursuing these possibilities in a new direction, wherever they end up taking me, is very exciting.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2012 at 9:40 am

Posted in Writing

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