Alec Nevala-Lee '02 (Novelist, THE ICON THIEF trilogy)
By D. Dona Le '05
Novelist Alec Nevala-Lee '02 knew from a very young age that he wanted to become a writer, and perhaps that influences his first piece of advice to young writers: "Start now.”
"Every life choice I’ve made since I was out of high school has been geared toward [a career in writing], even if it wasn’t obvious at the time,” Nevala-Lee says.
At Harvard, he concentrated in Classics because he believed that knowledge of Latin and Greek would give him a unique toolbox as a writer. "Before the twenty-first century, if you were going to be a writer, an artist, or any other intellectual, you learned these languages,” Nevala-Lee explains, "so I thought, ‘It worked for them, maybe it’ll work for me.’”
After graduating from Harvard, Nevala-Lee moved to New York, viewing it as an opportunity to live in a city rife with culture and writers’ resources. Interestingly, he was recruited by investment management firm D.E. Shaw, which actively engaged recent graduates with creative aspirations.
Seeking graduates with raw talent who hadn’t considered entering finance, D.E. Shaw sent letters to Ivy League graduates who had graduated summa cum laude or had otherwise distinguished themselves from their peers. Nevala-Lee was among these recruits, and he was drawn by the company’s pitch that "you’d get a good job, a good salary, but you could work on your novel, your opera, on your own time.”
In retrospect, however, Nevala-Lee acknowledges the significant challenge of balancing a demanding day job in finance with his writing projects. After three years at D.E. Shaw, Nevala-Lee began preparing for a drastic lifestyle change: quitting his job to write full-time instead.
"I downscaled, I moved to Brooklyn, I saved some money, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll leave my job to write full-time for a few years or however long it takes to get established. That was seven years ago, and it’s only in the past couple of years that the decision really began to pay off.”
Pursuing an idea for his first novel, Nevala-Lee traveled to India to conduct research for it and spent one year writing the first draft of that novel, followed by another year with an agent revising it. He shopped that draft of the novel among potential publishers, but finding few leads, Nevala-Lee started a new project "geared toward my strengths at the time.”
That project, The Icon Thief, was the first installment of his international thriller trilogy about the underground dealings of the art world. The third and final book in the trilogy, Eternal Empire, was released last month by Penguin Books.
Nevala-Lee worked successfully with an agent to publish The Icon Thief—an agent he met through NYC roommates who had also been Harvard classmates. One roommate worked at a publishing agency and gave Nevala-Lee a referral, which was useful because the agency did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Nevala-Lee credits that agency with the large-scale editing of each book in the trilogy.
"One thing I say, and many editors may disagree, but a lot of the editing work has been outsourced to agents who are expected to deliver finished manuscripts. Editors have a lot of other stuff going on—they have to worry about marketing, the business side of publishing—so some of them have less time than they’d like to shepherd a manuscript.”
For The Icon Thief trilogy, Nevala-Lee spent months with his agent on rewrites, whereas the notes given by his editor for each novel took only a few weeks to address. Nevala-Lee estimates that the second two novels of the trilogy each took approximately nine months to complete, from synopsis to final draft.
"Your first novel you almost always write on spec and deliver a finished manuscript to the publisher. Once you’ve established that you’re able to deliver the books on time, it becomes easier to sell an idea or proposal.”
Impressively, Nevala-Lee has never requested an extension or turned in a late draft to his publisher. That awareness of timing is also apparent in other decisions he’s made about his writing career.
As he completed the revisions on Eternal Empire, he began considering his next project and, aiming to "save time” on a project that already had a completed draft, he returned to his first novel set in India.
"My wife and I had a new baby last year, so I thought it’d be easier to go back to this old manuscript, revise it, and polish it, compared to the effort of writing a novel from scratch.”
Although the amount of time spent preparing the manuscript also spanned nine months, Nevala-Lee points out that he’s spent half the time in those months writing than he normally would. The free time has enabled him to care for his newborn daughter, Beatrix.
Now, his agent is shopping his "first” novel among publishers.
"My agent is my best reader and is a great ally to have in many ways, but one of the best things about agents is that they know editors. They have lunched with editors, they talk about their clients, and they have a good sense of what particular editors are looking for. They can tailor the submissions to editors looking for particular types of manuscripts, figuring out who would be a sympathetic reader to that kind of project.”
Shopping his first novel is a significant moment in Nevala-Lee’s writing career. For the past five years, his primary project was The Icon Thieftrilogy; he’s been working on his first novel intermittently for seven years, but only now is it being seen by publishers. That, too, is not without reason.
Nevala-Lee has whittled down the original draft—written just a couple years after he left D.E. Shaw—to half its original length.
"It’s funny because you think, you lose over half a novel, it’s got to be different. But I found the core, the heart, the best parts of the story that I wanted to tell. It’s a much more focused novel.”
Over those seven years, Nevala-Lee’s first novel has undergone what he estimates to be three to four distinct versions with new subplots, altered structure, and different endings. Although the current draft under review "looks very well conceived and planned from the start, it actually evolved very organically.”
Just as his manuscripts evolve, so do Nevala-Lee’s ideas, which are rooted in "a subject or a world that I feel like exploring. I love writing itself, and I find it very challenging—not just learning how to be a better writer. The reason I wanted to be a writer is that I wanted to learn things; I wanted an excuse to read books, travel, talk to people, and learn about an aspect of the world I didn’t know about before.”
His trip to India paid off, and as his agent handles the publishers, Nevala-Lee considers his next project. Ideally, a publisher may offer Nevala-Lee a deal for another novel similar to the manuscript being shopped. He could then tug the threads of plotlines that would naturally follow from that manuscript, entertaining the possibility of turning this novel into a new series.
If that’s not the case, Nevala-Lee hints at a few other ideas in development, all of which are "subjects and stories I want to work on eventually.”
For a writer who also writes screenplays, nonfiction, and blogs, a natural question that arises is, why the novel form?
Unsurprisingly—given Nevala-Lee’s thoughtful planning of his career and literary projects—he prefers the novel because it "affords the most control for the writer. You don’t have any limitations in terms of the narrative resources you can bring to bear on a project.”
He continues, "The books I’ve published, I might look back and wish they were different in some ways, but they all reflect my freedom of choices at that time. That kind of freedom is really nice for a writer, especially when you are the only person on whom you’re depending to generate good work.”
As for good work, Nevala-Lee offers very concrete and useful advice to aspiring writers. One important writing skill is learning how and what material to cut.
As he realized from his own revisions and extensive cuts to the first draft of his India novel, "one of the hardest things about writing is finding the core material in the first draft that deserves to be preserved and revised.”
Another important aspect of writing is actually finishing the project. "Being able to finish your work and to take a novel to completion is huge.”
Nevala-Lee wryly points out, "You can’t publish an unfinished novel, even if it’s a bad novel, even if it’s not what you want to be; just the experience of taking that novel to completion means more than a hundred really great fragments of stories.”
So, with that advice, go on—start now.
Follow Nevala-Lee’s blog here: http://nevalalee.wordpress.com/.